EESE 12/1996

Herbert Klein (Berlin)

"The far side of the mirror":
Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books

Peter Greenaway's film Prospero's Books had its first showing at the Venice Film Festival in 1991. It is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and Sir John Gielgud plays the leading role. Although t he play experiments with new techniques and technology, the underlying post-Romantic interpretation is absolutely conventional because it presents the play as Shakespeare's 'Legacy to Posterity' in which the author identifies himself with the main charact er. In Greenaway's film, Prospero is not merely the protagonist of the play, but also its creator. The play is a product of his mind and a result of his own imagination. The main problem with the film versions of theatre plays i.e. the addition of another level of communication by the narrating camera is, on the one hand, doubly intensified by the narrator's dual identity, yet on the other hand, the problem is solved because presentation and narrative are united.

1. The basic idea behind the film

Prospero is the author, the producer and main character of the play which unfolds before our eyes. All the other characters are his creation and he gives each his own voice - a technique possible only in the film - or, at least, he does so up to the cruci al turning point. He is, at the same time, a participant of the drama and an observer, creator and creature, and a creative artist as well as created character. In creating a work of art, he creates a world and thus changes it and in creating himself, he thereby becomes a different person. This apparent paradox is solved at the end of the film at a self-referential meta-level because, just as in the theatre version, Prospero addresses the audience directly and reveals himself as a character of fiction who has, however, by this very action transcended the barriers between fiction and reality, thus challenging the viewer to re-think his own role with regard to reality and to the self.

2. The role of writing and the books

Prospero's Books is an ideal portrayal of cognitive and pragmatic change. The crucial precondition for this process is Prospero's dual role as writer and protagonist. Whilst the writer can only move within the world of the imagination, the protagon ist can change the world by his imagination.1 Writing - i.e. concrete expression - is the "conditio sine qua non" for the existence of this world and the audience is constantly reminded of the fact that the production of a literary w ork is taking place by the image of a pen or by its scratching noise on paper. The activities of writing and imagining are located in Prospero's writing cell: a transportable box located within the library, his retreat where he can shut out the external w orld.2 In his writing cell there are also his books, which form his most important link to the external world and are also his instrument to control it. These are the books which Gonzalo had mercifully thrown into his boat when Prosp ero had to begin his period in exile. These were, however, the very same books which had brought about this situation because he had retreated from the world and from his secular responsibilities for the sake of pursuing his studies and had handed over th e business of government to his brother. Although Prospero rules over the island inhabitants with the aid of his books, he still withdraws to his writing cell and continues to write more books which fill up his library. Thus the books have a dual role as the instrument of isolation and of interaction, of total unrelatedness and at the same time, of connectedness.

In Greenaway's version, Prospero takes 24 books onto the island. The film's title and structure are based on these books. In addition, the books create the connection to the world outside the drama as they do not merely contain knowledge, but also take on a life of their own. There is no dividing line between the world and their contents which constantly reveal themselves. One of these books is the first folio edition of Shakespeare's works, which, surpisingly, at the outset only contains 35 plays instead of 36 - but the front pages, the place of The Tempest, are still empty. By the end of the film there is of course one more book - a small volume, The Tempest, albeit still in manuscript form.3

3. The books and the mirror

Prospero's power is based on studying his books which provide him with all the necessary knowledge to rule over the island and its inhabitants, to bring up Miranda and to defeat his enemies.4 By means of his books, he creates his own world on the island as a three-dimensional realisation of the illustrations, reports and ideas contained in their pages. In this way, his horizon is, on the one hand, broadened by the books, but, on the other hand, narrowed by the fact that he knows noth ing outside their scope. What they fail to contain is a description of his own self, of his inner being and most importantly, of his ideas and feelings or, in other words, of everything which goes to make up his inner world and which would then enable him to imagine another form of reality. Peter Greenaway uses the mirror images, which complement the books' sphere of action, to show this same potential reality. Prospero's fantasies become visible in the mirror images.They show what might be the case and so, are a model or a simulation of reality. Owing to the mirrors, he can react to this model as if it were really something external to his self and just as if it were already reality. Thus, there are no longer any cognitive differences between the percep tion and the presentation of reality.

