The Tempest

An Introduction to The Tempest

The Tempest is one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote. Written in the twilight of his career, some critics consider it his farewell to the theatre. Like the wizard Prospero, Shakespeare as a playwright cast a spell over his audiences and made magic on the stage. So when Prospero bows away at the end of the play, it’s tempting to see Shakespeare hanging up his writing quill as well.

Though first listed as a comedy, scholars classify The Tempest as a Shakespearean romance. The play straddles the line between tragedy and comedy. It has both a dark tone, and a happy ending; murderous schemes, and young love.

According to records, the play was first performed on Hallowmas Night – and the staging is suitably bold and dramatic. Shakespeare’s effects are spectacular. From the violent tempest, to Ariel’s dazzling theatrics, the elaborate costumes and quick scene changes would have been challenging to nail. Performances used fireworks and cannon for thunder – it’s a small miracle the Globe didn’t burn down a second time.

Unusually, Shakespeare didn’t draw on any one literary source to write The Tempest. But the thrilling voyages of discovery to the New World surely inspired him. Homebound sailors wrote travel stories of strange, unpopulated lands at the antipodes of earth. It was from their sensationalist accounts of humanoid monsters, mutiny, and shipwreck that Shakespeare’s magical island was born. 

One particular trip in 1609 to the Bermudas bears a striking resemblance to The Tempest. Battered by a hurricane, the crew managed to survive by sheltering in nooks on the weakened ship. Like Ariel appears as a flame in the play, the delirious sailors reported seeing a light burning up and down the length of the ship – a phenomenon known as St Elmo’s Fire.

Of course, Shakespeare was a product of his time and this work betrays the racial prejudice of 17th century England. Through Gonzalo, Shakespeare pays homage to Montaine’s famous essay, “Des Cannibals”. When the English encountered Native Americans, Montaine patronizingly celebrated the “Noble Savage”: man in a golden age of purity and natural harmony – before the moral corruption of the civilized world. The play’s villain, Caliban (an anagram for Cannibal), is far from this. Caliban symbolizes savagery. He is in need of salvation from the paternalistic Prospero who imposes his Eurocentric culture, language and belief. Ultimately, the “deformed” Caliban is evolutionarily incapable of progress and fit only for servitude to Prospero.

The Tempest Plot Timeline

The Tempest Summary

The Tempest Setting

Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1 Summary

Scene 1

Somewhere in the Mediterranean, a turbulent storm threatens to wreck a passing ship. The passengers are en route to Italy from Tunis where Alonso, the King of Naples’s daughter Claribel, has just been married. It’s chaos on deck. The Boatswain and crew battle to keep their ship afloat. Irritatingly, the noblemen interfere with the crew’s labour. No thanks to the nosy Antonio and Sebastian, the ship capsizes.

The Tempest Storm Scene

Scene 2

Nearby, on a remote island, Miranda begs her father, the sorcerer Prospero, to subdue the storm with his magic and save the ship. Assuring his daughter that the crew is safe, Prospero finally tells her the story of how they arrived on the island. Twelve years ago, Prospero was the Duke of Milan. He entrusted his brother Antonio to supervise his duties so that Prospero could absorb himself fully in studying the art of magic.

Prospero and Miranda
Prospero and Miranda

Antonio grew power-hungry and, with his brother distracted, won the loyalty of King Alonso so that he could usurp Prospero’s title. The king stranded Prospero and the infant Miranda on a small boat, left to die at sea.

Luckily, kind Gonzalo had stocked their ship with food, books, and supplies. Miraculously, the pair reached the island alive. In twelve years, they have thrived and Prospero has tutored Miranda rigorously. Now, he has raised the storm to bring his enemies to the island.

With magic, Prospero puts Miranda to sleep and summons Ariel, his beloved sprite. Ariel reports back: he executed his master’s orders perfectly. Disguised as an agile flame, Ariel rose the storm that capsized the King’s ship but (“Not a hair perish’d”) spared every passenger. He has split up the survivors into groups across the island; each party believes they are the sole survivors. Then Ariel grumbles. 

