The Tempest Shakespeare Characters Courtesy of the Folgers Shakespeare Library Edition Prospero
The protagonist, former duke of Milan, exiled to a Mediterranean island after being deposed of his throne by his brother Antonio
A spirit, servant to Prospero
An inhabitant of the island, servant to Prospero
Prince of Naples, later weds Miranda
King of Naples
Duke of Milan and Prospero’s brother
Councillor to Alonso and friend to Prospero
Adrian, Francisco Trinculo
Courtiers in attendance on Alonso
Servant to Alonso
Shipmaster Boatwain Mariners
Plot Summary With some help from the Folgers Shakespeare Library Edition scene synopses
Act 1, Scene 1 A tempestuous storm threatens to sink the ship carrying Alonso, King of Naples, and his men (Sebastian, Duke Antonio of Milan, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, etc.). The passengers express their discontentment with how the boatswain and his crew are handling the crisis to the boatswain’s vexation. Despite the shipmen’s best efforts, shipwreck appears to be imminent.
Act I, Scene 2 Concerned about the ship that has been beached ashore their island, Miranda pleads with her father to mediate the tempest he has conjured. Prospero allays his daughter’s worries, explaining that he has made sure to not harm a single soul aboard the vessel. At this moment, Prospero takes the time to recount their unfortunate history: twelve years ago he was the Duke of Milan, and because of his obsession with mystical studies, he placed the management of his state into the care of his brother Antonio. But while Prospero thought “[his] library / Was dukedom large enough,” (I.ii.130-131), Antonio’s ambitions grew to aspire to actual dukedom, and this he treacherously acquired through the help of the King of Naples. Ousted from his throne, Prospero, along with his daughter Miranda, were exiled to the island on which they currently reside. Fortunately for Prospero, Gonzalo was kind enough to furnish him with his library of books as he was being ushered out of his estate. At this close of his story, Prospero responds to his daughter’s inquiry about his motive for raising the storm: the very “enemies” (I.ii.212) responsible for his dethronement were aboard the shipwrecked vessel. After charming Miranda to sleep, Prospero sends for his servant Ariel to describe the whereabouts of the king and his
men, who are dispersed about the island, with the king’s son Ferdinand stranded by himself. Ariel inquires about his promise of liberty, to which Prospero responds by reminding his servant that he is indebted to his master—when Prospero arrived on the island, he freed Ariel from the confines of a cloven pine, in which he had been left imprisoned by the evil witch Sycorax. He then charges Ariel to go hence hidden from everyone’s sight and stirs Miranda from her rest to meet Caliban, Sycorax’s son and servant to Prospero. Caliban immediately curses Prospero for his cruel tyranny and usurpation of his isle, but Prospero justifies his treatment, bringing to mind Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda. Meanwhile, Ariel lures Ferdinand with a song and guides him into the company of Miranda and Prospero. Ferdinand becomes enamored with Miranda upon first glance to the delight of Prospero, who then seeks to complicate (and thereby strengthen) their courtship by laying false charges upon him.
Act 2, Scene 1 King Alonso mourns the supposed loss of his son Ferdinand, but Gonzalo remains hopeful about his survival. Sebastian insensitively suggests that while the king’s daughter Claribel was banished for marrying the King of Tunis, he has lost Ferdinand forever. An invisible Ariel lulls all the men to sleep except for King Alonso, Duke Antonio, and Sebastian. At Sebastian and Antonio’s prompting, King Alonso also succumbs to the temptation of sleep. The two conscious men quickly seize this opportune moment to discuss Sebastian’s future usurpation of Alonso’s crown. While this treasonous conversation takes place, Ariel whispers into a sleeping Gonzalo’s ears to warn him of his companions’ treachery. Awake and alarmed, Gonzalo immediately rouses Alonso from his slumber, and the conspiring men immediately draw attention away from their suspicious appearances. While Alonso and his entourage go off in search of Ferdinand, Ariel hurriedly leaves to report these occurrences to Prospero.
Act 2, Scene 2 Setting himself to work, Caliban bitterly voices his grievances toward his master. Seeing what he thinks to e one of Prospero’s conjured spirits, he hides beneath his cloak. Trinculo, however, is not a spirit but one of the men who had been aboard the shipwrecked vessel; upon spotting Caliban, he decides to similarly hide from the approaching storm by crawling under the cloak. Another shipman named Stephano drunkenly stumbles upon the scene and spies the cloaked figures. Caliban, still believing the men to be Prospero’s spirits, charges them to not torment him any longer. After a few exchanges, Trinculo and Stephano recognize each other as being fellow crewmen and the two relate how they managed to escape the sinking ship while the three men pass around Stephano’s bottle. To express his gratitude for the swigs of alcohol, Caliban offers to act as the shipmen’s guide around the isle.
Act 3, Scene 1 Miranda visits Ferdinand while he is hard at work with Prospero’s delegated tasks. The two profess their love for each other and exchange marriage vows.
