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Shakespeare Short: Ariel’s story

While I take a bit longer with my long form Shakespeare essays (I’m attempting to refocus my interpretive efforts) I thought I would throw out a few, more frequent Shakespeare Shorts. These are examinations of a passage or section of a scene that I have been mulling over, or find something odd about them and wish to probe further. And, as I often do, I here begin with The Tempest.

In the long, expositional Act I, scene 2, Prospero scolds his spirit-servant Ariel. Ariel grows fed up with the amount of toil that Prospero places on him, and decides to remind Prospero of their deal.

                                                        I prithee,
Remember I have done thee worthy service;
Told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, served
Without or grudge or grumblings: thou didst promise
To bate me a full year.

Ariel expresses his servitude to Prospero in a manner befitting a prisoner serving time. For good behaviour, Prospero agreed to “bate,” or deduct, a full year off Ariel’s sentence. Prospero seizes this metaphor to remind Ariel of the literal prison that he freed Ariel from. Here’s where it gets interesting.


Hast thou forgot
The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy
Was grown into a hoop? hast thou forgot her?


No, sir.


Thou hast. Where was she born? speak; tell me.


Sir, in Argier.


O, was she so? I must
Once in a month recount what thou hast been,
Which thou forget’st. This damn’d witch Sycorax,
For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible
To enter human hearing, from Argier,
Thou know’st, was banish’d: for one thing she did
They would not take her life. Is not this true?


Ay, sir.


This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child
And here was left by the sailors. Thou, my slave,
As thou report’st thyself, wast then her servant;
And, 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; within which rift
Imprison’d thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years; within which space she died
And left thee there; where thou didst vent thy groans
As fast as mill-wheels strike. […]

It was mine art,
When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape
The pine and let thee out.


I thank thee, master.


If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails till
Thou hast howl’d away twelve winters.


Pardon, master;
I will be correspondent to command
And do my spiriting gently.

Like so much in this play, Ariel is merely n earpiece for Prospero to tell his tale to us. But taking it for what it is, this section shows Prospero’s power to render everyone around him submissive to his will. While I find most fascinating is how Prospero came to know this story. He wasn’t around while Sycorax was alive: he was told this story. “thou, my slave, as thou report’st theyself.” This story that gives him so much power over Ariel was told to him by Ariel. Just like Caliban

show’d [Prospero] all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:

Giving him the means to survive and dominant him, so too did Ariel give him the means to be enslaved.

This reinforces the theme of colonization that many look at when examining this play. The native peoples of whatever land, welcome the newcomers, teach them how to survive, and are soon supplanted by them and relegated to second class citizens. Caliban clearly shows this, but Ariel is a far more interesting example. Prospero’s speech to Ariel gains so much more weight when we realize that we are hearing Ariel’s words turned against him, and accusing Ariel of forgetting the story which he initially told.

Prospero has many “arts” or powers: one of theme seems to be taking over someone’s story and claiming it for his own. How very Shakespearean.


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