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'. FN1 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 ar...
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...s the barrier. If The Tempest is an allegory, then Nora Johnson is probably closest in describing Ariel as 'a delicate theatrical spirit' a figure representing the essence of theatre. If performing Ariel must have presented great technical challenges on the Jacobean stage, the problem for a modern production is to encourage the suspension of disbelief in the audience whilst avoiding comparison with the fairies and principal boys of Pantomime.
1. Sometimes called 'Apology for Poetry'.
2. Nora Johnson, 'Body and Spirit, Stage and Sexuality in The Tempest' (in) Political Shakespeare, (eds) Stephen Orgel and Sean Keilen, Volume 9 of Shakespeare, the Critical Complex, Garland Publishing, New York and London, (1999), pp. 271-290.
3. Horace Howard Furness (ed.), The Tempest, A New Varorium Edition, J.P. Lippincott, Philadelphia, (1895).
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