Understanding the Ariel Character in 'The Tempest'

Why the character's role was important

Ariel in 'The Tempest'
Ariel in 'The Tempest'. Photo © NYPL Digital Gallery

If you've preparing to take a test or write an essay about William Shakespeare's "The Tempest," it's important that you have a good grasp of the characters in the play, such as Ariel. Use this character analysis to get better acquainted with Ariel, including his distinct qualities and primary function in the play.

Who Is Ariel?

Simply put, Ariel is an airy spirit attendant to Prospero. He is quite a feisty character and often asks Prospero to grant him his freedom, although he is lambasted for doing so.

In addition, Ariel is able to perform magical tasks. For example, at the start of the play the audience sees him help conjure the tempest. Later, he makes himself invisible to others.

Is Ariel a Male or Female Spirit?

Over the years, Ariel has been played by both male and female actors, and the character’s sex is open to artistic interpretation. The spirit is widely referred to using masculine pronouns, however.

In Shakespeare’s time, women did not perform on stage; rather, young boy actors would play the female roles – a convention that was perfectly acceptable to the Elizabethan audience. It is therefore likely that one of the same group of young male actors would have played Ariel. Arguably, this theatrical convention resulted in the blurring of Ariel's gender. 

During the restoration period, it became tradition for female performers to play Ariel. Consequently, directors have never taken a hard stance on Ariel's sex.

In many ways, this is fitting, as the sexlessness of this spirit helps to perpetuate the airy magical quality for which Ariel is famous.

Ariel in "The Tempest" is only sexed twice, as described below:

  1. A stage direction refers to Ariel with the male pronoun: "Thunder and lightning. Enter ARIEL, like a harpy; claps his wings upon the table; and, with a quaint device, the banquet vanishes."
  1. Ariel refers to himself with the male pronoun in Act 1: "All hail, great master! grave sir, hail! I come ... to thy strong bidding task Ariel and all his quality."

Given these references, it makes sense that Ariel has often been sexed as male. 

Ariel’s Freedom

In the plot of play, Ariel wants his freedom. Before Prospero arrived on the island, Ariel was imprisoned by the previous ruler, Sycorax. This evil witch (who was Caliban’s mother) wanted Ariel to perform unpleasant tasks and imprisoned him in a tree when he refused. This points to Ariel's integrity.

Although Prospero heard his screams and rescued him, incredibly he did not free the spirit. Instead, Prospero took Ariel on as his own servant. Ariel dutifully follows Prospero’s orders because his new master is more powerful than he. And Propsero is not afraid to exact revenge. Eventually, however, Prospero does free Ariel, and he is commended for his loyalty to his master.

Wrapping Up

Now that you have read this character analysis of Ariel, make sure you understand his role in the play. You should be able to describe who Ariel was, what his connection to Prospero was and the details of his past. If you can't answer these basic questions, review the analysis and his parts in the play until you can.

It will come in handy once your test date arrives or your essay is due.