'The Tempest' Summary

Woman speaks animatedly to man who is holding a log
Miranda comforts Ferdinand while he hauls logs for Prospero and urges him to rest.

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The Tempest is a romance of the highest order, beginning with a shipwreck and ending with a marriage. The play follows the banished magician Prospero as he seizes the opportunity to gain back his dukedom from his deceitful brother.

Act One

A ship is caught in a terrible storm. It becomes clear that the ship is carrying the king of Naples, Alonso; his son, Ferdinand; and the Duke of Milan, Antonio. They are returning from Tunis, where they watched the king’s daughter Claribel get married to the Tunisian king. The ship is struck by lightning and they, despairing, sink.

On shore, Miranda begs her magician father, Prospero, to save the drowning sailors. He tells her not to worry and instead recalls to her the story of their arrival on this island when Miranda was only three. Prospero introduces his story at great length, which he has started telling her before but has never finished, and continually prompts Miranda to make sure she is paying attention. Prospero was the rightful duke of Milan, but his brother Antonio betrayed him, usurped his dukedom, and sent Prospero and Miranda off in a boat. Luckily for them, the faithful councilor Gonzalo snuck them supplies and even Prospero’s beloved library. Prospero and his daughter found themselves on this island and have lived there ever since.

When he finishes the story, Prospero puts Miranda to sleep with a spell and speaks to Ariel, a spirit he enslaves. Ariel informs him all the sailors are safe on shore in separate groups, including the king’s son, who is alone and weeping. When Ariel reminds Prospero of his promise to free him imminently, Prospero scolds him for ingratitude. He reminds Ariel how he freed him from his imprisonment by Sycorax, the witch who ruled the island before her death. However, Prospero acknowledges Ariel’s claim and promises him freedom, again, in return for a final few favors.

Prospero wakes Miranda up to accompany him to Caliban, Sycorax’s son and a fearsome figure. In their conversation with Caliban, it is revealed that Prospero tried to treat Caliban well, but the witch's son attempted to force himself on Miranda while she was teaching him English. Since then, he has been imprisoned, treated as an enslaved man, and denigrated.

Ariel then lures Ferdinand with music to Miranda; the two youths fall in love at first sight, with Miranda admitting she has only ever seen two men before (her father and Caliban). Prospero acknowledges in an aside this was his plan; however, when he returns to the group, he accuses Ferdinand of being a spy and makes him work for his daughter’s hand, with the intention that the prince will honor a hard-won prize more.

Act Two

Gonzalo attempts to comfort his king, Alonso, who mourns the son he thinks is drowned. Sebastian and Antonio joke lightheartedly. Ariel, apparently enacting Prospero’s plan, charms everyone but Sebastian and Antonio to sleep. Antonio takes the opportunity to encourage Sebastian to murder his brother Alonso and become king of Naples himself. Slowly convinced, Sebastian draws his sword to kill Alonso—but Ariel wakes everyone up. The two men pretend they heard a noise in the woods, and the group decides to search for the prince’s body.

Caliban enters, carrying wood. He spots Trinculo, an Italian sailor and jester, and pretends to sleep so he will not be bothered by the young man. Trinculo, despairing of the weather, hides under Caliban’s cloak, but not before gaping at the strangeness of Caliban's body. Stephano enters, drinking and marveling at his luck in finding the wine from the ship’s cargo. He and Trinculo have a spirited reunion; Caliban reveals himself but cowers away from them, fearing that they will scold him like Prospero does. Instead, Stephano offers him wine, and the three become drunk.

Act Three

Ferdinand is lugging logs, apparently at Prospero’s bidding, while Miranda comforts him during his hard work. He puts on a bit of a show here, and Miranda offers to relieve him of his fatigue by hauling the logs for him, an offer which he quickly refuses. They profess their love for each other, and Miranda prompts him into proposing. Prospero watches on, approvingly, from afar. Things are going according to plan.

