William Shakespeare: The Tempest
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2000

Waterhouse (John William), 'Miranda-The Tempest', c. 1916
John William Waterhouse, 'Miranda-The Tempest', c. 1916

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is an interesting and delightfully imaginative play which nicely seems to cap off Shakespeare's career as a playwright (though apparently not quite his last). It is more satisfying than the other late romances.

Per Bevington: Sources include descriptions of the shipwreck of the "Sea Venture" in the Bermudas in 1609, including Sylvester Jourdain in "A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of Devils" (1610), and William Strachey's letter in manuscript written in July 1610 (publ. 1625) called "A True Repertory of the Wreck and Redemption ... from the Islands of the Bermudas". Also Twine's "The Pattern of Painful Adventures" and Richard Eden's "History of Travel", and Michael Montaigne's "Of the Cannibals". Prospero's speech "Ye elves..." comes from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" 7.197 and Sycorax is patterned after Medea; other influences are Spenser's "Faerie Queene" and Virgil's "Aeneid".

Here WS creates a world of imagination and magical rejuvenation and restoration, as in MSND and AYLI. It is ostensibly located in the Mediterranean but has features of the Bermudas and even S. America and otherwise suggests a new and unfamiliar world. Prospero rules as the artist-king, using white but not black magic. His assumption of god-like power is arrogant, even blasphemous. He must overcome the vengeful feelings has toward those who wronged him. He seems patriarchal, colonialist, even sexist and racist to us, yet he is willing to lay aside his demanding and self-important role. Alonso and his courtly party represent the unregenerate world... Gonzalo's ideal commonwealth is derived from Montaigne and makes no allowance for the darker propensities of human behavior. Alonso is a tragicomic figure, sinful, contrite, and forgiven. Ferdinand is youthful innocence--when he marries Miranda, it is nurture wedding nature. Prospero creates an illusion of ceremony by his art. Caliban represents untutored Nature, in many ways a sympathetic character who questions the value of civilization as it is presented to him, who has been displaced from territory that was his in the first place. Ariel is a nonhuman spirit belonging to the world of song, music, and illusion, morally neutral.  There are unsettling questions arising in the depiction of exploitation, colonialist empire building, and sexual imperialism. Stephano and Trinculo depict exploitation at its worst in their treatment of Caliban, immediately getting him drunk, etc. He is both a naturally depraved savage as well as the noble innocent savage as described by Montaigne. There are also class issues raised. Miranda will serve a crucial role in her marriage in uniting the powers ruling Milan and Naples. In the end, Antonio never explicitly repents, and we cannot be sure to what extent WS has mastered the colonial debate introduced.  "No doubt it is a romantic fiction to associate the dramatist Shakespeare with Prospero's farewell to his art, but it is an almost irresistible idea because we are so moved by the sense of completion and yet humility, the exultation and yet the calm contained in this leave-taking."


Act I 

Act I Scene 1

Aboard a ship off the island's coast [ostensibly somewhere in the Mediterranean, though there are suggestions also of Bermuda]. The ship's Master gives the Boatswain commands for responding to the raging storm. Boatswain speak to the Mariners, telling them to trim the sails, etc.

Alonso, the King of Naples along with Antonio (Prospero's brother and the usurping Duke of Milan), wants to speak to the Boatswain, who gruffly tells the courtiers to remain below. Gonzalo ("an honest old concillor" to the king) reminds the Boatswain who he has aboard, but the man says "None that I more love than myself" and indicates the courtiers are no more able to control the elements than he is and to stay out of his way. Gonzalo takes comfort that such a man is destined to hang, not drown, and that therefore according to a proverb they are safe. The courtiers exit.

Sebastian, brother to Alonso, enters with Antonio and Gonzalo and defiantly curses the Boatswain as the man struggles to get control of the ship. The mariners say they are all lost and call for prayer. Gonzalo remains convinced the Boatswain will hang. The boat appears to be splitting up. Gonzalo wishes for solid ground and would prefer to die a dry death.