The Book of Mirrors forms the bridge between the two spheres: the books and the mirrors, the external world and the inner world, because all possible kinds of mirrors are contained in this book. This is the book Prospero opens at th e beginning whilst continuing to write. The page he opens reflects his own image in the foreground, but the background is not as expected i.e. his study, but instead, there is a picture arising from his imagination and then reflected in the background con sisting of the group of shipwrecked people. The mirror images thus enable him to carry out "thought experiments" and to control the results, at the same time allowing for self-observation. In this way, the audience can participate in Prospero's ideas.5

The first mirror image which the audience sees in full arises out of the same water in which Prospero stands at the beginning of the film. The image then portrays the group of survivors from the shipwreck in all their misery. It costs Prospero a lot of st rength and exertion to conjure up this image. This is clearly seen to be the case from the looks of the characters in the mirror who are misshapen inhabitants of the island whose very appearence shows that this presentation is accompanied by unpleasant em otions. However, the thoughts which become visible in the mirrors do not belong to Prospero alone, but also to his servants Ariel and Caliban. From Caliban's first appearence in the mirror, it can be clearly seen what he would like to do to Prospero and M iranda. Even Miranda sees the images of her past (which she herself can no longer remember) through Prospero's eyes. By means of these techniques, it soon becomes obvious that they are all (at first) creations of Prospero's imagination and projections of his self. In the mirror, the self is confronted with another self. Although the mirror is not able to produce anything of itself, it gives the opportunity to the observer to examine and to alter whatever is already in existence. In this way, the film has found a way of vividly representing the process of self-reflection.6

4. Prospero and Ariel

Prospero's fantasy images are constructions, models for a possible world which can only become reality with Ariel's help. This is, in fact, only a game, a game with possibilities - yet a game which finally becomes serious. Although Ariel is an obedient se rvant, he also has his own will, a will which does not want to serve, but which wants to be free. Even when his will fulfils Prospero's wishes, it does not identify with them, but distances itself inwardly from them.7 Towards the en d of the film, Ariel - and thus a part of Prospero's person - frees himself from Prospero's will, asserts his own existence and opposes him. At the very moment when Prospero believes he can finally celebrate his complete victory over his enemies - the cou rtiers are in his power, Ferdinand marries Miranda and Caliban's conspiracy is defeated - Ariel speaks for the first time in his own voice and in his own words revealing that he disapproves of the things his master had him do. Ariel, however, does not mer ely speak out, but confronts Prospero with the result of his actions by holding up three mirror images to give Prospero insight into his own deeds and bring about a change in him. The first image portrays Alonzo as a father bowed down with grief kneeling by his dead son, the second image portrays Ferdinand feeling both humiliated and intimidated and the third picture shows the trio Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo driven to flight in a state of disgrace. This is the result of Prospero's attempts to alter th e world and to wreak vengeance on his enemies. It is the exact outcome he desired, but the direct picturing of this shows him that it does not harmonise with his own actual goal and it causes him to deviate from his original plan.8

5. The liberation of the self

Now for the first time Prospero leaves his hermitage and steps out into the world from his self-imposed isolation, thus abolishing the distinction between Prospero scribens and Prospero agens. And this is not all: his creation Ariel, his faithful servant, not only speaks but acts independently and without orders for the first time. For after he has found his own voice he assumes Prospero's role for a moment and writes in Prospero's book the words he has just spoken. He makes use, then, of the "free space" made available by Prospero's departure from the writing cell: an exchange takes place between the outer and the inner world. The reality created by Prospero reacts upon himself, and forces him to confront the changed situation his own actions have brough t about. Prospero must reflect upon his prior behavior and can now decide between various courses of action. He resolves to forgive his enemies and become reconciled with them. He thus frees himself from the compulsion to act from feelings of revenge, to live only in relation to the past and allow it to determine the present. He has found new standards for his actions, therewith creating the conditions for his own liberation and that of the others as well. Prospero has learned that he cannot simply live i n an egocentric world of his own desires and ideas but must acknowledge the independent existence of other persons. In so doing he has broken through his isolation. Only now can all the others free themselves from his spell and find their own voices.

