Tag Archives: Tempest

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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The source of Prospero’s power in The Tempest

       A bit of personal history. When I was in grade eight, my teacher wanted us to study a play by Shakespeare: she was torn between Hamlet and Temp. At this point I had absolutely no knowledge of Temp and all I knew about Hamlet was it was about a guy who goes crazy, everyone dies, and there was a famous speech that started with “to be or not to be.” So naturally, my pretentious self decided that we had to do Hamlet because it was awesome, whereas Temp was awful. Whether or not my forged testimony had any influence, we studied Hamlet. It would be another five years or so until I read Temp. Of course, I learned that Temp is a wonderful play, and to this day, it doesn’t matter how many times I read it or see it, I enjoy it every time, but I do not regret my pretentious self’s decision. Temp is a play that grows the more you understand about Shakespeare and the theatre in general. Yes, there are many entertaining elements on the surface, but so much is hidden within this short play. Shakespeare turns to tropes already established, only to distort them.

The first predecessor that becomes apparent in Temp is Comedy of Errors. These two plays share a few things in common. They are the only two plays that utilize unified time and space. There is no shift in time or location in either play: the timeframes of both plays are equal to the run of the show (around three hours), and the location is confined to a city (Ephesus) or an island. It is interesting that after all his inventiveness, all his ingenuity, Shakespeare returns to the ancient model of drama. Perhaps he chose such a simple model to stress his complex drama; for there is very little in Temp that a Roman audience would recognize (unlike Comedy of Errors, which draws heavily on the Roman tradition). Beyond this, Temp and Comedy of Errors share common openings. Both begin with a storm and a long exposition in order to bring everyone up to speed. In Comedy of Errors we do not see the storm, but it is part of the exposition. Temp famously opens with the storm and the panic of the sinking sailors. Shakespeare could have alluded to the storm as he does in Comedy of Errors, or he could have begun following the storm as he does in Twelfth Night and lost nothing: so why show the storm and the sinking ship? The obvious reason is: why not? He finally had the means to create a storm on stage and the spectacle was all the rage – and Temp is not short of spectacle. Furthermore, it draws us in to Prospero’s world and puts us aboard the ship with the rest of them. We begin in chaos and remain so until Prospero explains matters to us in the exposition. We are immediately at Prospero’s mercy, just as much as everyone else – but I will return to this. Let’s compare the two expositions. I will not post both of them here: they are too long. The differences in them show Prospero’s departure from earlier Shakespearean traditions. Aegeon tells the duke his long tale of how he and his wife were separated by the storm, each having with them one of the Antipholi and Dromios. After the tragedy of the storm, he says:

“O, let me say no more!
Gather the sequel by that went before.” (Com. I.i)

At which point the Duke begs him to continue, and so he does. Aegeon has no intention in his exposition other than to tell his story and explain why he has broken the law. He desires nothing more than to hopefully spare his life – but he is not even pushy about that. Meanwhile, Prospero interrupts his own exposition by scolding his daughter, and by extension, us:

“Dost thou attend me?”


“Thou attend’st not”


“Dost thou hear?” (Temp I.ii)

Like Aegeon, Prospero wants us to sympathize with him and his suffering. But Prospero is so concerned that we are not ready to sympathize with him and that our minds wander off during his speech. What has changed from Aegeon to Prospero? Long expositions were becoming less common in drama. In 1594-95 people were perfectly willing to listen to Aegeon’s story and find pleasure in the poetry of his suffering. Or what about Friar Laurence’s long tirade at the end of Romeo and Juliet, in which he recaps everything we just saw: audiences were perfectly content to listen to that. But as spectacle came, the long exposition left: we find it less and less in Shakespeare’s works and the works of his contemporaries. But Prospero needs to get his story across and he needs to control us, so he makes us feel guilty if our minds begin to wander and, through Miranda, makes us listen to his every word. So Prospero is both responsible for the storm – the spectacle that replaces the exposition of the storm – and the long story which spectacle was driving out. He is in control of everything and he could play his games any way he wants.

Gonzalo manages to sum up pretty well Prospero’s power:


I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;–


Yet he would be king on’t.


The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the


All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people. (II.i)

Antonio and Sebastian’s interjection make the matter pretty clear. Gonzalo’s utopia (a slight parody of More’s Utopia) demands an absolute ruler to keep all else idle. At first we are inclined to side with Antonio and Sebastian in making fun of Gonzalo and his absurd notions, but Prospero (through Ariel, who we must see as an extension of Prospero) proves Gonzalo’s theory. Ariel, the unseen sprite whose power uses no weapons or materials, but nature alone, thwarts the usurper’s plots again and again, until the end when they are literally left idle and

“Confined together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them; all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release.” (V.i)

Let us leave them confined and move on to the next major plotline: the love story.