Act I Scene 2

The island, in Prospero's cell. Miranda, Prospero's 15 y/o daughter, pleads with him to save the men who are going down at sea under his control, but he reassures her there is no harm being done. He decides the time has come to tell her further about how they came to be on the island when she was not yet 3 years old. She had 5 women tending her as a child when he was the rightful Duke of Milan and she his only child. He had grown more interested in his secret studies and had placed his brother Antonio in charge of every day governing. Gradually, Antonio came to believe he really should be the Duke, especially since Prospero had become so retiring and secretive. Antonio allied with Prospero's enemy, Alonso the King of Naples, and offered to give him annual tribute. But Alonso suggested instead that they should extirpate Prospero and make Antonio the Duke of Milan. Alonso sent an army in the night and Antonio admitted it into Milan. Knowing how much Prospero was loved by the people, the usurpers decided not to murder him immediately but to put him to sea in a rotten ship in which "the very rats instinctively have quit it." They were saved from death by "Providence divine" and by the kind help of the Neapolitan Gonzalo, who secretly provided them with clothing and other necessities as well as the books from his library that Prospero prized even above his dukedom. He is pleased that his enemies have now by Fortune been brought to his island at the height of his powers. She goes to sleep [presumably under his control].

He calls in Ariel, a male "airy spirit". Ariel has created the illusion of the storm, including St. Elmo's fire aboard the ship, and has driven the courtiers into the sea, all at Prospero's bidding. However, they are all unharmed, even their garments are unblemished. The ship, with its mariners all asleep, is now in a harbor [which seems to be in Bermuda]. The rest of the fleet has regrouped and is continuing toward Naples, since they assumed the King's ship was wrecked and those aboard drowned.

Ariel has long faithfully done Prospero's bidding and wants his freedom, asking him to reduce his period of servitude by a year. Prospero reminds him how he saved him from the entrapment forced on him by the foul witch Sycorax, who was banished to the island from Algiers. She arrived pregnant with child--the pregnancy had saved her from execution. She had made Ariel her servant on the island, but because he had refused to do her abhorred commands, she imprisoned him in a pine tree for 12 years. She had died during his imprisonment and her son Caliban [anagram for cannibal] was forced to serve Prospero. Prospero used his magical art to release Ariel from the tree, and he now threatens to reimprison the spirit if he will not continue to do his work. But he promises to free him in 2 more days. He commands Ariel to be invisible to men and to assume the form of a nymph of the sea.

Prospero reawakens Miranda and tells her they will visit Caliban "my slave", saying they cannot do without his services (making the fire, fetching wood, etc.) He calls forth Caliban, telling him he has work for him. Ariel appears as a water nymph and Prospero whispers instruction to him, then Ariel exits. Caliban enters and curses them both. Prospero says he will be punished for this hostility. Caliban says it was his island before Prospero arrived, that Prospero had treated him kindly when he had first arrived, had taught him about the sun and the moon. He had loved Prospero and had shown Prospero the secret places of the island before he was made his slave. Prospero reminds him that he had tried to violate the honor of Miranda and believes he has treated him humanely. Miranda [or possibly Prospero] says "Abhorred slave, / Which any print of goodness wilt not take, / Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour /One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage, / Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like / A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes / With words that made them known. But thy vile race, / Though thou didst learn, had that in't which good natures / Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou / Deservedly confined into this rock, / Who hadst deserved more than a prison." But the exploited Caliban has benefited little from his education: "You taught me language; and my profit on 't / Is I know how to curse." Prospero again threatens him with cramps and aches. Caliban knows he must relent, since Prospero's power is greater than his own god, Setebos [a god of the Patagonians]-- Caliban exits.

Ferdinand, son of Alonso, arrives led by the invisible Ariel's singing. He wonders where the music is coming from. Ariel sings of Alonso's presumed death: "Full fathom five thy father lies. / Of his bones are coral made. / Those are pearls that were his eyes. / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange. / Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell." Ferdinand sadly recalls his drowned father. Prospero suggests to Miranda to look on Ferdinand, a goodly person, though she imagines him something divine. Prospero sees by her sudden infatuation that things are proceeding according to his plan [i.e., he hopes in part to create an alliance with Alonso through Miranda].

Ferdinand sees Miranda, and wonders if she is a human maiden or a goddess, etc. [her name means "to be wondered at"]. He introduces himself as the new king of Naples. Prospero sees they are rapidly falling in love with each other, and praises Ariel for this. He speaks to Ferdinand. He is worried that the love is progressing too fast: "They are both in either's power's; but this swift business / I must uneasy make, lest too light winning / Make the prize light." He accuses Ferdinand of usurping the title of King and calls him a traitor. Ferdinand is provoked and draws his sword, but is stopped by Prospero's magical power. Miranda pleads with her father to go easy on him, and he chastises her for supporting the "impostor", calling him a Caliban compared to most other men in the world. But she would be content with Ferdinand. Prospero commands Ferdinand obey, saying "Thy nerves are in their infancy again / And have no vigor in them"; Ferdinand agrees: "So they are; / My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up." He is willing to be imprisoned as long as he gets to see Miranda once a day. Prospero is pleased and again assures Ariel of his imminent freedom, while Miranda reassures Ferdinand.

