Revolt against the modern world

The West as Shakespeare`s Prospero in “The Tempest”

The Tempest is a pastoral drama, it belongs to that literary kind which includes certain earlier English plays and is concerned with the opposition of nature and art. These both are presented through the characters of the two non-human beings, the natives of the aisle, Caliban and Ariel. Caliban represents nature without the benefit of nature, nature to an Art which is man`s power over the created world and over himself.; Nature divorced from grace or the senses without the mind. Ariel, on the other hand, is the chief instrument of Prospero’s Art. Prospero exercises his power through Ariel, that is to say, his moral wisdom has been attained through the imagination, or with interaction with the imagination.

When Prospero arrived on the island, he found it in the state of barbarity; Ariel was imprisoned and the amoral beast Caliban ran free. At the close Ariel is liberated as Caliban returns at the bondage he briefly evaded. The contrast between these two characters spans the play. Both are supernatural and are similar in their dislike for being under an obligation to mortals, but otherwise, they are antithetical creatures-one airy and beautiful, pleasant and allied with good; the other dark and ugly, sullen and inclined to evil. Ariel is a spiritual being composed of air, uninhibited by normal physical restraint, while Caliban utterly material, confined to earth, without the power to resist even the “ urchin-shows” (II.II.5) of Ariel`s minor underlings. Explicitly non-human, Ariel and Caliban are essentially allegorical, representing human possibilities. Ariel embodies our potential spirituality, Caliban our propensity to waste that potential in materialism or sensual pleasure.

Ariel is Prospero`s analogue and like him, he is rather isolated; except as seeming hallucination, he has no contact with anyone but his master. Caliban however, is pointedly compared to many other characters. He is the baseline from which all else is measured. As we have seen, his conspiracy parallels Antonio`s. His inability to learn more than curses, contrasts with Miranda’s high moral sensibility, even though they were educated together. His response to Miranda’s beauty contrasts with Ferdinand`s. Caliban resists carrying wood in I.II., While Ferdinand rejoices in his similar labour in III.I. When Miranda judges her admirers, she finds Caliban “a thing most brutish”(I.II.358) and Ferdinand an “a thing divine“ (IV.I.421). The ultimate comparison is between Caliban and Prospero. The black magic of Caliban`s mother  Sycorax contrasts with Prospero’s employment od sorcery for a good end , after which it is abjured.


Caliban represents the “natural man” that enthralled Europeans as the New World was opened up and its natives became known. He is pointedly associated with the new world through allusions to the Patagonian god Setebos, the island of Bermuda and such familiar anecdotes of explorations as the reception of explorers as gods and their offering liquor to the natives. With this associations, Shakespeare raised an issue that concerned thinking people throughout Europe: the relative merits of nature and civilization.

That Caliban and Ariel are non-human is part of the play`s masque like spectacle, but their supernatural quality also serves another function. The role of providence in human affairs, an important idea throughout Shakespeare`s romances is particularly emphasized by the prevalence of magic in “The Tempest”. Moreover, the references to the New World, along with the unspecific location of Prospero`s island, add a sense of exotic climes in which the supernatural is to be expected.


Ariel is akin to the ordinary spirits on the island, but of a loftier degree in the elfin hierarchy. He is a delicate bird-like spirit and Prospero`s servant who is invisible except to his master, and a personified abstraction of the Higher Nature of Man.

The name of Ariel is ancient; it occurs even in the bible notably in an obscure passage Isaiah XXIX, But Shakespeare`s Ariel is independent of any biblical model and the source of the name is probably the magical tradition in which it frequently recurs.

Before the time of the play Ariel has been imprisoned by the witch Sycorax, the mother of Caliban, for 12 years in a cloven pine tree because “ he was a spirit too delicate” (I.II.272), and is released from this thralldom from by Prospero, whom he faithfully serves for twelve years before he is completely set at liberty. Ariel is invisible to all but Prospero whom he assists in the schemes that form the plot. He is capable of assuming fantastic disguises and of luring mortals with supernaturally compelling music. Ariel delights in playing tricks: his invisible interference leads to blows between Stephano and Trinculo, he is constantly badgering Caliban when he later becomes lazy, while he is responsible for leading all three into a filthy pool.

