The temptation to regard The Tempest as an allegory has proved irresistible to critics, although opinions differ on what it might be an allegory of, and what the principal figures might represent. In this essay I wish to discuss the character of ariel, who has received less attention than either Caliban or Prospero. If The Tempest is an allegory then each of its characters should fulfil some representative function. Prospero is generally associated with the playwright (or even, which amounts to much the same thing in some views, with God) as he controls the action on stage. Caliban is taken to represent the physical aspect of humanity, or the ‘will’, his uncivilised condition making him close to the beasts. In this view, Prospero represents intellect (in seventeenth-century terms ‘wit’, or ‘reason’). The opposition of ‘infected will’ and ‘perfected wit’ is a common trope of Protestant discourse, as in Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Defense of Poesie’1. Ariel, then, (‘an airy spirit’ in the ‘Names of the Actors’) might represent a third part of the self, the soul or spirit, but at this point the allegory seems to break down, in that Ariel is clearly not Prospero’s immortal soul, or the divine part in man, as he is under the control of Prospero as intellect, and in fact performs the action of the play just as Prospero directs it.
Frank Kermode, in his introduction to the Arden edition, criticises the tendency to allegorical interpretation, and seems to have imbibed something of the late Shakespeare’s insistence on the importance of Chastity. ‘It is not surprising that The Tempest has sent people whoring after strange gods of allegory’ (p.lxxx) and @Most modern attitudes to the play are largely the product of romantic criticism with its dangerous and licentious enthusiasms.’ (p. lxxxi). In his valuable discussion of Ariel (Appendix B, pp. 142-145), Kermode opines ‘These traces are no doubt due to the element of popular demonology in the play, and it would be foolish to expect absolute lucidity and consistency in the treatment of these ideas. It is surely remarkable that, in all that concerns Ariel the underpinning of ‘natural philosophy’ should be as thorough as in fact it is.’ (p. 143). This suggest to me a certain reluctance on Kermode’s behalf to acknowledge Shakespeare’s expertise in ‘popular demonology’, perhaps considering such knowledge to be beneath the immortal bard. Why? Is not Shakespeare’s possession of such knowledge rather to be assumed than taken as a matter for surprise? He shows the fairly expert knowledge of other now unfashionable disciplines such as astrology and the semi-magical Paracelsan medicine which would be natural for an inquisitive and informed member of his culture. In Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy (translated by ‘J.F.’ in 1651) Ariel is a ‘daemon’, ‘the presiding spirit of the element of earth’ (Kermode, p. 142), but the resemblance is more nominal than essential. Ariel moves comfortably in all elements, and also controls lesser spirits (with which Prospero has no direct contact) to accomplish Prospero’s design.
Ariel it is who performs the action of the play, the motor that powers the plot, the animating force which accomplishes Prospero’s design. To enumerate all Ariel does would take some time, but his chief actions are in creating and managing the storm which opens the play (although we are not told this until 1:2:195-206), in charming to sleep (often through the use of music), in changing shape to represent a Harpy, an electrical storm, a firebrand, a marsh-light, and possibly either Ceres or Juno (Kermode, p. 105 n. 167), in becoming invisible, in dressing up like a water-nymph (of which more later), in becoming invisible, in leading the enchanted from place to place, and in controlling and setting on lesser spirits. Ariel is reported as flying, flaming, entering the “veins o’th’earth”, and going beneath the sea. In the negative, Ariel has told no lies, made no mistakings, and obeyed Prospero without grudge or grumble, and Prospero states that ariel is ‘a spirit too delicate to act her [Sycorax’s] earthy and abhorred commands’ and was therefore imprisoned ‘by help of her more potent ministers’.
Prospero’s relationship with ariel is close and affectionate. Although at our introduction to Ariel (1:2) they are arguing, and Prospero threatens and bullies Ariel, saying ‘thou liest, malignant thing’, (Ariel later repeats ‘thou liest’ several times to Caliban), once the action of the play begins on the island their relationship is shown in a better light. Prospero calls Ariel ‘my bird’, ‘my industrious servant’, ‘my chick’, ‘My tricksy spirit’, ‘my diligence’, ‘fine Ariel’. Ariel asks Prospero ‘Do you love me, master, no?’, and Prospero replies ‘Dearly, my delicate Ariel’ (4:1:48-49). Some of this is a sort of shared aesthetic appreciation: ‘Bravely the figure of this Harpy hast thou performed, my Ariel: a grace it had devouring’ (3:3:83-84), and some of Ariel’s eagerness to please Prospero can be attributed to the promise of imminent release, but there seems to be a genuine affection between the two which adds resonance to a crucial moment in the play, when Ariel seems to convince Prospero of the need for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Ariel: if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Pros.: Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.
