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Florence Besson (doctorante Lyon2, PRAG Université de Savoie)

International conference : « Re-writing/ Reprising in lit. and the arts» Lyon2, oct. 06.

Prospero’s Books by Peter Greenaway (1991):

reflections of / on Shakespeare’s The Tempest
“About any one so great as Shakespeare, it is probable that we can never be right;
and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time
change our way of being wrong.” T.S. Eliot1

Peter Greenaway’s favourite film is Last Year at Marienbad: he admires the structure of
Resnais’s film in the way it dared “manipulate chronology (…) repeat and reprise (…) take
multiple views of the same phenomena, and (…) do it with elegant and witty self-reflexion2”; the
British filmmaker praises it as a ‘film-film’, as opposed to the much despised ‘illustrated
literature3’ that cinema too often boils down to. If Greenaway’s 1991 creation Prospero’s Books is
presented (in the subtitle) as ‘an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest’, unsurprisingly it
should not be expected to be ‘a straight attempt to reproduce a familiar text’4.
Indeed Greenaway’s film is characterized by his creative use of two structural devices. The
first device is that all the lines are spoken by the same actor: John Gielgud plays the part of
Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, who conjures a tempest from his island to take his revenge
on the usurpers. Greenaway considers Prospero ‘the master manipulator of people and events’,
and therefore asks Gielgud to speak the lines of all the characters – thus turning the film into a
very long monologue. Gielgud also embodies Shakespeare, the ‘prime originator [of people and
events]’5: in fact, the project arose from Gielgud’s wish to play Prospero in a film adaptation of
The Tempest; the mythical persona6 of the acclaimed Shakesperian actor thus became a sort of
‘pretextual’ material on which the film was conceived. Shakespeare’s leave-taking of the theatre
in his last play is deliberately superimposed on Gielgud’s farewell to role-playing after his
seventy-year career, as Greenaway confirms: “it is intended that there should be much
deliberate cross-identification between Prospero, Shakespeare and Gielgud. At times they are
indivisibly one person7”. And even more surprisingly, the actor sometimes embodies two
characters at the same time, for instance when in the prologue Shakespeare and Prospero can
be seen separately yet simultaneously.
The second device is that Greenaway places the books which Prospero alludes to in the play
at the heart of his film. When Prospero was sent into exile, he was allowed to take some of his
cherished books with him: “Knowing I loved my books, [Gonzalo] furnished me / from mine own
library with volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” (I, 2, 166-8). This mention of the books
appears on the screen as very first image, so that the film seems to spring from this remark. As
the title suggests, the very substance of the film consists in the magical books which Greenaway
imagines, and which structure the film into twenty-four sequences.
My hypothesis is that these structural devices, together with the foregrounding of references
and quotations, result in a shift of focus from narration to enunciation, and thus subvert artistic
Quoted as epigraph in Fluchère Henri: Shakespeare dramaturge élisabéthain (1947) Paris,
Gallimard, 1966.
Greenaway Peter, in “Movie Memories”, Sight & Sound, 6.5 suppl., May 1996, pp.15-6.
« [N]ous n'avons toujours pas vu de véritable film. Tout ce que nous avons pu voir [dans ces cent
ans de cinéma] n'a été que du théâtre enregistré ou de la littérature illustrée », Greenaway Peter,
"Vidéo, mort et nudité" (leçon n.4), Le Grand Atelier de Peter Greenaway éd. M; Cieutat, Université
des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg, Les Presses du Réel, coll. Art & Université, 1995, p.120.
Baker Adam, ‘A Tale of Two Magicians’ (interview with Peter Greenaway) in Sight and Sound,
September 1991, p.28.
Ibid., p.9
For examples of “la fonction sémiotique de l’acteur”, see Serceau Michel, L’Adaptation
cinématographique des Textes Littéraires, Liège, Céfal, pp.135-8.
Greenaway Peter, Prospero’s Books, London, Chatto & Windus, p.9.

“author-ity”: Shakespeare’s The Tempest seems to be a “pre-text” to Greenaway’s work, which
therefore oscillates between art and art criticism.

