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Shakespeare's Characters: Ariel (The Tempest)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 16. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

Shakespeare has made Ariel an Elemental Being of the higher order, identified with the upward-tending elements of Air and Fire, and with the higher nature of man; and he has made Caliban an Elemental Being of the lower order, identified with the downward-tending elements of Earth and Water, and the lower nature of man.

The identification is too detailed to be fanciful. The very name of Ariel is borrowed from air, and he is directly addressed: "Thou, which art but air." The identification with fire is not less complete: when describing the lightning Ariel does not say that he set the ship a-fire, but that the ship was "all a-fire with me": —

Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement: sometime I'ld divide
And burn in many places.
We can see in him just the qualities of air and fire. He is invisible, but, like the lightning, can take shape as he acts. Like air and fire he can penetrate everywhere, treading the ooze of the salt deep, running upon the sharp wings of the north, doing business in the veins of earth when it is baked with frost. His natural speech is music, or waves of air. His ideas are the ideas associated with the atmosphere — liberty and omnipresence: to be "free as mountain winds," to fly on the bat's back merrily, couch in the cowslip's bell, live under the blossom that hangs on the bough. Like the atmosphere he reflects human emotions without feeling them.
Ariel. If you now behold them, your affections
Would become tender.
Prospero. Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel. Mine would, sir, were I human.
The analogy extends to character. Even a character can be found for the atmosphere: in place of our motive and passion it substitutes caprice — "the wind bloweth where it listeth." So Ariel is "moody" or full of moods : and one of the most difficult incidents of the play — the quarrel between Prospero and Ariel — takes coherency, if we see in it Prospero governing this incarnation of caprice by outcapricing him; there is an absence of moral seriousness throughout, and a curious irony, by which Prospero, under the guise of invective, is bringing out Ariel's brave endurance and delicate refinement, and in the form of threats gives his rebellious subject more than he had asked for. Finally, a single passage is sufficient to connect Ariel with the upward tendencies of human nature. We hear the reason of his cruel sufferings at the hands of Sycorax.
For thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorr'd commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,
By help of her more potent ministers,
And in her most unmitigable rage.
Into a cloven pine.
Nothing could more clearly paint the instincts of light oppressed by the power of darkness until the deliverer comes.
Moulton: Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist.


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