Shakespeare and Shelly S Ariel: the Coding of Desire

Shakespeare and Shelly S Ariel: the Coding of Desire

Gresham 1

Karin Gresham

Professor Debbie Lee

English 521

12 Nov 2010

Shakespeare and Shelly’s Ariel: The Coding of Desire

In “’More than ever can be spoken’: Unconscious Fantasy in Shelly’s Jane Williams Poems,” Thomas Frosch details the complex history that surrounds Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To JanePoems,” a series of verses written to Jane Williams, the wife of a British naval officer he had befriended in 1821. Frosch poignantly observes in his analysis of The Magnetic Lady to Her Patient, one poem in this series, the heteroerotic desire Shelley felt for his close friend Jane Williams and, by proxy, the sexual passion he may have likewise felt for her husband James, who was perhaps included in Shelly’s fantasy of an “exciting oedipal triangle” (Frosch 387). A model for the theories of Eve Sedgwick, this erotic triangle details the relationship between two male rivals who, while competing for the female beloved, form an intense, potentially erotic bond that can exceed the desire that either male may feel for the woman over whom they presumably compete (Sedgwick 21). While Frosch is keen in applying Sedgwick’s model of triangulated desire, he nevertheless does not pay it adequate attention nor develop it as thoroughly as he could within the context of this poem nor Shelly’s other Jane Williams Poems. Instead, he chooses to devote his primary attention to investigating those aspects of this series of poems that superficially suggest Shelly’s love for Jane. In so doing, he fails to reconcile historical relations between Shelly and Edward that don’t somehow fit into his understanding of Shelly’s obsession with Jane. One perhaps extravagant assumption is that Edward, a minor figure of desire, would blithely stand by and even act as a messenger of love poems for his friend Shelly, the man who aggressively wants to bed his wife (7). Barry Weller, in a text dated approximately thirty years before Frosch’s, also speaks of Edward’s state of “tacit approval” as Shelly gives the guitar to Jane (Weller 916).

In an attempt to reconcile this apparent dissonance, I propose that we could just as readily examine the same situation from a different angle and expect that certain letters and/or poems were meant for Edward as an equal, if not primary figure, of Shelly’s homoerotic desire. Even through Frosch makes passing notice of a potential erotic triangle, he does not apply his observation to Shelly’s poem that would warrant its greatest attention: With a Guitar. To Jane. In fact, he completely misappropriates The Tempest’s Ariel by transforming the original figure, which was linked to pederastic desire, to a “preoedipal” child, and in this misappropriation he misses key signals in the poem that suggest a homoerotic passion for Edward that may equal Shelly’s feelings for Jane (22). By paying closer attention to Shakespeare’s original depiction of this character within the context of Shelly’s own presentation, we find a character that is not pre-sexual but instead in despair over his hyper- sexuality. I will demonstrate the likelihood of an erotic triangle among the three friends through an analysis of early modern folklore beliefs, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Shelly’s homoerotic beliefs—which are notably linked to childhood experience-- and the poem itself.

The fairy Ariel is our focus, so, in order to fully comprehend his character’s significance, we must understand the various legends and beliefs that surround, if not directly influence, Shakespeare’s creation of the fairy. Early modern witches and magicians were understood to compact with fairy familiars, which were the supernatural forces that would enact the various black magical desires of the conjuror. In The Tempest, Prospero made Ariel his own slave and/or familiar by releasing him from the prison in which Ariel’s former master, Sycorax the witch, had placed him. W. Stacy Johnson carefully observes that Ariel’s tree-bound imprisonment reflects popular early modern lore regarding familiars. In 1593, George Clifford recorded the tale of one witch who "had a spirite which did abide in a hollow tree," and Johnson notes, “the parallel is striking" (Johnson 225-6). His core character, as well as his above-mentioned circumstance, firmly roots him in folk traditions. Air spirits, like Ariel, which possessed moral ambivalence, were thought to be the cause of lightning and storms. Johnson notes that another contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Randall Hutchins, talks about spirits that “’disturb the air, stir up tempests and thunders,’ being ‘either evoked by the incantations of witches’ or impelled by ‘seditious influences’” (226). Thomas Heywood and Robert Burton are two more early moderns that share similar observations, and all three remark that such storms are famous for causing shipwrecks (226). Notably, in these various early modern associations, fairies, especially the air sprite Ariel, are not figures of child-like innocence and golden age goodness. Instead, they are thought to lure unsuspecting mortals with their music, just as Shelly lures Edward and Jane with his guitar’s siren song (Buccola 158-60).Even in Shelly’s later adaptation, they are figures associated with mischief and misbehavior.