My first point deals with the subject of the film - Shakespeare’s writings:
Greenaway asserts that his film is faithful to the play: “[T]he script follows the play, act by act
and scene by scene, with few transpositions and none of any substance to alter the chronology
of the original8.” In the prologue a very long tracking shot shows a book being passed along
from left to right, which visually evokes the process of cultural transmission from the past to the
present and gives the impression that the lost 1611 original manuscript could have landed
straight into Greenaway’s hands! But what is striking here is the mechanical aspect of the
gesture, which underlines the importance of the book as object rather than medium: in fact, in
this film, the text is never considered as a mere script or “transparent signifier” (whose content
-or “signified”- is “adapted”, i.e. transposed to the screen); on the contrary, Greenaway says:
« [The] project (…) deliberately emphasises and celebrates the text as text, as the master
material on which all the magic, illusion and deception of the play is based9 […].» Significantly,
this perspective is encapsulated in the presentation of the very first word of the play: the word
“boatswain” is first shown on the screen, and then spoken by Gielgud–Prospero–Shakespeare,
as if to stress the importance of the pictorial form over the performance. Moreover the word is
shown while being written, when only the first letters, which spell “boat”, are visible: this not only
underlines the discrepancy between the visual and the aural dimensions, but it clearly indicates
that the subject of the film is not the play but rather the text of The Tempest, and even more
precisely the writing of10 The Tempest, as if Greenaway fantasized about going back to the
origin, the source of genius.
This presentation of the very first word of the play may also be perceived as a warning sign
at the outset of the film: knowing The Tempest very well is a prerequisite to appreciate the film,
as the representation of the play will be blurred11 by the constant foregrounding of the text. For
instance, the use of elaborate calligraphy draws the spectator’s attention to the materiality of the
text and thus undermines narration: to give just one example, the letters of the anagram
“admired Miranda” are intertwined lovingly but, as a consequence, the message (or love story)
cannot be easily deciphered. The film obviously presupposes previous knowledge of
Shakespeare’s Tempest, as the plot of the play is considered as a stock of motifs (revenge,
magic…) which Greenaway elaborates upon. In fact the film seems first and foremost to question
our idea of, and relationship to the play12.
The film may be relegated to the dependent status of a commentary, but originality and
creation come back with a vengeance in the film - by foregrounding the fact that modern
audiences know Shakespeare, the icon of literary culture, through the page rather than the
stage, Greenaway suggests that texts pertain to the past (however glorious), while he is eager to
explore new filmic possibilities:

From authority to “author-ity”:

The plot of The Tempest is centred upon the elusivess of power: Prospero’s power over
the Dukedom of Milan was usurped by his brother Antonio, who himself pledged allegiance to
Alonso, the King of Naples (I, 2, 112-6). But who is to inherit his kingdom is problematic, as
Greenaway Peter, Prospero’s Books, London, Chatto & Windus, 1991, p.12.
Greenaway Peter, op. cit., p.9.
For Hutcheon, postmodern metafiction foregrounds the discursively constructed nature of reality “by
stressing the contexts in which the fiction is being produced – by both writer and reader.” (Hutcheon
Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism, Routledge, New York and London, 1988, p.40).
For example, the soundtrack is so rich and elaborate that it cannot be relied upon to follow the plot,
with Gielgud’s voice transformed to match each character (a gravely recording for Caliban and a high-
pitched one for Miranda, for instance) and some parts of the text rightly sung (to evoke Ariel’s magic).
Contrary to a play that is mostly listened to, this film insists on its visual dimension.
This perspective Todorov calls « organisation gnoséologique » : « récits où l’importance de
l’événement est moindre que celle de la perception que nous en avons, du degré de connaissance
que nous en possédons. » (Todorov Tzvetan, « Les deux principes du récit », La Notion de Littérature,
Seuil, Paris, 1971, p.54).

