Prospero's Books

Prospero's Books (1991)

'A magician's spell, the innocence of young love and a dream of revenge unite to create a tempest.'

This adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest is a visual delight from Greenaway, with fascinating images galore. There are a lot of nude bodies on show in this film - some swimming underwater, some prancing around liberally. Sir John Gielgud is the prominent figure and voice of the film as Prospero - describing the events on an island where he is stranded with his daughter, Miranda. Michael Clark, in particular, is good as Caliban. The story isn't going to entrap many viewers, but the look of it all really needs to be seen. Greenaway opens image after image in the centre of each frame, and large books are opened. The front of a woman's body is removed to reveal all her internal organs. It really deserves to be seen just to look at it all. This picture is very appealing to the eye.

 

"An intellectually and erotically rampaging meditation on the arrogance and value of the artistic process." - Variety

"A remarkable feast, taking in the video revolution at one level and a highly literate interpretation of Shakespeare at another. Nothing quite like it has been seen before, let alone from a British director." - Derek Malcolm, Guardian

"Prospero's Books really exists outside criticism. All I can do is describe it. Most of the reviews of this film have missed the point; this is not a narrative, it need not make sense, and it is not 'too difficult' because it could not have been any less so. It is simply a work of original art, which Greenaway asks us to accept or reject on his own terms." - Roger Ebert ***

 

The Books

1. A Book of Water

This is a waterproof-covered book which has lost its colour by much contact with water. It is full of investigative drawings and exploratory text written on many different thicknesses of paper. There are drawings of every conceivable watery association - seas, tempests, rain, snow, clouds, lakes, waterfalls, streams, canals, water-mills, shipwrecks, floods and tears. As the pages are turned, the watery elements are often animated. There are rippling waves and slanting storms. Rivers and cataracts flow and bubble. Plans of hydraulic machinery and maps of weather-forecasting flicker with arrows, symbols and agitated diagrams. The drawings are all made by one hand. Perhaps this is a lost collection of drawings by da Vinci bound into a book by the King of France at Ambois and bought by the Milanese Dukes to give to Prospero as a wedding present.


2. A Book of Mirrors

Bound in a gold cloth and very heavy, this book has some eighty shining mirrored pages; some opaque, some translucent, some manufactured with silvered papers, some coated in paint, some covered in a film of mercury that will roll off the page unless treated cautiously. Some mirrors simply reflect the reader, some reflect the reader as he was three minutes previously, some reflect the reader as he will be in a year's time, as he would be if he were a child, a woman, a monster, an idea, a text or an angel. One mirror constantly lies, one mirror sees the world backwards, another upside down. One mirror holds on to its reflections as frozen moments infinitely recalled. One mirror simply reflects another mirror across a page. There are ten mirrors whose purpose Prospero has yet to define.


3. A Book of Mythologies

This is a large book. Prospero on some occasions has described it as being as much as four metres wide and three metres high. It is bound in a shining yellow cloth that, when polished, gleams like brass. It is a compendium, in text and illustration, o f mythologies with all their variants and alternative tellings; cycle after cycle of interconnecting tales of gods and men from all the known world, from the icy North to the deserts of Africa, with explanatory readings and symbolic interpretations. Its authority and information is richest in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Greece and Rome, in Israel, in Athens and Rome, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where it supplements its information with genealogies, natural and unnatural. To a modern eye, it is a combination of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Frazer's The Golden Bough and Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Every tale and anecdote has an illustration. With this book as a concordance, Prospero can collect together, if he so wishes, all those gods and men who have achieved fame or infamy through water, or through fire, through deceit, in association with horses or trees or pigs or swans or mirrors, pride, envy or stick-insects.


4. A Primer of the Small Stars

This is a small, black, leather-covered navigational aid. It is full of folded maps of the night skies that tumble out, belying the modest size of the book. It is a depiction of the sky reflected in the seas of the world when they are still, for it is complete with blanks where the land masses of the globe have interrupted the oceanic mirror. This, to Prospero, was its greatest usage, for in steering his leaky vessel to such a small blank space in a sea of stars, he found his island. When opened, the primer's pages twinkle with travelling planets, flashing meteors and spinning comets. The black skies pulsate with red numbers. New constellations are repeatedly joined together by fast-moving, dotted lines.


5. An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus

Bound in a battered and burnt, enamelled-green tin cover, this atlas is divided into two sections. Section One is full of large maps of the travel and usage of music in the classical world. Section Two is full of maps of Hell. It was used when Orpheus journeyed into the Underworld to find Eurydice, and the maps, as a consequence, are scorched and charred by Hellfire and marked with the teeth-bites of Cerberus. When the atlas is opened, the maps bubble with pitch. Avalanches of hot, loose gravel and molten sand fall out of the book to scorch the library floor.


