The Tempest – Ariel, Prospero and Caliban – a very wonky triangle

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Prospero and Caliban

This is the second of a series of blogs on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, blogs will be posted both here and at Finding Shakespeare on Fridays.

For me as a reader The Tempest is most fascinating for the relationship portrayed between its 3 key protagonists; Prospero – The deposed Duke of Milan, now stranded on this island, whose study of magic has given him certain powers, Caliban – Prospero’s unwilling slave who claims that the island is really his, and, Ariel – a spirit who Prospero commands to help with his magic but who is also forcibly kept by Prospero.

At first glance the relationship between these three might seem simple, Prospero is the master who has two servants, one who is good (Ariel) and one who is bad (Caliban). However we also face a number of questions. How good a master is Prospero? How willing a helper is Ariel? How do they have power over eachother?

Traditionally, up until about 50 years ago Prospero was considered a benign ruler who had done what he could to reform the naturally evil Caliban and who had a nice avuncular relationship with Ariel. However, more recently Prospero has been portrayed as the cruel power hungry master who enslaved Caliban simply because he did not understand him and whose relationship with Ariel is exploitative or even abusive. But this is to polarize what is really, it seems to me, a much more complex relationship.

Prospero enslaves Caliban and keeps him subjugated by the use of magic to frighten or subdue him. However his need to do this may stem from his fear of Caliban, a virile young male whose sexuality is focused on his daughter. A figure of physical strength who Prospero knows would overthrow or kill him if he could. Prospero may be ‘brains’ but Caliban is ‘brawn’ and brawn at that who knows how to survive in the harsh island environment.

Ariel is also in thrall to Prospero who keeps the spirit doing his bidding by threatening to return him to the suffering from which he came. However for a slave Ariel also has power over Prospero. Firstly it is unclear how powerful Prospero’s magic is without Ariel to execute it, secondly Ariel is the more humane of the two. It is Ariel who reminds Prospero that forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance and, as he does in fact turn Prospero from his course of revenge it is the slave here who directs his master.

One can analyse and complicate the relationship between them all in a myriad of different ways for instance, how about Prospero as a the troubled soul whose divided nature is represented by Caliban and Ariel played not as individual characters but as integrated parts of Prospero’s psyche. Or is relagating an individual to an expression of another man’s psychology  the ultimate in enslavement?

If you enjoyed this go to Finding Shakespeare to find out more and enjoy the slide show below which shows some of the ways these characters have been represented on stage.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sonja-Foxe/1023314658 Sonja Foxe

    Since I believe Prospero is deVere’s take on John Dee who had an angelic informant Uriel as well as a scryer to contact said Angel: Sir Edward Kelley (Talbot) who was also the model for Marlowe’s Mephistopheles … that is the central triangular relationship … Talbot escaped the relationship in an intriguing fashion … telling Dee that the angels demanded that they swap wives of an evening …

    As for Hegel — well his chain of causality is in general confounded

  • Janugits

    Shakespeare work is the best!…http://www.essayconsult.net/

  • Netenaj

    I love anything to do with Shakespeare…i just enjoy his work.

  • Anonymous

    Great little article, a real treat for Shakespeare nuts. But the idea disturbs me; you don’t think Prospero sincerely threatened to return Ariel to a tree do you? I believe the exert you are referring is this one:

    “Dost thou forget From what a torment I did free thee?… …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.” Act I.III was always under the impression that this threat was comparable to a mother saying to her child ‘don’t pull funny faces or the wind will make it stick that way’ or ‘if you do that again I’ll take you back to tescos’. We know Prospero loves to pretend he is a grumpy old man because of the way he deliberately chastises the Prince, knowing his daughter will fall even harder for him that way. If Prospero can forgive his brother for that terrible betrayl, I can hardly imagine he would seriously consider imprisoning Ariel just for wanting his own freedom back. The impression I get is that Prospero ‘guilt trips’ Ariel in that conversation. Nonetheless, the article had made me aware of a whole different perspective on their relationship; I hope one day I get to see a production which makes use of these notions. What a cool, intriguing article!