Alonso laments the loss of both his son (in the tempest) and daughter (married to the king of
Tunis). Alonso’s power may therefore be taken over by his treacherous brother Sebastian. On
the island, Prospero’s power (I, 2, 20) is endlessly challenged as well - by Caliban (together with
Stephano and Trinculo), by Ariel (I,2), and even by his daughter Miranda (who is about to
abandon her “schoolmaster” of a father (I, 2, 172) for a new “master” in the person of Ferdinand
(III, 1)).
The word “master” is frequently used in the play, to express the endless challenging of
power. It is worth noting that the question “where’s the master?” not only opens the play but is
repeated several times during the opening storm (which of course makes chaos and the
instability of authority visible). This question may be imagined to echo in Greenaway’s use of the
phrase “the master material13” to refer to Shakespeare’s text: just as Prospero “the Master”
eventually renounces his power (V, 1, 30) (which in the film is symbolized by his “creatures”
starting to speak with their own voices), it seems that “the Bard” is ready to abandon his artistic
authority over this creation and allow it a life of its own – as W. H. Auden claims: “The Tempest
is a mythopoeic work, an example of a genre that encourages adaptations (…), inspiring people
‘to go on for themselves’ … to make up episodes that [the author] as it were, forgot to tell us14.”
Inspired by Prospero’s mention of his cherished volumes15, Greenaway creates twenty-four
magical books, he explains: “Shakespeare does not, of course, elaborate what these volumes
were. Prospero’s Books speculates16.”
These books, which are presented in the film during narrative pauses, often have a thematic
relevance to the story, so it can be said they were already present in Shakespeare’s Tempest,
although in an undeveloped form. For example, The Book of Water presented at the beginning of
the film enables Prospero to conjure the opening storm. In the same way, when Prospero calls
Caliban ‘Thou earth, thou speak!’ (I, 2, 314), The Book of the Earth is described as follows : “its
pages are impregnated with the minerals, acids, alkalis, gums, balms and aphrodisiacs of the
earth.” The Book of iU’topias is book number 18; it is a book of ideal societies, with a preface by
Sir Thomas More, and contains a description and evaluation of every possible political and social
community. It is therefore a fitting introduction to the Utopian speech made by Gonzalo in Act II,
sc 1 (144-156). Greenaway claims he elaborates on Shakespeare’s intentions, as if enabling
new spaces to develop and open up within the play; in this way, The Tempest could be regarded
as an instance of “les espaces utopiques” defined by Louis Marin: “à un niveau esthétique […], le
schème utopique […] engendre des espaces dans l’unicité d’un même projet: il est une
organisation plurielle de la spatialité17.”
Prospero’s books, as imagined and illustrated by Greenaway, are claimed to originate from
Shakespeare’s play. Yet the filial relation suddenly seems to be reversed when the last magical
book is presented: it is no other than The First Folio, the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s thirty-
six plays starting with The Tempest. This final twist annihilates the structural device of the film,
according to which the twenty-four books presented by Greenaway were the books Prospero
had taken with him into exile: how could The Tempest, which in the film is being written by the
exiled Prospero on his island, have been taken by Prospero when he was sent away? This
fictional alternative posits Greenaway as the originator of The Tempest - it is to be remarked that
the publication of the “script” enabled Greenaway to literally (re)write the play! By embroidering
the original material of The Tempest, Greenaway transforms the Shakesperian fabric into an
elaborate “fabrication”, thus coming to terms with what Hutcheon calls “the textual remains [of
the past]18”.

Greenaway Peter, op. cit., p.9.
Auden W. H., lecture at the New School for Social Research in 1947, quoted by Arthur Kirsch in his
introduction to Auden’s 1944 The Sea and The Mirror, Princetown University Press, New Jersey,
2003, p.xi.
Caliban’s remark “[…] Remember / First to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot […]
Burn but his books” (III, 2, 91-5) suggests the magical nature of Prospero’s cherished books.
Greenaway Peter, op. cit., p.9.
Marin Louis, Utopiques: Jeux d’Espaces, éd. Minuit, Paris, 1973, p.10.
Hutcheon Linda, op.cit., p.20.

