Human Fiction

Action – Creation – Critique

Ariel

‘What’s in a name?’ As William Shakespeare’s character, Juliet, wonders in the moonlight, what is exactly in a name? To what extent does a name define or give any piece of information about the ‘named’ individual? Perhaps a name is as arbitrary as signs are according to Ferdinand de Saussure 1, when he argues about arbitrariness of signs 2. As well as a signifier —a name— could be changed without altering the proprieties of a signified —an object or a concept the signifier refers to— for it has no link with what is inherent to it, perhaps a name could be changed without altering the proprieties of the individual who bears it. (I voluntarily leave aside the issue concerning the agreed ‘value’ of a name in a given society 3, for the time being.)
One exception to the above, perhaps, are nicknames. Sometimes given to an individual according to their personality, physical appearance etc, nicknames may seem a little less arbitrary than other sorts of names, as given to someone because of their traits (intellectual & otherwise). They may be given to people by their relatives and friends, as a mark of affection as well as they can be given to artists —whether still alive or deceased— by critics or fans (e.g. Elvis Priestley, ‘The King’). It is, however, impossible to assert that a nickname is not as arbitrary as a first name. Even though some seem to really fit, others remain complete mysteries.
This writing does not aim at giving an accurate study about the value of a name. It is about one precise nickname which remains, to this day, mysteriously fitting the artist to whom it has been given: Ariel.

The ‘curious reader’ 4 has perhaps already come across the name Ariel in the pages of a book about the poet and writer Percy Bysshe Shelley. The reason why this nickname has been chosen to refer to the poet may seem obscure, mysterious, and perhaps, one wonders about this choice. Opening the novel based on Percy Shelley’s life, Ariel ou La Vie de Shelley by André Maurois, one would see that, aside from the title of the book, the name Ariel is used to refer to the poet several times: in the title of the last chapter 5 and in the text itself 6. Though André Maurois’ book is not a biography, as he mentions at the beginning 7, but a novel based on Shelley’s life, it contains accurate pieces of information (the author gives at the end of the book a list of biographies and other material which helped him write the novel). The book may seem insubstantial for research purposes, but the accuracy of details and the beautifully written work raise curiosity about the author’s choice of the name Ariel to refer to the poet.

Though the question ‘what’s in the name Ariel?’ might not be answered precisely, some clues are to be found at the end of Shelley’s life. The choice of the name Ariel seems to be linked to Edward and Jane Williams, a married couple whom Percy and Mary Shelley met in 1821 while they were living in Italy. Both Percy Shelley and Edward Williams are linked in death, as they died at sea on board of a boat. Baptized the Don Juan in honor of Lord Byron by Trelawny, the boat would have been renamed Ariel by Shelley. Though the references 8 to this fact are obscure and do not constitute any accurate element of research, supposing it to be true leads to most relevant elements which might shed a little light on the choice of the name Ariel. Whether or not Shelley had renamed the boat Ariel before he and Edward Williams left definitely the Earthly world is not what matters the most.
The reason why Shelley would have renamed the boat Ariel is way more interesting, as it leads to one of the poet’s literary influences. Ariel is defined in the Larousse Classique Dictionnary9 as follows: ‘name of a Moabite God which has become that of a demon; character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest sort of airy spirit, symbol of the forces of the mind/spirit’. The second definition seems to be the most relevant, as Shakespeare seems to have been one of the poet’s influences. As Shelley and Edward Williams are linked in death, Shelley and Jane Williams are linked in poetry.
One might perhaps think that they are also linked to Shakespeare, as suggested by Shelley’s poem With a Guitar, to Jane10. In this writing, the poet borrows Shakespeare’s characters from The Tempest Miranda, Ferdinand and Prospero, while making Ariel the persona of the poem. It is through the eyes and words of an Ariel in love that the poet expresses platonic and romantic love in this work.

