|Behind the Scenes|
|Created by||William Shakespeare|
|“|| All hail, great master! grave sir, hail! I come|
To answer thy best pleasure; be't to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curl'd clouds, to thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality.
— Ariel, The Tempest, Act I, Scene II.
While he's been referred to by male pronouns, Ariel's actual gender remains ambiguous and he's variously been portrayed as female, genderless or androgynous.
Little has been revealed about Ariel's past. It isn't clear whether he came from Algiers with Sycorax or was found in the island by her and forced into servitude. In any case, he was described as too kind and delicate to obey the vile witch's orders. Therefore she punished him by trapping him within the bark of a pine tree for twelve years, during which time she perished, leaving her monstrous son Caliban as the only non-spiritual inhabitant of the island. This would remain so until the arrival of the recently-exiled Prospero and his daughter Miranda.
Ariel suffered intensely during his imprisonment. He would constantly wail in agony, and his distressed screams would frighten even the most feral beasts such as bears and wolves. When Prospero, a skilled wizard, freed Ariel from his torment, the grateful spirit bowed down to him and became his servant, loyally executing every wish and command of his master.
Ariel himself also seems to have command over the other spirits of the island, acting as an intermediate between Prospero and them.
Ariel is a dutiful and joyful spirit who wants to please Prospero and is extremely loyal to him. However, he strongly desires his freedom and waits patiently for the day his debt will be paid and Prospero will grant him his liberty.
Ariel can shapeshift, exert control over the elements, put people under a form of stupor, create powerful illusions, mimic voices perfectly and become invisible to all but himself and Prospero.
Question of gender
The question of Ariel's gender - assuming he has one - is left ambiguous in the text and has been subject to considerable debate. He's referred to by male pronouns, although that happens only twice in the entire text - one of these instances being in a stage direction rather than dialogue. On the other hand, he also assumes the form of a sea nymph and a harpy - both creatures being exclusively female. Being an air spirit, it's likely that Shakespeare intended the character to be viewed as genderless.
It's perhaps notable that Miranda - when she admits that, having been raised in the island, she has never seen any men other than her father Prospero and the monstrous Caliban - doesn't mention Ariel. However, it isn't at all clear whether Miranda is even aware of Ariel's existence, as she never interacts with him or mentions him. There are in fact evidences that Prospero may be actively preventing her from finding out about Ariel. For instance, Prospero sends Miranda off to go to sleep just before summoning Ariel. And when she questions him about the titular tempest, created by magical spells, Prospero speaks as if he had created it himself and omits the fact that he ordered Ariel to do it.
In a latter scene, Miranda does also mention that she's never seen a female face either, other than her own reflection. This would suggest that, if she's aware of Ariel, she considers him to be neither male nor female. However in this scene, unlike the earlier one, she claims that the only male face she's seen before Ferdinand was that of Prospero - therefore omitting Caliban and implying that she could be talking about human faces specifically.
From the 17th to the 19th century, it was commonplace to have Ariel portrayed on stage as a feminine creature and the role was typically played by a woman. Nowadays, this is still common, but far from the only norm, as he's also been played by male actors and is often interpreted as being somewhat androgynous.
- The Tempest, by William Shakespeare (1610) (First appearance)