“Names of the authors” calls Ariel “an ayrie spirit” which probably indicates technically associated with the element of air. His first words associate him with “air” and also with “fire” which were for the Elizabethans the higher, rarefied elements of nature: opposed to them were “earth” and “water” ( represented by Caliban). Ariel is not so much a character in his own right as he is the representation of Prospero`s art.

Just because he is a spirit of the air of the air, Ariel finds all human service galling and begs for his liberty His swiftness and restless motion makes all service irksome to him. Although he fulfils his tasks cheerfully, he yearns to be free again. Almost as soon as he first appears, he reminds Prospero of his services:


     Remember I have done thee worthy service;

Told thee no lies, made no mistakings, serv`d

Without or grudge or grumblings : thou did promise

To bate me a full year                 (I.II. 251-254)


And requires his liberty. At this Prospero flies into a rage and denounces Ariel as an ungrateful wretch who has already forgotten the torment from which he (i.e. Prospero) has freed him. The wizard loses no time, therefore is recounting to Ariel how he has come to his present station. Prospero recounts how the horrible which , Sycorax has been banished to the island after performing terrible sorceries in Argier (i.e. Algiers). On the island, the hag had enslaved the spirit and shut him up in a pine tree, when he failed to carry out her wicked commands. Soon afterwards Sycorax had died and Ariel had been imprisoned in the tree for twelve years to be released only after Prospero had come to the island and heard the spirit wailing. On hearing this account, Ariel expresses gratitude and is promised his completely liberty by Prospero within two days if he performs his tasks effectively. This cheerful and intelligent being embodies the power of good and is thus appropriate helper in Prospero `s effort to combat the evil represented by Antonio.

Ariel is not human and has no human feelings, though he can observe them clearly. He can assume all shapes, or summon them up, or annihilate time and space, that is to say, he passes that quality of disinterestedness, that personal involvement, which is the distinguished mark of the aesthetic experience.

Ariel is invisible to all except for his master Prospero, and music and songs often signify his presence. His music works strangely on all who hear it. He sings three songs: “ Come unto these yellow sands” (I.II.), “ While you here do snoring lie” (II.I) and “ Where the bee sucks, there suck I “(V.I.). His songs are distinctly ethereal. As far as the development of the plot is concerned, “Come unto these yellow sands” is the most important: an echo all around the stage is suggested, as Ariel lures Ferdinand from the sea and suggests to him that his father is drowned and the “ sea nymphs hourly ring his kneel”, Shakespeare gives the impression that the air-spirit has translated into song Ferdinand`s own fears. Later on, it wakes Gonzalo at the critical moment, and speaks through the elements of Alonso, arousing remorse in his breast. Later when he is attiring Prospero and just as he is about to be freed, Ariel sings of himself: how he will repose in the cowslip safe from the owls, ride on bats after sunset and live under the shades of the blossoms –it is a picture of an ideal life given in a few words:


      Where the bee sucks, there suck I,

In a cowslip`s bell I lie;

There I couch when owls do cry.

On the bat`s back I do fly

After summer merrily.      (V.I. 88-92)


These lines suggest a fairy-like dimension in which all is harmony and oneness with nature. Perhaps they also suggest the freedom that Ariel seeks to live according to his inner impulses as a spirit and this freedom has been promised by his master. His task is bringing together the two fractions, so his master can release him. The announcement that liberty is at hand makes him burst into a jubilant carol, and in the closing words of the play, he is dismissed to his natural haunts.

