Ariel in The Tempest: Analyzing William Shakespeare’s Play

Last Updated: 30 Jun 2023
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In William Shakespeare's final solo play, 1611's The Tempest, the character of Ariel is often interpreted as a puppet, his actions wholly under the control of his "potent master" Prospero. Although his name means 'of the air', Ariel is unable to fly free, confined to the island by his position of servitude. Post-colonial readings view their relationship as one of the European coloniser and the colonised indigenous people, with Ariel representing a different side to the natives to Caliban.

However, to view this spirit as merely a submissive servant, a victim of Prospero's oppressive rule, is to overlook much of Ariel's presentation within The Tempest. He is at times defiant, evidently intelligent, and arguably drives the reconciliation which resolves the play's conflicts, independent of Prospero's demands. Therefore, audiences must not simply look at Ariel as Prospero's puppet, but as an orchestrator of his own will.

In the play's opening act, it does seem as though Ariel is Prospero's puppet, as his first lines are declaratives such as "I come / To answer thy best pleasure" and "to thy strong bidding task / Ariel, and all his quality", which foreground a sense of his willing servitude. This is emphasised in the use of superlative adjective "best", as he declares an eagerness to perform well, regardless of what Prospero may ask of him. Ariel further stresses this in the asyndetic list "be 't to fly, / To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride / On the curled clouds", the dynamic verbs creating a lexical set of action, and highlighting the spirit's limitless devotion to carrying out tasks for his "great master". Michael O' Toole argues that this "establishes his character as that of a submissive, deferential subject", and shows "self-effacing willingness to serve".

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However, subtle rebellion is notable here, as Ariel uses the informal second person possessive determiner "thy" in regards to Prospero's demands, which was not deemed respectful. In this, it is arguable that Ariel is being witty and sarcastic, hiding contempt for the deeds he is expected to perform, and indeed for his master. This is reflective of the distrust the indigenous people of the colonies felt for the Europeans, and their distaste at being often forced into servitude and treated as resources, as well as their lack of control over the situation. However, a contrasting interpretation is that Ariel takes pleasure in his actions, but that there is a degree of autonomy to them, rather than being entirely in Prospero's name.

Julie Taymor's 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest demonstrates this, as Ariel, played by Ben Whishaw, appears proud of his achievement in creating the storm and subsequent shipwreck. It is a visual spectacle, as a flaming Ariel is depicted tossing the ship around in his hands, as he describes how he "flamed amazement". He shows a sadistic pleasure in causing fear and chaos, laughing as he mimics Ferdinand's despairing declarative "Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here". This line suggests the noblemen are overwhelmed by their situation, which the devout Protestant audiences of Jacobean England would have recognised, the negative denotations of "Hell" and "devils" being particularly significant to them.

Ariel's mocking of this terror reveals the colonialist views of the 'heathen' natives of the colonies, and displays that his thoughts and beliefs are independent from Prospero, who is a white European, and therefore a Christian man. Furthermore, Ariel clearly desires freedom, and it is plausible that his apparent submission to Prospero's rule is strategic, in order to gain his eventual sovereignty. After detailing his attack on "the King's ship", Ariel is quick to demand his repayment for his service, with the declarative "My liberty". This line is simple, and stands alone, making it very clear what he desires.

In Taymor's film, Whishaw shouts fiercely, strongly implying an underlying anger at the "pains" and "toils" he undergoes. However, there is also a sadness, as the positive denotations of the abstract noun 'liberty' juxtapose Ariel's situation of servitude. Audiences are reminded in this that the spirit is a native of the island, colonised and oppressed by the Italian Prospero, much like the indigenous people of the Americas were by Christopher Columbus and his fellows in 1492. This injustice is shown in the 2013 stage adaptation at The Globe, in which Colin Morgan as Ariel has red-rimmed eyes and an expression of utter torment in this scene.

It can be reasoned that Ariel's evident distress makes him a willing servant to Prospero, however this implies that his fear and misery is part of an intrinsic weakness, whereas it can be viewed as something which only serves to further his determination to be set free. It is true that following this outburst Prospero threatens Ariel, and reminds him of the "foul witch Sycorax", which leaves the spirit seemingly submissive once again, his repetition of the nouns "sir" and "master" indicating this. However, he continues to use the informal second person pronoun "thee" to refer to Prospero, suggesting that he is not being as complacent as he is trying to project.

