The Tempest Summary

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Widely believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own, The Tempest explores themes of betrayal, forgiveness, colonialism, and servitude through the tale of a group of nobles stranded on a mysterious island. As the play begins, a boat is caught in a violent storm. Aboard are a number of nobles, including the king of Naples and Antonio, the duke of Milan, all fearing that the ship will be wrecked and they will be drowned. On a nearby island, a young woman, Miranda, begs her father, Prospero, to stop the storm, which he has created through sorcery. Prospero refuses, explaining that the men on the boat are their enemies. He reveals that he is the rightful duke of Milan, betrayed by his brother, Antonio, who conspired with the king of Naples to steal his dukedom. Exiled and left to die in a rotten boat, Prospero and Miranda only survived because the elderly lord Gonzalo gave them food, water, and other supplies that allowed them to reach the island that would become their home for the next twelve years.

Having told Miranda of her heritage and history, Prospero sends her to sleep with sorcery, and is visited by Ariel, a magical sprite or spirit of the air who reports that the king of Naples and his party were washed up on the shore, while the ship and its crew are safe and hidden in the harbor. Ariel had once been the prisoner of the witch Sycorax, but Prospero had freed him and then bound him to his own service, promising to release him again once the spirit had assisted him. When Ariel asks him to fulfil this pledge, Prospero says that he still needs the spirit’s help and so must keep him as a servant a little longer. When Ariel leaves, Prospero and Miranda visit Caliban, the deformed and savage son of Sycorax, whom Prospero has magically enslaved. Resentful and bitter at his treatment, Caliban accuses Prospero of stealing his island. Prospero, however, complains that he had initially adopted Caliban only to have him attempt to rape Miranda. They argue and Prospero forces the savage man to leave and collect firewood. Ariel returns leading Prince Ferdinand, the son of the king of Naples. When they see each other, Ferdinand and Miranda fall deeply in love.

Elsewhere on the island, Gonzalo rejoices that the royal party has reached dry land, but the king of Naples remains despondent, believing his son has died in the storm. Both are secretly mocked by two other nobles, the king’s brother, Sebastian, and Antonio, Prospero’s brother and betrayer. When Ariel puts the rest of the royal party to sleep, the two nobles plot to take the throne and make Sebastian king. However, when they advance on Alonso with their swords, Ariel wakes Gonzalo, and the conspirators are forced to say they drew their blades to fight off a dangerous animal. Alonso readily believes his brother, and they all depart in search of Ferdinand. While they search for the prince, Trinculo, the king’s jester, and Stefano, the king’s butler, meet Caliban, and the three drink wine together. Intoxicated, Caliban claims to be the island’s true owner and convinces his companions to help him kill Prospero. Unseen by the drunken men, Ariel overhears the plot and leaves to warn Prospero.

Too exhausted and hungry to continue, the royal party stop looking for Ferdinand. Prospero secretly conjures an extravagant feast, but when the starving nobles go to eat it, Ariel appears and makes the food vanish, before accusing Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian of evil deeds and causing them to flee in terror. When Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano arrive, drunk and disheveled, they too are scared away when Prospero and Ariel conjure ghostly forms in the shape of hunters and dogs. Elsewhere, Prospero has also used his magic to control Ferdinand, forcing him to carry firewood as a test of his and Miranda’s love. Satisfied that they truly do care for each other, Prospero releases Ferdinand and promises them a great celebration. Later, he repeats his promise to grant Ariel’s freedom, and pledges that he will show compassion to his enemies, and will stop using magic once this is all over.

As Ariel brings in the other characters, Prospero begins to make good on these promises. First, he forgives and hugs the king of Naples, who returns to him his dukedom. Next, he forgives the king’s brother, Sebastian, and his own brother, Antonio, and declares that they will not be arrested and tried as traitors. He then reveals that Ferdinand is not dead but is married to Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Ferdinand’s father, the king, is delighted as is the old noble, Gonzalo. Despite the fact they conspired to kill him, when Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano are led in, the only punishment Prospero lays upon them is forcing them to decorate his home. Having been merciful to his enemies, Prospero keeps his pledge to Ariel, asking only one more task of the spirit: providing favorable conditions when he, his daughter, and the king’s party sail away the next day. In the play’s final scene, Prospero keeps his last promise and abandons his magic. Speaking directly to the audience, he admits that he is now powerless and requests that they set him free from the island by applauding. When they applaud, he exits the stage.

While many of Shakespeare’s plays are adaptations of earlier literature, The Tempest is generally considered to be a more original creation inspired by a number of sources including accounts of real-life shipwrecks. It is widely hailed for its complex characterization, especially in the depiction of Caliban, a complicated figure who often mirrors the actions and motivations of the other characters. Shakespeare’s language is particularly celebrated, and the play gives us several new words and phrases that are still in use today, including “brave new world,” “in a pickle,” and the description of things vanishing as having “melted into thin air.”