Dealing with the genders of the characters, it is clear that Caliban is male. But what is Ariel? The answer is not so much that we do not know, but that the conventional distinctions do not easily apply. The stage direction for Ariel`s  entrance in act III, scene III is: “ Enter Ariel as a harpy, clasps his wings…”. Ariel is said to be male( his wings), but is compared to a harpy – a female revenging spirit. Elsewhere Prospero tells Ariel “ make thyself like a nymph O’Shea” ( I.II. 301)- a role that is unambiguously female. Also female is the role Ariel plays in the mosque. In IV.I. 167, Ariel says: “When I presented Ceres”. Here “presented” means played; in other words, Ariel plays Ceres in the mosque. Ceres is about as female as you can get: she is both an archetypal mother figure and a symbol of the fruitfulness of harvest. Ariel`s gender is not something that we can “solve”; Ariel is referred to as male but plays female roles. This is only a problem if we think of Ariel as human. But he is not.

Though Ariel is not human, he has a close relationship with Prospero. This relationship is based on something very extraordinary about the play; only Prospero knows that Ariel exists. When they first meet, there is a tension we might associate with an intimate or even passionate friendship: Ariel seems glad to have done what Prospero has asked, and Prospero is delighted with what has been achieved. But with the prospect of more work, Ariel becomes what Prospero calls “ moody” ( I.II. 244). One intriguing moment calls for a decision as to how it is to be performed. In V.I., Prospero robes for his encounter with those whom he has shipwrecked. As he dresses, Ariel merely sings his song of freedom when he will suck like the bee and snugly lie in a cowslip, Prospero almost dotingly says:

To the King`s ship, invisible as thou art:

There shalt though find the mariners asleep

Under the hatches; the master and the boatswain

Being awake, enforce them to this place,

And presently, I prithee.                        (V.I. 97-101)


Why? He does not speak so lovingly even to Miranda. The admission that: “ I shall miss thee” is poignant. With that degree of intimacy established, it is intriguing too as what “ so, so, so” means. It is often explained as the accompaniment to his dressing. But there is another possibility: Prospero is kissing farewell to the one to whom he has been closest.

Ariel`s part in the plot is extremely important. He does not only glory Prospero`s affection and praise, but there is a hint of tenderness in his character as he describes the sufferings and sorrow of the wizard`s enemies. On his celebrity in executing Prospero`s orders, everything depends.


The only other inhabitant of the island when Prospero and Miranda arrive – apart from the spirit Ariel imprisoned in a pine tree-and that occupant and owner, as he sees himself as Caliban. It is, as he states his island, inherited from his mother, Sycorax.. Before the time of the play, Prospero and his daughter Miranda took Caliban into their home and taught him to speak and function as a human, but his response was to attempt to rape the girl and later on together with Stephano to attempt to murder Prospero.

Caliban is a misshapen monster, Prospero`s slave and a foil to the delicate Ariel. Caliban`s birth, as Prospero insists, was inhuman. He was a  poisonous slave; got by the devil himself upon thy wicked dam”(I.II.321-2), because he was the product of a sexual union between the witch Sycorax and an incubus, and this would account for his deformity. Sycorax, Caliban`s mother was a powerful witch deliberately endowed with many of the qualities of classical witches, but also possessing a clearly defined place in the contemporary demonological scheme. She was a practitioner of “natural”, black magic and she was banished from “Argier”, “for mischief`s manifold and sorceries terrible/ to enter human hearing” (I.II. 266-7). The devil lover of Sycorax was the pagans god Setebos.

Being the offspring of a witch and a demon, Caliban`s appearance and many of his actions seem monstrous. Caliban is contemptuously called “thou earth”(I.II.316), “thou tortoise”, and in his outward appearance, probably owing to his song, finny arms, he must have had some resemblance to a fish, which Trinculo, at first sight, takes him to be. He has been claimed as Shakespeare`s unconscious anticipation of the evolutionary “missing link”, for he symbolizes humanity scarcely if at all, raised above the brute stage. Caliban deformity is the result of evil natural magic and it stands as a natural criterion by which we measure the world of art represented by Prospero`s divine magic. He is also the natural man against whom the cultivated man is measured. Caliban is the ground of the play. His function is to illuminate by contrast the world of art, nurture, civility; the world which none the less nourishes the malice of Antonio and the guilt of Alonso, and Staines a divine beauty with the crimes of ambition and lust.

