Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Role of Gender Performativity between Prospero and Ariel

In William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Shakespeare seems to drop the perceived roles of gender and what traits and attributes are perceived with either the male or female gender. What makes the play written by Shakespeare unique is that Ariel is a male in his rendering of the play, yet in other theatrical plays, the role of Ariel is played by a female. The difference in the sex of the actor allows for a comparison and an introduction of gender performativity comparing and contrasting the different sexes. I believe it would be important to look at the wording in Shakespeare’s The Tempest to see how Prospero interacts with Ariel. “Your royal fleet far off. My Ariel, chick, That is thy charge: then to the elements Be free, and fare thou well! Please you, draw near” (Act 5.1.319-321). Gender performativity is useful to look into this particular dialogue. This scene is the end of the play and it would appear that Prospero does not see or define gender. Ariel being a male is treated almost as what society would treat a female.

Another example in the play would be where Ariel sings to Prospero, Prospero’s response being, “Why, that’s my dainty Ariel! I shall miss thee; But yet thou shalt have freedom” (Act 5.1.95-97). Gender performativity yet again seems to be missing or lost. Dainty is an adjective that mostly would be associated with the female gender. It is a character trait given to females based on society’s perception of gender. Men are strong, both internally and externally; females on the other hand are more fragile, small and petite. Yet Shakespeare in this instance uses a term associated with the female gender and uses it on Ariel a male. Furthermore, the singing by Ariel to another man, in almost a serenade, goes against what society at this time in history believed in and associated with the male gender. Gender performativity is lacking with Ariel throughout the entire play. Ariel, while a man, seems to not necessarily have the characteristics that society places on the male gender.

The character of Ariel seems to have traits and characteristics represented by both the male and female gender; Ariel seems to be androgynous (Garno Nesler). Adding to the androgynous nature of Ariel, there are no markers that specifically point out if Ariel is indeed male or female, other than the characters playing those roles, rather based on interactions and characteristics of Ariel, the sprite appears to take on the gender of both a male and female changing when necessary (Garno Nesler). Using a female in the theatrical version of The Tempest opens the eyes of the audience as to the shifting nature of gender. Shakespeare seems to be one of the first people who tried to put an end to gender performativity and the stereotypical roles and traits that are put on individuals simply based on their sex of being male or female.

“Gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior ‘self’, whether that ‘self’ is conceived as sexed or not. As performance which is performative, gender is an ‘act’ broadly constructed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority” (Butler 528). Judith Butler speaks that what someone feels and acts on the inside does not necessary constitute what their sex is. Gender and sex remain two different entities, not congruent with one another. In the society in which The Tempest was created, Ariel would be classified as an “other” or “othering” simply because how different Ariel was compared to what society would expect at this time. “Othering” is a concept that an individual is different than everyone else, they are alone and the larger group has trouble understanding the “other”. Ariel leaves an audience pondering is Ariel a male or female, possibly neither, possibly both. To fully understand the complexity of Ariel, Butler’s theory of Gender Performativity is crucial. Shakespeare had seemingly used this theory well before Butler was even alive. It was important to show that people are different and that despite one’s sex, their gender may portray something different, which is perfectly acceptable.

If The Tempest has taught us anything, is that gender does not need to coincide with sex and one’s gender simply does not matter in the grand scale of things. Whether Ariel was male or female, Prospero would not have interacted or treated the sprite differently. If a heterosexual man wishes to say I love you to his servant/sprite, there is nothing wrong in doing so. Society may look differently as a whole at the scenario, but truly there would be no difference between if it were a male or female. The reaction from society surely would be less harsh if it were a female, but Shakespeare tried to put to rest, as part of his play The Tempest, that one’s sex does not define their gender and vice versa. Gender performativity is an essential and crucial tool in deciphering some of the meaning in the play and gaining a broader understanding on life in general. The sex of an individual is irrelevant as to how someone wants to act and the characteristic traits that they have.