Prospero no longer attempts to rule the world; rather, he adapts himself to it. The question is not simply one of reconciliation with the past, but of reconciliation with oneself and with life. His previous exile (for which he was responsible) is ended by his own resolution, and he returns to the world of his fellow men, leaving behind the world of spirits and monsters. The outward sign of this is the breaking of the quill and closing of the books, the renunciation of those means which had made everything possible in the first place. Yet Prospero goes one step further: in order to completely liberate himself from the past he decides to destroy his books.

6. Caliban, Shakespeare, and the viewer

Here Greenaway adds an interesting detail: he has Prospero actually throw his books into the water. Only the two volumes of Shakespeare's plays are saved - by Caliban, strangely enough. Naturally this is a clear reference to the film's status as a literar y film. On the other hand, the viewer has learned by now that books can be a means of self-discovery, albeit an ambivalent one. Thus Caliban appears to be Prospero's heir (also) in this regard.9

With this gesture, however, the viewer of the film (who is likewise at least a potential reader of the plays) is encouraged to identify with Caliban and to equate viewing the film with reading the plays. Common to both is the readiness to accept a differe nt form of reality, to use one's power of imagination to conjure up a different world and, from the distance thus achieved, to effect change through self-reflection. Prospero has done exactly that and has indeed become a different person.

In his epilogue Prospero once again deals with the relationship between reality and the imagination when he makes clear that he owes his existence and that of his world to the imaginative powers of the viewer, who is thus reminded of his role as (co-) cre ator of this world. Thus a reflection takes place on this level as well: the film is the model of a potential reality.

7. The film and postmodern technology

From the outset Greenaway produced his film not on celluloid but on videotape with the aid of the Japanese Hi-Vision technology. Neither did he use the standard picture format for cinema screens, but rather that of the HDTV norm.10 This technique had one clear advantage in the free manipulability of the images with the aid of the (digital) Paint Box. With the Paint Box, previously recorded images can be altered, connected, and merged. The animated books of the film were also created in this way, by changing, combining, and superimposing various details. With the Paint Box, film is no longer restricted to the mere reproduction of once-recorded images: with this technique, new images are created and the filmmaker becomes a painter (Greenaway is that as well). The old becomes new, Shakespeare becomes Prospero - a cycle whose individual parts seamlessly overlap, intermingle and bring forth entirely new combinations. The linking of various pictorial elements is only made possible by the Paint Box, which no longer shows differences among them but only similarities. It knows no alternatives, but at most different manifestations of the same basic material, which takes on valid form only through the artist's choices. Th e same process, however, also renders invalid questions about the "actual" being (and meaning) of things: they are what they become in a cognitive process, which already determines how they are perceived and in which they are changed through the imaginati on and reverberate upon the world. The result of this technique is thus not arbitrariness but the necessity of individual choice in the conferral of meaning.

Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books itself functions according to the Paint Box principle: there is hardly an image or a shot in the film that is not generated from some previous image. Everything is quotation, and already a reflection which is the n reflected upon once more. This is in line with the statement of the film, for it proposes to show the images in Prospero's head, and his ideas in turn are based on what he knows from books or personal experience. Thus, here again is an example of the pr inciple of variegated re-presentation of familiar elements. The Paint Box becomes the imagination's expressive outlet: the images stored in its "archives" are the counterparts of the memory or of the pages of a book - potentially all the books of this wor ld. To search for originality here would be to begin at the wrong place. Greenaway is much more concerned to give new order to that which is already at hand, to establish new relationships, bring disparate elements together and thereby create new insights .

