Előd Pál Csirmaz

Independence and Symbolism in Prospero’s Books


What makes Peter Greenaway’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero’s Books[1] particularly interesting to analyze is the fact that the adaptation, apart from systematic cuts, did not alter the ordering of the scenes and changed the ordering of the lines only on rare occasions. This observation makes it easier to identify the additions and cuts in the film most precisely and, in turn, to determine what kind of central thought—which might be termed interpretation—led to these modifications.

Following the above suggestion, the present essay will attempt to focus first on information which seems to be lost; next, on information which appears to have been added, and lastly, to point out some qualities of the film which make this artwork inherently different from a classical theatrical production.

In the first two sections, I shall attempt to investigate main techniques used by the film, to relate them to a world-view that the artwork can be argued to express, and even to point out a few dubious solutions and points where the structure of the film might appear inconsistent.

In the third section, I will try to focus on features of the film which are more easily achieved on screen than on stage and contribute largely to the overall effect of the film. An interpretation of the scenery shall also be considered.

Missing Information—The Verbal Level and the Question of Independence

One of the most apparent features of the film is that until V/1/58,[2] nearly every characters’ roles are spoken by Prospero (played by John Gielgud),[3] which feature is made often explicit by frequently showing Prospero himself articulating and writing the text of another role (for example, Gonzalo’s utopia starting at II/1/149) and by having other actors/actresses play their roles without moving their mouths (most apparent in the Miranda–Ferdinand–Prospero trio at the end of Act I). This feature can be regarded as a certain kind of cut or loss of information based on the argumentation of Patrice Pavis.

Pavis argues that in the act of reading a play, the context, intonation and the pseudo-physicality of the speakers must be created internally by the reader him- or herself, while in an actual (theatrical or filmic) performance this task is done partly by the conscious choices of the director and actor and partly by the inevitable physical reality and qualities of the actor on stage.[4] In other words, Pavis follows the tradition of regarding the performance as a realization of one of the potentials of the given text, filling in the gaps in it in a sense.

Despite John Gielgud’s (and possibly Greenaway’s joint) efforts to develop a consistent and distinct intonation for all characters, it can be suggested that this one-voice method segregates the verbal level from the physical presence of the actors / actresses; that is to say, the speech loses its context that Pavis argues to materialize the text. Therefore, in Greenaway’s adaptation, the verbal layer retains the qualities associated with a written text: it can be treated as an overextended monologue of a single personage (or agent in our case); it is more associative and more ritual than ordinary speeches of actors / actresses would be.

This is the very technique which most probably suggested the careful deletion of all interpersonal verbal signals retaining the flow of communication. This is most apparent at the beginning of Act I, Scene 2, where Miranda is actually asleep while Prospero relates their story to her. The outbursts of the constant fear of Prospero that Miranda is not paying attention: “Dost thou attend me?” (I/2/78) “Thou attend’st not!” (I/2/87) “Dost thou hear?” (I/2/106) are all deleted as are Miranda’s reassuring answers. (One might question the dramaturgic necessity of this tool in the original Shakespearean script as from Miranda’s answers it is apparent that she is paying attention, what is more, often engages in the storytelling by asking questions or contributing to it with her own memories.) The wit-combat, which is probably impossible to render in one voice, is also deleted from the beginning of Act II, Scene 1 for (probably) similar reasons.

Having seen the technique, its aim (or ‘meaning’) is still to be shed light upon. Many features in the film suggest that Prospero is portrayed as the agent and causer of all happenings and actions. It is he who conjures up and controls the ship by words and writing; it is he who controls all characters by speaking ‘through’ them. Also note the use of circles by the Ariels for conjuring up the travelers: first, Ariel draws a circle with spokes when relating the details of the storm (0:34:00),[5] and all three Ariels draw a large circle with the help of a pendulum-like pair of compasses on a large sheet just before all the characters are led in at the end of the last scene (V/1/58; 1:38:00). (Cf. Mak’s drawing a circle to make the other three shepherds sleep in The Second Shepherds’ Play: “But about you a circill, / As round as a moon, / To I have done that I will, / Till that it be noon, / That ye lie stone-still / To that I have done; etc.”[6] which action is also connected to sorcery and control.)  All this evidence seems to suggest that Prospero is, in fact, the creator of not only the story, the plot and the actions but of the characters, too.

