Complex relationships and their meanings are integral to the renowned depth of the characters and themes of Shakespeare’s plays. In “The Tempest,” Prospero’s antagonistic relationship with his monstrous slave Caliban and his amicable relationship with his airy servant Ariel form the backbone of the deposed Duke’s character. By presenting the stark difference between the Prospero-Caliban and Prospero-Ariel relationship, “The Tempest” provides a profound commentary on the consequences of man’s choices and thereby suggests that successful interactions rely on reciprocity and on the respect of each party’s freedom.
Throughout the narrative Ariel maintains an amicable relationship with Prospero. At the beginning of the story it is revealed that Prospero freed Ariel from “a cloven pine; within which rift imprisoned [he had] painfully [remained] a dozen years” (17), put there by the witch Sycorax, who had no use for an airy spirit. Ariel has been returning the favor by obeying the former Duke’s orders, summoning the tempest, sowing sleep and conjuring apparitions at his command. Barring the single time Prospero had to threaten his servant: “I will rend an oak and peg thee in his knotty entrails [for] twelve winters” (18), Ariel is thoroughly obedient, on occasion even acting in Prospero’s best interest without the need for directions from his master; he keeps Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban occupied even when Prospero “had forgot that foul conspiracy” (69). In exchange for his service, Prospero promised to grant Ariel his freedom for a full year; at the end of the novel Ariel actually receives indefinite freedom from servitude when his master abandons his magic and returns to Milan. Ariel and Prospero are codependent: without Ariel none of Prospero’s schemes could have come to fruition and without Prospero Ariel would still be imprisoned in his pine. In addition, Ariel deeply betters Prospero by providing the inspiration for his decision to forgive the men who wronged him, telling him that “[his] charm so strongly works ’em, that if [he] now beheld them, [his] affectations would become tender” (75). Overall, Ariel’s choice to willingly work so as to both repay his master for freeing him from his tree prison and so as to eventually obtain absolute freedom is the reason that his relationship with Prospero is so successful.
Caliban, on the other hand, maintains an antagonistic relationship with Prospero throughout the narrative. Prospero must repeatedly use his spirits to force Caliban into performing even the simplest task. Though Caliban repeatedly bemoans his confinement to servitude: “this island’s mine by Sycorax [...] which though tak’st from me” (20), his lack of freedom from servitude is not the source of the disharmony. In fact, Prospero’s powerlessness to stop his earthy servant joining up with Stephano and Trinculo demonstrates that Caliban already had the possibility of freedom. It would therefore seem that apart from the infliction of physical pain through the medium of the spirits, the deposed Duke actually possesses only a limited power over Caliban. In addition, Caliban’s choice to immediately subjugate himself to Stephano proves that he does not actually want to be his own master. Evidently the true source of the antagonism does not lie with Prospero keeping Caliban in forced servitude since the servant neither wants nor exploits the possibility of freedom. In fact the Prospero-Caliban relationship was ruined by the attempted rape of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, by Caliban. Before that incident the relationship was far more beneficial, Caliban recounts that “when [Prospero] cam’st first, [he] strok’st me and made much of me; would’st [...] teach me how to name the bigger light, and how the less” (20); in return, Caliban “loved [Prospero] and showed [him] all the qualities o’ th’ isle” (20). The earthy creature’s claim at the moment of Prospero’s departure that “I’ll be wise hereafter, and seek for grace” (86) indicates that he always wanted to love his master and to be loved in return. However, Caliban’s choice to persist with his sexual desire, unrepentantly declaring, “would’t had been done [...] I had peopled this isle with Calibans” (20), despite the fact that both Miranda and Prospero are horrified by the idea makes any friendship with Prospero impossible. All in all, Caliban’s poor choices regarding Miranda are the cause of his thoroughly unsuccessful relationship with Prospero.
It is evident that different choices lie at the heart of the success of the Prospero-Ariel relationship and of the failure of the Prospero-Caliban relationship. Ariel and Prospero choose to respect the freedoms of the other: Prospero recognises his servant’s need for freedom while Ariel recognises his master’s need to be free to control the lives of those who wronged him. This mutual respect allows a relationship of reciprocity wherein both parties get what they want. Prospero freed Ariel from a pine, Ariel repays him by obediently employing quasi-omnipotent magic to right the wrongs inflicted on his master, and in turn Prospero repays Ariel by granting him his freedom. The early stages of the Prospero-Caliban relationship were similarly respectful and reciprocal: Caliban lovingly shows Prospero the springs and the fertile areas of the island, and in return Prospero teaches him how to speak and loves him dearly. However, Caliban wants sex with Miranda as well as Prospero’s love, two things which he cannot have simultaneously since Miranda never consents. Caliban’s choice to prioritize sex by trying to rape Miranda therefore constitutes an unacceptable infringement on her (and by extension Prospero’s) freedom and puts an end to any possibility of a reciprocal Prospero-Caliban relationship. Caliban realises too late that he has lost the only opportunity for love that he will ever have. The stark contrast between the choices made by Ariel and those made by Caliban in their relationships with Prospero demonstrate that successful relationships rely on both reciprocity of action and mutual respect of freedom.
In conclusion, by presenting an amicable Prospero-Ariel relationship based on reciprocity alongside an antagonistic Prospero-Caliban relationship based on the violation of freedoms, the narrative of “The Tempest” suggests that successful relationships are based on reciprocity and respect. It remains a matter of choice whether or not each member of the relationship will prioritise these two key elements and thereby decide the success or failure of the relationship as a whole.