Case Study 1: Introduction

In The Tempest the character of Ariel is listed in the dramatis personae as an “airy spirit”. The male pronoun he is used in reference to the character once, but they are far more frequently referred to as “spirit” or by a variety of nicknames including “my bird,” “delicate Ariel”, and often fondly as “my Ariel.” Over the course of the play Ariel takes the form of a sea-nymph, a harpy, and the goddess Ceres. The role has been played by actors of all genders over the years; it originated as a young boy’s part, was largely portrayed by women in the romantic period, and is now played by all genders and sometimes by more than one actor of various genders. There is a strong textual argument to be made that Ariel is not male, or female, or necessarily any gender, but just genderless spirit.

Given the ambiguous text, and the varied production history, I was interested to see how Ariel had been gendered in academic books and articles over time. Tracking pronoun usage for this character in scholarly writing could potentially be a snapshot of how understanding of the text, and of gender, has changed over the years.


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