The Tempest: Plot Summary

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Act 1, Scene 1
Act One opens amidst a great storm. A ship carrying King Alonso of Naples and his entourage, who are returning home from the wedding of the King’s daughter in Tunis, is tossed about by the powerful waves. As the Boatswain tries to keep the boat afloat, the King and two of his hot-headed men, Antonio and Sebastian, come on deck to bark orders at the crew. The Boatswain does not have time to pander to the arrogant King and his courtiers, so he is short with them. The men become enraged, verbally assaulting the boatswain as he tries to regain control of the steering. Only the King’s counsellor, Gonzalo, remains calm and collected as the ferocious wind splits the ship in half.

Act 1, Scene 2
On an island close by, Prospero, the right Duke of Milan, and his fifteen year-old daughter, Miranda, watch the wreck of the ship. The compassionate Miranda is horrified by what she sees, but Prospero assures her that all the men on the ship will be safe. He reveals his role in the shipwreck and his relationship to the men on board. He tells his daughter that he was once the Duke of Milan, and, as Duke, he spent most of his time learning the art of magic. But, in Prospero’s ambitious brother, Antonio, “awak’d an evil nature” (I.II.93), and he decided to overthrow Prospero and claim the title of Duke for himself. Antonio received help from King Alonso, and together they removed Prospero from power and placed him and Miranda, who was two at the time, in a boat and abandoned them at sea. Fortunately, the kind-hearted Gonzalo had given them water, clothes, and other supplies, including Prospero’s cherished books. Thus they were able to float for some time at sea, and eventually they landed on the island that has become their permanent home. Now Fate has brought Prospero’s enemies near him once again, and, through magic, he admits to Miranda that he was responsible for the storm that brought his brother and the King to the island. With matters now more pressing than Miranda’s many questions, Prospero casts a spell to put her to sleep while he summons his servant, an airy spirit named Ariel. Ariel tells his master that he has magically put the passengers in a trance and dispersed them about the island, ensuring that the King’s son, Ferdinand, is by himself, as instructed by Prospero. Ferdinand sits alone in mourning, believing that he is the sole survivor of the crash. Tired from all the tasks Prospero has made him perform, Ariel complains “Is there more toil?” (242), but Prospero quickly reminds Ariel that his “toil” is payment for Prospero rescuing him from imprisonment in a tree-trunk, at the hands of ‘the foul witch Sycorax’ (258) who is now dead but once ruled the island with her magic. Prospero ensures Ariel that, if his current plans are successful, he will release him from his obligations. He next instructs Ariel to make himself invisible to everyone but his master. Ariel flies away and Prospero awakens Miranda, telling her that they are about to visit his other slave, Caliban, a disfigured and savage offspring of the dead witch, Sycorax. Despite Prospero’s attempts to tame him, Caliban has remained wide and barbaric, and has even attempted to rape Miranda. Prospero calls out to Caliban and, reluctantly, he comes, complaining about his captivity. Prospero replies that he has every right to enslave Caliban, in payment for all the education and kindness Prospero has given him. Caliban strikes back, proclaiming that he did not want to be educated by Prospero:

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (425-7)

Prospero sends Caliban to gather wood, and Ferdinand wanders in with invisible Ariel behind him, playing and singing. Miranda sees Ferdinand and immediately is captivated by his ravishing good looks. The feeling is mutual and Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda. Prospero, who has hoped all along that his daughter would love Ferdinand is delighted. However, to ensure that Ferdinand is the right man for Miranda, he tests Ferdinand’s resolve and pretends to distrust the young man. Much to the dismay of Miranda, Prospero imprisons Ferdinand.

Act 2, Scene 1
On another part of the island, Gonzalo tries to comfort King Alonso, who believes that he has lost his only son, Ferdinand. The King’s brother, Sebastian, is not as comforting and he mocks Gonzalo’s attempts to cheer up the King. Sebastian reminds the King that he had been advised not to take the journey to Tunis in the first place, and thus he is directly responsible for all of their problems. Ariel arrives and magically puts everyone to sleep except Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio suggests that they should kill the King as he sleeps and make Sebastian the new King of Naples. Sebastian agrees, but just as they are about to draw their swords, Ariel awakens King Alonso and Gonzalo. Gonzalo sees the men with their swords drawn and asks what they are doing. Sebastian makes up a lie that they heard “a hollow burst of bellowing” (316), that sounded like a wild animal, and they were merely trying to protect their sleeping king. Believing their intentions were good, King Alonso thinks no more about it and asks them to help in the search of Ferdinand. They agree and the scene comes to a close.

Act 2, Scene 2
Caliban has just finished chopping wood when he hears loud claps of thunder. This prompts him to soliloquize on his hatred of Prospero: “All the infections that the sun sucks up/From bogs, fens, flats on Prospero fall, and make him by inchmeal a disease!” (1-3). He feels that Prospero has filled the island with spirits to torment him for being late with the firewood. Trinculo, the court jester who has been travelling with the King, approaches, and Caliban naturally assumes he is one of Prospero’s spying spirits. Caliban falls to the ground, hoping that it will somehow help him go unnoticed. Trinculo is looking for shelter, worried about the coming storm. He sees Caliban, lying flat on his face, and finds him very interesting. He wishes he were in England so that he could put the monster he has discovered on display as a freak of nature. The thunder grows closer and Trinculo finds it necessary, albeit unappealing, to crawl under Caliban’s cloak for protection. In his now famous words, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows!” (42). Another survivor of the shipwreck, a butler to the King named Stephano, appears. He washed ashore on a barrel of wine and has since ingested its contents and is very drunk indeed. Seeing Trinculo and Caliban lying on the ground, he thinks that they are a two-headed monster with four legs, indigenous to the island. Stephano gives Caliban the bit of wine he has left, hoping to appease the horrid creature. Caliban cries out, “Do not torment me, prithee” (73) because he still believes the men are spirits sent by his master. Trinculo gets up and is relieved to see his friend. The two dance to celebrate their reunion while Caliban, now drunk from his first taste of wine, decides that Stephano will be his new master: “I’ll kiss thy foot. I’ll swear myself thy subject.” (154). Stephano gladly accepts Caliban’s offer and they head off to see all the wonders of the island.

