By Miranda Garno Nesler
Previous work on Performing Humanity has explored the (in)human condition of Caliban, Sycorax’s enslaved son in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c. 1611). Caliban’s condition — as monster, human, native, and displaced inheritor of the island — garners regular attention in a world increasingly interested in post-colonial theory and its implications past and present.
At a recent performance of The Tempest hosted by BSU, however, I was struck by how little attention Ariel receives as a slave and Other within the play. During post-performance Q&A, the female actor who played the role discussed how Ariel is a “fun, airy figure” who is “joyful and fun to play.” Is Ariel a light figure? Certainly the play positions this spirit as someone who, like air or water, is changeable and hard to pin down. Ariel is an elemental whose shifting nature is at odds with the physical world of the island. Indeed, Shakespeare makes this contrast clear when every threat targeting Ariel involves punishment through physical constraint: captivity within a pine or an oak that will ground and concretize in a way that runs counter to Ariel’s own mercurial makeup.
But we cannot deny that Ariel, like Caliban, is enslaved. This enslavement, much like the threats of physicality imposed by sorcerers Sycorax and Prospero, highlights Ariel’s resistance to performing according to commands (as well as Ariel’s ultimate acquiescence under duress). Unlike Caliban, Ariel seeks to reason with the master Prospero rather than violently threatening or rebelling, and Ariel rhetorically reminds Prospero that as a man and a Duke he is honor bound to keep his work and free the spirit within the promised time-frame.
If Caliban is oppressed because of his physical and linguistic differences from the Italian Prospero and Miranda, what justifies Ariel’s enslavement? What markers set Ariel apart when, ostensibly, the spirit could easily generate the illusion of a physical appearance like his captors’?
My long-term contact with this play has me convinced that, for Ariel, it is androgyny that leads to Otherness. Within the text, there are no sexed or gendered markers linked to the figure. While Prospero at times uses diminutives such as “chick” to speak to his airy slave, even this is a term that would be used for a child (who, within early modern belief and practice, by which all children were dressed and treated the same until schooling age, had yet to fully conform to a particular gender). As a spirit of air, Ariel highlights the shifting nature of gender as it was perceived during the period — as such, Ariel is a figure who awakens anxiety about what counts as male/female and masculine/feminine, and what this means for the period’s legal and social systems.
I’ve discussed elsewhere on the blog how Galenic theory and the single-sex model led to anxiety about men and women’s transformative capacities based on their behavior; and I’ve discussed how problematic the legal and social responses were that sought to dehumanize women in order to generate reliable hierarchies. Ariel’s enslavement, therefore, seems to fit within this category of action. Rather than allowing Ariel to shift at will, a Western patriarchal figure in the guise of Prospero must Other this androgynous figure to dehumanize it, then must take control of how, when, and where Ariel’s shifting occurs so that Ariel works in service of patriarchal, hetero-normative goals of dynastic marriage and reproduction.
In my reading of Ariel, this character’s ability to deploy rhetoric and call upon systems of honor and law valued within Western patriarchy suggest that a figure of blended sex and gender troubles the idea that humanness during the period only emerges out of male masculinity.
Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an Assistant Professor of Early Modern Literature at Ball State University in Indiana. Her work emphasizes the disruptive capacities of silence in women’s writing and performance, as well as human-animal hybridity in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She is the editor of “Performing Humanity.”
1) Henry Fuseli, “Ariel,” c. 1800-10. Oil on canvas, approx. 36.5 ” x 28 . The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.
2) “Ariel,” in An Illustrated Shakspere Birthday Book (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1883).
Notably, both images portray Ariel as neither stably sexed nor gendered, with the physical markers of sex strategically covered.