Ariel in 'The Tempest'

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

Ariel in is an airy spirit attendant upon Prospero. He is quite a feisty character and often asks Prospero to grant him his freedom, despite being lambasted for doing so.

Ariel is able to perform magical tasks. For example, at the start of the play we see him help conjure the tempest, and later he makes himself invisible to others.

Ariel in The Tempest: Male or Female

Over the years, Ariel has been played by both male and female actors and the character’s sex is open to artistic interpretation.

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 boy actors would have played Ariel – it is this convention that has perhaps blurred the sex of Ariel in the theater traditions that followed.

During the restoration period, it became conventional for female performers to play Ariel, and directors have never since established a firm sex for the character. This is perhaps fitting: the sexlessness of this spirit helps 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."

Arial’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.

Prospero heard his screams and rescued him – but rather than freeing the spirit, Prospero took Ariel on as his own servant. Although Ariel dutifully follows Prospero’s orders, he does so because his new master is more powerful than he – and not afraid to exact revenge.

Eventually, Prospero does free Arial and he is commended on his loyalty to his master.