Act 3, Scene 1
Act Three opens with Ferdinand performing tasks against his will by his captor, Prospero. He tells himself that, although he is not use to such hard labour, he actually likes the work because he knows that Miranda “weeps” when she sees him suffer. Miranda appears, followed by Prospero who hides from their site. She offers to carry the logs for him but he refuses her help, insisting that he would rather break his back than see her undergo “such dishonor” (27). They declare their love for one another and agree to be wed as soon as possible. Prospero is delighted by what he is hearing and, now sure that Ferdinand is worthy of his daughter, he returns to his books and to his other pressing business with Antonio and the King.

Act 3, Scene 2
The attention turns once again to Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Stephano is having trouble controlling Caliban, who hates Trinculo because he continues to refer to Caliban as ‘the monster’. Caliban proposes that together they overpower and kill Prospero, and steal his books and his daughter. Stephano agrees to the plan, imagining himself as ruler over the island and the husband of Miranda. But Ariel has been listening to their conversation and he rushes to tell Prospero.

Act 3, Scene 3
Meanwhile, King Alonso and his courtiers have been searching the island for Prince Ferdinand. Suddenly, magical creatures bring forth a banquet and place the food in front of the hungry men. Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio run toward the feast, but just as they are about to eat, Ariel appears, disguised as a harpy, and the table vanishes in a burst of thunder and lightning. Ariel accuses them of being sinful men and tells them that just Fate has caused their shipwreck and taken Alonso’s son away from him. He also tells them that they will be tormented until they change their evil ways and lead “a clear life” (82). Ariel disappears and the mystical creatures again appear, dancing to the soft music that now fills the air, and again carrying the table. The King decides to keep looking for his son and die along side of him, and Antonio and Sebastian follow him, foolishly convinced that they can destroy the spirits on the island. Gonzalo, worried that they have gone mad, follows them, hoping to “hinder them from what this ecstasy/May now provoke them to”. (106-7)

Act 4, Scene 1
Prospero has consented to the union of Miranda and Ferdinand and now prepares a wedding masque for the two lovers. He cautions Ferdinand not to “break her virgin knot” (15) until they are legitimately married. Soft music fills the air and three sprites pretending to be the goddesses, Iris, Ceres, and Juno, descend to participate in the celebration. Other nymphs appear and they all dance and make merry. But the festivities are cut short when the hear a “hollow and confused” noise coming from outside Prospero’s dwelling. It is the sound of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, still drunk and ready to kill Prospero. Prospero dismisses the sprites and tells Ferdinand and Miranda: “Our revels are now ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind. (163-77)

Prospero orders Ariel to bring out all his goods because he knows that Stephano and Trinculo will be enticed by the finery. Ariel enters once again, his arms loaded with beautiful apparel. Prospero and Ariel watch in the shadows as Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo enter Prospero’s cell, and sure enough, they are distracted by the fine clothes. Stephano and Trinculo try them on, despite the pleading of Caliban who knows that Prospero will catch them. From outside a noise of wild dogs are heard. Prospero has summoned the spirits of the island to take the shape of fierce hunting hounds to chase the villains out of Prosper’s cell. Comically the three men run screaming from the cell, and Prospero and Ariel remain. Prospero tells Ariel that his enemies are now all at his mercy and that he will soon have freedom from the island.

Act 5, Scene 1
The final act opens three days after the great tempest that destroyed the boat. Prospero, clothed in his magic robes, hears a plea from Ariel on behalf of the stranded men. Ariel reports that King Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio have gone mad, while Gonzalo suffers mental anguish as he mourns for the victims. Prospero is moved by Ariel’s words and decides that he will show them the mercy that they did not show him twelve years ago. He sends Ariel to fetch the men, and in a soliloquy he reveals that, once he restores the sanity of his enemies, he will forever renounce magic: “But this rough magic/I here abjure” (50-1). He breaks his magical staff, declares that he will drown his books, and exchanges his magician’s robes for the clothing he wore when he was the Duke of Milan. Amidst solemn music Ariel leads Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Gonzalo, Adrian, and Francisco into Prospero’s cell. They are in a trance and stand around a circle that Prospero has made. Prospero tells Ariel that he is free from all further obligations, and that he will miss him when he returns to Milan. Prospero breaks the spell that holds the men and Gonzalo is the first to speak: “Some heavenly power guide us/Out of this fearful country.” (105-6) Prospero identifies himself and Alonso, who has seen the error of his ways, repents and resigns the dukedom to Prospero. Alonso is reunited with Ferdinand and he two fathers seal their peace with the marriage of their children. Alonso and Sebastian are not repentant, but they must comply with the orders of the King to restore Prospero as Duke of Milan. Prospero forgives Antonio but does not reconcile with him, saying: “For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother/Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive thy rankest fault” (131-2). Ariel enters with the Boatswain and the Master of the ship, and they report that, to their amazement, the boat has been fully restored and is ready to set sail. Ariel quickly fetches Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, who are still drunk, and Prospero confronts them. He tells Caliban that he can now be king of the island and Caliban regrets ever thinking that Stephano was his master. He calls himself a “thrice-double ass” (296) for worshipping the dull fool. Prospero invites the King and his courtiers to hear the story of his life on the island, as Ariel (as his final task for Prospero) prepares the proper sailing weather to guide Prospero back to Italy.