Jonson vs. Jones in Prospero's Books

By McKee, Alexander | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Jonson vs. Jones in Prospero's Books


McKee, Alexander, Literature/Film Quarterly


Throughout his career as a filmmaker, Peter Greenaway has railed against the dominance of narrative-based cinema. "Why do we have to have text before we can have image?" he has asked (Chua 177). His films consistently seek to draw attention to the conflict between the verbal and the visual that is commonly suppressed in more mainstream movies. As a filmmaker with an obvious interest in the seventeenth century,1 Greenaway has naturally come to understand this conflict in terms of the famous quarrel between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, who collaborated in making masques for the Jacobean court. Undoubtedly, one of the things that drew him to The Tempest was the way in which it responds to the Jonson and Jones debate by exploring the unstable relationship between word and spectacle. Prospero's Books, Greenaway's 1991 film adaptation of Shakespeare's play, is similarly concerned with achieving a balance between the verbal and the visual. At different points in the movie, Greenaway seems to side with both Jonson and Jones. On the one hand, the movie "celebrates the text as text, as the master material on which all the magic, illusion and deception of the play is based" (Greenaway, Prospero's 9). On the other, it enacts a surprising amount of violence toward books. In the end, of course, Greenaway identifies with both Jonson and Jones; his Prospero is as much poet as architect. According to D. J. Gordon, "[t]here could be no way out of the quarrel" between Jonson and Jones, because "everything depended on whose 'design' came first: the poet's or the architect's, who was employing in these cases the arts of design" (96). But in Pmspem's Books, the issue of design is complicated by the fact that "The Tempest is both the text that generated the film, and [...] the text generated by the film" (Hotchkiss 22-23). By creating a synthesis between the verbal and the visual, Peter Greenaway resolves the Renaissance quarrel between Jonson and Jones. In so doing, however, he places unique demands upon the moviegoer, who must learn to inhabit the "very intimidating gap between text and image" (Greenaway, Pillow 12).

There is a natural tendency to discuss the Jonson and Jones dispute in terms of a simple opposition between the verbal and the visual. Greenaway himself gives in to this temptation in providing the following sketch of their stormy relationship:

I suppose they made something like thirty masques in a period of fifteen years, but apparently all the time they were quarrelling. They were professionally-and in their private lives-very antagonistic and jealous of one another. But I think over and above these niceties, basically Ben Jonson was interested in the word, and Inigo Jones was interested in spectacle. (Rodgers 11)

While such an account may seem absurdly reductive, ignoring as it does the serious thought underlying both sides of the debate, there is nevertheless an element of truth in it. Of course, it should be noted that the conflicting stands taken by the poet and the architect were theoretically well grounded. Jonson believed that the masque had both a body and a soul, the former appealing only to the senses and the latter to the understanding. In his view, the body was less important than the soul, because it "lasts only as long as sense experience itself. It is the soul, the invention which is the soul, that remains" (Gordon 80). "Invention," a term taken from rhetoric, involves identifying a subject, which is the first step in writing a poem. Imagining the masque to be a kind of poem, Jonson felt that its success or failure ultimately depended upon the poet, who is particularly adept at producing inventions. As far as Jones was concerned, the masque was something more than a poem and required architecture for its full realization. He drew upon theories developed in the world of mannerist art to argue that "the architect has as valid a right to claim knowledge and invention as the poet has" (Gordon 93). …

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