The introduction of Ariel in the second scene of The Tempest raises some of the central issues in William Shakespeare’s 17th-century play. Most notably, the themes of power, nature, and magic prove to be integral in shaping the audience’s perception of Ariel, Prospero, and the island itself. Indeed, the concept of power and its use within this scene, particularly in the context of the era – where the divine right of kings was unanimously accepted – provides the foundation for a full understanding of the play. Shakespeare’s presentation of the nymph Ariel as both a powerful ‘brave spirit’ and the slave of Prospero (‘is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains’) raises the question of whether Prospero has the right to summon and dismiss Ariel in such a dictatorial manner (‘Go. Hence with diligence’). Ultimately, Act I, scene 2, introduces characteristics of Ariel that suggest that he has both Prospero’s respect and gratitude, but also that he is irrefutably subservient to his master.
The relationship between Prospero and Ariel is a curious one. Firstly, their names have interesting connotations. Prospero brings to mind the verb ‘to prosper’ – suggestive of magic and conjuring, while Ariel, described as an ‘airy spirit’ in the character list, has a name that notifies the audience that he is of the elements and can be considered a demi-god. Despite this elevated status, Ariel is obedient to his ‘noble master’ – even though it is he who conducts a great deal of Prospero’s magic. Although there may well be a friend-like bond of mutual respect between the two characters, it soon becomes clear that Prospero is indeed in control of Ariel, who acts not unlike a right-hand man. The use of ‘sir’ and ‘master’ by Ariel to address Prospero provides evidence for Prospero’s authority and power over his subject.
Ariel appears to be indebted to Prospero, a fact emphasized to the audience by his exaggerated language. Shakespeare’s use of hyperbole to force the idea that Ariel serves Prospero is highly effective. For example, ‘All hail, great master!’ and ‘I come to answer thy best pleasure,’ portray Ariel almost as a sycophant to his master, desperate to appease him. This is continually reinforced throughout the scene, with Ariel’s responses to Prospero’s questions becoming increasingly elaborate – ‘Not a hair perished; on their sustaining garments not a blemish,’ is Ariel’s answer when Prospero asks him whether all those who were entrapped in the tempest are still alive.
This use of exaggerated tone and overtly descriptive vernacular intrigues the audience, as one wonders why Ariel might feel such an intense need to appease Prospero. The text answers this question by declaring that Prospero freed Ariel from the ‘foul witch Sycorax.’ Prospero is eager to emphasise his control, as can be seen when he retorts to Ariel’s request for freedom by declaring him a ‘malignant thing’ – reducing him to inanimate object. He goes on to ask, ‘dost thou forget from what torment I freed thee?’ When Ariel answers ‘no,’ Prospero still takes the opportunity to retell just how compassionate he was to Ariel, highlighting the ways in which Sycorax imposed her ‘age and envy’ to imprison Ariel within a tree ‘painfully’ for ‘a dozen years.’ Prospero uses sarcasm and rhetorical questions – ‘o was she so?’ to ensure that Ariel resists reiterating how he ‘has done thee worthy service, told thee no lies, made thee no mistakes’ and ‘served without grudge or grumblings.’
Shakespeare deploys imagery successfully in order to suggest Prospero’s dominance over Ariel. Prospero, who initially treats Ariel in a manner that reflects admiration, soon begins employing threatening imagery in an effort to convince Ariel that he must serve his duty or face severe punishment. Prospero threatens, ‘if thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak, and peg thee in his knotty trails, till thou hast howled away twelve winters.’ The use of metaphor when stating ‘thy groans did make wolves howl, and penetrate the breast of bear’ in reference to Sycorax’s imprisonment of Ariel accentuates the idea that Prospero has acted as Ariel’s liberator.
In Act I, scene 2, Prospero suggests that Ariel is very much indebted to his master. While it is clear to the audience that Prospero has been hypocritical toward Ariel by enslaving him in much the same vein as Sycorax did (although she simply imprisoned him), Ariel is forced to continue serving Prospero. After Prospero’s threatening warning, Ariel reverts to his original subservience: ‘That’s my noble master. What shall I do? Say what. What shall I do?’ However, Prospero does not treat Ariel as one who is among the lowest in the Jacobin social order – like Caliban – but predominantly as a respected servant, ensuring that he retains control but also eager to praise his ‘quaint Ariel.’ The tone of Prospero is one of delight and pleasure at Ariel’s magic – ‘why, that’s my spirit.’ Instead of overtly ordering Ariel to do his bidding, Prospero simply suggests that it is his duty to do as he says – ‘Ariel, thy charge exactly is performed. But there’s more work.’ Ariel, meanwhile, generally responds with obedience.
Ariel is not the ‘moody’ character that Prospero describes him as when he tentatively asks for his ‘liberty,’ but is rather charmingly energetic and enthusiastic. When describing his actions, he uses expressive adjectives such as ‘flamed amazement’ and ‘Jove’s lightnings’ – an insight into the potential power of Ariel. His references to Neptune and Jove, both ancient Greek gods, forms a direct comparison between his work and that of a god – an idea that instantly prompts the audience to recognise that Prospero cannot govern Ariel exclusively as a servant.
There is an aspect to Ariel that separates him from the earthly world of humans. Although he may well be subject to the magician, his own conjuring is more natural and of a higher order than that the powers learned from books. Ariel is associated with the power of the elements; images such as ‘flame’, ‘thunder-claps’, ‘spirits’ and ‘nymph o’ the sea’ all enhance the idea that his is a pure figure, a child of nature.
While Prospero ultimately presides over Ariel, the audience is made aware that the relationship between the two cannot be defined so simply as master/slave. Prospero requires Ariel’s magic, while Ariel needs him to earn his liberty. Shakespeare presents the concept of mutual dependence in this scene so that as the play unravels and all achieve their aims, the conclusion is not alien to the audience, but rather relates to the beginning of the play.
Ariel is presented more favourably than his master Prospero in Act I, scene 2. Although one expects Prospero to be a positive influence on the island due to the fact that he has been usurped from power himself, and assumed the role of leader of the island due to his noble status, one must consider Prospero’s disruption of the natural order. While Prospero has seemingly convinced himself that he has the right to rule over Ariel, which in turn raises the question of whether Prospero can be considered a ‘good’ character or not, he has dominated over the natural world in Arial and the rightful heir of the island in Caliban.
In Act I, scene 2, Shakespeare introduces Ariel as both powerful and subservient, committed to the cause of his master, Prospero. Their relationship is one of mutual dependence, but is ultimately governed by Prospero, who consistently exerts his authority over Ariel. Ariel’s introduction is important in that he is symbolic of the beauty of the island. It is clear that Ariel, possibly like the island, wishes to be rid of the meddling Prospero, but he realises that he is under must obey his ‘master’: ‘Pardon, master, I will be correspondent to your command, and do my spiriting gently.’ Ariel’s obedience to Prospero signifies the latter’s continual misuse of power; he utilizes Ariel’s magic to cause disturbances, but is unwilling to grant Ariel his rightful liberty. Ariel’s appearance as one who is both natural and powerful, but under the dictatorship of Prospero, implies that he is being ruled over unjustly. Indeed, Shakespeare forges their relationship either to provoke the suggestion that Prospero’s right as ruler is not indisputable, but open to debate, or in support for the continuation of the royal inheritance of kings.