Caliban is only partly human. Because his father was a devil, Caliban is supernatural like Ariel, but unlike the airy spirit, he has no supernatural powers. He is associated with the lower elements of the nature, with water and earth, ‘the fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:”(I.II. 340) and his habitat is this “ hard rock” (I.II. 345)- ( usually represented in production as some sort of cave at the rear of the stage). He is more like a debased human than like any other supernatural creature in Shakespeare. He has intelligence enough to learn the language and later use it against Prospero and Miranda. “You taught me language, and my profit on /is I know how to curse.”. Although intelligent, Caliban is seemingly incapable of the moral sense; reminded of his attempted rape, he merely asserts his animal drive to procreate. Caliban serves as a foil for the other characters; his viciousness with Miranda`s innocence, his amorality with the honorable love of Ferdinand, his regenerate state with the intransigent evil of Antonio, his contrast with Ariel and, of course, his foolish credulity in accepting Stephano as a god which contrasts with Prospero`s wisdom.

The shallow Caliban, with a perverted instinct of adoration, readily allies himself with Stephano and Trinculo, who he now believes, have dropped out of heaven with their “ celestial liquor”( II.II. 118). Thus Caliban with an eager appetite for more liquor offers to show them every fertile inch of the island, to fish and gather food for them and to be their slave.


     I`ll show thee every fertile inch o`th`island ; and

I will kiss thy foot: I prithee, be my god.      (II.II.148-9)


I`ll show thy the best springs ; i`ll pluck thee berries;

I`ll fidh for thee, and get thee wood enough. (II.II. 160-1)


Even if we recognize the effect of unaccustomed liquor on Caliban, his mindset is unmistakable. He turns from one “tyrant” 9II.II. 162) and immediately is in danger of putting himself in grip of another. He actively creates a new master, who will rule him once he has dispensed with his present slave-owner. Caliban in this respect  functions as an image or type of resentful dependence. Trinculo is much amused by this “ puppy-headed monster” ( II.II.154), WHILE Stephano believing that the king and the rest of the company are drowned, says that they will inherit the whole island. As they move off, Caliban leads the way, and drunkenly sings a burlesque ode to his newly won freedom. Caliban sings “ no more dams I`ll make for fish” ( II.II.). His song has all the intensity of a primitive in giving vent to his hatred of drudgery. His song is very important because, through it, Shakespeare permits him to convey to the audience his hatred of Prospero, accentuated by his loss of liberty

Caliban`s human qualities illuminate one of the many important play`s themes and, in doing so shed light on Shakespeare`s world, which was just becoming aware of the natives of America. This is the theme of colonization. The cast list teaches us to think of Caliban as a “ savage and deformed native of the island, Prospero`s slave”. He is never seen with other than  European eyes and the image given to him is that of an uncouth and distorted being.

Caliban was a native of the island, but when Prospero came he was reduced to being a servant. The tasks are given to him, most particularly that of cutting and carrying logs, are indicative of his lowly status and his lack of freedom. Once, Caliban was “mine own King” 9I.II.344). He ruled nobody but was free and the island was his. “ This island is mine by Sycorax my mother” (I.II. 344), he will say. He had more right to it than Prospero. But as with many superior cultures, Prospero held it by right of conquest. We may be able to accept this more easily had Prospero not been seething with anger against his usurping brother. Caliban is for Prospero someone whom he must reduce to submission and slavery. As Prospero`s  “slave”9 I.II. 310), Caliban is linked with America; His mother`s god Setebos was known by Shakespeare as a South American Deity; in finding divine Stephano and in responding greedily to his liquor, Caliban behaves like the native Americans of early explorers accounts. From beginning to end, Caliban is seen as a slave.