Ariel (The Tempest)

For his dutiful service, Prospero once promised him early emancipation. Prospero scolds him. He reminds Ariel of Sycorax, the vile witch banished to this island who imprisoned Ariel in a pine tree for disobeying her. Only 12 years later when he arrived on the island, Prospero freed the sprite who is now indebted to him. Ariel apologizes and Prospero softens: he promises to liberate Ariel in two days. Til then, he issues a new task: turn invisible and closely watch the Italians throughout the island.

Unfortunately for him, Prospero inherited two servants from Sycorax. Prospero and Miranda now summon Sycorax’s son, the deformed half-human Caliban. Sullenly, he surfaces. Caliban curses Prospero for stealing the island that belonged to his mother and imprisoning him as a slave. 

Caliban (The Tempest)

Prospero snaps back. To him, the “abhorred slave” deserves his bondage. In fact, he once tried to rape Miranda and has obstinately resisted Prospero’s charitable attempts at educating him. Prospero sends Caliban to fetch fuel. Shuddering at his master’s terrifying powers, Caliban reluctantly obeys.

The son of the king, Ferdinand, is devastated over the loss of his father. When Ariel plays enchanting music, Ferdinand is lured to Prospero’s cell. At first sight, he falls in love with the beautiful Miranda (who must be a goddess)! Likewise, Miranda is smitten (this is the first man she’s ever seen, after all). Prospero looks on smugly: this has been his plan all along. Yet he plants an obstacle to test their love. He is hostile, pretends to distrust Ferdinand, and detains him as his new slave. 

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel
Ferdinand Lured by Ariel

The Tempest, Act 2 Summary

Act 2, Scene 1

But King Alonso is still alive and kicking! On another part of the island, the king, along with his brother Sebastian, adviser Gonzalo, Antonio, Francisco and Adrian have washed ashore together. Convinced that Ferdinand must be dead, Alonso is inconsolable. 

Good-natured old Gonzalo does his best to cheer the king’s spirits, but Antonio and Sebastian interrupt with snarky jokes and bleak comments. Gonzalo counts their blessings: this island is fertile, weather is mild, their clothes are still dry. In fact, without the vices of modern civilization (the “treachery, felon [and] sword”) life on the island will be paradise. 

Still, King Alonso is despondent. Without Claribel’s wedding, the ship would not be wrecked, his son would be alive, and his daughter would still be his: “Would I had never / Married my daughter there”. He flatly refuses to entertain hope that Ferdinand has somehow survived.

Invisible, Ariel steals in. He soothes all except Sebastian and Antonio to sleep with a lullaby. Despite swearing to Alonso he would “watch [his] safety”, Antonio wastes no time. Now that Ferdinand is out of the picture, the schemer Antonio convinces Sebastian to kill his brother and take his place as king. 

Gonzalo is also too wise for his own good; he must die too, or he will uncover the truth. Sebastian is easily swayed: the throne must be his. Antonio is experienced in the matters of usurping brothers, after all, and has clearly not wrestled much with guilt. Antonio readies to kill Alonso; Sebastian to kill Gonzalo.

In the knick of time, Ariel discovers the villainous brothers. Before they plunge their swords, the nymph sings in Gonzalo’s ear to wake him. Gonzalo wakes and startles the rest of the party awake as well. The murderers are caught in flagrante delicto, drawn swords hovering, but they satisfy the king with a feeble excuse (they had heard strange noises). They continue on the search for Ferdinand, but Gonzalo is now suspicious of Sebastian and Antonio: “Heavens keep him from these beasts”.

Act 2, Scene 2

Collecting firewood, Caliban grumbles about Prospero’s cruelty. He thinks he hears one of Prospero’s magic henchmen and hides, flat on the ground. But it’s only the court jester, Trinculo who seeks shelter in case of another storm. Trinculo hides beneath Caliban’s cloak, thinking him dead. Stephano, Alonso’s butler, staggers in and discovers Caliban (who he thinks must be a monster). Another voice wails – it’s Trinculo! The two servants reunite: “[T]wo Neapolitans scap’d!”