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    That’s really thought provoking, in my own studies I only really skimmed the surface of Marxist analysis my background being more what was then called cultural materialism (which is still a style which owes it’s roots to Marx). I had not heard of Hegel’s three step analysis which I find quite a fascinating idea, what it reminds me of if psychological theories of child development and how some problems like Autism are linked to the idea of the sufferer struggling with the concept of there being two centres of perception in the room. To connect this back to Ariel, students have often told me that reading the play they perceived him as a boy or youth who begins the play rather teenage (where Prospero refers to him as ‘moody’) but then grows in maturity to the point where he expresses empathy. This is an interesting reading of the play as more of a coming to maturity tale (a progression experienced by many characters to a degree – Miranda, Ferdinand, Prospero) rather than a play about the politics of enslavement. As for Marx’s idea that these patterns are a product of a patriarchal society and the future would see them irradiated – where is that future? ^liz

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    That’s really thought provoking, in my own studies I only really skimmed the surface of Marxist analysis my background being more what was then called cultural materialism (which is still a style which owes it’s roots to Marx). I had not heard of Hegel’s three step analysis which I find quite a fascinating idea, what it reminds me of if psychological theories of child development and how some problems like Autism are linked to the idea of the sufferer struggling with the concept of there being two centres of perception in the room. To connect this back to Ariel, students have often told me that reading the play they perceived him as a boy or youth who begins the play rather teenage (where Prospero refers to him as ‘moody’) but then grows in maturity to the point where he expresses empathy. This is an interesting reading of the play as more of a coming to maturity tale (a progression experienced by many characters to a degree – Miranda, Ferdinand, Prospero) rather than a play about the politics of enslavement. As for Marx’s idea that these patterns are a product of a patriarchal society and the future would see them irradiated – where is that future? ^liz

  • Christian Smith

    I am not a good enough Hegel scholar to say whether he considered his analysis to be the only way that consciousness can arise. Some call Hegel an idealist whose philosophy has essentialism as its foundation. Others feel that Hegel is more materialist than we give him credit for. What I can say, though, is that Marx, who took Hegel’s work and ran with it, would consider the Master-Slave dialectic in its socio-historical context. In other words, Ariel being in bondage to Propsero is not the only way that Ariel can develop his consciousness, but it is the way it will occur in a patriarchal world – one that is rooted in hierarchical relations of power. And certainly, that is the setting of this play. In a post-Patriarchal world there will be no Masters, Slaves, capitalists or workers. As Marx says, the working class will, through revolution, abolish itself. Hegel’s three-step development of Geist – which includes first recognizing that one is the Self (the centre of perception), then failing to recognize that the Other is also a self and therefore attempting to set up a one way system of recognition (which ultimately fails), and finally arriving at the realization that both parties are Selves (there are two centres of perception in the room) – will skip the second step in a post-patriarchal world. In other words, in that world, Ariel will not need to pass through the phases of enslaved labour in order to realize his full potential.

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    I like this analysis, but then it raises questions about what happens next, If Ariel acquires a mind of his own through work, what happens when he is set free? Is this not an ironic ending? Also I am interested in the assumption lurking under this analysis that Ariel needs Prospero to reach his full potential and that the enslavement is in some ways useful and even empowering.

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Perhaps the idea is that the master deserts the slave when the need for him/her is passed. In relation to other comments here, Prospero does tell Miranda that they cannot “do without” Caliban, so he is of use to them. The idea of co-dependency is interesting in relation to The Tempest and it is often represented as such on the stage, with master needing servant as well as servant needing master.

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Insightful as ever, Christian. One of the things which I have always found interesting about the tempest is how well Caliban and Ariel know eachother. Their relationship if such it is is a resounding blank. Caliban does mention at one point that the other sprites hate Prospero “as rootedly” as he does, but it is not certain whether that includes Ariel or not. Your suggestion that Caliban and Ariel work together to overthrow Prospero is one oddly neglected by Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s alternative, healing, is however typically humane.

  • Christian Smith

    I agree with Zsolt that there is more to the story than what I wrote in my comment and will take his suggestion to extend my interpretation in light of Hegel and Marx. In paragraph 195 of Ph. des Geistes, Hegel writes, ‘Through work…the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is,’ and then, ‘It is in this way, therefore, that consciousness, qua worker, comes to see in the independent being [of the object] its own independence.’ Marx has problematized this possibility through his notion of reification. After much time of being alienated from his labour power the worker loses the possibility of this philosophically-contrived consciousness and succumbs to an emptying of his Geist. It is emptied of its knowledge about its actual situation and of its history. Consequently it is emptied of the consciousness of its revolutionary future. Marx uses quotes from and allusions to Shylock to describe a Geist with its heart cut out – the reified consciousness.

