Elemental Powers In Shakespeare’s The Tempest

The “fantastical” elements of The Tempest by William Shakespeare are made evident by the introduction of Ariel, the spirit, Caliban, the son of a witch, and Prospero, a banished duke who has mastered occult powers. Despite what seems to be an expression of gratitude and repayment of debt for their respective rescue from imprisonment, both Ariel and Caliban submissively serve Prospero because they are enslaved by his powers, and are essentially mere instruments to his intricate plan to regain his usurped power. Shakespeare uses the characterizations of Aerial and Caliban and their interactions with Prospero upon an isolated island in the first act to illustrate themes of power, hierarchical order, and law and justice.

Ariel is a spirit that appears to be indebted to Prospero and assists Prospero with his own powers as a servant, yet at the same time, Ariel’s relationship with Prospero is not one as simply defined as master and slave. Without a doubt, Ariel is obedient to his “noble master” (1.2.357). Ariel’s exaggerated language when he “answer[s]” (1.2.225) to Prospero with “[his] best pleasure” (1.2.225) and “[his] strong bidding task” (1.2.227) is to the point of sycophantic as he strives desperately to appease Prospero. Prospero also does not pass upon opportunities to re-assert his dominance over Ariel such as when Prospero lets forth a barrage of sarcasm and rhetorical questions when Ariel timidly proposes of his impending freedom. Prospero denounces him as a “malignant thing” and that “if [Ariel] more murmur’st, he will rend an oak / And peg [Ariel] in his knotty entrails till / [Ariel] has howl’d away twelve winters” (1.2.349-1.2.351). Prospero’s hypocrisy is evident, since he seems to force Ariel into submission in a similar way like what Sycorax once did. Yet Prospero does not treat him as a lowly slave. To him, Ariel is more of a respected yet subordinate servant. Despite the fact that he is only a servant, Ariel possesses and controls powers of the elements, that includes flame that “cracks / Of sulphurous roaring” and “dreadful thunder-claps” that he uses to ground the ship at Prospero’s command. Prospero describes Ariel to be a “spirit” (1.2.229) and a “nymph o’ the sea” (1.2.359), further implying that Ariel is a pure figure that represents nature and its elements itself. Shakespeare insinuates that the relationship between Ariel and Prospero is one of mutual dependence, to a certain extent, as Prospero requires Ariel’s elemental powers, while Ariel serves to liberate himself from Prospero’s “earthly” yet constraining magic.

Caliban, unlike “quaint” (1.2.380) Ariel, is at the bottom of the social order on the island, condemned to menial labor and be a lowly slave to Prospero, yet in many ways he seems to be also an exaggerated manifestation of Prospero himself. From a literal perspective, Caliban is the offspring of a social outcast, a witch, and a seemingly uncultured brute. This characterization is demonstrated both in his speech and Prospero’s remarks towards him. Prospero refers to Caliban as the “freckeled whelp, hag-born not honored with / A human shape” (1.2.336-1.2.337) that Sycorax has “litter[ed]” (1.2.335) on the island. The pun in Prospero’s description points to Caliban as a social outcast, a piece of litter and garbage, even on an island with four beings, and also hints that Caliban is a foul spawn of an animal. Furthermore, Caliban’s speech is rampant with insults that Miranda describes as “gabble” (1.2.428) of a “thing most brutish” (1.2.429). However, Caliban’s characterization signifies more than an “abhorred slave” (1.2.422) who is “deservedly confined”(1.2.435). In fact, Caliban is an exhibit and embodiment of Prospero’s dark and concealed defects. Caliban, similar to Prospero, is a victim denied of his rightful power. Prospero, once “a prince of power” (1.2.68), is in a comparable situation to that of Caliban, who describes himself as his “own king” (1.2.409) until Prospero denied Caliban “the rest o’ th’ island” (1.2.411). The vile and coarse language that Caliban uses is a physical representation of Prospero’s unseen yet hinted frustration towards Antonio, “a brother…so perfidious” (1.2.86). Caliban’s “profit”(1.2.437) on the language that Prospero has taught him is to “know how to curse” (1.2.438). It seems that Prospero’s own frustration and anger transfers to Caliban who has learned language from Prospero. Prospero’s cold and calloused appearance is a façade of his hidden rage that he feels from Antonio’s betrayal. Caliban is thus a representation of the exasperation that Prospero fails to express himself.

The characterizations and interactions of the island’s inhabitants illustrate the reversion of the new law to the old, intrinsic wickedness of humans, and an inversion of hierarchical order. Prospero once treated Caliban “Filth as [Caliban] art, with humane care” (1.2.415), until Caliban “didst seek to violate the honor of [Prospero’s] child” (1.2.417-1.2.418). Prospero once imposed upon Caliban, the New Law, to which Prospero later rejects and reverts to the Old Law as he imprisons Caliban, which fundamentally reinforces that Caliban, as characterized in the first act, is a vile and animal-like brute “got by the devil himself” (1.2.383) and intrinsically encompasses all evil that can be only dealt with by the Old Law. When Prospero commands Caliban to speak by calling him “earth” (1.2.376), Caliban’s unprincipled baseness becomes a figurative reference to all mankind’s earthly and inner vices such as shown in Antonio’s fraternal betrayal and Prospero’s desire to regain power are all indicative of the human capacity and tendency for evil. This capacity of wickedness is further supported in Prospero’s commanding dominance over Ariel, who is the representation of nature as demonstrated in his elemental powers. Ariel is a forced “correspondent to [Prospero’s] command” (1.2.353), yet does “[his] spiriting gently” (1.2.354). Prospero’s use of Ariel’s powers to fulfill his own inner vice, in itself is an inversion of the natural hierarchy, wherein the power of nature should be inherently dominant over the entire existence of mortals.

In the first act of The Tempest, Shakespeare characterizes Ariel as a subjugated entity of nature, and Caliban as the lowest of an earthly being. Prospero has seemingly convinced himself that he has the right to rule over Ariel since he rescued him from evil, yet the command over Ariel itself has proven to be an abnormal inversion of the natural hierarchy. Shakespeare’s characterization of both Ariel and Caliban, and portrayal of the interactions between the island inhabitants effectively supports the idea of the existence of a deep and intrinsic human vice.