Literature Long read: Drowned Books

“Use the Force, Harry!” Gandalf aka Patrick Stewart does a marvellously terrible Prospero piss-take in the comedy show Extras.

At the end of my as-yet unpublished novel The Green Man there is a sort scene that echoes one of Prospero’s final lines from The Tempest, “I’ll drown my book.” Prospero (and the character from TGM) realises that investigative rationality (symbolised by his book), and the ability to control aspects of the world with the resultant knowledge, is not enough to attain contentment. Propsero’s book is magic; with it he controls his world; Ariel the sprite, and Caliban the monster. But he is able to assert control only on his small patch of land, the island. As soon as others inhabit the island (as a result of the tempest he had Ariel create) then his magic book is not sufficient to deliver him the results he wants. In other words, Prospero’s book represents the tendency to look at the world in terms of rational understanding, the world-as-laboratory. In isolation, perhaps he’s able to do that, but as soon as other people arrive, the world-as-laboratory is no longer a sufficient observational tactic. As soon as the others arrive, Prospero is plunged into the world-as-stage, which is much vaster and more complex than that which mere books can explain. In other words, looking at the world in purely rational terms, or even empirical terms, is constrained by a very finite set of limitations bordering it. A book may unlock a small part of the world, but the world explains all books.

Those initial limitations within which Prospero bounds himself prevents him from understanding the much broader canvas of the world-as-stage. He cannot tackle the great wrestling matches of the soul: science versus religion, rationality versus morality, reason versus faith. And once he understands this, he drowns his book. (Let’s not forget that Prospero was exiled from Milan in the first place for spending too much time in the library and not enough time governing.)

There’s a hell of a lot of symbolism packed into that tiny little line, “I’ll drown my book.” It might seem odd for a writer to not only understand but actively advocate for the severe limitations of books – after all, I’d quite like people to buy a copy of my own – but there’s a truth here that’s worth pursuing.

First, a digression. Books were popularised really in the nineteenth century. The combination of better printing presses, transportation enabling longer journeys by rail and sea, and literature as a marketable commodity meant that reading became a pastime and books became indispensible travel companions. As this was the case, since the industrial revolution the vast majority of people would have come into contact with Shakespeare as text, rather than on a stage. Many generations of schoolchildren will attest to that. You read Shakespeare, of course you do. For the common man, reading the Bard’s plays was (and remains) more convenient and cost-effective than making attending a full theatrical production. Gradually, the primary medium through which Shakespeare was presented to the public, and taught in the schooling system, turned out to be the book, until the advent of cinema.

There’s a very odd and quirky little Shakespeare adaptation from 1991 called Prospero’s Books, directed by Peter Greenaway, which understands this shift from Shakespeare-as-stage to Shakespeare-as-book, and he damns the change. He wants to drown Shakespeare-as-book.

The first scene, of a bucolic watercolour landscape, is transformed with a camera’s turn into a panorama of the real Italian countryside; the sequence signals the subordination of a static artifact (the text, a painting) to its living enactment – in this case, a film, which stands in for Shakespeare-as-stage.

Greenaway’s a trained painter and understands the transition from the stationary to the kinetic, and the struggle for contemporary Shakespearean drama to break from the monumentality of the text. Every schoolchild in Britain will have read MacBeth and Romeo and Juliet. And you can get a hell of a lot from it, no doubt. It’s packed with so much meaning it makes your head spin. Only the holy texts really can be said to have greater profundities. But how many of those children will have seen those plays on stage? For Greenaway, Prospero and Shakespeare are interchangeable, one and the same. Some critics have believe The Tempest to be a kind of autobiography, which is kind of reflected in the casting. Having Sir John Gielgud – one of the great twentieth century Shakespearean actors – play the lead, following his acclaimed performance of Prospero for the RSC, gives the role a hyper Shakespearean-ness. Add to the fact that it was Gielgud’s final Shakespearean role and the parallels with Propsero/Shakespeare become more uncanny. He’s drowning his own book, and in doing so is departing from the world of the dramatic-kinetic. He would play a similar role in Branagh’s oscar-nominated Swan Song (1992) as an aging actor who enters the deserted space of an empty theatre stage and reflects upon the Shakespearean roles that he has performed throughout his career. The perpetuation of these themes throughout the play/ film means that it is possible to unravel the reasons why Prospero/ Gielgud speaks all of the lines of the script until its climax. Prospero imagines the story of the play and is in complete control of the unfolding events. He is both a creator and student of great tomes covering all aspects of life, both magical and actual, and as such he records the events that his imagination offers to him. But artistic creation can only take him so far. Prospero’s continuous dialogue is his way of visualising his works, stripped of the criticism is that it is lumbered with after its completion due to the Caliban-critics. A completed work such as The Tempest is available to be revised by performance without relying upon literary criticism (like this essay, for example), re-placing the emphasis firmly upon the movement of the play.