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Another part of the island. The idealistic old Gonzalo tries to cheer up Alonso, who does not want to hear it, while Sebastian and Antonio make their cynical observations about Gonzalo. Gonzalo astutely observes that their garments show no effects of the salt water and look as they did when they recently attended the king's daughter Claribel's wedding to the King of Tunis. He recalls the "widow" Dido, and Antonio scorns the old man's prudishness for not calling her a spurned lover instead of a widow. Alonso regrets he married off his daughter there, since he has lost his son as a result of the voyage. Francisco suggests Ferdinand may be still be alive. Sebastian blames Alonso for the loss, since he would not marry his daughter to a European despite Sebastian's urgings. Gonzalo asks Sebastian to be more compassionate and gentle. Gonzalo ponders what he would do if he had a plantation on the island, and he envisions a utopian commonwealth: "I' the commonwealth I would by contraries / Execute all things; for no kind of traffic / Would I admit; no name of magistrate; / Letters should not be known; riches, poverty, / And use of service, none; contract, succession, / Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; / No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil; / No occupation; all men idle, all; / And women too, but innocent and pure; / No sovereignty ... /... / All things in common nature should produce / Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony, / Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine / Would I not have; but nature should bring forth, / Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance, / To feed my innocent people." But Alonso is unmoved by Gonzalo's vision and Antonio remains cynical.

The others go to sleep under Ariel's influence, then does Alonso. Sebastian remarks on the strange drowsiness that possesses them. Antonio begins to plot with Sebastian to win the crown for Sebastian by murdering Alonso. Although Claribel is the next in line, Antonio says she will be too far away, that "We all were sea-swallowed, though some cast again, / And by that destiny to perform an act / Whereof what's past is prologue, what to come / In yours and my discharge." Sebastian recalls how Antonio supplanted his own brother, but wonders about the role conscience should play. Antonio suggest he will stab Alonso while Sebastian is to kill Gonzalo, and Sebastian agrees to the plot. But Ariel awakens Gonzalo with a warning about the conspiracy, and soon the king awakens. Gonzalo wants them to stand guard against a threat which he cannot specifically identify.

Act II Scene 2

Another part of the island. Caliban curses his plight and the frequent unfair punishment with hedgehogs and adders etc. that he receives.

The jester Trinculo enters, and Caliban lies down, fearing he is a spirit. Trinculo thinks Caliban smells like a fish, and immediately begins to think about exploiting Caliban by displaying him in England: "When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. Legged like a man and his fins like arms!" When thunder sounds, he decides to seek shelter under Caliban's garments and observes: "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." 

The drunken butler Stephano enters, singing a bawdy sailor song. When Trinculo speaks, Stephano thinks a four legged monster is speaking... He wants to recover the monster to present to take to Naples. Caliban pleads not to be tormented. Stephano gives Caliban a drink and Trinculo emerges. Stephano calls the deformed Caliban a "mooncalf" [monstrous or misshapen creature whose deformity was caused by the malignant influence of the moon]. Caliban thinks Stephano is a god bearing celestial liquor, and swears to be his subject. Stephano continues to ply him with liquor. Caliban wants to show him the island's fertile lands, the best springs, etc., and resolves to no longer serve Prospero. He speaks poetically of the nimble marmoset and his desire for freedom, etc. while the men ridicule him drunkenly. He leads them away.

Act III

Act III Scene 1

Before Prospero's cell. Ferdinand enters bearing a log, doing Prospero's trials. Miranda enters, with the unseen Prospero in the distance. She offers to help him with his labors. Prospero sees she is infected with love. She tells her name to Ferdinand, breaking her father's request. Ferdinand speaks of his wonder in her, and she says she would have no other than him. He fell in love with her at first sight, and she weeps at his expression of love. To himself, Prospero says "Fair encounter / Of two most rare affections! Heavens rain grace / On that which breeds between 'em!" She believes herself unworthy of a prince, but agrees to marry him if he will have her, and he lovingly consents. But Prospero has more to do before he can rejoice.

Act III Scene 2

Another part of the island. More humor with Caliban and the two men. With the invisible Ariel listening in, Caliban tells of his tyrannical master, how he will show the sleeping Prospero to them so they can kill him. Ariel mimics the voice of Trinculo, saying he lies. Trinculo is angered, but Stephano threatens and restrains him. After more deception by Ariel, Stephano beats Trinculo. Caliban continues to describe his assasination plot against Prospero, how they should come while he sleeps in the afternoon, brain him and burn his books, and win Miranda for Stephano as queen for a king. Ariel decides he will warn Prospero of this plot, and plays a tune on a tabor and pipe. The men are frightened by the mysterious music, but Caliban reassures them: "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. / Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices / That, if I then had waked after long sleep, / Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, / The clouds methought would open and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked, / I cried to dream again." Stephano agrees to the plot against Prospero. 