    In the Tempest, most of Prospero’s magical acts are carried out through Ariel’s labour. Ariel sinks the ship and distributes the crew on the island. Ariel enchants Ferdinand and the others with his music and then saves the King from regicide. He tricks the conspirators and then torments them with the Harpies. Ariel drives the characters all over the island and in the end, it is Ariel who attires Prospero. Lurking under the surface of this play is the possibility that at any point, Ariel could have gone on strike, or, worse, united with Caliban and defeated the humans. Ariel seems to have become alienated from his power. What happens when we compare this character to Hegel’s idea that, ‘through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own.’ par 196.

    When Ariel has acquired a mind of his own he tells Prospero to be empathic. To see the suffering of his usurpers-turned-captives and to forgive them. Ariel moves Geist to the state of mutual recognition. He sees the Selves of the captives and through his suggestion of forgiveness causes them to see Prospero’s and Miranda’s Selves. It will, of course, take more work to rehabilitate Sebastian and Antonio. Utopia? Well, Gonzalo dreamed it up for us.

  • http://twitter.com/zsalmasi Zsolt Almási

    Thank you very much for both the illuminating post and the thought-provoking comment. I’m going to address the latter below.

    First, I was happy to read about the application of the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic to The Tempest. Nevertheless, I think that this dialectic may be developed in another direction as well. In the Phaenomenologie des Geistes, there is a bit more complicated dialectic, insofar as the story of the master and slave in their struggle for recognition does not end with the slave’s recognizing the master as master, but continues to the extent that the slave through work remains close to reality and the master by being served loses contact with the same and becomes dependent. This continuation of the story has not always been recognized, although this continuation may well be applicable to The Tempest too, if one intends to stick to reading the text in the light of the Master -Slave dialectic.

    Also the work power that is required from Caliban is a complicated issue, as he is not represented as someone who would act as a proper slave. Ferdinand’s carrying the logs is highlighted with Caliban’s refusal of doing this. And this refusal can hardly be the foundation of Prospero’s well-being.

    The revolutionary practice is also frustrating, at least with respect to the outcome of the revolutionary activity, since both Ariel and Caliban obtain what they needed: Arial is rewarded with freedom, Caliban receives his island back. Thus, in the revolutionary perspective this outcome is rather pessimistic: whatever you do, whether you obey or disobey, you will get what you have desired. Why be active, then?

    Thanks again for the post, and for the comment as well.

  • Christian Smith

    One issue that you raise here is the relationship between the Slave and the Master. In Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic, the Master is the Master because the Slave recognizes him as such. Prospero was helped to survive on the island by Caliban, who could have simply eaten him (cannibal) when he washed ashore. Even at the height of his powers (at the play’s opening), Prospero’s survival is ensured through the exploitation of Caliban’s labour power. The wizard’s magic is constructed through the use of Ariel’s labour power. In the middle of the play Caliban rebels and threatens Prospero’s life. However, he and his comrades make a highly inefficient army. And, crucially, he is not joined by Prospero’s armed forces – Ariel. All revolutionaries know that they must get the armed forces – as working class – on their side in order to overthrow the oppressor. The Bolshevik revolution was clinched when the Navy formed soviets and came over to the side of the workers. Shakespeare, as usual, was amazingly prophetic in this play which can enlighten post-colonial theory and revolutionary praxis.

    However, Shakespeare, in The Tempest, was working on what Hegel and Marx would call mutual recognition. Instead of having the slaves overthrow the Master, they heal him. Ariel with his line, ‘Mine would [affections become tender], sir, were I human’, teaches Prospero that to be human is to have empathy. Prospero immediately sees the difference between his vengeance and Ariel’s empathy. “Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling/ Of their afflictions, and shall not myself/(One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,/ Passion as they) be kindlier moved than thou art?” Prospero opts for the rarer action, the higher value of forgiveness. Something that Shakespeare may have found in his readings of Montaigne.

    What a prospect for our future that Ariel suggest for us – empathic healing of the oppressor as the more profound revolution.

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