Liberty Matters

Ethical Leadership and the Temptations of Absolute Power


I was a little surprised to come back from my summer vacation and find that our discussion of power and politics in Shakespeare had become a discussion of grace and Christian theology in Shakespeare. I was particularly surprised to find that The Tempest and Ariel had become the focal point for that discussion.
I’ve always seen Ariel as a symbol of pagan magic and custom rather than as a symbol or messenger of divine grace. Possessed of near infinite magical capabilities—Ariel can control the weather, foil human designs, fly, walk through fire, change his appearance, become invisible, and so on—he nonetheless becomes the servant of two powerful magicians. First, he serves the witch Sycorax. When he refuses to follow her “abhorr’d commands” (I.2.409), she traps him inside a tree. Freed from that tree by Prospero, he becomes Prospero’s servant for an agreed-upon term of years. (This term does seem up for renegotiation, and early in the play Prospero says he will free Ariel after only two more days of service [I.2.438-439].) I have always associated the trapping of Ariel in a tree with the old myths of an aging Merlin being trapped inside of a tree, a tower, or a cave by a young a lovely sorceress he has been training. One can imagine Shakespeare enjoying the inversion of characters here—as an ageless and lovely spirit is trapped by a decrepit and hideous witch—as well as appreciating the dramatic possibilities of allowing Prospero to have all the powers of pagan magic at his command.
So I have trouble reading Ariel as a heavenly messenger of Christian grace.
Ariel is, instead, part of the long list of things that Prospero must “abjure” (Act V, sc. 1, 51) in order to put down his borrowed magical powers and resume his hereditary powers as the Duke of Milan. Freeing Ariel is part of what allows him to admit that it is time for him to take that step. The seductions of commanding a servant with nigh-on-infinite powers, who literally gives Prospero the ability to play with the inhabitants of his island as if they are no more than men on a chessboard,[42] are the very temptations that a ruler must face and must reject if he is to be a good ruler.
If an education in good rulership is achieved by the end of the play, it is achieved because of Ariel--that is true. But it is achieved because Prospero decides to do without Ariel, not because he decides to keep him close. That makes The Tempest a fairly good example of a tale that might be used to inculcate lessons about ethical leadership, the temptations of absolute power, and the dangers to oneself and others that arise from it. But it would be a very strange way, indeed, to talk about divine grace and its messengers.
[42.] See Adam Smith on how "the man of system" treats people like chess pieces on a chess board in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very [343] wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it: he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments; or, An Essay towards an Analysis of the Principles by which Men naturally judge concerning the Conduct and Character, first of their Neighbours, and afterwards of themselves. To which is added, A Dissertation on the Origins of Languages. New Edition. With a biographical and critical Memoir of the Author, by Dugald Stewart (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853).< /titles/2620#Smith_1648_674>.