The Tempest and Prospero's Books

Peter Greenaway's 1991 film "Prospero's Books" is a psychedelic smorgasbord of exquisite color, mad, swirling music and dance, and more nudity than any film in recent memory. Greenaway's visual sense creates not so much a film as a continually changing series of paintings; sets are elaborate, colors are vivid, the women range from rotund babushkas to Pre-Raphaelite nymphets, the men anywhere from a homunculus to a Hercules. Yet the abundance of naked bodies does more than just titillate-it reinforces the nature theme contained in the play.

John Gielgud, as Prospero, does double duty as both the title character and the playwright. The two characters divide and merge so often it's hard to tell them apart; this is surely Greenaway's underlying message: the playwright as magician, creating "reality" from pure imagination. The fact that the events of the play are occurring within Prospero's mind is reinforced by the fact that Gielgud says everyone's lines (until Act V Scene I when he relinquishes his magic.) The other actors mum the lines he speaks.

A few notes on characterization: The King of Naples, The usurping Duke of Milan, et. al., are portrayed in outrageously exaggerated Elizabethan garb: absurd platform shoes, three-foot wide ruffs, extra-puffy, ostentatious coats and pantaloons. In addition, they sport lace blindfolds, symbolizing their delusions which they will, of course, lose (both blindfolds and delusions, that is) at film's end. Caliban is a bald, naked ballet dancer with genitals cinched up tight in a cock-ring. His homo-erotic writhings are somewhat disturbing to watch. Ferdinand is played by Mark Rylance, a fine American actor whom I had the opportunity of seeing perform Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet (both in the title role) in RSC productions at Stratford-on-Avon in 1989. His talents get a bit lost in the shuffle, however, in this tempestuous film.

The most elaborate scene in the film comes at Act IV Scene I during the extended song sequence. The songs of Iris, Juno, and Ceres are given a huge, lavish treatment which, halfway through, becomes something of a rock opera. Text becomes libretto in this high-flown, perhaps over-long, production number.

The film ends with Prospero destroying his books (by way of throwing them into the ocean), symbolizing, I suppose, his complete renunciation of his persona as wizard so that he can return to his former role of Duke. The last book he tosses into the water is "A folio of 1623 containing 35 plays with room for one more..." This last is "safely fished from the sea."

I found this last scene quite striking. It inspired a little blank verse of my own, with which I hereby end this brief essay:

Methinks 'tis prologue to the epilogue
That here good Prospero should do such deeds;
To prove in no uncertain terms his aim
To cleanse himself of those which things he'd been,
And show indeed "his charms are all o'erthrown,"
To lose the mantle 'til this point he'd worn,
And in so doing drive home, tip unbaited,
That resolution for the which we've waited.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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