Ariel and Allegory in the Tempest

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ARIEL and ALLEGORY IN THE TEMPEST

The temptation to regard The Tempest as an allegory has proved irresistible to critics, although opinions differ on what it might be an allegory of, and what the principal figures might represent. In this essay I wish to discuss the character of ariel, who has received less attention than either Caliban or Prospero. If The Tempest is an allegory then each of its characters should fulfil some representative function. Prospero is generally associated with the playwright (or even, which amounts to much the same thing in some views, with God) as he controls the action on stage. Caliban is taken to represent the physical aspect of humanity, or the ‘will’, his uncivilised condition making him close to the beasts. In this view, Prospero represents intellect (in seventeenth-century terms ‘wit’, or ‘reason’). The opposition of ‘infected will’ and ‘perfected wit’ is a common trope of Protestant discourse, as in Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Defense of Poesie’[1]. Ariel, then, (‘an airy spirit’ in the ‘Names of the Actors’) might represent a third part of the self, the soul or spirit, but at this point the allegory seems to break down, in that Ariel is clearly not Prospero’s immortal soul, or the divine part in man, as he is under the control of Prospero as intellect, and in fact performs the action of the play just as Prospero directs it.

Frank Kermode, in his introduction to the Arden edition, criticises the tendency to allegorical interpretation, and seems to have imbibed something of the late Shakespeare’s insistence on the importance of Chastity. ‘It is not surprising that The Tempest has sent people whoring after strange gods of allegory’ (p.lxxx) and @Most modern attitudes to the play are largely the product of romantic criticism with its dangerous and licentious enthusiasms.’ (p. lxxxi). In his valuable discussion of Ariel (Appendix B, pp. 142-145), Kermode opines ‘These traces are no doubt due to the element of popular demonology in the play, and it would be foolish to expect absolute lucidity and consistency in the treatment of these ideas. It is surely remarkable that, in all that concerns Ariel the underpinning of ‘natural philosophy’ should be as thorough as in fact it is.’ (p. 143). This suggest to me a certain reluctance on Kermode’s behalf to acknowledge Shakespeare’s expertise in ‘popular demonology’, perhaps considering such knowledge to be beneath the immortal bard. Why? Is not Shakespeare’s possession of such knowledge rather to be assumed than taken as a matter for surprise? He shows the fairly expert knowledge of other now unfashionable disciplines such as astrology and the semi-magical Paracelsan medicine which would be natural for an inquisitive and informed member of his culture. In Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy (translated by ‘J.F.’ in 1651) Ariel is a ‘daemon’, ‘the presiding spirit of the element of earth’ (Kermode, p. 142), but the resemblance is more nominal than essential. Ariel moves comfortably in all elements, and also controls lesser spirits (with which Prospero has no direct contact) to accomplish Prospero’s design.

Ariel it is who performs the action of the play, the motor that powers the plot, the animating force which accomplishes Prospero’s design. To enumerate all Ariel does would take some time, but his chief actions are in creating and managing the storm which opens the play (although we are not told this until 1:2:195-206), in charming to sleep (often through the use of music), in changing shape to represent a Harpy, an electrical storm, a firebrand, a marsh-light, and possibly either Ceres or Juno (Kermode, p. 105 n. 167), in becoming invisible, in dressing up like a water-nymph (of which more later), in becoming invisible, in leading the enchanted from place to place, and in controlling and setting on lesser spirits. Ariel is reported as flying, flaming, entering the “veins o’th’earth”, and going beneath the sea. In the negative, Ariel has...
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