More broadly, fairies were considered agents of social subversion; they dwelled in liminal regions, seemed apart from normal ideas of good and evil, and served as champions of the oppressed and less fortunate. Fairy fantasies in early modern England, for example, are akin to modern fantasies of winning the lottery. Regina Buccola, in Fairies, Fractious Women, and the Old Faith, extensively notes how the disenfranchised were able to manipulate various fairy associations that allowed them to subvert patriarchy and gain varying forms of advantage (Buccola 45-8). While she pays much attention to the relationship between fairy lore and feminist resistance, she pays very little attention to nontraditional forms of sexuality. She does give passing notice to a potential lesbian relationship between Hermia and Helena in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but she chooses not to develop any associations between fairy subversions and male homoeroticism (76). Her lack of development is particularly interesting in this regard, especially since she speaks several times at length about how early modern fairies subverted normative gender behaviors. She notes that female fairies were as likely to be found working in the fields as male fairies were to be found in the kitchen (41) and that fairies were associated with liminal locations, behaviors, and embodiment (43-45). Such associations could easily have led her into a discussion of sexual variancy, to include homoerotic desire between men. Disappointingly, she resists extending this conversation beyond the bounds of gender to a potentially more profound discussion about fairy association with homoerotic sexual behaviors. I therefore intend to expand her argument to the level of sexual discourse in examining Shelly’s portrayal of the fairy in relation to pederastic desire and social subversion.

To be sure, Shelly’s simple invocation of this fairy that is associated with other nontraditional worlds reminds us of various models of subversion and containment. To better understand Shelly’ simultaneous literary containment and taboo expression of desire, we may view his stanzas as a version of Carnival—an idea Mikhail Bakhtin discusses in Rabelais and His World. Here in his fantasy world of Miranda and Ferdinand, Ariel can imagine himself as imbedded in and central to their relationship. While this fantasy subverts the concept of the heteronormative marriage by making it polygamous and heteroerotic, it is nonetheless “safely” contained in the realm of fantasy. In this pastoral-like poem, certain fantasies, including sexual intercourse with married women (and potentially married men) are tolerated within a pronounced festival-like atmosphere. However, as Bakhtin would maintain, desire cannot be fully re-contained once festival is complete; Shelly will continue to desire both Jane and Edward expressively until the day that he and Edward die together.

These ideas are likewise explored in The Tempest through not only Prospero’s despotic use of magic but also through his suggestively homoerotic relationship to Ariel. When Ariel makes his first appearance in the play, he asserts to Prospero, “I come / To answer the best pleasure” (1.2.190). Ariel follows his brief remark by suggesting these pleasures may be “to dive into the fire” or “ride on the curled clouds” (1.2.190-91). One cannot help but see the sexual quality of these pleasures: diving into the fire becomes synonymous with the phallus engaging in intercourse, and riding into the clouds becomes synonymous with one lover riding another with toes curled in the moment of ecstasy. Even Ariel’s response to Prospero’s follow-on questioning of the tempest begs similar interpretations: claims like, “Now in the waits, the deck in every cabin / I flamed in amazement. Sometimes I’d divide / And burn in many places” and “[I] make his bold waves tremble, / Yea, his dread trident shake,” while they are clearly about Ariel’s destruction of the ship, also tempt us to think of homoerotic passion (1.2.205-06). Again, Ariel’s description of trembling “bold waves” and the “shaking trident” carry our imaginations to ideas of sexual intercourse between men, wherein the trident becomes symbolic of the phallus.

The language between the two remains violently sexual as Prospero becomes angered by Ariel’s moodiness and talk of freedom. Jonathan Goldberg claims that the simple act of imprisoning Ariel and prolonging the terms of the imprisonment implicate Prospero as a homoerotic aggressor (Goldberg 143). Prospero clearly believes that Ariel’s powers, which make him essentially invincible, are an extension of his own and therefore his by right. A critical part of Prospero’s identity within the context of this play is Ariel’s, for the most part, alacritous devotion to and servicing of his desires. Hence, it is not only Ariel he desires but also the recognition for Ariel’s desire of him, which makes him feel more powerful. When Ariel begs to leave him, Prospero feels that desire ebb and angrily fights to reassert his dominance over Ariel. Part of this Hegelian desire, as Alexander Kojeve explains, is “negating desire,” or “creat[ing] a new being by destroying the given being;” in other words, Prospero destroys Ariel’s autonomous identity by recreating Ariel’s identity as subordinate to and a part of his own (Kojeve 38). We will later see this same fight in Shelly, as Ariel violently attempts to reassert himself in Edward’s and Jane’s relationship because he feels depleted when he is ignored or feels their lack of desire.

In our current discussion of The Tempest, Prospero then reminds Ariel of the torment from which he freed him, and in doing so speaks of how he freed Ariel from a potentially sexual relationship with his last master, Sycorax. Prospero makes this idea plain in his suggestive rhetoric:

thou wast a spirit too delicate

To act her earthly and abhorred commands,

Refusing to grant her hests, she did confine thee

By help of her more potent ministers,

And in her most unmitigable rage,

Into a cloven pine

Imprisoned thou didst painfully remain. (1.2.270-78)