Act III Scene 3

Another part of the island. Alonso and his party enter. Gonzalo is exhausted and Alonso despondent over his son's presumed death. Antonio and Sebastian are looking for the right time to carry out the murders of Alonso and Gonzalo, and plan to do so tonight. Strange music plays and several strange shapes dance, salute the king, etc., and leave food behind. Alonso is amazed and wonders what they were, and Sebastian says he will now believe in unicorns. Gonzalo comments on the gentleness of the inhabitants of the island, a comment which pleases the unseen Prospero who looks on. Gonzalo mentions monsters found in other parts of the world. 

As they try to eat, Ariel appears as a harpy and the banquet vanishes before they can eat. He says (heard only by Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio) that they are men of sin and that he has made them mad. They draw their swords, but he taunts them: "The elements, / Of whom your swords are tempered may as well / Wound the loud winds, or with bemocked-at stabs / Kill the still-closing waters, as diminish / One dowl [soft feather] that's in my plume." He reminds them that they supplanted the good Prospero in Milan and exposed him to death, that they are being punished for this, including by the death of Ferdinand. Prospero is pleased at Ariel's performance as a harpy and knows the men are now in his power. Gonzalo, who was not included in this speech, wonders at what strange event Alonso has reacted to. Alonso is in despair at having heard Prospero's and his son's fate linked. Gonzalo sees the guilt that Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio feel.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

Before Prospero's cell. Prospero warmly tells Ferdinand he has passed the trials used to prove his love for Miranda, and offers his daughter's hand to Ferdinand with his blessing. But he warns him against premarital sex, which would lead to barrenness, and Ferdinand agrees not to be ruled by lust.

Ariel arrives to perform his last service, a ceremonial wedding, and Prospero calls him to fetch the "rabble" over which he has power. Prospero continues to counsel Ferdinand against dalliance or giving way to lust, and Ferdinand agrees.

Ariel has arranged for spirits to arrive. Iris [goddess of rainbow and Juno's messenger] enters and calls up Ceres [goddess of the generative power of nature], to give her fertile bounty to the couple. Juno descends, and Ceres enters. Ceres asks Iris why Juno has had Iris summon her, and Iris says it is to celebrate a true love. Ceres has avoided Venus and Cupid since Dis [Hades] stole away her daughter [Proserpina]. Iris has seen the dove-drawn Venus and her son nearby--but they did not succeed in tempting the couple to give in to sexual temptations. Juno blesses the couple and hopes for their prosperity, and Ceres joins in. Ferdinand wonders at these spirits, which Prospero says he has called with his art "to enact my present fancies". Juno sends Iris on an errand. Iris, offstage, calls forth the naiads [nymphs of springs, rivers, and lakes] and sicklemen to help celebrate the festivities. 

Prospero suddenly recalls the plot against him by Caliban et al. and dismisses the celebratory spirits. Ferdinand wonders why Prospero appears angry. Prospero [in what seems to be Shakespeare's own valedictory or bidding farewell] says: "You do look, my son, in a moved sort [i.e., troubled state], / As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir. / 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 [Globe theater?] itself, / Yea, all which it inherit [i.e., who subsequently occupy it], shall dissolve, / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack [cloud] behind. We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep." He asks the young couple's forgiveness that he is vexed and retires to his cell.

Now he asks Ariel where the varlets Caliban et al. have been left. Ariel, who played Ceres, says they were left behind his cell in the stinking lake. Prospero is angry at the devil Caliban for his ingratitude, etc.: "A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, / Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost! / And as with age his body uglier grows, / So his mind cankers. I will plague them all, / Even to roaring." 