One of the most pervasive themes of The Tempest is the contrast between Savagery  and Culture. The central figure here is of course Caliban. His name is usually regarded as a development of some form of the word “Carib” meaning a savage inhabitant of the New World, or as an anagram of the word “cannibal”. But though he is though connected with the Indian savage, he is also associated, as were the uncivilized inhabitants of the Indies, with the savage and wild man of Europe, formerly the most familiar image of mankind without the ordination of civility. There are points in the play where Shakespeare uses Caliban to indicate how much baser the corruption of the civilized can be than the bestiality of the natural, and in this places, he is using his natural man as a criterion of civilized corruption. In doing this, Shakespeare may well have had an essay by the French philosopher Montaigne. This essay “Of Cannibals”, certainly lies behind that passage in the play in which Gonzalo outlines his ideal“ commonwealth”. In the essay, Montaigne questions the conventional –Rennaisance view that society is by definition good, that man outside of society in his natural state is by definition bad.. Caliban is the real answer to Gonzalo’s glorification of the natural, the noble savage. However, Caliban is an “ A thing most brutish” on whose “nature” , as Prospero says, “ nurture will never stick”(IV.I. 188-9). Here Prospero represents control, reason and discipline. By “nurture” he means training, education, spiritual development and indeed all that we mean by civilization. Caliban is the animal instinct that resents and rejects “nurture” and the opposition of the two figures through the play is the opposition between civilization and Savagery. He may represent degenerate animal mature, but he is not entirely evil. It is significant that he is given some of the most lyrical poetry in the play. His two major speeches in III.II. given in verse not in prose are on subjects so superficially disparate that it is hard to believe that they come from the same mouth. A strong trait in Caliban`s character is his love of beauty He is fond of music, admires Miranda and describes the isle`s noises in glowing terms:


     Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight, and

Hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,

That, if than had wak`d after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and than in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open, and show


Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak`d,

I cried to dream again.                     (III.II. 133-141)


For all his villainy, Caliban contributes to the general sense of regeneration with which the play closes. He recognizes his folly and expresses his intention to improve himself in a religious metaphor-he will “seek for grace” (V.I. 295). His earlier behaviour certainly makes us wonder if reform is really possible, but Shakespeare pointedly elevates this beastlike character`s fallen state, he offers the hope for restoration to grace that is part of Shakespeare`s sense of human possibility.



Caliban and Ariel exist at opposite ends of the spectrum of animal creation. Ariel is beyond humanity at the superhuman or spiritual end of the scale and is associated with the air and the fire. Caliban is beneath humanity at the animal end and is associated with the earth and the water. Caliban, combining animalism and humanity is one of the significant characters in the play.  His heritage given by Prospero at I.II. 319-320; “ Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself / upon thy wicked dam, come forth !”. Indicates all that is evil and perverse. The references made to him by the other characters, especial Stephano and Trinculo are to a “monster” (II.II. 144), something indescribable between a land and a sea animal. His language is evocative of all that is material, brutal and coarse. On the other hand, the delicate, bird-like spirit Ariel who is invisible to all except to his master and is helping him in his magic plot. He, in a way, assists Prospero`s  “ project”, and is the one who performs his art.

Although being so different characters, Ariel and Caliban still have a lot in common: they are “natives” of the island; they both serve their master Prospero and want freedom, and they both create or respond to music.





Coles, Shakespeares “The Tempest” Total study edition, (Coles)


Desmet Christy and Sawyer Robert, Shakespeare and appropriatio London: Taylor and Francis group


Gill Richard,  Mastering Shakespear ( Macmillan Master series)



Penguin popular classics; W. Shakespeare: Shakespeare`s Complete Works ( Oxford: Clarendon Presss) 1991


Study- Aid series; Notes on W. Shakespeare`s The Tempest ( Methuen & Co Ltd) 1962


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