I am often tempted to believe that Temp has the worst love story, for both Miranda and Ferdinand are such empty characters. There are similarities between their love and Hermia and Lysander’s, insofar as two lovers are thwarted by a meddlesome father. But Prospero has too much emotional control over Miranda and physical control over Ferdinand to let them elope. Besides, he ultimately wants them to be together. The only obstacle to their loves comes in Prospero’s aside:

“They are both in either’s powers; but this swift business
I must uneasy make, lest too light winning
Make the prize light” (I.ii)

This seems like a shallow trial for a love story – and nothing like the sublime love of Romeo and Juliet or the trials that must be overcome in Twelfth Night. And yet, we must always remember that everything about this play is Prospero, Prospero, Prospero. Why should the love story be any different? Temp is unique in that is does not have a real love story between two lovers, but a father and his daughter. As much control Prospero has over Miranda, he is very much dependent on her. It should not be surprising: Prospero has no inherit power. He initially depended on Caliban for survival, for it was Caliban who showed the newly arrived Prospero

“all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile” (I.ii)

Prospero is reliant on Ariel and the other spirits to perform his invisible tricks. The power he uses to control Caliban and the spirits does not come from him, but from his robe (“Lie there, my art.” (I.ii) he says when Miranda removes his robe from him. And most of all, of course, his books for, as Caliban informs Stephano and Trinculo, without his books

“He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I.” (III.ii)

So if his sustenance comes from a slave (Caliban), his actions from his spirits, his art from a robe, and his ability to control from books: what purpose does Miranda serve in the grand design? Let’s return to the long exposition. Prospero begins by saying:

“I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter,” (I.ii)

If we are to believe him then the reason he brought his enemies to his island via the storm, the reason he hopes to take his kingdom back is not for him, but for his daughter. Let’s face it: Prospero wasn’t a very good ruler, nor did he have interest in ruling.

“The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.” (I.ii)

Here Miranda serves a dual purpose for Prospero in relation to the audience. If Miranda is his sole reason for his actions, then Miranda is the sole reason for this play: with no Miranda, there would be no Prospero to care about and be controlled by. Furthermore, as Prospero was not a good ruler, the story of his usurpation is hard to sympathize with except for the fact that he was expelled with a crying infant. Miranda is the humanity to an otherwise cold magician and the only reason we are willing to give him any consideration is because of the love he has for Miranda. If, without his robe and his books, he is nothing but a sot, a weak man with no power, then without Miranda he has no purpose. Bearing this in mind allows us to see the beauty in the trials Prospero sets between Miranda and Ferdinand, and how tragic his acquiescence is.


If I have too austerely punish’d you,
Your compensation makes amends, for I
Have given you here a third of mine own life,
Or that for which I live; who once again
I tender to thy hand: all thy vexations
Were but my trials of thy love and thou
Hast strangely stood the test here, afore Heaven,
I ratify this my rich gift. O Ferdinand,
Do not smile at me that I boast her off,
For thou shalt find she will outstrip all praise
And make it halt behind her.” (IV.i)

Prospero says he gives up one third of his life, but what are the other two thirds? His magic might make up another, and I suppose his physical existence the final. Yes, following the relinquishing of his daughter, he begins to unravel. He does manage to thwart all his enemies, and get his dukedom back in order to give it to Miranda and Ferdinand. After this he breaks his staff and drowns his books, frees his spirits and Caliban, and is left alone on stage, begging to relieve him.

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.” (Epilogue)

Some have said that this is Shakespeare bidding farewell to the stage, even though he will remain in London for 2-3 more years and collaborate on 2 plays, and potentially write The Winter’s Tale (it may or may not have followed Temp). No. The epilogue is an old man bidding farewell to everything. Yes Prospero has more control than any other character in Shakespeare’s works, but the only reason he uses it is for the betterment of his daughter. For a play filled with absurd plots, magic, and revenge, spirits and monsters – the heart of Temp is a father trying to protect his daughter, and doting on her. Many have also said that this play is a commentary on art: Prospero’s power being the symbol of all creative. And it is. For what is the purpose of Art is not to create in in the service of someone you love? I’ll leave it there. Until next time good reader: great power is found in books, great inspiration in love.

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