The direful spectacle of the wreck, which touched
The very virtue of compassion in thee,
I have with such provision in mine art
So safely ordered that there is no soul-
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel
Which thou heard’st cry, which thou saw’st sink. (1531)
In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the character of Prospero utilizes his magic art to create a storm and formulate feelings of compassion in his daughter Miranda. Similarly, Shakespeare uses the theater to stir feelings in his audience, while using art to control each character and their situation. Using the power of theatrical art, Shakespeare attempts to recreate and replace nature in this play. In Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway examines the play’s representation of the relationship between art and nature from a cinematic perspective. In his film, he elaborates the way The Tempest questions the priority of art over nature by incorporating artful techniques and ideas with natural themes.
The Tempest opens with Prospero’s magical creation of a dangerous storm. In this scene, Shakespeare stresses the power that theater, as a form of art, has to replace nature. He does this through a storm reproduction and its effect on the outside world in both the characters and the audience. This storm creation represents the power of art, working in theater, to duplicate natural events and emotions through theatrical illusions, such as the sound of wind, while fashioning the concerned feelings within the characters. For example, the King and his men remain on Prospero’s island due to the storm’s heavy winds. Prospero’s magical island then becomes the setting for the play. Shakespeare, the artist, leaves Act One, Scene 1 with an ambivalent outcome. The audience and the characters do not know the fate of the ship’s party, leaving their minds in strife. In this situation, art manipulates their thoughts so much that they become immersed within it, accepting their feelings as real, even if only for a short time period.
Peter Greenaway portrays Act One, Scene One with a strong usage of elemental images such as fire and water. He associates these elements with sorcery, introducing Prospero as a magical character capable of using his supernatural powers to control nature. Not only does the filmmaker recreate nature, but his character does as well. This shows the power art has over nature, as art produces natural occurrences repeatedly, while nature cannot control or modify its elemental existence. For example, Greenaway, through cinematic devices, does not rely on a natural event to take place before he produces a statement or a piece of art.
The magical island setting in the play changes with the film interpretation. The movie revolves around a small swimming pool with a long hallway leading towards Prospero’s office, contrasting to the traditional stage set-up found in theater. As a film artist, Greenaway’s small pool represents a larger sea, while also serving as a figurative mirror because as one glances into a pool of water, one can see oneself. Greenaway observes a need for people to re-examine the world in a mirror, not physically but in a sense that allows for a deeper understanding of its issues. Water reflects more than just the surface. As one looks into water, they peer into a world filled with organisms and life on which they must focus, just as Greenaway wants his audience to look deeper into the unobservable issues. In addition, Prospero has a “Book of Mirrors” which corresponds to the concept of artistic expressions reflecting life. This visual re-appears throughout the movie as Greenaway takes his audience into his bizarre world, questioning the nature of art through the expansion of imagination. In this world, sprites appear as children hanging on ropes above the water, watching as a toy ship floats in the pool. The filmmaker manipulates the surroundings just as Prospero does in The Tempest, treating the audience and characters like toy puppets.
Shakespeare intends to amaze his audience with a portrayal of natural events in his play, and Greenaway has similar, updated intentions with his film adaptation. He plans on both visual and auditory senses in this scene adding ways in which the artist controls the audience. For example, Ariel heavily urinates onto the toy ship, smiling while it tumbles. Children symbolize innocence, yet Ariel’s red, curly hair brings devilish thoughts. The child looks innocent as his expression turns sinister, his natural action leading to harm. The image of the boy provokes feelings of disgust in the audience, juxtaposing an innocent child with a destructive intention. Greenaway incorporates a rough part of human nature with a well-respected play in order to artistically stitch together a conventional separation between nature and art.
Another striking visual scene occurs when the winds blow as Prospero walks to his study. In the background, books fly through air as nude men and women move around him. The winds become faster as the people dance, and sounds of animal cries and machine guns appear. Here, Greenaway reveals a social observation. He associates bestial savagery with the animal cries and nudity with the sound of machine guns. In the world, people create tempests through violence and war, only leading to confusion and pain. In addition, the flying books represent the different political and social ideas as well as the problems with too much book knowledge. This knowledge leads to destruction and confusion. Furthermore, books sometimes represent a type of civility, yet the imposition of knowledge on other cultures leads to an unwanted conformity.
Shakespeare separates the characters of Caliban and Ariel from the human world. In Act One, Scene Two, Ariel arrives on the stage, as a boy or small man, and acts as an obedient “spirit” (1533) to his master Prospero. They communicate using clear dialogue, while Ariel’s lines move between spoken word and song. This interaction allows this sprite to enter a part of human nature, although human acceptance does not change how Ariel manipulates others through his art of music.
Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the King my father’s wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air. Thence I have followed it,
Or it hath drawn me rather (1536)
In this scene, Ariel’s tune invokes horrific thoughts about the shipwreck into Ferdinand’s mind. Shakespeare believes that music, as an art form, alters human nature in a non-somatic way. Lyrics and tune alters perceptions, shapes emotions, and adds significantly to theatrical and cinematic effects. Greenaway also takes advantage of the artful illusions of music and sounds in his film adaptation.