John Gielgud as Propsero/Shakespeare/hiumself in Prospero’s Books.

The creation of the trinity Gielgud/ Prospero/ Shakespeare character makes us more aware of the human presence that lies at the heart of performance; the source of film and drama – and therefore understanding – is the body. Just as books must live, we must act! One of Prospero’s books in the film is called the “Example Book”, a voluminous tome that contains a template for Prospero’s imagination. Prospero’s control over the island is initially absolute. In effect he is the omnipotent God/king figure whose control over his island domain is relayed to the audience not only via his speech, but also the various methods of imagining the creative process. His magic allows him to roam the island: he is at play in his Roman bathtub at the beginning of the film as he toys with the tempest that will bring ashore Alonso and his crew. He toys with the pronunciation of word boatswain – the first word of the play – much to Ariel’s glee. Prospero subsequently writes down the word: he indulges in the word’s ability to escape the limitations of the text. Greenaway offers the reader/ audience an image of a word, uninhibited by its spelling.

The film is glaringly overt about the need to act, about the urgency of action, and the occasional impotency of words. Sometimes we find it difficult to act. We find this in our own lives; we are paralysed by our own inner critics, preventing us from movement. In the film the supporting characters and the extras, Prospero’s numerous sprites and servants, are burdened by ludicrously heavy costumes, restricting their movements to a bare minimum. Acting – in all senses of the word – is difficult, and laborious. And acting Shakespeare is even harder because you’re weighed down by all the baggage and criticism that goes with it. The notion of the biological body is related to the exaggerated inclusion of Prospero’s sprites, the naked but physical embodiment of his magic, to place the emphasis upon the ideological situation of Shakespeare in the theatre, rather than the hampering interpretations and epistemological thought of the critics. Shakespeare as stage, not page. The other manner in which the film is self-conscious is based upon the movement of the film. Prospero himself has limited mobility. He is surrounded by his twenty-four enormous books, which contain everything known to Renaissance mankind. That’s a lot of text. That weighs you down – you can’t very well take them on the Tube with you. So he’s stuck. Knowledge surrounds him, and yet he cannot move. And all he can do is add to it, writing The Tempest for the Folio after he has experienced the events that have passed through his mind’s eye. Greenaway advocates for the pre-textual world of the original Shakespearean world (and his own inclusion in the post-textual cinematic world).

While the limitations of the text are comprehensible throughout the film, there is one notable exception to this premise. Caliban is significantly exempt from the restrictive baggage of criticism that encumbers the other characters under the control of Prospero Shakespeare. This is because Caliban himself is a critic who burdens others; he is a burden to Prospero himself but the wizard admits that he could not do without his earthy slave:

But, as ’tis,
We cannot miss him. He does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us.—What ho, slave, Caliban!
Thou earth, thou, speak!

Just as Prospero could not survive in the wilderness of the island without Caliban, in Prospero’s Books Caliban plays a critic who acts as the sustenance that the Shakespearean industry ironically cannot do without. It’s a symbiotic, co-dependent relationship, that can only be healed through action. Caliban’s criticism extends to urinating, defecating and vomiting over various books (I’m tempted to revisit the old saw: no manners, but what a critic! Literally!) that manage to fall into his possession, reflecting the range of derogatory expressions that the critics of Shakespeare are permitted. Caliban’s disobedience and desire to overthrow the rule of Prospero is further highlighted by the slave’s attempt to rape Miranda and “people else this isle with Calibans”. Even so, Caliban is unaffected by the restrictions of movement that the other characters must endure. In fact, his range of movement is greatly overstated, his lithe, muscular body is complimented by slinky, sinewy dance-like movement as he weaves his body around the bogs and filthy parts of the island (he is in fact played by Michael Clark, a professional dancer). If Prospero were to restrict Caliban’s freedom of movement in the film he would no longer survive. As in the original script, Prospero must endure a type of love-hate relationship with his greatest critic to ensure that his work will live on after he has relinquished it.

Michael Clark as Caliban.

Near the end of the film, Prospero relinquishes his narrative, which is where Caliban’s presence as critic becomes crucial to the longevity of the wizard’s work. Prospero/Shakespeare/Gielgud drowns his book, emancipating himself as well as his slaves and servants as he does so. The notions of godly creation – the immersion in books – are reversed. Prospero no longer controls the narrative of events and therefore his books are abandoned. Books are passed between the spirits and they are spectacularly destroyed; even so, two books find their way into the hands of Caliban after they are cast into the sea. As the narrator says, “while all the love other books have been destroyed we still have these two, safely fished from the sea.” The two books later retrieved from the sea are the manuscript for The Tempest and the Folio edition of the plays. The story has been reborn as text, intended for mass consumption. But that does not tell the whole story. To truly understand it, you have to act it out.

All of which is a long way of saying that, amazingly, this essay has been a complete waste of time because it’d be much better if I just acted this stuff out rather than figure it all out on paper! But my, I did have fun. And that’s ok too.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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