No fear, because Stephano has stolen a stash of liquor from off the ship. With a first sip of the“celestial liquor”, Caliban drunkenly worships his “brave god” Stephano. He vows to serve Stephano as his new master. Trinculo mocks the “scurvy monster”: how absurd to call drunkard Stephano a god! Nevertheless, Stephano laps up his worship and they follow Caliban to the freshest drinking water, the sweetest berries, and the tastiest fish on the island (drinking as they go, of course).

The Tempest, Act 3 Summary

Act 3, Scene 1

Meanwhile, Ferdinand is still under Prospero’s test. Under his orders, Ferdinand tosses firewood, degrading manual labour for a prince. Only sweet Miranda eases his pain: she “makes [his] labours pleasures”. Prospero watches, pleased, as the lovestruck Miranda begs Ferdinand to stop the strenuous work.

Ferdinand Courting Miranda (The Tempest)
Ferdinand Courting Miranda

In what they believe is privacy (Prospero is usually head deep in books by now), the two get to know each other more intimately. Uncharacteristically disobeying her father, Miranda tells Ferdinand her name and returns his love. As the pair pledge to marry, a content Prospero looks on: he has orchestrated their love without their knowledge.

Act 3, Scene 2

Back with the trio of fools, another murder plot begins to brew. This is a comedic parallel of the noblemen’s murderous scheme. Much drink has now ensued and Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban are quite intoxicated and full up on liquid courage. Stephano has turned into a tyrant: power has gone to his head and he laps up the pathetic groveling of Caliban. Trinculo and Caliban squabble.

Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano (The Tempest)
Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano

Ariel’s timing is spot on. He catches Caliban pleading for the “valiant” Stephano” to murder Prospero and set Caliban free. Caliban wants revenge for the years of servitude. He explains that Prospero naps every afternoon. Stephano must burn Prospero’s book of magic, rendering him powerless, and kill him in his sleep (a coward’s murder). 

After that, Caliban assures Stephano that he will rule king on the island, marry Miranda, and father many children (with Trinculo and Caliban serving as viceroys). To a lowly butler, this sounds all very enticing. He agrees. Before reporting back to Prospero, Ariel terrifies Stephano and Trinculo with strange music. Puzzled, the fools follow the phantom music away from Prospero’s cell and into a marsh.

Act 3, Scene 3

So far, the search for Ferdinand has been fruitless. The royal party rests, fatigued and despondent. Suddenly, Prospero casts an illusion: a banquet with music and silent dancing figures. All are stunned by the miraculous vision. Abruptly the figures vanish, leaving behind the tempting feast. Just as the famished party sits to eat, Ariel, in the form of a harpy, claps the table and it vanishes in thunder and lightning. 

Visible only to Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian, Ariel accuses the three of cruelly “supplant[ing] good Prospero” from Milan those many years ago. Their punishment, he explains, is to be shipwrecked, to lose Prince Ferdinand, and to live the rest of their tortuous days on this “most desolate island”. He curses the three with an inner madness. Satisfied by Ariel’s theatrics, Prospero leaves the party in their fits.

Guilt ravages Alonso. Now he knows that Ferdinand’s death is punishment for exiling Prospero. He exits, delirious and suicidal. Maddened by the visions, Sebastian and Antonio also follow, to attack the spirits of the island. Faithful as ever, Gonzalo follows to make sure they do not hurt themselves.

The Tempest, Act 4 Summary

Act 4, Scene 1

Back at his cell, Prospero finally gives up the act. He consents to Ferdinand marrying Miranda, but warns them to remain chaste until marriage or suffer infertility. He presents a masque as a betrothal celebration. Lesser sprites appear in the vision of Iris, Ceres, and Juno. The Greek goddesses bless the young couple’s union: Juno blesses them with honour, wealth, and joy; Ceres with abundance and fertility. They remind the lovers not to stray into premarital lust. Juno’s nymphs and reapers dance in a fertility ritual.

