Ariel’s Ambiguous Gender

In our class discussions on The Tempest, most members of our class gendered Ariel as female. Common criticisms of The Tempest, however, refer to Ariel as male while acknowledging the ambiguity of his gender as a product of ambiguity in his form. I find that my views on mapping in this text vary depending on how I choose to interoperate Ariel’s gender.

I read The Tempest last semester in tandem with literary criticisms that refer to Ariel as “he,” and thus did find his gender ambiguous, as the conclusions of those works colored my perceptions of Ariel. When I read Ariel as a man, I viewed The Tempest as a map of general power dynamics and power struggles; Prospero uses Ariel to facilitate power and makes Ariel the key to successfully navigating his way to the top of power struggles. Under this interpretation, colonialism and slavery arise as two prominent themes and issues in the play.

In reading Ariel as a woman this semester, however, I began to view The Tempest as much more of a political map. While political implications, colonialism, and enslavement are undeniably present no matter how you read Ariel’s gender,  the fact that Prospero uses a woman to facilitate his power highlights Miranda’s role in the play. She, too, is used as a political pawn, and thus political themes become far more prevalent.

Margaret Leighton as Ariel in a 1952 stage version of The Tempest.


Ben Whishaw as Ariel in the 2010 movie version of The Tempest.

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