The one-voice technique can be argued to support and, possibly, to represent this role of Prospero, that is, it shows that all other characters in the play are actually Prospero himself. This argumentation seems to point to the direction that these characters are totally dependent on Prospero. However, it is interesting to see their independence restored precisely after Prospero’s performative speech action: “I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book[s]” (V/1/55–58), as after this point, the actors/actresses use their own voices and the long-missing movement of mouths also appears. Naturally, Prospero’s changing back into the Duke of Milan is not compatible with his being a magician, so the spell that has enabled him to control the characters from the very beginning (note that the exclamation “Bos’n!” (I/1/1) is uttered by him already) ceases to be.

It is at this point that it might be worth pointing out that the idea of using the voice of Prospero only, which, as can be seen, was very probably an intentional and highly conscious decision on the side of the makers of the film, is not carried through consistently, as the parts of Miranda are always spoken by Gielgud and a female voice in unison. Accepting the above outlined suggestion about the role of the one-voice technique, this piece of fact is hard to integrate into the present interpretation. The most probable explanation for the voices of Miranda is that this way the fact that Prospero is speaking as Miranda is more easily understandable by the audience as Miranda’s would be the only case when Prospero’s speech would have had to cross genders.

Another exception to the one-voice technique is when the Ariels speak with their own voices and even write into the script: they scribble the sentence “Your charm so strongly works ‘em / That if you beheld them, your affections / Would become more tender” (1:35:30) onto the paper. This moment of the Ariels regaining their independence could be explained by the dramaturgical decision that they are to soften the mood of Prospero. Otherwise, even the singing of the youngest Ariel is accompanied by Prospero’s uttering the sentences either in advance or immediately after they have been sung. So, overall, the one-voice analysis seems to hold for the adaptation.

In connection to the verbal layer of the film so far investigated, one might also try to focus on the auditory component of the artwork in general. Although this observation is not something that is ‘missing’, still, let me call attention to the fact that the characters (both the ‘real’ ones and the spirits) seem to be divided into two categories: earthly and ethereal. While earthly characters (all those ‘of flesh and blood’ and Caliban) speak in prose, ethereal ones are either silent (the many unnamed spirits) or they are singing (the three Ariels and the characters in the second masque, Iris, Ceres and Juno). No visual distinction can be made between these two groups of characters: nakedness, for example, while a constant quality of the spirits, is not true for Iris, Ceres and Juno; and also appears in the other group, for example, Ferdinand lies naked on the stairs exhausted at the beginning of Act IV, Scene 1. Also, the wide collar dominating the costumes of the shipwrecked noblemen also appears on the three goddesses. Thus, it can be suggested that the difference between inherently mortal characters and immortal ones appears on the auditory level only; and this fact shows that despite the many visual symbols and effects the movie makes use of, it also focuses on the clear and careful usage of sound and speech.

Added Elements—The Visual level and the Symbolism of Books and Paper

Having investigated elements in the play which can be considered to be missing from the film, now let me turn to elements which seem to be added.

Apparently, the notion of the many books of Prospero is totally new in the film as, naturally, the Shakespearean script recording the verbal layer of a past performance lacks the verbal explanations of the books introduced. When investigating elements added to a preexisting script in a performance, it seems to be useful to concentrate on the kinds of thoughts or ‘meanings’ they convey to the overall structure (i.e., the aim of their introduction) and the way they are connected to the already given material.

Let me consider the second part of the question first and focus on the points in the text and the film where the books are being introduced. It has been suggested above that the speech, stripped of its immediate context, is more apt to trigger various associations and it seems that this quality of the text becomes especially important here. This is because the insertion of the introduction of various books can be argued to be local phenomena; that is, they are associated with the speech that precedes them. The ‘Book of Water’, for example, is introduced right at the beginning, when Prospero, sitting in the pool, calls for the boatswain. The ‘An Alphabetic Inventory of the Dead’ is presented when Prospero relates the victims of the usurping of his dukedom by his brother (0:19:50); the ‘Book of Earth’ is introduced alongside with Caliban, who also “tortures” other books (here probably representing general culture) by urinating and defecating on them (0:39:00); the ‘Book of Love’ is presented with the arrival of Ferdinand (0:46:30); the ‘Book of Utopias’ clearly refer to Gonzalo’s ideas cited above; the ‘Book of Motion’ is shown when Ariel promises to perform the task assigned to him quickly (1:19:20). These pieces of evidence appear to suggest that although books and papers clearly function as visual symbols at certain points in the film, the catalogue of them contributes little to the plot as the books are adapted to the textual environment, not the local text to the books.