The film shows the process of artistic creation and is at the same time an example of this process. Just as Prospero scribens brings forth the drama through the manipulation of his ideas, the film arises through the manipulation of images. While no image is without its predecessor, the two are never identical: one may be a variation on the other, it may be rearranged or "alienated," but in every case it is newly interpreted. Although it clearly reveals (and should reveal) its dependence, it allows new ref erences and correlations to emerge. This is an important means of creating effect in the film, which in this way refers again and again to the changing relationship between perception and imagination, reality and fiction.

Greenaway foregoes contrasts and the building up of tension by means of conventional film dramaturgy, and instead structures his film around the cross-faded books which comment on the action and create references to the outside world. They are a random me ans of structuring - that is, they do not claim to reflect a natural or even a necessary order of things, but rather expose such a view of the world as an illusion: order can only be imposed on reality through affirmative and imaginative decisions. Of cou rse, such a method of presentation deliberately runs counter to the visual habits of narrative cinema, for Greenaway requires a new art of seeing, a visual literacy. The images often change in very rapid succession or are superimposed, while music and voi ces are heard from distant locations. Here Greenaway seems to be taking his lead from the visual conventions of video clips, although there the attention span required of the viewer is limited to approx. 3 minutes. Perhaps Greenaway makes excessive use of the possibilities offered by the Paint Box, demanding visual skills that can only be acquired through extensive training in the appropriate codes. But even if the film with its wealth of simultaneously presented information possibly asks too much of the viewer, it nevertheless does not manipulate him. The disclosure of the artificial character of "seen" things always provides the viewer with the distance necessary for reflection, and thus makes critical understanding possible.


1 This is made clear in camera position no. 16.5 when Prospero "agens" moves in the imagined world of Prospero "scribens" as the former (agens) passes the latter (scribens) without being aware that he himself is being observed by Pros pero (scribens).

2 Greenway called this container a "study" or "writing area". It is modeled upon a painting by da Messina. See Peter Greenaway (1991): Prospero's Books. A Film of Shakespeare's The Tempest. London, 50. There is a further redupl ication: Shakespeare's "cell" (I.2.39) figures both as Prospero's working area and as his palace. (The Tempest, ed. Stephen Orgel. Oxford 1987).

3 By implication, this process continues on a different level: Greenaway's manuscript becomes a (film-)script which in turn is published as a book.

4 The books represent a motley collection of the artistic and scientific knowledge of the Renaissance. (cf Greenaway, pp 9-11)

5 Writing is another such example of externalisation whereas reading corresponds to perception: even at this level, the books and the mirror relate to each other.

6 If Prospero could actually see nothing but his unchanged thoughts and ideas in the mirrors, this would lead to an infinite regress, but it is, however, the very same externalisation which enables checking and correction to take plac e. (cf. P N Johnson-Laird: The Computer and the Mind. An Introduction to Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT 1988, 362-366).

7 In "The Sea and the Mirror", W.H. Auden calls Ariel "the spirit of reflection" (The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden. New York 1945, 382). Auden seems to have inspired Greenaway how to make use of the mirror.

8 This is the only point where Greenaway has changed Shakespeare's text. Instead of "I'll drown my book" (V.1.57) he has "books", thus emphasizing their importance once again.

9 In the narrow sense, Caliban does not "inherit" the island from Prospero, as he was already there when Prospero arrived. On the other hand, Prospero does raise him together with his own child - adopts him, so to speak. After the oth ers depart, Caliban finds himself in isolation, from which he may be able to free himself with the aid of the books. At the end of the play he says, "I"ll be wise hereafter,/ And seek for grace. (V. 1. 294-5) Greenaway omits these words but seems to hint visually that the plays could help Caliban in his search.

10 The dimensions are 1: 1.78 instead of 1: 1.6 or 1: 2.2.