Here's the deal: in real life, Sylvia Plath had a horse named "Ariel." Her husband Ted Hughes explained that, one day, Ariel really did take Plath for a wild, galloping ride:
Ariel was the name of the horse on which she went riding weekly. Long before, while she was a student at Cambridge (England), she went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse's neck.
Knowing this little biographical tidbit makes all the difference when reading "Ariel." We're not gonna lie: without this biographical fact, we're not sure we'd know what the heck was happening in such an impressionistic blur of a poem. Sometimes, a little bit of information goes a long way.
The cool thing about the title is that "Ariel" also has other connotations, too. Probably the most famous Ariel is the "airy spirit" from Shakespeare's play The Tempest. This Ariel is an androgynous figure who represents creative energy, but who is also a slave to the wizard Prospero. For more on Ariel, check out what we've got to say about the tricksy dude over at our study guide.
So what do you think? Is Plath's Ariel just her horse? Or does her Ariel also embody, or even channel, the creative spirit of Shakespeare's Ariel? It's certainly up for debate, but it makes sense to us that—since this poem is all about transformation, and since Shakespeare's Ariel is a transformative figure, too—this title was written with both horse and play in mind.