The instability of speculation
Who is the originator of the magical books has no definite answer; this issue, which lies at
the heart of the film’s title, is yet further complicated once the books come under scrutany: each
book is presented by a voice-over narrator, whose authoritative tone evokes the neutrality of an
encyclopaedia, as if these ancient books had no fathomable origin. The books, which hold the
secrets of Prospero’s powers, are a compilation of Renaissance knowledge, ranging from
astrology to geometry, via archeology, cosmography, philosophy or architecture. For instance,
the Book of Mythologies is presented as “a compendium, in text and illustration, of mythologies
with all their variants and alternative tellings ; […] it supplements its information with
genealogies, natural and unnatural19. » It seems that Prospero’s books, like his palace, “like his
mind – and like the film itself – resemble[…] a labyrinthine department store, containing all
possibilities in the most obscure arrangements20.”
The contents of the books are not only most varied, but they are also ever-changing: for
example, the Book of Mirrors “has some eighty shining mirrored pages […]. Some mirrors simply
reflect the reader, some reflect the reader as he will be in a year’s time, as he would be if he
were a child, a monster or an angel.” This book is referred to several times in the film to reflect
Prospero’s thoughts, which becomes a device to illustrate his memories for instance. The books
are of course animated to evoke their changeability, which therefore makes them difficult to
describe, a critic says: “the rich mosaic of Greenaway’s varied images defies description and
makes writing about them an exercise in describing the indescribable, which valorizes
Greenaway’s belief that images should not be surrogates for words but independent of them21.”
What is striking about these books, in short, is that they are presented as mere
“speculations22”. The Book of Love, for instance, is described as follows: « There is certainly an
image in the book of a naked man and a naked woman. Everything else is conjecture.”
Conjecture is what seems to best describe Greenaway’s way of presenting the magical books in
the script (book) of the film: « There would need perhaps to be books on navigation and survival,
there would need to be books for an elderly scholar to learn how to rear and educate a young
daughter, how to colonise an island, farm it, subjugate its inhabitants, identify its plants (…).
There would need to be books to encourage revenge. Twenty-four volumes might be enough to
cover the information needed23 (…).” Here the reader’s attention is undoubtedly caught by the
overwhelming modality, that is to say the attitude of the artist towards his message, which in this
case is speculation. The effect is that the referential content is blurred, as if screened by the
emphasis put on enunciation (which is denied certainty and stability).
But paradoxically this insists on the existence of the film as a construct24:

The art of anti-illusionism:

Peter Greenaway says he was first drawn to The Tempest because it is “anti-illusionist”:
“For me… The Tempest is extremely self-referential, and I always tend to feel the most
sympathy for those works of art which do have that sort of self-knowledge, that say, basically, I
am an artifice25”. The numerous metatheatrical elements in The Tempest are famous - one may
think of the masque within the play, the famous epilogue spoken by Prospero, or the line ‘we are
such stuff as dreams are made on’ (IV, 1, 156), to name but a few. In the same interview,

Greenaway Peter, op. cit., p.17.
Romney Jonathan, “Prospero’s Books”, Sight and Sound, Sept. 1991, p.45.
Rothwell Kenneth S., A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A century of Film and Television,
Cambridge University Press, 2001 (first edition 1999), p.211.
“Shakespeare does not, of course, elaborate what these volumes were. Prospero’s Books
speculates.” Greenaway Peter, op. cit., p. 9.
Ibid., p.9.
Greenaway’s text in the ‘script’ could interestingly be compared to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ‘ciné-roman’
Last Year at Marienbad. For an analysis of this text in relation to A. Resnais’s film, see Clerc Jeanne-
Marie & Carcaud-Macaire Monique, L’Adaptation Cinématographique et Littéraire, Klincksiek, Paris,
2004, pp.146-167.
Greenaway in Rodman Howard, “Anatomy of a wizard”, American Film, Nov-Dec 1991, p.38.

