'The Tempest' Summary for Students

Shakespeare's last play was his most magical

Illustration of William Shakespeare's play The Tempest
Robert Alexander - Contributor/Archive Photos/Getty Images

"The Tempest," written in 1611, is said to be William Shakespeare's last play. It is a tale of magic, power, and justice, and some readings even see it as Shakespeare's way of taking his own final bow. To touch on the most important aspects of this iconic play, here is a summary of "The Tempest."  

'The Tempest' Summary of the Plot

A Magical Storm

"The Tempest" begins on a boat being tossed about in a storm. Aboard are Alonso (the King of Naples), Ferdinand (his son), Sebastian (his brother), Antonio (the usurping Duke of Milan), Gonzalo, Adrian, Francisco, Trinculo, ​and Stefano.

Miranda, who has been watching the ship at sea, is distraught at the thought of lost lives. The storm was created by her father, the magical Prospero, who reassures her that all will be well. Prospero then explains how the two of them came to live on this island: They were once part of Milan’s nobility—he was a Duke—and Miranda lived a life of luxury. However, Prospero’s brother usurped him and exiled them. They were placed on a boat, never to be seen again.

Then, Prospero summons Ariel, his servant spirit. Ariel explains that he has carried out Prospero’s orders: He destroyed the ship and dispersed its passengers across the island. Prospero instructs Ariel to be invisible and spy on them. Ariel asks when he will be freed, but Prospero tells him off for being ungrateful, promising to free him soon.

Caliban: Man or Monster?

Prospero decides to visit his other servant, Caliban, but Miranda is reluctant—she describes him as a monster. Prospero agrees that Caliban can be rude and unpleasant but says he is invaluable to them because he collects their firewood.

When Prospero and Miranda meet Caliban, we learn that he is native to the island, but Prospero turned him into a slave. This raises issues of morality and fairness in the play.

Love at First Sight

Ferdinand stumbles across Miranda and, much to Prospero’s annoyance, they fall in love and decide to marry. Prospero warns Miranda off and decides to test Ferdinand’s loyalty. The rest of the shipwrecked crew are drinking to simultaneously celebrate their survival and grieve for lost loved ones, as Alonso believes that he has lost his beloved son, Ferdinand.

Caliban’s New Master

Stefano, Alonso’s drunken butler, discovers Caliban in a glade. Caliban decides to worship the drunken Stefano and make him his new master in order to escape Prospero’s power. Caliban describes Prospero’s cruelty and persuades Stefano to murder him by promising that Stefano can marry Miranda and rule the island.

The other shipwreck survivors have been trekking across the island and stop to rest. Ariel casts a spell on Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio and derides them for their previous treatment of Prospero. Gonzalo and the others think that the spellbound men are suffering from the guilt of their past actions and promise to protect them from doing anything impulsive.

Prospero finally concedes and agrees to the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand and goes off to foil Caliban’s murderous plot. He orders Ariel to hang out beautiful clothes to distract the three fools. When Caliban and Stefano discover the clothes, they decide to steal them—Prospero arranges for goblins to “grind their joints" as punishment.

Prospero’s Forgiveness and Absolution

At the end of the play, Prospero has forgiven his countrymen, pardoned Caliban, and promised to set Ariel free after he helps the ship leave the island. Prospero also breaks his magical staff and buries it, and tosses his book of magic into the sea. All of these things redeem his earlier behaviors and hearken back to the belief that he's not truly evil. The last thing Prospero does in the play is to ask the audience to set him free from the island with their applause, for the first time leaving his future in the hands of others.

Major Characters

Prospero

While Prospero can be viewed as an evil character, he is more complex than that. His negative actions can be chalked up to his being angry, bitter, and controlling; the tempest that he conjures to shipwreck his countrymen is often said to be a physical manifestation of Prospero's anger. Still, he doesn't kill any of his countrymen despite having the opportunity, and he even eventually forgives them.