If there is no answer to the question ‘what’s in a name?’ and if there is nothing of the gist of an individual in their name, the name Ariel might perhaps be an exception as it might ironically contain a little of the playwright who asks this question. That Shelley was inspired by Shakespeare’s work for one or more of his writings might be a sufficient explanation for the choice of the name Ariel (one of Shakespeare’s characters from The Tempest) to refer to him. There remains, however, mystery around the choice of the name Ariel, as coincidences seem to have linked Shelley and Shakespeare’s character. In The Tempest, Ariel is an airy spirit, witty and able to play with the wind, who had been locked for years in an orm tree by a witch called Sycorax before Prospero frees him. He is the one who creates the tempest at the beginning of the comedy of the same name, causing a boat to wreck. The name Ariel seems to be an appropriate metaphor to refer to Shelley, who might have felt locked in a world ruled by so many principles and by religion, when he wrote The Necessity of Atheism and other works. Although pure coincidence, Shelley’s death also seems to feed the metaphor vehicled by the name Ariel, as the poet left the Earthly world at sea during a tempest on a boat which would have been renamed Ariel.

For the question ‘what’s in a name?’ there might, of course, be no answer. As to whether or not a nickname is as arbitrary as a name, there might as well be no answer. Nevertheless, the nickname Ariel, when referring to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, seems to carry, if not the gist of the poet, at least enough symbols and images as to sustain the metaphor of the airy spirit able to play with the wind, who had been locked for years before having been freed to make the wind play through the leaves and on the sea again.


  1. Ferdinand de Saussure: Swiss linguist and semiotician (1857-1913) considered as one of the fathers of xxth century linguistics. 

  2. Arbitrariness of signs: linguistic theory according to which the name —sign or signifier— that efers to an object or concept —signified— can be changed without altering the proprieties of the latter, as it has been chosen arbitrarily.
    For example, any object or concept has a name (a table, joy…) According to the theory of arbitrariness of signs, this name could be changed for any onther name without changing anything about the object or concept. For example, a table could be named a tree but would still remain a table; and the feeling of joy could be named ‘doubt’ without changing the feeling. The choice of a name to refer to an object or concept is said to be arbitrary. As ‘sign’ means ‘name’, the theory is called ‘arbitrariness of signs’. 

  3. I acknowledge, as the reader probably does, the cases of people changing either their name or first name for the ‘need’ of society. Transgender people or immigrants, in such cases, may change their name not to make it define precisely who they are, but to change society’s outlook towards them: a name conveys a certain social meaning to the majority of people (allowing a judgment). In such cases, a name may be changed for the vision of society to be best adapted to the way the ‘named individual’ wishes to be known, respected, appreciated. However, even though a name does not precisely define what is inherent to the ‘named individual’, I acknowledge that the choice of a new name has also to do with a matter of identity. This issue being quiet complex and interesting, one may forgive me if I wish to come to this in a later writing. 

  4. Note for the curious reader, A. Maurois, ‘Note Pour le Lecteur Curieux’, in Ariel ou la vie de Shelley, 1941, Brodard & Taupin, p. 251. 

  5. André Maurois, ‘Ariel Délivré’, in Ariel ou la vie de Shelley, op. cit. 

  6. André Maurois, Ariel ou la vie de Shelley, p. 170, l. 14: Ariel consentait enfin à habiter une demeure humaine. 

  7. Note for the curious reader, A. Maurois, Ariel ou la vie de Shelley, op. cit. 

  8. André Maurois, Ariel ou la vie de Shelley; Gonzalo Suárez, Rowing with the Wind

  9. Dictionnaire Larousse Classique, 1957, Ariel, “Nom d’un dieu Moabite devenu celui d’un démon” – “personnage de The Tempest de Shakespeare, sorte de génie aérien, symbole des forces de l’esprit”. 

  10. With a Guitar, to Jane, (pp. 194 – 196) Selection from Shelley’s Poetry, 1958, London Macmillan & Co LTD, pp. 254. 

By Sam Datri, on September 11, 2014. Top.

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