Greenaway confirms that, in keeping with the Baroque aesthetics26, self-reflexivity is central to
his works too: “[…] a film of mine […] is not a slice of life, it’s not a window on the world. It’s a
constant concern of mine to bring the audience back to this realization 27.” For instance,
undermining narration partakes of anti-illusionism: the fact that the book of The Tempest is both
the source and the product of Prospero’s writing in the film, (echoing its place as the alpha and
omega in the First Folio and in Shakespeare’s literary career), does not “hold” – the illusion is
carefully constructed yet at the same time it reveals itself as such, (just as Escher’s drawings for
example rely on perspective and undermine the illusion simultaneously). Greenaway would
probably agree with Tanguy Viel, who, when speaking of his novel Cinéma (the literary
adaptation of a film) states: “Je suis dans une optique de négation de la fiction, […] [car je crois
qu’] il est aujourd’hui impossible de donner un sens à un récit28.”
Anti-illusionism in Prospero’s Books is also evoked by the presence of many elements
which, I believe, operate as visual equivalents of quotation marks. The film is self-consciously
based on a play, which itself is a construct, as made obvious by numerous metatheatrical
elements: curtains repeatedly rise at the beginning and fall during the prologue; extravagant
masks, wigs and costumes are not simply worn but they are put on and taken off. The mise-en-
abyme device is brought to the fore with audiences repeatedly watching the characters directly
(as if at the theatre) or even on screens (as if at the cinema or in front of television): Greenaway
uses inserted mirrors to make Prospero’s thoughts manifest, so that a number of past situations
mentioned in passing in the play are illustrated, such as Prospero’s past in Milan. The so-called
“mirror-images” even become “true mir-ages29” when textual images are visually literalized30, for
instance when Prospero reminds Ariel how he released him from a pine tree (I, 2, 291), or when
Alonso regrets marrying her daughter Claribel to the king of Tunis: the mirror device31 is
constantly used by Greenaway as “an opportunity to demonstrate the cinema’s illusionism and
artifice32.” This way of inserting frames within the screen frame develops into the use of
superimposed images. When the screen is saturated with frames within frames, the multiplicity of
layers of references may “exhaust the viewer’s perceptive capacities33”, but the artist aims at
“remind[ing] the viewer that it is all an illusion fitted into a rectangle… into a picture frame, a film
To develop his cinematic vocabulary, Greenaway does not only refer to literature, drama,
and television but also to painting - which lies at the core of picture-making, the filmmaker
suggests: “My films could be better appreciated, better understood, if people applied the
aesthetics of painting to them35.” In fact, it would be impossible for him to make pictures without
referring to painting, Greenaway asserts: “The history of painting is one of borrowing and
reprising, homage and quotation. All image-makers who have wished to contribute to it have
eagerly examined what painters have done before and – openly acknowledged or not – this huge
body of pictorial work has become the legitimate and unavoidable encyclopaedia for all to study

Only with the Italian scene will the perspective become ‘voyeuristic’, a hindsight of the
cinematographic point of view.
Greenaway in Rodman Howard, op.cit., p.38.
Olmi Peggy, « sur la piste du Limier : interview de Tanguy Viel», Bulletin de la Fnac, France,
September 1999.
Greenaway, op.cit., p.12.
“(…) Greenaway is free to treat the text as a collection of intensely imagined verbal images that he
can defamiliarize by (re)literalizing them as arresting visual tableaux.” Lanier Douglas, “Drowning the
Book – Prospero’s Books and the textual Shakespeare”, in Bulman James C. (ed. & introd.);
Shakespeare, Theory and Performance, London, Routledge, 1996, p.195.
For a developed analysis of the use of mirrors in relation to the Renaissance concept of Utopia, see
Besson F., “spéculation et spécularisation dans Prospero’s Books”, in Hudelet Ariane & Wells-
Lassagne Shannon (ed), From the Blank Page to The Silver Screen, Adaptations, 2006 conference
Université de Bretagne Sud, Presses Universitaires de Rennes (forthcoming publication).
Greenaway, op. cit., p.49
Romney, op. cit., p.45.
Greenaway, op. cit., p.12.
McFarlene Brian, « Peter Greenaway », Cinema Papers, n. 78, March 1990, pp.68-9.

