50 pages 1 hour read

William Shakespeare

The Tempest

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1611

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

One of the most popular plays by William Shakespeare, The Tempest tells the comic tale of Prospero, the overthrown duke of Milan, who maroons his betrayers on a magical island. There, he creates spells and enchantments that toy with the evildoers until they promise to return him to his throne. The production, first staged in London in 1611, provides spectacle, elaborate effects, screwball comedy, intrigue, and romance in a story about ambition, revenge, remorse, love, and forgiveness. To this day, the play is widely performed and adapted to film, including a 2010 adaptation starring Helen Mirren as Prospera, Duchess of Milan.

Plot Summary

A sailing ship gets caught in a terrible storm. Its passengers are Alonso, the king of Naples; his brother, Sebastian; the king’s son, Ferdinand; the king’s counselor, Gonzalo; Antonio, who usurped the throne of Milan from his brother; and other members of the king’s court. They wail in terror as the ship makes loud cracking noises and the passengers fear it will sink. They jump overboard, and somehow all make it to shore. They find themselves marooned on a mysterious island.

Elsewhere on the island, the sorcerer Prospero talks to his teenage daughter, Miranda, who saw the ship foundering and asks her father to help save the people onboard. Prospero assures her that all are safe. He decides to tell her about her family’s past: 12 years earlier, he was the Duke of Milan, but his brother, Antonio, overthrew him and set him and Miranda adrift at sea. They landed on this island, where they have lived ever since. Today, his enemies happened to sail past, and he took the opportunity to cause a storm that marooned them on the island.

Prospero’s magical sprite, Ariel, reports that he has seen to it that the passengers are safe on land, the ship is moored intact, and the crew are aboard, sleeping under Ariel’s spell. Prospero promises to set Ariel free when his plans for the ship’s passengers are complete. Prospero also calls on his slave Caliban, a hunchbacked island native who hates Prospero.

Prospero wants the marooned king’s son Ferdinand to marry Miranda; this will improve relations between Milan and Naples. Ariel leads Ferdinand to Miranda; they meet and promptly fall in love. Not wishing them to take their romance lightly, Prospero accuses Ferdinand of spying and locks him up. This has the intended effect: The young couple yearn for each other more than ever.

Across the island, King Alonso bemoans his fate. He regrets his decision to marry his daughter Claribel to the king of Tunis because the resulting sea voyage ended in their shipwreck and the probable loss of his son. Sebastian berates Alonso as well. Ariel makes most of the king’s entourage fall asleep, but Sebastian and Antonio remain awake, and Antonio convinces Sebastian to kill his sleeping brother and take his throne. They draw their swords, but Ariel wakes them, and Sebastian quickly explains away the weapons, insisting that he and Antonio heard a terrible noise and sought merely to protect the others.

Caliban, grumbling, performs chores out in an open area as a storm approaches. The king’s jester, Trinculo, approaches; thinking the man a torment sent by Prospero, Caliban tries to hide by lying flat. Trinculo finds him and, believing he’s some sort of dead fish monster, hides under Caliban’s overcoat to escape the storm. Stephano, the king’s wine butler, stumbles upon them; he thinks Caliban and Trinculo are a four-legged monster, but Trinculo calls out and explains. Caliban decides Stephano is a god and begs to be his servant; Stephano agrees. Caliban shows them the way to the island’s hidden resources.

Miranda and Ferdinand catch a moment together, declare their love, and agree to marry. Elsewhere, Caliban convinces Stephano and Trinculo to kill Prospero, but an invisible Ariel toys with the drunken trio, whispering insults in their ears that each thinks was uttered by the others. Soon, Stephano is beating up Trinculo.

Prospero uses magic to summon a feast for the king and his men. He then interrupts it with Ariel, who appears as a harpy and condemns the men for their unjust treatment of Prospero.

The magician frees Ferdinand, explains it was all a test, and agrees to the young prince’s marriage to Miranda. Prospero then has Ariel bring the king’s court to his cave where, invisible, he treats the visitors to an elaborate entertainment. Prospero cuts short the festivities to deal with Caliban’s plot; he and Ariel tempt the trio with beautiful clothes then chase them off with magical hounds.

Prospero orders Ariel to bring forth the king and his men. He introduces himself to the shocked company, and King Alonso promptly renounces his support for Antonio’s claim to Prospero’s dukedom. Prospero invites them to stay the night, and then all will sail together back to Italy. In an epilogue, Prospero asks the audience to free him so that he can realize his own dreams back in his homeland.

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