Is Ariel a male, female or a genderless spirit?

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Ariel's gender has been the subject of much debate; it is now generally assumed that the spirit's gender is so unimportant to his role in the play that Ariel can be played by either a man or a woman. For much of the play's history, however, Ariel was always played...

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Ariel's gender has been the subject of much debate; it is now generally assumed that the spirit's gender is so unimportant to his role in the play that Ariel can be played by either a man or a woman. For much of the play's history, however, Ariel was always played by a woman. After female players were introduced in the mid-1600s, a female actor would embody Ariel. This continued until the early 20th century, at which point custom shifted. In some high profile recent productions of The Tempest, Ariel has been played by men (Colin Morgan, Ben Whishaw) but has been given an androgynous presentation.

Part of the confusion arises from the lack of pronouns used to describe Ariel in the play. There are two uses of "his," once in a stage direction and once in Act 1, Scene 2, "Ariel and all his quality." But, given that "his" has long been used in English to mean "one's" or "his or her" -- as in, "to each his own" -- this is not definitive. Ariel could be a genderless spirit who uses male-default language in this instance.

So, Ariel might be male, or female, or genderless. It is up to you or to the director, and doesn't make a significant difference either way.

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Ariel is male. You can find out more about him by visiting the eNotes link below. Here is an excerpt:

He is a spirit of the air. In I.ii.250-93, we learn that Ariel was once the servant of Sycorax, a wicked sorceress who had imprisoned the spirit in a "cloven pine" for refusing to fulfill her "earthy and abhorr'd commands" (I.ii.277,273). Ariel remained trapped inside the tree for twelve years, crying out in pain, until Prospero arrived on the island, released him, and bound the airy spirit to his service.

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There is no clear distinction of gender...it lends itself to the magical air of the setting and of Ariel's powers.  Remember this is a comedy, and all things are light and fun in a comedy.  Besides, there is so much transgender activity in this play, perhaps Shakespeare did it on purpose...no gender for Ariel, and girls are dressing as boys, etc.

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