To this remark, Nora Johnson reminds the reader that “abhorred” may be a synonym for “whoring,” while “spirit” was a common “Shakespearean euphemism for semen” (Johnson 695). Prospero now claims that he has freed Ariel from an oppressive heteroerotic relationship and placed him in a more desirable homoerotic one. In this discourse, Prospero suggests that Ariel is “too delicate a spirit” to perform the Algerian Sycorax’s “abhorred commands.” Ana Loomba protests that representations of Sycorax as the oversexed Algerian black witch betray Shakespeare’s biased attitudes towards what he perceives as black female deviancy (Loomba 393-7). The ultimate punishment for refusing Sycorax’s demands, as Prospero recalls, is Ariel’s imprisonment within the acorn, which reminds us of the womb or vaginal cavity. In this feminine space, Ariel emits “groans” that “penetrate the breasts” of beastly animals and suggest sexual subjugation and even rape (1.2.87-89). It was from this sexualized, female-driven torment that Prospero released Ariel, claiming, “It was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out” (1.2.291-93). Not only does Prospero release Ariel from this bondage, in making the pine cone “gape” for Ariel to emerge, he also appears to hint at ejaculation, thus transferring the erotic context from the hetero to the homo.

Moreover, when Prospero next threatens to imprison Ariel in an oak tree rather than a pinecone, the mode of imprisonment becomes phallic rather than uterine (1.2.294-96). Prospero’s language begs similar sexual readings when he tells Ariel that he will “discharge thee” after two days and commands him to “make thyself like a nymph o’ th’ sea” (1.2.298-301). The words “discharge thee” again remind us of ejaculation, and the nymph is a female type of fairy, as Dianne Purkiss explains, who is forever caught in the stage of youth before marriage (Purkiss 48).

In Ariel, we find the total embodiment of renaissance desire: the androgynous male and female youth. Early modern sexual desire, like fairy myth, itself occupies a position of sexual liminality. Stephen Orgel reminds us in Impersonations that the two figures most desired by men were women and young boys. Striking to note is that the early modern standard for feminine beauty mirrored that of the young boy, which is to say that a beautiful woman should have slim hips and a flat chest. This singular idea of sexual desirability marks early modern England as pederastic to a significant extent (Orgel 70). Tellingly, Prospero only wants Ariel to transform for his own pleasure, as he tells Ariel to remain invisible to everyone but Prospero (1.2.301-2). This request both speaks of Prospero’s desire for Ariel and his wish to keep it both private and secret. When Ariel returns as a nymph, Prospero takes great delight in the sight: “Fine apparition! My quaint Ariel, / Hark in thine ear” (1.2.316-17). He concludes his approbation by whispering intimately, as a lover would, in Ariel’s ear.

Ariel appears just as keen to please Prospero as Prospero is to be pleased. After successfully performing various tricks on the stranded nobles, his first thought is that Prospero his lord “shall know what I have done” (II.ii.323). While we could readily assess that Ariel meets each task with alacrity simply because he wants to be freed, we also cannot help but notice Ariel’s need for praise to establish intimacy with Prospero. Later, Ariel contrives a grandly staged spectacle to make the stranded noblemen feel the weight of their sins, and he transforms himself into a harpy, a half-woman and half-winged beast. Anne Thompson notes that Ariel, required to play a sea nymph and a half-female harpy, suffers from gender ambiguity, but she fails to carry this interesting thread of an idea any further (Thompson 403). Nora Johnson does carry this interpretation to a critical level by asserting that, in the androgynous Ariel, Prospero finds pleasure in both the male and female objects of sexuality (Johnson 696). Her observation is made manifest once Ariel has violently chastised the besotted, maddened crew; Prospero again delights in Ariel’s feminine disguise and the mischief he has wrought while wearing it, reminding Ariel that he is “my Ariel” (4.1.84). In this last line, Prospero modifies the violence of the moment by infusing it with a passionate intimacy. This violent, sadomasochistic series of episodes and language, while a primary tool for understanding their erotic relationship—Prospero continually speaks of “using” Ariel to do his “tricks”—parallels an erotic intimacy also suggested in several tender moments between the two (4.1.36-37). Ariel, after responding readily to another of Prospero’s demands, questions, “Do you love me master?” (4.1.48). To this erotically charged question, he replies, “Dearly my delicate Ariel” (4.1.47-48). Coupled with the previous examples of violent and homoerotic lust, this moment appears sensual rather than platonic.

Conversely, Prospero doesn’t appear to be the only homoerotic sadist on the island; Ariel likewise gains pleasure in tormenting and penetrating men over whom he has power. Recalling to Prospero a particular scene in which he tricked the drunkards, Stephano and Triculo, Ariel speaks as if he first witnessed and then participated in a violent sexual encounter. When he remarks upon how arrogant and belligerent this group was, he uses highly erotic language, noting that the men smote the air / For breathing in their faces, Beat the ground / For kissing of their feet; yet always bending / Towards their project” (4.1.171-75). Participles like “breathing,” “beat(ing),” “kissing,” and “bending” all suggest sexual intimacy and struggle. While “bending” could also imply “moving forward,” a forward motion could also represent sexual climax. Ariel then engages in this (linguistic) group orgy by establishing himself as the top-- the S/M term for the participant who prefers to cause rather than receive the pain: he “beat” his “tabor” until the “colts” then “pricked their ears” and followed his music through “the pricking gorse, and thorns, / Which entered their frail shins” (4.1.175-81). In the language of bestiality and penetration, Ariel recounts how he mastered these men.