Caliban tells Stephano of Prospero, and, drunk, offers him his loyalty if they agree to murder the wizard. Ariel plays with them during his story, making them think Trinculo says “Thou liest,” when he is actually silent, causing Stephano humorously to align himself with Caliban above his Italian shipmate Trinculo.

The king’s group is weary, and they rest. They are shocked, however, when a host of spirits suddenly brings in an exquisite banquet, and then vanish suddenly. Ariel enters as a harpy and soliloquizes to remind them of their betrayal of Prospero. He too vanishes in thunder. Alonso is disturbed by this apparition, and suggests aloud that his guilt in the betrayal of Prospero has led to punishment in the form of his son’s death.

Act Four

Prospero accepts Ferdinand’s proposal to Miranda, but warns them not to consummate their union until after their marriage. He calls on Ariel to perform a blessing of the union, bringing about a scene that resembles a masque, a Renaissance-era show of music, dance, and drama. In this case, Iris, the Greek messenger goddess, introduces Ceres, the goddess of the harvest (played by Ariel), who blesses the union in terms of natural bounty, as spirits dance. Often a Renaissance masque performance would begin with an “anti-masque” of disordered singing and dancing, which would be swept away by the masque itself in an assertion of orderliness. In this case, the anti-masque could be seen as the shipwreck scene in the beginning and its breakdown of normal authority. Meanwhile, the masque scene itself can be read as Prospero’s assertion of a restoration of order, summed up here in his daughter’s betrothal to the prince of Naples. In this way, even the structure of the play closely follows Prospero’s assertion of his own power and control against chaos. In any case, in a rare moment of surprise and powerlessness, Prospero suddenly calls off the masque’s spectacle as he recalls Caliban’s attempt to supplant him, revealing how seriously Prospero takes the threat that Caliban poses.

But he has remembered just in time. Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban find themselves in Prospero’s dwelling, still drunk and trying on Prospero’s clothing. Suddenly, Prospero enters, and spirits, in the shape of hunting dogs, drive out the interlopers.

Act Five

Ariel reminds Prospero of his promise to free him. Prospero acknowledges this, and reaffirms his intention to do so. Prospero explains that his anger against his brother, the king, and their courtiers has lessened, now that they are so powerless against him. He orders Ariel to fetch them. They enter with Ariel leading them, but they are all under Prospero’s spell. Ariel helps to clothe Prospero in his raiment as Duke of Milan. Prospero orders him to fetch the boatswain and the ship’s master, who are still alive on the island, as well as Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban.

The courtiers awaken, and Prospero presents himself as Duke of Milan, to their amazement. Alonso asks how he survived his banishment—unlike his son Ferdinand. Prospero says that he has also lost his daughter—though Alonso has no idea he means that he gave her away in marriage. Alonso bemoans their mutual suffering, and wishes that their children could be king and queen in Naples. In response, Prospero brings them to the merry couple, who sit playing chess. Amongst their celebration, Alonso bestows a joyful blessing on the couple. The ship’s master, the boatswain, Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban (who is now sober, and stunned at his foolishness) arrive with Ariel, to be set free by Prospero.

Prospero invites the group to stay the night and to hear the tale of his survival. Then, he says, they will sail to Naples to see Miranda and Ferdinand married, and he will take up his dukedom in Milan once more. As his last order to Ariel, he asks for swift winds and fair weather; then the spirit will finally be free, once Prospero has left the island and has no more use for him. The play ends with his soliloquy, in which Prospero admits his charms are all over, thereby suggesting that the play was an enchantment. He indicates coyly that he can only escape the island himself if the audience sends him off with grateful applause.

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Rockefeller, Lily. "'The Tempest' Summary." ThoughtCo, Dec. 2, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-tempest-summary-4767942. Rockefeller, Lily. (2020, December 2). 'The Tempest' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-tempest-summary-4767942 Rockefeller, Lily. "'The Tempest' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-tempest-summary-4767942 (accessed March 24, 2023).