He has Ariel hang the trees with "glistering apparel". Caliban and the men enter to kill Prospero, reeking of the foul smell of the lake. Stephano has lost his bottle. But, the men are attracted to the garments on the tree, and refuse to take Caliban's warning to leave it alone and accomplish the murder first. They load him up with garments to carry away. Various spirits (along with Prospero and Ariel) enter, and set on them and drive them away. Prospero sends the tormenting spirits after them. Soon Prospero will give Ariel his freedom.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

Before Prospero's cell. Prospero is satisfied that all has worked according to his plan. Ariel has left Alonso and his followers as "prisoners" in a lime grove-- the king and Antonio and Sebastian out of their wits and the others are mourning over them. Ariel has seen Gonzalo weeping, and believes Prospero would be moved to be tender if he saw them so. Prospero notes the impressive feelings expressed by this nonhuman spirit and voices his own compassionate forgiveness: "Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling / Of their afflictions, and shall not myself, / One of their kind, that relish all as sharply / Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? / Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick, / Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury / Do I take part. The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent, / The sole drift of my purpose doth extend / Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel. / My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore, / And they shall be themselves." 

He tells Ariel to release the men. He traces a charmed circle with his staff and calls to the elves etc. [lines derived from Golding's transl. of Ovid's Metamorphoses 7.197]: "Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves ... ", saying he will abjure magic [and further literary creations] and drown his magic book.

Ariel enters with Alonso et al. Prospero cures their brain afflictions, saying "And as the morning steals upon the night, / Melting the darkness, so their rising senses / Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle / Their clearer reason." He greets Gonzalo as "my true preserver", speaks to Alonso of the cruelty he showed to him and Miranda. He speaks [privately] to Antonio and Sebastian about their intent to kill the king. He has Ariel dress himself in the garb of the Duke of Milan, so that they can recognize his past appearance. Ariel sings a song about being free. Prospero speaks tenderly to Ariel, saying he will miss him. He sends him to the king's ship to awaken the mariners and bring them forth.

Gonzalo is fearful, but Prospero presents himself as the Duke of Milan and embraces the king. Alonso is not sure whether Prospero is real or a spirit, but agrees to resign his claim of tribute from Milan, and asks his pardon. Prospero embraces Gonzalo, who is still unsure who or what Prospero is. Prospero hints at the murder plot against the king, but will not divulge it fully now. Sebastian calls him a devil. Prospero forgives Antonio his brother, and requires the return of his dukedom [we never hear Antonio express remorse or ask for forgiveness]. He still lets the king believe Ferdinand is dead, and says he has lost a daughter just as the king has lost a son in the last tempest.

But now, Prospero has the king look in on the loving couple Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess. Ferdinand is overjoyed to see his father, and kneels to him to ask for his blessing. Miranda marvels at all the wonderful men: "O, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in't!" Ferdinand introduces her to his father as his own. Alonso asks his forgiveness. Gonzalo calls down a blessing from the gods on the couple and wonders if there was a grand plan that led to the alliance between Ferdinand and Miranda, the wedding of Claribel, and the restoration of Prospero. Alonso takes the hands of the lovers.

Ariel enters with the Boatswain and ship Master. Boatswain says that, though the ship seemed earlier to have split, it is now tight and intact. Alonso asks how the Boatswain came to them, and he tries to describe how he was magically transported there. Alonso marvels "This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod, / And there is in this business more than nature / Was ever conduct of." Prospero assures him he will explain all eventually. He instructs Ariel to set Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo free, and they enter in their stolen apparel. Stephano comically prepares for an assault. Prospero tells how the misshapen man Caliban and his accomplices robbed him and planned to take his life. Caliban is repentant. Alonso recognizes his drunken butler. Prospero says of Caliban: "He is as disproportioned in his manners / As in his shape.--Go, sirrah, to my cell. / Take with you your companions. As you look / To have my pardon, trim it handsomely." Caliban, still his slave, docilely obeys and says he seeks for grace from Prospero, regretting he mistook the drunkard for a god.

Prospero invites the courtiers to his cell, to rest and hear his story. In the morning, he promises to take them to the ship so that they can all go to Naples. He hopes to see the nuptials of Ferdinand and Miranda solemnized, and then retire to Milan. 

Prospero at last grants Ariel his freedom, asking only that his last act be to ensure that the ship catches up with the rest of the royal fleet returning to Naples: "My Ariel, chick, / That is thy charge. Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well!"

Epilog

Prospero speaks of his uncertain imaginary fate and asks for the assistance of the audience and their approval and forgiveness: "Now my charms are all o'erthrown, / And what strength I have 's mine own, / Which is most faint. Now, 'tis true, / I must be here confined by you / Or sent to Naples. Let me not, / Since I have my dukedom got / And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell / In this bare island by your spell, / But release me from my bands [bonds] / With the help of your good hands [applause]. / Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails, / Which was to please. Now I want [lack] / Spirits to enforce, art [magic] to enchant, / And my ending is despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer [his request to the audience], / Which pierces so that it assaults / Mercy itself and frees all faults. / As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence [approval and applause] set me free."