Prospero's Books


Prospero's Books is a 1991 British avant-garde film adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, written and directed by Peter Greenaway. John Gielgud plays Prospero, the protagonist who provides the off-screen narration and the voices to the other story characters. Stylistically, Prospero's Books is narratively and cinematically innovative in its techniques, combining mime, dance, opera, and animation. Edited in Japan, the film makes extensive use of digital image manipulation (using Hi-Vision video inserts and the Paintbox system), often overlaying multiple moving and still pictures with animations. Michael Nyman composed the musical score and Karine Saporta choreographed the dance. The film is also notable for its extensive use of nudity, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of mythological characters. The nude actors and extras represent a cross-section of male and female humanity.


Prospero's Books is a complex tale based upon William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Miranda, the daughter of Prospero, an exiled magician, falls in love with Ferdinand, the son of his enemy; while the sorcerer's sprite, Ariel, convinces him to abandon revenge against the traitors from his earlier life. In the film, Prospero stands in for Shakespeare himself, and is seen writing and speaking the story's action as it unfolds.

Ariel is played by four actors: three acrobats — a boy, an adolescent, and a youth — and a boy singer. Each represents a classical elemental.

The Books

The books of Prospero number 24 according to the production design which outlines each volume's content. The list is reminiscent of the lost books of Epicurus.[1]

  1. A Book of Water
  2. A Book of Mirrors
  3. A Book of Mythologies
  4. A Primer of the Small Stars
  5. An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus
  6. A Harsh Book of Geometry
  7. The Book of Colours
  8. The Vesalius Anatomy of Birth
  9. An Alphabetical Inventory of the Dead
  10. A Book of Travellers' Tales
  11. The Book of the Earth
  12. A Book of Architecture and Other Music
  13. The Ninety-Two Conceits of the Minotaur
  14. The Book of Languages
  15. End-plants
  16. A Book of Love
  17. A Bestiary of Past, Present and Future Animals
  18. The Book of Utopias
  19. The Book of Universal Cosmography
  20. Lore of Ruins
  21. The Autobiographies of Pasiphae and Semiramis
  22. A Book of Motion
  23. The Book of Games
  24. Thirty-Six Plays
  • John Gielgud as Prospero
  • Michael Clark as Caliban
  • Michel Blanc as Alonso
  • Erland Josephson as Gonzalo
  • Isabelle Pasco as Miranda
  • Tom Bell as Antonio
  • Kenneth Cranham as Sebastian
  • Mark Rylance as Ferdinand
  • Gerard Thoolen as Adrian
  • Pierre Bokma as Francisco
  • Jim van der Woude as Trinculo
  • Michiel Romeyn as Stephano
  • Paul Russell as Ariel
  • James Thiérrée as Ariel
Production and financing

Gielgud is quoted as saying that a film of The Tempest (with him as Prospero) was his life's ambition, as he had been in four stage productions in 1931, 1940, 1957, and 1974. He had approached Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles about directing him in it, with Benjamin Britten to compose its score, and Albert Finney as Caliban, before Greenaway agreed. The closest earlier attempts came to being made was in 1967, with Welles both directing and playing Caliban. But after the commercial failure of their film collaboration, Chimes at Midnight, financing for a cinematic Tempest collapsed.[2]

The film was screened out of competition at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.[3]


This was the last of the collaborations between director Peter Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman. Most of the film's music cues, (excepting Ariel's songs and the Masque) are from an earlier concert, La Traversée de Paris and the score from A Zed & Two Noughts. The soundtrack album is Nyman's sixteenth release.

Track listing

  1. Full fathom five – 1:58
  2. Prospero's curse – 2:38
  3. While you here do snoring lie* – 1:06
  4. Prospero's Magic – 5:11
  5. Miranda – 3:54
  6. Twelve years since – 2:45
  7. Come unto these yellow sands* – 3:44
  8. History of Sycorax – 3:25
  9. Come and go* – 1:16
  10. Cornfield – 6:26
  11. Where the bee sucks* – 4:48
  12. Caliban's pit – 2:56
  13. Reconciliation – 2:31
  14. THE MASQUE+ – 12:12


  • Sarah Leonard, Ariel*
  • Marie Angel, Iris+
  • Ute Lemper, Ceres+
  • Deborah Conway, Juno+

Michael Nyman Band

  • Alexander Balanescu, violin
  • Jonathan Carney, violin, viola
  • Elisabeth Perry, violin
  • Clare Connors, violin
  • Kate Musker, viola
  • Tony Hinnigan, cello
  • Justin Pearson, cello
  • Paul Morgan, double bass
  • Tim Amhurst, double bass
  • Lynda Houghton, double bass
  • Martin Elliott, bass guitar
  • David Rix, clarinet, bass clarinet
  • John Harle, soprano & alto saxophone
  • David Roach, soprano & alto axophone
  • Jamie Talbot, soprano & alto saxophone
  • Andrew Findon, tenor & baritone saxophone, piccolo, flute
  • Graham Ashton, trumpet
  • Richard Clews, horn
  • Marjorie Dunn, horn
  • Nigel Barr, bass trombone
  • Steve Saunders, bass trombone
  • Michael Nyman, piano & musical direction
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic link


  • Produced by David Cunningham
  • Engineer: Michael J. Dutton
  • Assistant engineer: Dillon Gallagher (PRT), Chris Brown (Abbey Road Studios)
  • Mixed by Michael J. Dutton, Michael Nyman, and David Cunningham at PRT Studios and Abbey Road Studios
  • Edited at Abbey Road Studios by Peter Mew
  • Art Direction: Ann Bradbeer
  • Photography: Marc Guillamot
  • Design: Creative Partnership
  • Artist representative: Don Mousseau

Aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports 67% approval of Prospero's Books, with an average rating of 5.9/10 and a critical consensus of, "There is no middle ground for viewers of Peter Greenaway's work, but for his fans, Prospero's Books is reliably daring."[4] Roger Ebert gave the work three stars out of four and argued, "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."[5]

  1. ^ Prospero's Books: A Film of the Shakespeare's The Tempest, Peter Greenaway, Four Walls Eight Windows (October 1991)
  2. ^ Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters, Arcade Publishing (2004)
  3. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Prospero's Books". Retrieved 2009-08-12. 
  4. ^ "Prospero's Books (1991)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved January 27, 2017. 
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger (November 27, 1991). "Prospero's Books Movie Review (1991)". Retrieved January 27, 2017. 
External links
  • Prospero's Books on IMDb
  • Prospero's Books at AllMovie

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