In William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Ariel states, "Hell is empty, and all the devils are here." How does this quote relate to Ariel's discovery in the play?

In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the spirit Ariel works his magic to create a tempest and a shipwreck which causes Ferdinand to abandon ship and cry out, "Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here" (1.2.250–251). Ariel uses his magical powers in much the same way to draw Prospero to the island where he discovers Ariel imprisoned in a pine tree, from which Prospero releases him.

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In William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Prospero orders his servant-spirit, Ariel, to create the tempest at sea that causes the shipwreck which opens the play. On the ship are the men who usurped Prospero's dukedom of Milan, including Prospero's brother, Antonio, and Alonso, the King of Naples, as well as others not involved with the usurpation, among whom is Alonso's son, Ferdinand.

Prospero asks Ariel to describe the shipwreck to him, and Ariel reports that he made the ship to look as if it was on fire and about to break apart. Ariel says that everyone on the ship except the sailors became desperate and abandoned ship, and that the first person who "plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel" (1.2.247) is Ferdinand, who cries out, "Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here" (1.2.250–251).

Ferdinand is frightened by what he sees as the evil spirits, or "devils," who seem to have overrun every part of the ship, as Ariel describes it:

I boarded the King's ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement. Sometime I'd divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. (1.2.230–235)

Ferdinand also might be describing Antonio and Alonso as if seen through Prospero's eyes, as the "devils" who usurped Prospero's dukedom and set him adrift at sea with his daughter, Miranda, and who are "all the devils" now here on Prospero's island.

Ariel's magical powers, particularly his powers over nature and his powers of enchantment through his musical skills, are demonstrated throughout the play. It's entirely possible that Ariel caused Prospero and Miranda to be cast away on the island in much the same way, but on a much smaller scale, that Ariel caused the shipwreck that brought Antonio, Alonso, Ferdinand, and all the other passengers on Alonso's ship onto the island.

When Prospero and Miranda first arrived on the island, Ariel was confined in a "cloven pine" (1.2.328), imprisoned there for the past twelve years by the sorceress Sycorax (1.2.329–330). By the time Prospero and Miranda arrive on the island, Sycorax had died, and there was only Ariel and a "devil" living there, in the person of Caliban, Sycorax's son.

What Prospero calls Ariel's "groans," which Prospero heard and which "did make wolves howl, and penetrate the breasts / of ever-angry bears (1.2.339–341), might not have been "groans" at all, but simply another example of Ariel's powers over nature and his powers of enchantment which drew Prospero to discover Ariel in the tree in which he was imprisoned. Ariel worked his magic on Prospero to bring him to the island and to release him from the tree in the same way that he worked his magic on the sailors and passengers on Alonso's ship to cause them to abandon ship and seek refuge on the island.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 7, 2021
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Ariel, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, is a magical spirit who, having been freed from the imprisonment imposed upon him by his earlier master, Sycorax, a mean-spirited witch, by Prospero is now condemned to find himself compelled to serve this new, albeit largely more benign, master. While Prospero has promised Ariel his freedom should the latter serve obediently and without complaint, the continued requirement to serve a master continues to bother the always helpful spirit. In Act I, Scene I, the ship transporting the former's nemeses, including Ferdinand, the reigning king's son, is caught in an enormous storm, or tempest, and the passengers are forced to abandon the vessel. These individuals, including Alonso, Prospero's brother who usurped the latter's rightful position as duke of Milan, are, per Prospero's instructions, allowed to live and are dispersed across the island now inhabited by the former duke of Milan and his daughter, Miranda. In Scene II, Prospero discusses with Ariel the ship's destruction and the survival of the passengers. Prospero had dispatched Ariel, who can change form at will and travel at great speed, to bring about the ship's ruin, although the inherently decent Prospero ensures that the ship's crew survives the storm. In any event, Prospero discusses the event with Ariel, in which the latter describes the ship's destruction through the spirit's efforts. It is in this context that Ariel, in describing how Prospero's nemeses jumped from the burning vessel into the sea, quotes Ferdinand's cry:

All but mariners
Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,
Then all afire with me: the king's son, Ferdinand,
With hair up-staring,--then like reeds, not hair,--
Was the first man that leap'd; cried, 'Hell is empty
And all the devils are here.'

So, what did Ferdinand mean by this exclamatory remark? As we learn, Alonso and the others conspired in Prospero's ouster and exile, and it is the former duke's intent to make his enemies pay for their treachery. Ferdinand, however, is not at all like his father. His observation that "hell is empty and all the devils are here" means that he recognizes the true character of his father and those with whom he has traveled, and that he views these men as essentially evil. Ariel's kind nature, however, influences Prospero in the latter's conduct of his vengeful plans. Oh, and Alonso is revealed as remorseful himself and merely prone to misguided acts of disloyalty.

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