and use36.” According to the filmmaker in the introduction to the script-book, “rarely will a direct
visual quotation of a painting image be seen37” in Prospero’s Books; yet the spectator may catch
glimpses of La Tour’s St Jerome in Prospero’s face, or may recognise his costume as that of a
Venitian Doge ( after Doge Loredan by Bellini). In fact, pictorial references are just everywhere to
be seen, as the filmmaker suggests: the tempest in Prospero’s library is blown by the Boticelli
winds (from The Birth of Venus), the library itself pays homage to Michelangelo’s Laurenziana
Library, and Prospero’s writing room comes from St Jerome’s by Da Messina. Illustrating
Prospero’s past is even acknowledged by Greenaway to be “a pretext to see Veronese through
Dutch eyes38” – and it is indeed fascinating to compare this scene (especially its structure and
colours) with The Wedding at Cana.
Greenaway’s film is “anti-illusionist” insofar as it is not transparently analogic, it does not
copy reality or signify directly, but on the contrary, it is made up of other works of art 39 (as made
obvious with the magical Book of Architecture, from which a building literally pops up onto the
set). The world is always perceived through a network of references (in this case mostly from the
Renaissance) 40, which foregrounds the constructed nature of reality.

As a conclusion, Greenaway’s film could be said to combine creative expression with

criticism (of Shakespeare’s Tempest and his own art, cinema). Tanguy Viel seems to suggest
that postmodern art is indeed doomed to self-reflexivity, as if denied direct access to the Real,
when asserting: “on a fait le deuil du réel41”. Postmodern artists are often considered as having
renounced utopian projects and J.-F. Lyotard even speaks of the “mélancolie d’une pensée en
souffrance de finalité42” to describe our times. That is probably why, just as Greenaway’s other
films (The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Pillow Book, The Belly of an Architect for instance),
Prospero’s Books undermines the illusion (‘this is just a film’) and undercuts its own existence,
whereby art eventually undergoing destruction. The filmmaker thus suggests art has no power:
“maybe that’s only merely decorating the nest43,” as he puts it. Prospero drowns his books,
releases his spirits, thus offering the audience a way out of this artifice -consistently with
Shakespeare’s Baroque imagination, four hundred years before postmodernism. The peculiarity
of postmodernism may not stem from the conviction that “art is in the profoundest sense
frivolous44”, but rather from the contaminating effect this demonstration has on our perception of
the real world as nothing but an unstable construct.

Greenaway, op. cit., p.13.
Ibid., p.13.
Ibid., p.68.
Greenaway is interested in cinema as “the total art form”: literature, drama, architecture, painting,
dance, can be included in films – the frontiers between the arts are blurred in cinema, which
corresponds to Adorno’s mention at the beginning of his lecture « l’Art et les Arts » (1966), reprinted in
Pratiques, n.2, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1996, p.9., (translated by Jean Lauxerois et Peter
Szendy): « Dans l’évolution la plus récente, les frontières entre les genres artistiques fluent les unes
dans les autres, ou plus précisément, les lignes de démarcation s’effrangent. »
“The world is appreciated and referenced with the architecture, paintings and classical literature
Prospero has imported.” Greenaway, op.cit., p.12.
Viel Tanguy, interviewed by Magali Poujol on 29th April 2000 (dissertation for her Masters Degree –
mémoire de maîtrise, Université P. Valéry Montpellier 3, 2000), quoted in Clerc Jeanne-Marie &
Carcaud-Macaire Monique, op. cit., p.199.
Lyotard Jean-François, Moralités Postmodernes, Galilée, Paris, 1993, p.93.
Rodgers Marlene “Prospero’s Books – word and spectacle: An Interview with Peter Greenaway”,
Film Quarterly, Winter 1991-92, p.16, reprinted in Gras Vernon, Peter Greenaway – Interviews,
University Press of Mississipi, Jackson, 2000, p.142.
Auden W. H., 1946 lecture quoted by Arthur Kirsch in his introduction to Auden’s The Sea and The
Mirror, Princetown University Press, New Jersey, 2003, p.xxxi.