Character analysis: Ariel and Prospero in The Tempest

Focussing on Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest, John Gordon analyses the characters of Ariel and Prospero through the frame of magic and power.

Key quotation

Prospero Thou best know’st
What torment I did find thee in; thy groans
Did make wolves howl, and penetrate the breasts
Of ever-angry bears. It was a torment
To lay upon the damn’d, which Sycorax
Could not again undo. It was mine art,
When I arriv’d and heard thee, that made gape
The pine, and let thee out.

Ariel I thank thee, master. (1.2.286–293)

Setting the scene

Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest takes place on the island shortly after a violent storm shipwrecks the Duke of Milan’s vessel. In contrast to the rapid, confused action and dialogue of the play’s opening scene, this introduces Prospero in conversation with his daughter Miranda, and then with his spirit Ariel. As well as providing the background story to how Prospero and Miranda came to the island, the scene reveals that it is magic – planned by Prospero and enacted by Ariel – that has raised the tempest.

Photograph of a model ship in a storm used in The Tempest, 1998

Photograph of a model ship in a storm used in The Tempest, 1998

A model ship in a storm, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest, 1998

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Miranda wonders if the storm was caused by her father’s ‘art’ (1.2.1), cueing his reassurance that he does ‘nothing but in care of thee’ (1.2.16) and that the crew of the ship are safe. He reveals it carried men who usurped him as Duke of Milan – Antonio (the new duke and Prospero’s brother), and Antonio’s co-conspirator Alonso, King of Naples – and explains how he and Miranda were driven from their home into exile on the island. With skills learnt from the magic books that his faithful friend Gonzalo stowed away for him, Prospero sends Miranda to sleep and summons his spirit servant Ariel to praise him for creating the tempest. When asked to complete a new task, however, Ariel resists, prompting the magician to remind him of his debt: on coming to the island Prospero freed Ariel from enslavement to the witch Sycorax. Once threatened, Ariel seeks Prospero’s pardon and departs to do his bidding. Miranda awakes to join her father in a meeting with Caliban, Prospero’s ‘poisonous slave’ (1.2.319). Like Ariel, he resists but recognises, ‘I must obey’ (1.2.372). Next, Prospero contrives circumstances for Miranda to see her cousin Ferdinand come ashore, while Ariel fills the air with music and song. Prospero declares Ferdinand a traitor and imprisons him – ‘charmed from moving’ (1.2.467 s.d.) – and commends Ariel for the enchantment. In an aside, he states, ‘It works!’ (1.2.494).

Photograph of Aidan Gillen as Ariel in The Tempest, 2000

Photograph of Aidan Gillen as Ariel in The Tempest, 2000

With bleached-blond hair and a single feathered wing, Aidan Gillen performs as the spirit Ariel in a production of The Tempest at the Almeida Theatre.

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How does Shakespeare present Prospero and Ariel here?

Most of what we learn of Prospero’s character is conveyed in what he tells Miranda, beginning with his assertion that he acts in her interests. The scene functions to provide the audience with the backstory for the play through Prospero’s explanation, presenting lengthy accounts of events ‘twelve year since’ (1.2.53). He describes his prior status as Duke of Milan, with anger and resentment outlining ‘perfidious’ (1.2.68) betrayal by his brother Antonio, ‘an enemy / To me inveterate’ (1.2.121–22). By contrast, he remembers fondly the ‘charity’ and ‘gentleness’ of his ‘noble’ friend Gonzalo who assisted their safe journey to the island (1.2.162–65).

Prospero’s version of events also influences our understanding of Ariel, making us aware of Ariel’s painful imprisonment in a ‘cloven pine’ (1.2.277) in a torment ‘to lay upon the damn’d’ (1.2.290). This accounts for Ariel’s present servitude to Prospero, confirmed in the spirit’s first utterance, ‘All hail, great master!’ (1.2.189)

Shakespeare appears to want us to draw parallels between Ariel and Caliban. Though Ariel may be called ‘a brave spirit’ (1.2.206) by Prospero, while Caliban is explicitly and repeatedly called his ‘slave’, Ariel too is enslaved by Prospero. This is most apparent in Prospero’s response to Ariel’s reluctance to perform a new task and Ariel’s demand for liberty. Prospero exclaims, ‘thou liest, malignant thing!’ (1.2.257), employing an adjective he attributes elsewhere to Caliban.

Prospero is in control of events and of the other characters – including their histories as well as their futures – though his plans depend on them, too. He is careful to acknowledge the spirit’s influence and to repeat his promise that Ariel ‘shalt be as free / As mountain winds’ (1.2.499–500) – though this can be read as another example of Prospero’s masterful techniques of control and manipulation.

How does this presentation of Ariel fit into the play as a whole?

