Ariel’s Heroic Role in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

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            In William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” Prospero, the legitimate Duke of Milan, is the traditional hero.  After all, the play revolves around his need to achieve his vengeance over his brother Antonio, who has him banished to the island that served as his cell for twelve years.  He makes the tempest possible through his own power as a sorcerer and by the aid of his sprite, Ariel.  Ariel, however, is the true hero of the play as he serves Prospero with complete loyalty while making sure that everyone else is safe, despite his role as Prospero’s servant for many years.   Throughout the play, he demonstrates other values like courage and obedience, which may not be expected to be both highlighted in the same character.

            To better understand this proposal, a perusal of each of the characters and finally, a comparison, must be done.  Prospero’s position as the Duke of Milan has been usurped by his brother, Antonio.  This occurs during a time that Prospero has become too distracted by the study of magic that he is unable to defend his position (1.2.70-5).  Antonio’s act of stealing his brother’s dukedom is not justified because the people love Prospero who prior to his exile is “being reputed in dignity and, for the liberal arts” (1.2.73). If Prospero were an evil or an incompetent leader, Antonio may have rightly unseated him.  Prospero commands the storm to happen having known that his enemies are at sea.  Nevertheless, he makes sure, with the help of Ariel, that nobody will be hurt.  Even in the state of seeking justice and regaining what is rightly his for the sake of his daughter, Miranda, he remains a man with scruples (1.2.217). On the other hand, he wants his daughter to experience the wealth and glory that she who had been so young at the time of exile has never known.  When he says to Miranda “Thy father was the Duke of Milan, and his only heir a princess; no worse issued, (1.2.58-9)” he wants her to have a sense of what she really is; he wants her daughter to know how precious she is.  Prospero may have learned to live in the island in his twelve years of exile, but he knows that his daughter Miranda must experience the well deserved life of a princess.  Later on, when first knowing of the attraction of the King of Naples’ son Ferdinand to his daughter, Prospero acts uncivilly towards the young man.  This is a feeling that is generated by his being overprotective towards his daughter more than a genuine dislike for Ferdinand.   He tells Miranda that she is only enamored by the young man because she has never seen any other man besides her father and Caliban, the deformed slave (1.2.481-4).  Prospero does consent later to the marriage of his daughter to Ferdinand.

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            After all of Prospero’s merits have been discussed, what really makes him more heroic is his forgiveness of his enemies.  In the end, he is also happily restored as the Duke of Milan.  Shakespeare has indeed given him the characteristics of a hero: Prospero is a true noble man, who forgives even when he is greatly wronged; he chooses dialogue instead of violent revenge which he may be capable of fulfilling because his enemies are stranded in his former prison, which has become his territory. He is still human, however.  He has made Caliban his slave, and has also made Ariel his servant after having saved the sprite from Caliban’s mother, Sycorax (1.2.285-92). Prospero promises Ariel his freedom in exchange for help in some of his plans for his enemies.  He has already taken advantage of the magical creature’s gratitude and frees him with a condition.

            Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” has characters who display bad qualities along with the good.  This makes them more human and therefore, more relatable.  Ariel, on the other hand, is not human.  He is a sprite, a magical creature.  He is once enslaved by Sycorax and experiences a milder form of enslavement under Prospero who has freed him from his former captor.  However, he has human qualities of gratitude and loyalty.  He follows Prospero’s commands and even leads Ferdinand to Miranda through a song (1.2.389).  He may be Prospero’s servant but he still has his own ideas, and they are good in themselves; Ariel has made it possible for Ferdinand and Miranda to meet and fall in love.  Although it can be argued that everything that Ariel has done is under the command of his master, Prospero, Ariel has accepted his servitude willingly.  The common reaction to enslavement is discontent or hatred, as demonstrated by the slave, Caliban.  Ariel goes about his duty merrily, even singing enchanting songs.  It seems that he believes that through negotiation and not rebellion, he will one day be free.  A political look at his character may make him a representation of pacifists.  Looking no further than the subject of slavery, he can be compared to slaves or colonized people who quietly work towards freedom.

Prospero is the mastermind but the undertaker of the tasks has to make use of his courage and good judgment in order for the “mission” to be successful.  Besides making romance possible for his master’s daughter, he is able to see the real nature and intent of Antonio and Sebastian.  When the sprite has made everyone else fall asleep, Antonio who has betrayed his brother Prospero, suggests that Sebastian kill his own brother, Alonso for the throne of Naples.  (2.1.206-7) Sebastian is ready to murder his sleeping brother but the sprite chooses the moment that Sebastian and Alonso have drawn their swords to wake the others, thus saving Alonso’s life.  The general commands are from Prospero, but because Prospero is not present physically in the places Ariel is sent to, Ariel has to used his powers and ingenuity in order to help the good people and prevent the wicked from doing their deeds.  Ariel is in the midst of the battle, while Prospero is a distant master.

The conclusion that Ariel is the hero may be revolutionary, but evidence has shown that without his service, Prospero may not have the happiness that he has achieved at the end of the tale.  Ariel has ensured the happiness of Miranda and Ferdinand with his own idea of romance. With a servant less faithful than Ariel, the tasks will not be successfully done as they have been.  His service is one that does not seek for anything in exchange; he serves even when not explicitly commanded, e.g. when he makes sure that the weather is good for sailing and the ship as good as new (5.1.221-6).  Prospero, on the other hand, has made him into a servant after saving him.  He sends his magical servant to the tasks; Ariel has to do the execution in his own way.  Prospero frees Ariel when everything is well, and he can go back to his dukedom in safety.

Prospero is still the conventional hero of “The Tempest,” but the true hero who works in the background is Ariel.  An analogy that may make this statement clearer is that of a president who sends soldiers to war.  The president, if he is a wise and competent leader, is a hero himself but the soldiers are the ones who use ingenuity, courage and battle tactics in order to survive and to ultimately win.

Work Cited:

 “The Tempest.” Shakespeare, William. The Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare. New York City: Sterling Publishing Co., 1993.9-29

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Ariel’s Heroic Role in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. (2016, Jul 20). Retrieved from

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