Prospero, Ariel, and Sprites
The Tempest 2014Bard on the Beach Shakespeare FestivalCC BY 2.0

Abruptly, Prospero cuts the masque short. He’s just remembered about the plot on his life. Prospero orders Ariel to leave expensive clothes in full view at the entrance to his cell, then he hides. The three fools sneak into Prospero’s cell. Stephano and Trinculo are peeved that Ariel led them into the bog (mostly because they dropped their spirits in the water – an “infinite loss”). Caliban tries to keep the plot on track: he hushes Stephano and reminds him to focus his straying mind on the murder itself.

Prospero’s trap works. As soon as they see the shiny gold clothes, Stephano and Trinculo are captivated and fight over them. Spirits in the shape of hunting dogs chase the thieves out of the cell and around the island. Until they learn their lesson, Prospero orders goblins to cause them aches and bruises. He promises to give loyal Ariel his freedom before long.

The Tempest, Act 5 Summary

Act 5, Scene 1

Prospero’s work is nearly done. Ariel reports that Sebastian, Antonio and Alonso are insane with guilt; Gonzalo is grief-stricken. They’re ready to repent of their treachery, change their hearts, and reconcile with Prospero. Despite his power, Prospero decides to have mercy on them, choosing the nobler, but “rarer action” of forgiveness over revenge. Looking back at what he has wrought over the island, Prospero pledges to relinquish his “potent art”, to break his staff, and drown his volume of magic when all is over. So the party will recognize him, Prospero swaps his sorcerer’s clothes for the ones he arrived in.

When Ariel brings in the tormented party, Prospero finally confronts the authors of his misfortune all those years ago. He removes his charm, hugs them (to prove he’s real), and welcomes them to the island. He promises to reward Gonzalo for his moral rectitude and loyalty and accuses the three of unjustly exiling him. Alonso is deeply repentant: he begs Prospero to “pardon [him] [his] wrongs” and transfers the dukedom back to the rightful owner. Prospero forgives his heartless brother (who shows no remorse) and, aside to Sebastian and Antonio, warns that he knows of their plot to kill Alonso – blackmail.

Prospero allows Alonso to think Ferdinand dead for just a while longer, then reveals Ferdinand and Miranda alive and well, playing a game of chess together. Ferdinand and Alonso reunite joyously and Alonso welcomes his new daughter (who is stunned to see so many humans). Choked up with joy, Gonzalo blesses their young union which mends the conflict of the older generation. Ironically, Ferdinand has “found a wife / Where he himself was lost”. Though stripped of his dukedom, Prospero’s progeny will now inherit an even higher title, King of Naples. All celebrate the happy news.

Led by Ariel, the ship’s crew join them. Happily they report the ship is in great shape and ready to set sail again (thanks to Ariel). Though Alonso questions the mysteries of the island, Prospero promises to explain all in due course. Ariel frees Caliban and the drunkards of the spell and Prospero sends them to return his stolen clothes. Caliban regrets ever taking the drunkard, “this dull fool” Stephano as his master.

Prospero invites the party to his cell for the night, where he will recount the story of his survival. The next day, they will sail back to Naples, the young lovers will marry, and Prospero will retire to Milan. He gives Ariel a final task – blow favourable winds to sail them to Milan – and grants him his long-awaited freedom.

In a short epilogue, Prospero discards his magic. As old age catches up to him, he feels weaker. Ironically, though Prospero has been the one controlling others, he asks the audience to release him from service and bids farewell to the stage: “Let your indulgence set me free”.

Kathryn Stranex
Kathryn is a teacher and writer from Cape Town, South Africa. In her spare time, she likes to run far distances, consume cat videos, and pretend she’s on ‘The Great British Bake Off’.