Directed by Peter Greenaway (1991)
"The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance" - Prospero, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene I
Peter Greenaway's audacious 1991 film Prospero's Books is the stuff that dreams are made of. The film, loosely based on William Shakespeare's mystery play, The Tempest, does not present the work using conventional staging but suggests it through dreamlike ballet sequences with writhing nude dancers, computer animation, lush photography, surreal imagery and the evocative music of Michael Nyman. Images are opened in boxed inserts in the center of the frame and are visually striking, but the film, while imaginative and entertaining, is obscure and almost unintelligible to those unfamiliar with the plot. John Gielgud, still magnificent in his eighties, is Prospero, the philosopher-king. He is the voice of all the other characters as well as Prospero including the witches' son, Caliban (dancer Michael Clark), the King's son Ferdinand (Mark Rylance), and Prospero's fifteen-year old daughter Miranda (Isabelle Pasco) and, in his clearly articulated poetic voice, Gielgud allows Shakespeare's language to soar.
The film begins in a palace on the island where Prospero and Miranda landed twelve years ago after being exiled by the King of Naples. Prospero relates his strange story to his daughter (the word strange appears twenty-five times in the play), recounting the tempest that brought him to the island and the time when his brother Antonio conspired with King Alonso to usurp his position as the Duke of Milan. With the help of Gonzalo, Prospero was able to reach the island after a shipwreck with the twenty-four books that are the source of his magic and power (a Greenaway invention), and the film's title and structure are based on these. The arcane books, shown in overlapping images, include "A Book of Water" containing drawings of every conceivable watery association, "A Book of Mirrors", allowing the reader to peer into the past and the future, and "A Book of Mythologies" describing tales of Gods and men throughout the ages.
Prospero uses the occult power derived from his books to release the fairy Ariel from the pine tree in which he was buried alive by the witch Sycorax, and Ariel agrees to become his servant until he is freed by Prospero from slavery. Ariel, visually represented by four different boys, helps Prospero through magic to bring the men to the island that he has harbored a grievance against for twelve long years: King Alonso, his brother Sebastian and son Ferdinand, and his own villainous brother Antonio. The play is Prospero/Shakespeare's poetic inspiration that arises like a storm at sea, then returns to calm waters freed from treachery. The eternal author concerned with his literary legacy, he seeks closure as he gathers his enemies to wound and to heal. Prospero seeks revenge but, through his studies, is able to transform himself and bring his former adversaries to a new way of thinking and living and, in the process, provide for his daughter's future and his own reconciliation to society.
The Tempest was placed first in the Folio of Shakespeare's Collected works (1623) for a simple reason - it contains the unifying principles of the entire canon. Like the Greek Mysteries that preserved the ancient teachings under the veil of symbol and allegory, The Tempest is Shakespeare's ritual descent into the underworld. With its theme of banishment and redemption, Prospero/Shakespeare is the literary champion of the occult Neoplatonists, a magus transformed from a warrior prince to a seer, the personification of the idea that the cosmos is the self-expression of the soul. According to author Charles Beauclerk, Earl of Burford, The Tempest is the work of an author alienated from the mainstream, "tongue-tied by authority", who creates a second, artistic kingdom to challenge the status quo. It leads its audience "through a maze towards the center of the island where they will find both the true author and their own soul-life". Allowing us to realize a greater sense of wholeness, it is in Beauclerk's phrase, "the holy book of modern Western culture". Prospero's Books helps to reveal its sacred message.