6. A Harsh Book of Geometry

This is a thick, brown, leather-covered book, stippled with gold numbers. When opened, complex three-dimensional geometrical diagrams rise up out of the pages like models in a pop up book. The pages flicker with logarithmic numbers and figures. Angles are measured by needle-thin metal pendulums that swing freely, activated by magnets concealed in the thick paper.


7. The Book of Colours

This is a large book bound in crimson watered silk. It is broader than it is high, and when opened the double-page spread makes a square. The three hundred pages cover the colour spectrum in finely differentiated shades moving from black back to black again. When opened at a double spread, the colour so strongly evokes a place, an object, a location or a situation that the associated sensory sensation is directly experienced. Thus a bright yellow-orange is an entry into a volcano and a dark blue-green is a reminder of deep sea where eels and fish swim and splash your face.


8. The Vesalius Anatomy of Birth

Vesalius produced the first authoritative anatomy book; it is astonishing in its detail, macabre in its single mindedness. This Anatomy of Birth, a second volume now lost, is even more disturbing and heretical. It concentrates on the mysteries o f birth. It is full of descriptive drawings of the workings of the human body which, when the pages open, move and throb and bleed. It is a banned book that queries the unnecessary processes of ageing, bemoans the wastages associated with progeneration, condemns the pains and anxieties of childbirth and generally questions the efficiency of God.


9. An Alphabetical Inventory of the Dead

This is a funereal volume, long and slim and bound in silver bark. It contains all the names of the dead who have lived on earth. The first name is Adam and the last is Susannah, Prospero's wife. The names are written in many inks and many calligraphies and are arranged in long columns that sometimes reflect the alphabet, sometimes a chronology of history, but often use taxonomies that are complicated to unravel, such that you may search many years to find a name, but be sure it will be there. The pages of the book are very old and are watermarked with a collection of designs for tombs and columbariums, elaborate headstones, graves, sarcophagi and other architectural follies for the dead, suggesting the book had other purposes, even before the death of Adam.


10. A Book of Travellers' Tales

This is a book that is much damaged, as though used a great deal by children who have treasured it. The scratched and rubbed crimson leather covers, once inlaid with a figurative gold design, are now so worn that the pattern is ambiguous and a fit subject for much speculation. It contains those marvels that travellers talk of and are not believed. 'Men whose heads stood in their breasts', 'bearded women, a rain of frogs, cities of purple ice, singing camels, Siamese twins', 'mountaineers dew-lapped like bulls'. It is full of illustrations and has little text.


11. The Book of the Earth

A thick book covered in khaki-coloured webbing, its pages are impregnated with the minerals, acids, alkalis, elements, gums, poisons, balms and aphrodisiacs of the earth. Strike a thick scarlet page with your thumbnail to summon fire. Lick a grey paste from another page to bring poisonous death. Soak a further page in water to cure anthrax. Dip another in milk to make soap. Rub two illustrated pages together to make acid. Lay your head on another page to change the colour of your hair. With this book Prospero savoured the geology of the island. With its help, he mined for salt and coal, water and mercury; and also for gold, not for his purse, but for his arthritis.


12. A Book of Architecture and Other Music

When the pages are opened in this book, plans and diagrams spring up fully-formed. There are definitive models of buildings constantly shaded by moving cloud-shadow. Noontime piazzas fill and empty with noisy crowds, lights flicker in nocturnal urban landscapes and music is played in the halls and towers. With this book, Prospero rebuilt the island into a palace of libraries that recapitulate all the architectural ideas of the Renaissance.



13. The Ninety-Two Conceits of the Minotaur

This book reflects on the experience of the Minotaur, the most celebrated progeny of bestiality. It has an impeccable classical mythology to explain provenances and pedigrees that include Leda, Europa, laedalus, Theseus and Ariadne. Since Caliban - like centaurs, mermaids, harpies, the sphinx, vampires and werewolves - is the offspring of bestiality, he would find this book of great interest. Mocking Ovid's Metamorphoses, it tells the story of ninety-two hybrids. It should have told a hundred, but the puritanical Theseus had heard enough and slew the Minotaur before he could finish. When opened, the book exudes yellow steam and it coats the fingers with a black oil.


14. The Book of Languages

This is a large, thick book with a blue-green cover that rainbow-hazes in the light. More a box than a book, it opens in unorthodox fashion, with a door in its front cover. Inside is a collection of eight smaller books arranged like bottles in a medicine case. Behind these eight books are another eight books, and so on. To open the smaller books is to let loose many languages. Words and sentences, paragraphs and chapters gather like tadpoles in a pond in April or starlings in a November evening sky.


15. End-plants

Looking like a log of ancient, seasoned wood, this is a herbal to end all herbals, concerning itself with the most venerable plants that govern life and death. It is a thick block of a book with varnished wooden covers that have been at one time, and probably still are, inhabited by minute tunnelling insects. The pages are stuffed with pressed plants and flowers, corals and sea weeds, and around the book hover exotic butter flies, dragonflies, fluttering moths, bright beetles and a cloud of golden pollen-dust. It is simultaneously a honeycomb, a hive, a garden and an ark for insects. It is an encyclopedia of pollen, scent and pheromone.