Act 3, Scene 2 Trinculo verbally abuses Caliban, who appeals to Stephano for assistance. Stephano mediates the conflict by asking Triunculo to tone down his pejoratives. Ariel, invisible, enters the scene and imitates Trinculo’s voice, accusing Caliban of lying and treachery, which creates conflict among the three men while Caliban expresses his discontentment with Prospero’s tyranny and usurpation of his isle. Caliban requests Stephano’s aid in killing Prospero to rightfully reclaim his land and take Miranda as his queen. The invisible Ariel then plays an enchanting tune to lead the men away.
Act 3, Scene 3 After a fruitless and exhausting search for Ferdinand, King Alonso and his men are visited by strange shapes that have been summoned by Prospero. The men are flummoxed by their appearance and are even more bewildered when the shapes vanish as quickly as they materialized. When the men move towards the banquet table the mysterious shapes have
left behind, Ariel appears as a Harpy before them, explaining that destiny brought the “three men of sin” (III.iii.70) to the island for their “foul deed” (90) of treason against Prospero, and closes his invectives with a threat against their lives. He vanishes and Prospero praises him for his fine performance. Alonso and his men flee in terror.
Act 4, Scene 1 Prospero discloses his motives for his harsh treatment of Ferdinand and gladly gives his blessing to marry Miranda. In celebration of Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage, the former duke calls forth Ariel to call upon lesser spirits (Ceres, Iris, and Juno) to perform a masque. During this ceremonial performance, Prospero suddenly recalls the conspiracy concocted by Caliban against his life and the festivities end. Prospero advises Ariel to track down and terrorize the perfidious men, who had been earlier enticed by the spirit into a swamp, by setting hounds upon them.
Act 5, Scene 1 Following an inquiry about the state of King Alonso and his men, held prisoners by Ariel’s enchantment, Prospero commands Ariel to release them. Prospero draws a large circle of enchantment with his staff and abjures his magic craft, promising to drown the books that have empowered him for so long. He then brings forth the imprisoned men into the circle and forgives them for their sins. Finally, Prospero disrobes himself of his magic robes and presents himself as he was in Milan. Before liberating Ariel from his servitude, Prospero gives his former servant one last order to bring forth the mariners. King Alonso restores the dukedom to Prospero in exchange for the return of his son Ferdinand. Ariel arrives with the rabble of conspiratorial delinquents, whom he sends off to decorate his cell as punishment. Finally, Prospero promises King Alonso an account of his life story, along with auspicious winds and a safe voyage home to Naples. After all is said and done, Prospero grants his most loyal servant Ariel freedom.
Epilogue Prospero directly addresses the audience, bequeathing his powers of enchantment and “art” onto them, and asks that their magical applause act as the gentle wind to guide his ship home to Naples.
Themes and Issues The Natural vs. the Unnatural Through his own self-guided study, Prospero cultivates magical powers that enable him to lord over natural elements— the spirits (e.g. Ariel), Caliban (often characterized as a bestial character—“puppy-headed” and “monster”—as noted by Professor Jones), weather, etc. Magic in Books and Plays That books are the source of power for Prospero is something of a meta-commentary on the magical nature of books and themselves—for Prospero, his library was “dukedom large enough” (I.ii.131) as it gave him dominion over the natural realm. Much as Faustus cries that he will burn his books at the close of Doctor Faustus, Prospero proclaims that he will “drown [his] book” (V.i.66) and “abjure” (60) his “so potent art” (59) in so doing. At the play’s close, Prospero speaks to the audience, turning over the powers he has relinquished into the hands of the audience, now equipped with the ability to bring Prospero safely home. Here Shakespeare elevates the play itself as something magical with the power to captivate and bequeath power onto its audience. By association, the playwright—that is, Shakespeare—similarly takes on a status of magician as the man who has “conjured” the play; given that the vocation of playwright was not particularly prestigious in Shakespeare’s time, this self-elevating analogy is a bold self-assertion of the importance of writers. Origin of Property: Colonizer vs. Colonized The origin of property is a central theme in the Enlightenment that is explored in the contentious conflict between Caliban, the indigenous native of the Mediterranean isle, and Prospero, the foreign conqueror. While Caliban’s murderous plot against Prospero and his attempted rape of Miranda is unjustifiable, the question of who is the rightful ruler of the island becomes unclear in the absence of the aforementioned events.
The Entertaining Magician: The Theatricality of Magic As Professor Jones pointed out in his lecture, The Tempest can be read as a meta-commentary on theatre—the play can be seen as a fictional staging of witchcraft: Prospero is the director and all other characters are his actors.
Key Quotations and Passages This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother, Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first, Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me Water with berries in ‘t, and teach me how To name the bigger light and how the less, That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee… Cursed be that I did so! Al lthe charms Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you, For I am all the subjects that you have, Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me The rest o’ th’ island. (I.ii.396-411) See ORIGIN OF PROPERTY: COLONIZER VS. COLONIZED. Our revels now are 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-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, 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. (IV.i.165-174) See THE THEATRICALITY OF MAGIC. Within this “great globe” of life, all is an illusion—“stuff / as dreams are made on”—including ourselves, merely actors in some fictitious play conjured by a magician. By my so potent art. But this rough magic I here abjure, and when I have required Some heavenly music, which even now I do. To work mine end upon their senses that This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, And deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book. (V.i.59-66) See MAGIC IN BOOKS AND PLAYS.