The repeated interrogative "What shall I do? Say what. What shall I do?" may show Ariel to be eager, reflected in Taymor's film by Whishaw's excited jumping around, but does not necessarily prove him to be Prospero's puppet. He is not excited to "do his spriting" for the sake of his master; he is keen to do what needs to be done for Prospero "to bate [me] a full year". This shows that O'Toole's insinuation that "Ariel is content to serve his master only to the extent to which it ensures his future release" is accurate. Despite Ariel's desire for freedom, his reliance on his master for love is evident, looking for confirmation of their relationship by asking "Do you love me master? No?" This double interrogative reveals his insecurity, and dependency on Prospero.

However, Prospero is equally, If not more, reliant on Ariel, particularly in the latter half of the play, in which, O'Toole argues, "Ariel becomes the one in control", as his cooperation is essential to the fulfilment of Prospero's plans. Tormenting the shipwrecked noblemen in Act Three Scene Three is Ariel's duty, as Prospero does not yet wish to reveal his identity to his enemies. His indispensability at this point is not lost on the spirit, as he evidently gains confidence. In the film adaptation of 2010, Ben Whishaw's Ariel is presented in the sky, large, black, and menacing, hissing declaratives such as "I and my fellows / Are ministers of Fate".

This strong language is furthered in his mocking of their attempts to strike at him, declaring that they "may as well / Would the loud wind or...the still-closing waters", for he is "invulnerable". This imagery elevates him, as he is aligning himself with the natural elements, which Jacobean audiences would have associated with God. Earlier in the play, this self-promotion as a representative of the higher powers was reserved for Prospero, therefore his servant's use of it is significant, displaying a shift in roles. Not only does Prospero depend on Ariel, but the denouement of the play is driven by the spirit, as it is he who enables the reconciliation of the Italian noblemen.

At the opening of Act Five, Prospero remains determined to punish King Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio further, evident in the foregrounded declarative "Now does my project gather to a head", in which he presents a strong conviction in his plot for revenge. Ariel, however, convinces his master to forgive his enemies, as he evokes sympathy for them through the semantic field of distress, created in adjective "distracted" and abstract nouns "sorrow" and "dismay". He further persuades Prospero with the declarative nature of his verse, as "if you now beheld them, your affections/Would become tender" holds certainty.

Ariel stresses this even more so in the declarative line "Mine would, sir, were I human", as in using the subjunctive "were I..." he implies that to not be moved is distinctly inhuman. Therefore Prospero, in order to prove his humanity, and ultimately his power, must not be unsympathetic, and forgive the noblemen. It causes his immediate response, that "mine shall" also, the rhetorical interrogative "shall not myself, / One of their kindlier moved than thou art?" an attempt to assert his superiority to Ariel. The spirit arguably continues to use a great deal of submissive language and present himself inferior to Prospero, repeatedly using respectful terms of address such as "sir" and "my lord", and the formal second person pronoun "you".

This can be viewed as a sign of inherent weakness, that Ariel naturally accepts subservience, a reflection perhaps, of the European colonialist ideals of Jacobean society. However, it is notable that what he is proposing is a great challenge to Prospero, and in order to avoid punishment, he must maintain a respectful manner. In the end, it is Ariel's will which sets the Italians free, though Prospero attempts to project his own authority through the imperative "Go release them", and provokes a return to order, as is conventional of Jacobean romance plays.

Therefore, it is maintained that it is only on the play's surface that Ariel acts as Prospero's puppet, and that the "tricksy spirit" is a more complex, intelligent and strong character than critics often credit. Ariel may "be correspondent to command" throughout The Tempest, but he is not entirely submissive nor naïve, aware of his position and the ways in which he can manipulate it. He is also sympathetic and caring, characteristics which humanise him. Through this, audiences can infer an attempt on Shakespeare's part to criticise the colonialism of Europe in the 17th century, and challenge the common attitude that the indigenous people of the colonies were barbaric, stupid, and uncivilised.

Critic Karen Newman argues that Shakespeare was not immune to the prejudices of his time, evident in the often crude presentation of Caliban, for example, but was progressive in many ways, and confronted Jacobean society with conflicting ideas to the widespread beliefs. This is undoubtedly most apparent in the character of Ariel, who is both defiant and efficient, strong and sensitive, intelligent and innocent. These complexities are what make Ariel an autonomous being, even under the dictatorship of Prospero, and are arguably what enable him to "be free" at the play's closing.

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Ariel in The Tempest: Analyzing William Shakespeare’s Play. (2023, Jun 28). Retrieved from

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