Peter Greenaway gives Ariel a high pitched voice, and he sings all his lines in an operatic vibrato. This visual of the boy implies a human youthfulness and innocence, yet this perception changes as Ariel speaks in an artificial and abnormal voice. This unnatural juxtaposition between the musical form of opera and a young child encourages the audience to understand this character as not being completely human. Greenaway hopes that his treatment of Ariel expands the mind frame of the audience as they encounter this unusual child. Moreover, he wants them to accept this character because he adds to the film just as humanity’s differences add to the world. In the play and the film, Ariel acts as both a male and a female, while crossing between the ordinary human world and the magical, non human world. This message promotes an incorporation of all races, genders, and sexualities into society as well as a separation, and respect, for their private and public lives.
In addition to Ariel’s dialogue, Prospero’s deep voice narrates over the voice of the character speaking, whose lips remain motionless. The filmmaker gives this sound and visual interpretation because it shows a technological spectacle specifically for film. This craft corresponds to the theatrical illusions that stun Renaissance theater-goers in Shakespeare’s play. These tricks stress the power of film as a magical art, unexplainable to those they entertain. This gives art a supernatural effect, as it takes human nature, such as the senses, and moves it around, reaffirming the arts’ control over nature. Greenaway’s other techniques include using picture-in-picture, alternating between stage and movie settings, and using ballet choreography.
Greenaway chooses choreography as a way to continue questioning the relationship between savagery and civility. He shows a bald Sycorax giving birth to a baby in a graphic, yet natural, introduction to the life of Caliban. The characters representing the forest-dwelling creatures don paint over naked skin. Caliban cries while attached and enveloped within a tree, as blood and bugs run out of his mouth, showing this character as being one with nature yet having more than simple, animalistic emotions. These images reiterate his classification as a savage nonhuman, although the way the forest-creatures, including Caliban, move implies an inner grace. These people may defecate on books, have green hands like monsters, and wear little clothing; however, they dance in a sophisticated style of ballet. These creatures have a smooth flexibility rarely associated with wildness. The audience expects tribal movements rather than an imitation of upper class artistic enjoyment, once again emphasizing how Greenaway’s interpretation transforms the mind. The filmmaker awakens his culture to accepting wildness and radicalism in art. He presents the question about how to distinguish between the artist and the savage and confuses the audience into wondering who really is wild: the creature imitating a properly recognized and civil art form or the modern culture unconsciously infusing native practices as art in their society.
Greenaway describes the different culture of the forest world by their actions and costumes, whereas Shakespeare approaches the wild with a concentration on language. He presents the strength of language and education as a way to eliminate nature. “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” (1535). Although Caliban’s perception of the world comes from living in nature, he speaks in understandable verse, he has a rational thought process, and causes the audience to struggle between feelings of admiration for his natural innocence and disgust because of his uncivilized status. Moreover, Shakespeare comments in the previous quote by Caliban about the artificiality of customs and education. Prospero attempts what he believes as a noble act towards the transformation of Caliban into a more agreeable creature by immersing him in their culture. This challenges Renaissance audiences to question exploration and colonialism as they force tradition, language, and religion onto foreign cultural groups. Shakespeare wants them to leave this scene wondering whether or not these natural creatures are truly baser than humans or if they possess a redemptive art worth preserving. Shakespeare’s theater propels these ideas, proving that his art can alter the nature of his audience. However, the theater represents artificiality as well, as shown through the masque scene.
Bells and angelic song signals a change in mood during the film. Instead of the deep, booming voice of Prospero, the audience listens to light, musical sounds while watching a celebration. Prospero opens his Book of Motion, stating how laughter changes the shape of one’s face, specifically the eyes. This is significant when thinking about the falseness of theater, which transforms characters and audience into new physical and mental states. Greenaway uses laughing rather than frowning because laughing makes one’s face dance, and yet the comical aspect of this scene lies in the artifice conveyed mainly through costumes, setting, materials, and colors. For example, Miranda wears a red party dress which contrasts to Ferdinand’s zebra striped suit. These colors correlate with the recreation of nature, Miranda representing blood and Ferdinand representing a wild animal. They celebrate their marriage, or the taming of Ferdinand by Miranda, as part of a reoccurring theme about civilizing the wild. In addition, Greenaway chooses to portray this scene on a stage, associating the costumes with the insubstantial theater. Other people at the party wear only tutus with thongs, placing art alongside sexuality.
Our revels now our ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. (1552)
Shakespeare and Greenaway use their art to describe and question views about nature. Shakespeare plays God with his art, creating nature that affects the experience of the audience while Greenaway uses themes in The Tempest and attempts to change traditional perceptions of the play and the world. The text implies that Shakespeare regards theater as insubstantial, emphasizing its unimportance and unnaturalness. In the speech by Prospero in Act Four, Scene One, he explains how theater consists of air, as the actors and audiences always melt back into their own world. Imagination arises from no foundation, and the visualizations in the play are short-lived and unreal. Peter Greenaway contradicts this view because his film blossoms with imaginative detail based on the foundation of The Tempest. He uses the vulgarity of nature in an artful way as he interprets this well-known work of art. He is able to distort and draw attention to new aspects of the play that theatrical technology could not reveal in Shakespeare’s time. Greenaway reduces the separation between the worlds of art and nature, leaving his audience with lasting messages and imagery. William Shakespeare and Peter Greenaway both create artistic worlds that encourage others to challenge conventional boundaries between art and nature.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th ed. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Longman, 1997. 1526-1558.
Prospero’s Books. Dir. Peter Greenaway. Miramax, 1991.