The only point in the artwork where the presence of books dominates the plot is the general idea of portraying Prospero as controlling and creating the characters while writing the play in an empty book. Otherwise, the thematic books merely elaborate the material or conceptual associations triggered by the Shakespearean text.

If this is so, the question might be raised whether the presence of various books contribute to the overall structure at all or remain at the level of mere ornaments. Although not to the Shakespearean plot, but they can be argued to contribute to the world-view expressed by the film. This world-view is expressed by the fact that the books are represented as containing every possible types of knowledge (about the story) already (before the story unfolds itself); and articulated clearly by Prospero when he introduces the ‘Book of Universal Cosmography’ as early as at I/2/184, and describes “a structure of Universe where all things have their [logical] place and […] obligation to be fruitful” (0:28:20). In other words, the world-view of Prospero’s Books mimes that of the Renaissance, which, with the expansion of natural sciences, held that the world is knowable, recordable and well structured. Prospero, by having his books, literally owns the world and is capable of understanding and controlling it.

This latter idea seems to be expressed by the symbol of paper, too. When Prospero is already writing the words in the book “We split, we split!” and is, undoubtedly, in control (0:19:20), then sheets of paper can be seen falling down and covering the floor. The reverse scene, when the sheets are flying upwards gradually uncovering the ground can be found at the point when Prospero lays down his mantle and declares: “Lie there, my art!” (I/2/25). These two scenes show that in the symbolism of the film, paper and thus, books are associated with, or even represent the magical power of Prospero.

Sheets of paper also appear in Act II, Scene 2, where, at first, Prospero is seen uttering the words of Caliban. A cut then leads to the actual scene, where sheets are falling from above. Seeing Prospero writing the monologue of Caliban reassures that he controls the character, while the presence of paper in the actual scene may, according to the above interpretation of the symbolism of paper, represent the presence of Prospero’s power in his absence.

The books, at times, are also presented as having the capability of taking the role of the reality recorded in them: the book of Anatomy and the Anatomy of Birth, according to Prospero, contain figures of the human body that move and feel, even bleed (0:21:50). (To support this idea further, the film actually includes a scene where a pregnant woman peels off her skin and abdominal wall to reveal her internal organs and the placement of the baby.)

But if the idea that reality recorded in the books is reality itself can be accepted, then it immediately leads to a conclusion contradicting our previous assumption about the role of Prospero as the creator of the characters. As the books exist already when the film starts, and as, according to the above idea, the knowledge coded in them is reality, then reality exists in its entirety right from the beginning. The question arises whether Prospero creates the characters actively or simply follows the knowledge pre-given to him by his books.

The question, in other words, is about the idea or concept the books symbolize (the first part of the question raised at the beginning of the section). They stand for either knowledge (culture) only or, as argued above, knowledge and reality. In the first case, Prospero is supposed to be an active participant in the creation of the characters, as suggested by his writing in a book, that is, actively arranging, structuring and coding the reality he is creating based on the knowledge found in his other books. In the other case, the universe is already discovered fully (as it was deemed possible in the Renaissance) and coded in the books of Prospero, which books not only represent the culture with which Prospero is able to control the island, but stand for (are) reality itself. In this case, Prospero cannot possibly create, as everything has been already created: he merely acts as a mediator in controlling the actions of the characters. The question, in short, is whether the creative and/or artistic power resides in Prospero or in his books.

