home contact

The Contrast Between Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest

From The Tempest. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1909.


Nowhere in Shakespeare's plays are two more sharply contrasted characters than Ariel and Caliban. Both are equally preternatural; Ariel is the air spirit, Caliban the earth spirit. Ariel's very being is spun of melody and fragrance; if a feeling soul and an intelligent will are the warp, these are the woof of his exquisite texture. He has just enough of human-heartedness to know how he would feel were he human, and a proportionable sense of that gratitude which has been aptly called the memory of the heart; hence he needs to be often reminded of his obligations, but he is religiously true to them so long as he remembers them. His delicacy of nature is nowhere more apparent than in his sympathy with right and good; the instant he comes within their touch he follows them without reserve, and he will suffer any torments rather than "act the earthy and abhorr'd commands" that go against his moral grain. And what a merry little personage he is withal; as if his being were cast together in an impulse of play, and he would spend his whole life in one perpetual frolic. Small wonder that Prospero calls him "my tricksy spirit," V, i, 226. In his fondness for mischievous sport Ariel is strongly reminiscent of Puck. With what gusto he relates the trick he played on Caliban and his confederates, when they were proceeding to execute their conspiracy against the hero's life:

I told you, sir, they were red-hot with drinking;
So full of valour that they smote the air
For breathing in their faces; beat the ground
For kissing of their feet; yet always bending
Towards their project. Then I beat my tabor;
At which, like unback'd colts, they prick'd their ears,
Advanced their eyelids, lifted up their noses
As they smelt music: so I charm'd their ears
That calf-like they my lowing follow'd through
Tooth'd briers, sharp furzes, pricking goss, and thorns,
Which enter'd their frail shins: at last I left them
I' th' filthy-mantled pool beyond your cell.
There dancing up to th' chins. [IV, i, 171-183.]
But the main ingredients of Ariel's zephyr-like constitution are shown in his leading inclinations, as he naturally has most affinity for that of which he is framed. Moral ties are irksome to him; they are not his proper element When he enters their sphere, he feels them to be holy mdeed, but, were he free, he would keep out of their reach and follow the circling seasons in their course, and always dwell merrily in the fringes of summer. Prospero quietly intimates his instinctive dread of the cold by threatening to make him "howl away twelve winters." And the chief joy of his promised release from service is that he will then be free to live all the year through under the soft rule of summer, with its flowers and fragrancies and melodies. He is indeed an arrant little epicure of perfume and sweet sounds.

A markworthy feature of Ariel is that his power does not stop with the physical forces of nature, but reaches also to the hearts and consciences of men, so that by his music he can kindle or assuage the deepest griefs of the one, and strike the keenest pangs of remorse into the other. This comes out in the different effects of his art upon Ferdinand and the guilty king, as related by the men themselves:

Where should this music be? i' the air or the earth?
It sounds no more: and, sure, it waits upon
Some god o' th' island. Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the king my father's wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air: thence I have found it,
Or it hath drawn me rather. But 'tis gone.
No, it begins again. [I, ii, 388-396.]
Such is the effect on Ferdinand; very different is the effect of Ariel's art upon the king:
O, it is monstrous, monstrous!
Methought the billows spoke, and told me of it;
The winds did sing it to me; and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounc'd
The name of Prosper: it did bass my trespass.
Therefore my son i' the ooze is bedded; and
I'll seek him deeper than e'er plummet sounded.
And with him there lie mudded. [III, iii, 95-102.]
Ariel, too, has some of the magic potency of old god Cupid. It is through some witchcraft of his that Ferdinand and Miranda are surprised into a mutual rapture so that Prospero notes at once how "at the first sight they have changed eyes," and "are both in either's power:" All which is indeed just what Prospero wanted, yet he is startled at the result; that fine issue of nature outruns his thought, and he takes care forthwith lest it work too fast:
This swift business
I must uneasy make, lest too light winning
Make the prize light. [I, ii, 451-453.]
Ariel's powers and functions entide him to be called Prospero's prime minister. Through his agency Prospero's thoughts become things, his volitions events. And yet, strangely and diversely as Ariel's nature is elemented and composed, with touches akin to several orders of being, there is such a self-consistency about him, he is so cut out in individual distinctness, and so rounded in with personal attributes, that contemplation freely and easily rests upon him as an object. He is by no means an abstract idea personified, or any sort of intellectual diagram, but a veritable person; and we have a personal feeling towards the dear creature, and would fain knit him into the living circle of our human affections and make him a familiar playfellow of the heart.


If Caliban strikes us as a more wonderful creation than Ariel, it is probably because he has more in common with us, without being in any proper sense human. He represents, both in body and soul, a sort of intermediate nature between man and brute. Though he has all the attributes of humanity from the moral downwards, so that his nature touches and borders upon the sphere of moral life, the result but approves his exclusion from such life in that it brings him to recognize moral law only as making for self. He has intelligence of seeming wrong in what is done to him, but no conscience of what is wrong in his own doings. But the magical presence of spirits has cast into the caverns of his brain some faint reflection of a better world; he has taken in some of the epiphanies that throng the enchanted island. It is a most singular and significant stroke in the delineation that sleep seems to loosen the fetters of his soul and lift him above himself. It seems as if in his passive state the voice of truth and good vibrated down to his soul and stopped there, being unable to kindle any answering tones within, so that in his waking hours they are to him but as the memory of a dream:

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again. [III, ii, 133-139.]
Here is revealed the basal poetry in Caliban s nature, but it is significant that when Prospero and Miranda seek to educate him the result is to increase his grossness and malignity of disposition. Schlegel compares his mind to a dark cave into which the light of knowledge falling neither illuminates nor warms, but only serves to put in motion the poisonous vapors generated there.

Caliban's most remarkable characteristic is the perfect originality of his thoughts and manners. Though his disposition is framed of grossness and malignity, there is nothing vulgar or commonplace about him. His whole character is developed from within, not impressed from without, the effect of Prosperous instructions having been to make him all the more himself, and there being perhaps no soil in his nature for conventional vices and knaveries to take root and grow in. Hence the almost classic dignity of his behavior compared with that of the drunken sailors. In his simplicity, indeed, he at first mistakes them for gods who "bear celestial liquor," and they wax merry enough at the "credulous monster," but in his vigor of thought and purpose he soon conceives a scorn of their childish interest in trinkets and gewgaws, and the savage of the woods seems nobility itself beside the savages of the city.

How to cite this article:

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1909. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


Related Articles

 Forgiveness and Reconciliation in The Tempest
 Magic, Books, and the Supernatural in The Tempest
 The Relationship Between Miranda and Ferdinand
 The Tempest: Stages of Plot Development
 Blank Verse, Prose, and Diction in Shakespeare's Tempest
 The Tempest: Plot Summary
 Famous Quotations from The Tempest
 Shakespeare Quotations (by Theme)
 Quotations About William Shakespeare
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Boss: The Master of Revels