Pros.: And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier mov’d than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’quick
Yet with my nobler reason gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. (5:1:18-28)
This affection is only reinforced when Prospero expresses his regret at losing Ariel: ‘Why that’s my dainty Ariel! I shall miss thee; But yet thou shalt have freedom, so, so, so.’ (5:1:95-96).
For Nora Johnson, in her subtle analysis of The Tempest, which sees it as a commentary on theatrical representation, takes the closeness of Prospero and Ariel’s relationship to imply something further2. She describes Ariel as ‘the delicate theatrical spirit’, noting that ‘it is Ariel who performs the real theater in the play, who stages tempests and provides musical interludes’ (p.278). In connection with Ariel’s being instructed to appear as a water-nymph (1:2:301-305) she remarks ‘Prospero’s possession of Ariel is itself an occasion for erotic display’, since there is no apparent motive for this costume change: ‘there is no reason – except pleasure – for an invisible nymph to dress up.’ (p.283). This does seem gratuitous (although Kermode remarks that water-nymphs had previously appeared on the London stage, and were recognisable to the public), and I think Nora has a point. Ariel must have been played by a particularly attractive boy to warrant such an extravagant use of costumes. Whether Shakespeare ‘intended’ that Prospero should be seen to gain erotic pleasure from Ariel’s display is uncertain: elsewhere Ariel is ‘but air’, and no suggestion of a mutual sexual relation is likely. It is perhaps the audience which is being titillated by this voyeurism.
As a spirit, Ariel is asexual, but nevertheless adopts female forms: the Harpy and either Ceres or Juno are female. At no point does Ariel impersonate a male figure. If Ariel had a sex, on this evidence it would be female. Nora Johnson perceives one more transformation; in the Epilogue, Prospero ‘seems to be Ariel, longing to be freed.’ (p.285).
The Epilogue has been much discussed, with some critics interpreting it as evidence for The Tempest being Shakespeare’s ‘farewell to theatre’. Others disagree. Grant White, cited in Furness’ New Varorium edition3 (n.1, p.267) is forceful and entertaining in his dismissal of the Epistle as not being Shakespeare’s at all: ‘Will any one familiar with his works believe, that after writing such a play, he would write an Epilogue in which the feeble, trite ideas are confined within stiff couplets, or else carried into the middle of a third line, and left there in helpless consternation, like an awkward booby, who suddenly finds himself alone in the centre of a ballroom?’ Frank Kermode, in his recent Shakespeare’s Language (1999) is clearly such a one. ‘The Epistle – one of ten of shakespeare’s that survive – is a conventional appeal for applause. There is no good reason to suppose that this example of the genre is dedicated to personal allegory.’ (p.300). From their different perspectives on the likely authorship of the Epilogue, both agree that it does not form part of a farewell to theatre on Shakespeare’s behalf.
To return to Ariel, the star performer, shape-changer and musician, Prospero and Ariel share an excitement in performance which, after their initial contractual wranglings, binds them close together in a common purpose and mutual pleasure. Although Ariel is ‘but air’ there are signs of sympathy with human suffering. Humanity seems to leach across the barrier. If The Tempest is an allegory, then Nora Johnson is probably closest in describing Ariel as ‘a delicate theatrical spirit’ a figure representing the essence of theatre. If performing Ariel must have presented great technical challenges on the Jacobean stage, the problem for a modern production is to encourage the suspension of disbelief in the audience whilst avoiding comparison with the fairies and principal boys of Pantomime.
1 Sometimes called ‘Apology for Poetry’.
2 Nora Johnson, ‘Body and Spirit, Stage and Sexuality in The Tempest’ (in) Political Shakespeare, (eds) Stephen Orgel and Sean Keilen, Volume 9 of Shakespeare, the Critical Complex, Garland Publishing, New York and London, (1999), pp. 271-290.