The standpoint the film takes in this question is far from clear. A plausible suggestion would be to view books as the means for creation (as is the staff Prospero intends to break), as whatever is written in the book in front of Prospero becomes immediate reality—either on the screen or in the pool on a small scale. But this suggestion, also underpinned by Prospero’s last action of destroying all the books similarly to the staff, questions the role of the ‘thematic’ books presented in the course of the film. If various facets of reality exist because these facets are contained in these books (similarly to the case of the story and the characters: they exist because they are written down), then the destruction of these books means the destruction of reality. But a Prospero destroying all reality before returning to the future non-existing Milan would be hard to reconcile with the almost happy ending the play and the film provide. The suggestion of regarding all books occurring in the film as tools for creation therefore should be dropped.

It seems, then, that some books record nature and reality (the thematic ones) while other control and create them (the one Prospero is writing into). This would mean that the thematic volumes represent culture which Prospero’s power is based on—but then again the problem arises why Prospero is inclined to destroy culture by destroying all his books in the end.

It is most probably not by chance that while Prospero talks about being furnished with “volumes” in the original Shakespearean text (I/2/167), he wants to drown only one book in the end. Contrary to this, in the film, Prospero declares, “I’ll drown my books.” (1:38:30) This plural makes it apparent that the otherwise subtle symbolism of Prospero’s Books is far from being free from inconsistencies. While in Shakespeare’s play, Prospero abjures only his magic, in the film, he might appear to destroy and shun all knowledge.

Naturally, the symbolism of the film was most probably not carried this far so that the inconsistency could have been discovered. But still, it can be stated that the books, representing reality or solely knowledge, appear to be universal by covering all possible areas of reality. Indeed, the destruction of the books also support this idea as the books are destroyed by two extremes that seem to span nature: by fire and water—simultaneously.

Movie vs. Theater—Filmic Solutions

The techniques (e.g. the ‘one-voice’ solution) and the symbols investigated so far in the course of the essay could be realized most easily on stage, too. Pretending that somebody else is speaking was done (to the extent of a short monologue) by Árpád Schilling in his production of István Tasnádi’s Közellenség, and it seems that a quite similar technique was not uncommon when performing tragedies around the 13th century in England: “[Tragedy] was sung in the theatre by one man while the actors were moving as in a ballet or imitating speech.”[7] The symbolism of books and paper would pose no problems for the stage, either. It might be interesting, then, to investigate what kind of techniques are used in Prospero’s Books which make this artwork inherently filmic, and also, to consider the setting in which the action is placed.

Shakespeare’s stage in the Globe is argued to have been empty, hence the elaborate descriptions of the actual setting and scene found often in his other plays. However, in the Blackfriars, where The Tempest is suggested to have been performed,[8] subtle scenery and stage machinery were most probably present, but still, many passages can be found in the text which describe or refer to events or things residing off-stage. Examples can be (a) the small description of the ‘carcass’ (I/2/140–150) with the rats; (b) the lions and beasts described by Sebastian (II/1/313); (c) the story of freeing Ariel (the middle of Act I, Scene 2); (d) Stephano’s idea about marrying Miranda (1:08:20) or (e) Alonso mourning over his son (III/3/4–10). In a somewhat realistic staging of the play, the images conjured up by words in the above mentioned sections are not easy to show for various reasons.

First, the objects most often are separated from the speaker not only in space, but also in time (cases a, c, d) or they are simply not true (b, e). Thus, showing, for example, the prince drowned while Alonso accepts the thought that he is dead on a stage which is perceived realistically might lead to misinterpretations by making the spectator think that the portrayed element is true or refers to the present. Still, it is not the real problem that may prevent a more symbolic production of the play from showing such images on stage.

The second, more serious problem for the stage is that these passages are usually short. It means that there is little time to reorganize parts of the stage, cue the light on the particular element, etc. and do it in a way not to shift the focus from the monologue unnecessarily. (This task can be easily solved by the use of projectors, but then, of course, film and stage has begun to merge, and there is little point in investigating ‘filmic’ and ‘stage-like’ solutions.)

The image of rats, for example (a), is evoked only by one or two words. These few seconds are enough for the film to show an image of rats and to disturb the spectator who, being enchanted by the archaic text, most probably has not visualized actual rats up to that point. Such an effect, while retaining the original text, would be extremely hard to achieve on stage.

Similarly, in case (d), when Stephano is shown having sex with Miranda, the image is shown only for a few seconds—and using a similar image on stage would be even more complicated as the actor-Stephano would have to be in two scenes at the same time.