The portrayal of Ariel in Act 1, Scene 2 anticipates the presentation of the spirit across the play. Here we learn of Ariel’s elemental nature, ‘be’t to fly, / To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride / On the curl’d clouds’ (1.2.190–91). It is significant, too, that no gender is assigned to Ariel – we know it only as the ‘spirit’. Its magical capacity to ‘divide, / and burn in many places’ (1.2.198–99), to ‘flame distinctly’ (1.2.200) and make ‘bold waves tremble’ (1.2.205), is demonstrated again in Act 3, Scene 3 where Ariel appears ‘like a harpy’ amid ‘thunder and lightning’ to bring the usurpers to account (3.3.52 s.d.). Despite being subject to Prospero’s control, Ariel is more than a mere instrument in the magician’s plan, declaring ‘I and my fellows / Are ministers of Fate’ (3.3.60–61). The ‘three men of sin’ (3.3.53) are terrified.

Act 1, Scene 2 further introduces Ariel’s intangible and enchanting qualities, especially as it sings to Ferdinand. Even here Ariel is prompting the progress of Prospero’s plan, singing, ‘Full fadom five thy father lies, / Of his bones are coral made: / Those are pearls that were his eyes’ (1.2.397–99). The song triggers Ferdinand’s grief, prefiguring the ‘sea change / into something rich and strange’ (1.2.401–02) at the play’s end when Prospero and his usurpers are reconciled, Ferdinand and Miranda married, and Caliban and Ariel freed (Act 5, Scene 1).

Photograph of Christian Camargo in The Tempest directed by Sam Mendes, 2010

Photograph of Christian Camargo in the Tempest directed by Sam Mendes, 2010

Christian Carmargo as Ariel in Sam Mendes’s production of The Tempest at The Old Vic, 2010.

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Magic and spirits

Act 1, Scene 2 establishes the association of Ariel and Prospero through magic. Through his ‘art’ (ll. 1, 24, 28) Prospero has gained control of the spirit, his own powers symbolised by his ‘magic garment’ (1.2.24). Magic is the force behind Prospero’s plan, and in his own words is linked with ‘accident most strange, bountiful Fortune’ (1.2.178). He recognises he must ‘court’ the influence of ‘a most auspicious star’ (1.2.182–83) if things are to work to his advantage; he must judge the use of his powers according to astrology.

Ariel works with other spirits (‘all his quality’, 1.2.193) to cause the shipwreck. Its elemental powers are balanced with the capacity to charm others to sleep, as it does with the mariners (1.2.230), and to charm Ferdinand from movement (1.2.467 s.d.). Ariel describes its own work as ‘spriting gently’ (1.2.298), consistent with the subtlety of something ‘invisible / To every eyeball’ (1.2.302–03) but that of Prospero.

Power and enslavement

Ariel is under Prospero’s power until the tasks he requires are complete. Caliban is unambiguously Prospero’s slave. Ferdinand is controlled through Ariel’s charm so that by Act 2, Scene 1 he can be exploited to bear logs for Prospero. By the play’s end all have the ‘liberty’ (1.2.245) that Ariel demands of Prospero, but which is here denied.

Though Prospero professes care for his daughter, his relationship with her can be manipulative and brooks no challenge. When she speaks in defence of Ferdinand (1.2.467–69) he is curt with her, ‘What, I say, / My foot my tutor?’ (1.2.469–70), and as she begs for his pity he demands, ‘Silence! one word more / Shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee’ (1.2.476–77). He seems secure only when in total control.


The film Forbidden Planet (1956) is a famous adaptation of The Tempest which casts the play as science fiction. Prospero the magician becomes the archetypal mad scientist Dr Morbius, stranded on the planet with only his daughter Altaira until the arrival of an expedition team from Earth. The film dwells on the controlling nature of Morbius, especially in relation to his daughter, and in his commanding of a robot helper, Robby. Obsessed with his research, Morbius unleashes terrifying forces he finds difficult to control in the form of the Monster of Id. In this way the film adds Freudian theories of psychoanalysis to The Tempest’s exploration of human nature.

Since the 1960s literary discussion of The Tempest has explored its representation of colonisation, following movements for de-colonisation in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. These post-colonial interpretations emphasise the claims that characters have to reside on and rule the island, and the conflicts that ensue. In particular, they challenge Prospero’s claim to authority. Caliban asserts ‘This island's mine by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me’ (1.2.331–32), while the scene discussed here makes clear that Ariel also pre-dated Prospero’s arrival. It is ironic that the action of the play is founded on Prospero’s desire to restore what he considers his legitimate sovereignty over Milan, while he imposes his rule on the original inhabitants of the isle.

  • John Gordon
  • Dr John Gordon is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. Previously a teacher of English, he researches English education and leads teacher training in the subject. His specialisms include literary reading, response to poetry and arts-based research. His publications include A Pedagogy of Poetry (2014) and Teaching English in Secondary Schools (2015). His current research includes Literature’s Lasting Impression investigating reading in class and its lifelong impact, and Akenfield Now in which young people improvise drama and make films in the tradition of Ronald Blythe’s book and Peter Hall’s film.

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