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Ariel: Shakespeare's Most Musical Character

Ariel, from "The Tempest", is one of Shakespeare's most musical and magical characters, and it shows through his several songs, instruments, exits and entrances, and abilities.

Shakespeare’s most musical character is Ariel, the “airy spirit” of The Tempestand he also happens to be one of Shakespeare’s most magical characters. Ariel has four songs in The Tempest (second only to Autolycus and Feste). He plays the pipe and tabor, and his exits and entrances are almost always accompanied with music. He can also fly, turn himself invisible, and control the elements and other characters with his magic.

Ariel has been depicted in a number of different ways over the centuries. In each production, his appearance and the music which accompanies him have been interpreted very differently.

Ariel 2

Unlike Shakespeare’s professional musicians, Ariel’s songs are a fundamental part of his nature and are the manifestation of his magic. Shakespeare uses his songs to drive the play’s plot, as they make characters act in certain ways. The following are the songs which Ariel sings throughout the play, and the magical effect they have.

Come Unto These Yellow Sands - Act 1 Scene 2

Click to listen to Version 1 (John Woolf) or Version 2 (Guy Woolfenden)

[Re-enter Ariel, invisible, playing and singing; Ferdinand following]
"Come unto these yellow sands, 
And then take hands:
Courtsied when you have and kiss'd
The wild waves whist,

Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark!
[Burthen (dispersedly, within): Bow-wow]
The watch-dogs bark!
[Burthen: Bow-wow]
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow."

In this scene, Ariel appears as a water-nymph, invisible to everyone except for his master, Prospero. He uses this song to calm the stormy seas which has shipwrecked Ferdinand and his father’s ship, to calm Ferdinand, and to lead him further into the island. The “burthen” is believed to be a chorus of spirits who answer Ariel, and the animal noises they make disorientate Ferdinand, putting him at the mercy of Prospero.

Full Fathom Five - Act One Scene Two

Click to listen to Version 1 (John Woolf) or Version 2 (Guy Woolfenden)

"Full fathom five thy father lies; 
Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes: 
Nothing of him that doth fade 
But doth suffer a sea-change 
Into something rich and strange. 
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell 
[Burthen: Ding-dong] 
Hark! now I hear them,—Ding-dong, bell."

Ariel continues to lead Ferdinand with his singing, convincing him that his father has drowned in the storm. Ferdinand cannot tell where the ownerless voice is coming from, and comments that it seems to come from above him. It is possible that Ariel would have been suspended above the stage on wires in Shakespeare’s time, to simulate him “flying”.


 While You Here Do Snoring Lie - Act Two Scene One

[Sings in GONZALO's ear] 
"While you here do snoring lie, 
Open-eyed conspiracy
His time doth take. 
If of life you keep a care, 
Shake off slumber, and beware: 
Awake, awake!"

Here, Ariel awakens Gonzalo from an enchanted sleep with this song, and saves him from being murdered by Sebastian. Again, Gonzalo is confused by the spirit’s voice and believes he heard only a “humming”.


Where The Bee Sucks - Act Five Scene One

Listen to Guy Woolfenden's version

"Where the bee sucks, there suck I: 
In a cowslip's bell I lie; 
There I couch when owls do cry. 
On the bat's back I do fly 
After summer merrily. 
Merrily, merrily shall I live now 
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough."

Ariel spends the whole play waiting to be freed from the service of his master, Prospero. In the final act of the play, Prospero promises that he will soon be free, and Ariel sings as he helps to dress the enchanter. The song here does not work as a spell on any character, but seems to be spontaneous, and anticipates Ariel’s freedom to go where he pleases as an “airy spirit” once he is released.

Ariel 1700s-1900s.
Various depictions of Ariel from the 1700s to the 1900s.

Earlier in the play, Ariel also plays on the pipe and tabor, mimicking the drinking songs of two shipwrecked drunkards. When they become frightened at the music which seems to come out of thin air, Prospero’s savage slave, Caliban tells them not to be afraid, with the famous line:

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, 
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. 
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears”

The Tempest, Act 3 Scene 2

As Ariel is so often accompanied by music as he travels around the island doing Prospero’s bidding, it is clear that the noises, sounds, and sweet airs are his doing. He controls the musical landscape of Shakespeare’s most musical play, and this makes him Shakespeare’s most musical character.

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