Thus, these small scenes, reflecting short phrases and forcing the spectator to realize the real / literal meaning of the text can be considered to make Prospero’s Books an artwork having a filmic, not stage-like perspective.

The small screen, which is also used often either to put a scene in front of a backdrop determining the mood or circumstances (like when the noblemen on the ship appear in the small square while in the background, the rain continues to fall), or to show an object separated either temporally or spatially from the actual scene (for example, a male body, presumably Ferdinand’s, appear swimming when Alonso is being consoled that his son might have well survived the storm), creating a special kind of visual montage, would be again hard to realize on stage.

One further element, which Prospero’s Books most probably drew solely from filmic traditions, is the long pans following Prospero going to (to the left) and coming back (from the left) from Miranda’s bedroom in Act I, Scene 2. The pans, showing the many spirits performing strictly choreographed chores and visible only in the flashes, successfully and dramatically introduce the ‘realm’ or ‘house’ of Prospero quite similarly to the fixed or moving total plans introducing a new environment in other films.

This point leads us to the last facet of Prospero’s Books to be investigated: its setting.

Quite contrary to the stage directions, almost all scenes are played in a colonnade. The stairs and the long walks of Prospero also seem to contradict the traditional notion of a ‘cell’ by which Prospero’s lodging is described in the Shakespearean script. One of the interpretations of this difference might be derived from the previous observation of relating the long pans to catalogues of the spirits under Prospero’s command: that similarly to books, the place in which Prospero lives should be interpreted symbolically. It represents the culture and power Prospero owns and embodies, as he himself declares: “my library / Was dukedom large enough” (I/2/109–110).

The fact that the Caliban-scenes also appear to be presented in a colonnade is in accordance with the presence of sheets of paper in those scenes. Caliban has never given a real chance of getting out of the control of the absolute power, Prospero.


During the course of this essay, I have considered elements that seem missing from Prospero’s Books as compared to the original Shakespearean script. Such elements (necessarily) turned out to be inherently verbal, and their investigation led to the description of the one-voice technique the film makes use of. I have touched upon the possible reasons for some cuts and deletions, then suggested that the presentation of Prospero as the creator of the characters is actually the aim of the usage of the one-voice technique. Some inconsistencies in the usage of this technique were also revealed in the case of the roles of Miranda and the Ariels.

The essay then turned to the investigation of elements that are undoubtedly new and considered the role and placement of the series of books introduced in the film. The connection between the text and the books turned out to be dominated by the text and to be local. Paper, as an alternative symbol for books has also been found.

For various reasons, none of the systematic interpretations of the symbol of books presented in this essay could be fully accepted as at the end, Prospero (contradicting the Shakespearean ending) abjures all of them—but the intended universality of this symbol system was, I hope, made easily perceivable.

I have also touched upon the issue how small phrases and passages are visualized by the film, how an interesting kind of visual montage is established and how other filmic techniques are used—in order to be able to show that despite the fact that (apart from the cuts) the original Shakespearean text was not altered, Peter Greenaway managed to create a non-theater-imitating film based on an inherently theatrical source.

To sum up, it could be suggested that despite the few difficulties in interpretation and a few possible inconsistencies in the film, the presented techniques (auditory as well as visual) make Prospero’s Books a highly coherent and intellectually challenging work of art showing that archaic texts still have the ability to function fully for modern audiences.

[1] Prospero’s Books, directed by Peter Greenaway, Allarts, 1991.

[2] References of this form refer to Shakespeare’s The Tempest as printed in

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The Cambridge Text (New York City: Gallery Books, 1988), 11–32.

The first number refers to the act, the second the scene and the third the line.

[3] Whether the role of Caliban is spoken by John Gielgud or not, I was unable to determine. I assume that it is.

[4] Patrice Pavis, Elõadáselemzés, trans. Magdolna Jákfalvi (Budapest: Balassi Kiadó, 2003), 172–191.

[5] References of this kind refer to an approximate point in the film in an HOUR:MINUTE:SECOND format.

[6] The Second Shepherds’ Play, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 2000), 402.

[7] Géza, Kállay, The Sight, the Voice and the Deed: An Introduction to Drama <http://www.gezakallay.hu> (cited 7 May 2004).

[8] Ibid.