William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” is, most probably, the last play he wrote entirely alone and has often been referred to as “Shakespeare’s Play” in that the character of Prospero seems to be orchestrating the actions upon the island in the same creative, artful way in which Shakespeare himself must have conducted the actors and the scenes upon the stage (Frye, 1370). The play is widely recognized as a significant work of art due to its strong imagery, high degree of literary and historical allusion and coherence and balance of the overall theme, all of which combine to create an “operatic play, and when we think of other plays like it, we are more apt to think of, say, Mozart’s Magic Flute than of ordinary stage plays” (Frye, 1372). It is this type of interpretation that informs Peter Greenaway’s filmic adaptation of the play entitled Prospero’s Books. The film is highly visual in its content, giving the audience a new understanding of the meaning of the play by overwhelming the emotions and de-emphasizing intellectual response, yet still manages to retain a sense of the importance of intellectual knowledge to the action of the play. To understand how this is so, it was necessary for me to return to Shakespeare’s play for the background and basic plot of the story before I could realize the way the film forced an emotional response based upon the same important theme of a higher natural order.
Within the action of Shakespeare’s play, one eventually learns the important background of Prospero’s life and the motivating factors behind his actions. The audience discovers or is told outright that Prospero was once the Duke of Milan, but was overthrown by his own brother, Antonio, who had conspired with the King of Naples, Alonso, to seize all power of the Dukedom. With the help of some friends, Prospero was able to escape with his life and the life of his infant daughter in a small boat that was also provisioned with some food, fresh water, clothing and Prospero’s treasured books, which gave him the power he now wields over the elemental spirit Ariel and others. The two landed peacefully enough on the nearly uninhabited island, finding there only the abandoned son of Sycorax, a man called Caliban, and the imprisoned character of Ariel who has been trapped within the split trunk of a pine tree for the past twelve years after refusing to do the deeds requested of him by the evil witch. It was the freeing of Ariel that gave Prospero the ability to command the elemental and therefore to achieve all that has been achieved in the twelve years since he landed on that island. Prior to the opening of the play, Prospero has created what he envisions as the highest natural order of the world, placing Miranda as the supreme example of mankind’s highest natural state and enforcing adherence to these rules upon the other characters.
The actual action of the play, however, begins when Prospero’s daughter, the lovely Miranda, is of an age to be married and chance brings Prospero’s enemies, in the form of Alonso and Antonio, within reach of Prospero’s island domain. Although this action is started as a result of Prospero’s desire to exact revenge upon his brother and Alonso for exiling him for these several years, the play demonstrates how Prospero has learned from his exile some of the higher possibilities of mankind as he tells his brother: “For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother / Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive / Thy rankest fault – all of them; and require / My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know / Thou must restore” (V, i, 130-134). From a man consumed with thoughts of revenge to a finally self-aware and wiser man, Prospero finally manages to combine his greater knowledge of the world and nature to more fully understand himself and reach that state of existence that once eluded him.
Greenaway’s film is strongly based on Shakespeare’s text, but not in such a way that you would necessarily notice this. The actor portraying Prospero, John Gielgud, recites most of the other character’s lines, emphasizing his puppet mastery over them in the creation of his better world. The other characters, the elves and sprites and things, dance around either nude or mostly nude, which reminds me of their natural state, but the formal ways in which they seem to be dancing, somewhat forced and stiff sometimes, suggest that they, too, are being controlled by an external force. The imagery throughout the film is so rich and layered that I quickly forgot to listen to the text, even when that was my primary goal. The dancing figures and rich textures of each scene, constantly overlaying images of the books or the pages of text that might have appeared in those books that gave Prospero the power he now wields, continued to pull at an emotional chord that caused me to feel the constraints on the characters and experience the sense of surprise and beginning self-discovery Prospero encounters as the film advances rather than think about them. While it was a difficult film to get through because I had to concentrate and watch it several times to understand how it related to the play, understanding the film did help me to more fully understand the artistry of the play as it was written by Shakespeare.
Frye, Northrop. “Introduction to ‘The Tempest’.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Penguin Books, 1969. 1369-1372.
Prospero’s Books. Dir. Peter Greenaway. Perf. John Gielgud, Michael Clark, Michel Blanc & Isabelle Pasco. Allarts, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Penguin Books, 1969. 1373-1395.