So, I’ve been doing some thinking. In The Tempest, just what is Ariel?

In “The Names of the Actors,” we get Ariel as an “airy spirit.” Of course, relying on the Dramatis Personae is, for me at least, a act fraught with dangers. They’re editorial at best. But since Prospero himself uses the term in their first interaction (I.ii.193), let’s go with that.

So what did “spirit” mean for Shakespeare and his audience?

Well, most likely, it was the third major definition:

“A supernatural, incorporeal, rational being or personality, usually regarded as imperceptible at ordinary times to the human senses, but capable of becoming visible at pleasure, and frequently conceived as troublesome, terrifying, or hostile to mankind.
  • “spirit, n. I.3.a.”
    Oxford English Dictionary Online

And if The Tempest was a novel, I’d stop there. As this is a play–you know, with human actors–I’d probably append the third sub-point for that definition: “A being of this nature imagined as possessing and actuating a person” (“spirit, n. I.3.c.” OED). I don’t think we’re dealing with the soul of a person (especially one’s that just met his maker)…though that might make for an interesting take on the play.

Incorporeal. Imperceptible..until it shows up. I keep looking at the text. Is there a time when Ariel is seen by someone other than Prospero? I know, I know, Ferdinand, Caliban, and the drunks can hear Ariel, but actually see it? I don’t think so. I’d assume that Sycorax could see it, as well; how else could she imprison Ariel in the tree? And if that’s the case, why just these two? Why doesn’t Caliban see it?

Is Ariel magic? Witchcraft?

I don’t know.

What I do think is possible is use of the first major “spirit” definition: “The animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life” (“spirit, n. I.1.a.” OED). Is Ariel actually a part of Prospero? A kind of essence? Is his release of his spirit the reason why his “every third thought shall be [his] grave” (V.i.312)? Was Sycorax’s imprisonment of Ariel in the tree, the same kind of “retirement” from magic that we see Prospero reach at the end of the play?

Or am I overthinking this? Is Ariel like Tinkerbell, who lives on the belief of the audience? After all, I would say that if you don’t buy Ariel, the production probably is toast.

Which raises the last questions: how the heck do you portray Ariel on stage? Flying? Not really there? The RSC’s recent production made major use of on-the-fly computer generated imagery? Is that how you do it?