Miranda

Miranda represents purity. Prospero is obsessed with keeping her virginity intact and ensuring that when she is finally handed over to Ferdinand, her new husband will honor and treasure her. Miranda is often seen as a very innocent character and the antithesis of the witch Sycorax, the mother of Caliban.

Caliban

Caliban is the demon son of the witch Sycorax and the Devil, and it is unclear whether he is human or monster. Some scholars believe that Caliban is an evil character because he has tried to rape Miranda in the past, is the son of the Devil, and plots with Stefano to kill Prospero. Others say that Caliban is merely a product of his birth and that it is not his fault who his parents were. Many also view Prospero's mistreatment of Caliban (making him a slave) as evil and that Caliban is simply responding to his unfortunate circumstances.

Ariel

Ariel is a magical spirit that inhabited the island long before anyone else. He uses male pronouns but is a gender-ambiguous character. Sycorax imprisoned Ariel in a tree when he refused to do Sycorax's bidding because Ariel viewed her desires as evil. Prospero freed Arial, and the remained faithful to Prospero the entire time the protagonist inhabited the island. At his core, Ariel is a kind, empathetic creature, sometimes viewed as being angelic. He cares for humans and helps Prospero see the light and forgive his kinsman. Without Ariel, Prospero may very well have remained a bitter, angry man on his island forever.

Major Themes

The Tripartite Soul

One of the major themes from this play is the belief in the soul as three parts Plato called this the "tripartite of the soul," and it was a very commonly held belief in the Renaissance. The idea is that Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel are all a part of one person (Prospero).

The three factions of the soul were vegetative (Caliban), sensitive (Ariel), and rational (Ariel and Prospero). Sigmund Freud later adopted this concept into his id, ego, and superego theory. By this theory, Caliban represents the "id" (the child), Prospero the ego (the adult), and Ariel the superego (the parent). 

Many performances of the play after the 1950s have the same actor playing all three roles, and it is only when all three characters can come to the same conclusion (forgiveness) that the three factions are brought together. When this happens to Prospero—when the three parts of his soul unite—he can finally move on.

Master/Servant Relationships

In "The Tempest," Shakespeare draws on master/servant relationships to demonstrate power and its misuse. In particular, control is a dominant theme: Characters battle for control over each other and the island, perhaps an echo of England’s colonial expansion in Shakespeare’s time.

With the island in colonial dispute, the audience ​is asked to question who the rightful owner of the island is: Prospero, Caliban, or Sycorax—the original colonizer from Algiers who performed "evil deeds."

Historical Context: The Importance of Colonialism

"The Tempest" takes place in 17th century England, when colonialism was a dominant and accepted practice, particularly among European nations. This is also contemporary with Shakespeare's writing of the play.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that the plot shows the deep influence of colonialism, especially in terms of Prospero’s actions: He arrives at Sycorax’s island, subdues it, and imposes his own culture on its inhabitants while calling them undignified and savage.

Shakespeare also seems also to have drawn on Michel de Montaigne’s essay "Of the Cannibals," which was translated into English in 1603. The name of Prospero’s servant, Caliban, may have come from the word “cannibal.” When picturing the storm in "The Tempest," Shakespeare may have been influenced by 1610 document “A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia,” which describes the adventures of some sailors who had returned from the Americas.

Key Quotes

As with all of his plays, Shakespeare's "The Tempest" contains plenty of pithy, striking, and moving quotes. These are a few that set up the play.

"A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!"
(Sebastian; Act 1, Scene 1)
"Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground: long heath, broom, furze, anything. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death"
(Gonzalo; Act 1, Scene 1)
"Canst thou remember
A time before we came unto this cell?"
(Prospero; Act 1, Scene 2)
"In my false brother
Awakened an evil nature, and my trust,
Like a good parent, did beget of him
A falsehood in its contrary as great
As my trust was, which had indeed no limit,
A confidence sans bound."
(Prospero; Act 1, Scene 2)
"Good wombs have borne bad sons."
(Miranda; Act 1, Scene 2)
"Hell is empty,
And all the devils are here."
(Ariel; Act 1, Scene 2)