16. A Book of Love

This is a small, slim, scented volume bound in red and gold, with knotted crimson ribbons for page-markers. There is certainly an image in the book of a naked man and a naked woman, and also an image of a pair of clasped hands. These things were once spotted, briefly, in a mirror, and that mirror was in another book. Everything else is conjecture.


17. A Bestiary of Past, Present and Future Animals

This is a large book, a thesaurus of animals, real, imaginary and apocryphal. With this book Prospero can recognise cougars and mamosets and fruit bats and manticores and dromersels, the cameleopard, the chimera and the cattamorrain. 


18. The Book of Utopias

This is a book of ideal societies. With the front cover bound in gold leather and the back bound in black slate, it has five hundred pages, six hundred and sixty-six indexed entries and a preface by Sir Thomas More. The first entry is a consensus description of Heaven and the last is one of Hell. There will always be someone on earth whose utopian ideal will be Hell. In the remaining pages of the book, every known and every imagined political and social community is described and evaluated, and twenty-five pages are devoted to tables where the characteristics of all societies can be isolated, permitting a reader to sort and match his own utopian ideal.


19. The Book of Universal Cosmography

Full of printed diagrams of great complexity, this book attempts to place all universal phenomena in one system. The diagrams are etched into the pages disciplined geometrical figures, concentric rings that circle and counter circle, tables and lists organised in spirals, catalogues arranged on a simplified body of man, who, moving, sets the lists in new orders, moving diagrams of the solar system. The book deals in a mixture of the metaphorical and the scientific and is dominated by a great diagram showing the Union of Man and Woman - Adam and Eve - in a structured universe where all things have their allotted place and an obligation to be fruitful.


20. Lore of Ruins

An antiquarian's handbook, a checklist of the ancient world for the Renaissance humanist interested in antiquity. Full of maps and plans of the archaeological sites of the world, temples, towns and ports, graveyards and ancient roads, measurements of one hundred thousand statues of Hermes, Venus and Hercules, descriptions of every discovered obelisk and pedestal of the Mediterranean, street plans of Thebes, Ostia and Atlantis, a directory of the possessions of Sejanus, the tablets of Heraclitus, the signatures of Pythagoras; an essential volume for the melancholic historian who knows that nothing endures. The book's proportions are like a block of stone, forty by thirty by twenty centimetres, the colour of blue-veined marble, chalky to the touch, with crisp, stiff pages printed in classical fonts with no W or J.



21. The Autobiographies of Pasiphae and Semiramis

A pornography. It is a blackened and thumbed volume whose illustrations leave small ambiguity as to the book's content. The book is bound in black calfskin with damaged lead covers. The pages are grey-green and scattered with a sludge green powder, curled black hairs and stains of blood and other substances. The slightest taint of steam or smoke rises from the pages when the book is opened, and it is always warm - like the little heat apparent in drying plaster or in flat stones after the sun has set. The pages leave acidic stains on the fingers and it is advisable to wear gloves when reading the volume.


22. A Book of Motion

This is a book that at the most simple level describes how birds fly and waves roll, how clouds form and apples fall from trees. It describes how the eye changes its shape when looking at great distances, how hairs grow in a beard, why the heart flutters and the lungs inflate involuntarily and how laughter changes the face. At its most complex level, it explains how ideas chase one another in the memory and where thought goes when it is finished with. It is covered in tough blue leather and, because it is always bursting open of its own volition, it is bound around with two leather straps buckled tightly at the spine. At night, it drums against the bookcase shelf and has to be held down with a brass weight. One of its sections is called 'The Dance of Nature' and here, codified and explained in animated drawings, are all the possibilities for dance in the human body.


23. The Book of Games

This is a book of board games of infinite supply. Chess is but one game in a thousand in this volume, merely occupying two pages, pages 112 and 113. The book contains board games to be played with counters and dice, with cards and flags and miniature pyramids, small figures of the Olympic gods, the winds in coloured glass, Old Testament prophets in bone, Roman busts, the oceans of the world, exotic animals, pieces of coral, gold putti, silver coins and pieces of liver. The board games represented in t he book cover as many situations as there are experiences. There are games of death, resurrection, love, peace, famine, sexual cruelty, astronomy, the cabbala, statesman-craft, the stars, destruction, the future, enomenology, magic, retribution, semantics, evolution There are boards of red and black triangles, grey and blue diamonds, pages of text, diagrams of the brain, Arabic carpets, boards in the shape of the constellations, animals, maps, journeys to Hell and journeys to Heaven.


24. Thirty-Six Plays

This is a thick, printed volume of plays dated 1623. All thirty-six plays are there save one - the first. Nineteen pages are left blank for its inclusion. It is called The Tempest. The folio collection is modestly bound in dull green linen with cardboard covers and the author's initials are embossed in gold on the cover - W.S

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