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Ariel, Shakespeare Shakespeare Company, 1946

The Tempest

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's The Tempest

TL;DR: A crew of men are shipwrecked on a magical island and tormented by an old man and his slaves.

The Tempest Summary

Prospero uses magic to conjure a storm and torment the survivors of a shipwreck, including the King of Naples and Prospero’s treacherous brother, Antonio. Prospero’s slave, Caliban, plots to rid himself of his master, but is thwarted by Prospero’s spirit-servant Ariel. The King’s young son Ferdinand, thought to be dead, falls in love with Prospero’s daughter Miranda. Their celebrations are cut short when Prospero confronts his brother and reveals his identity as the usurped Duke of Milan. The families are reunited and all conflict is resolved. Prospero grants Ariel his freedom and prepares to leave the island.

More detail: 2 minute read

Act I

Close to a Mediterranean island, a storm overcomes a ship that carries King Alonso of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and his brother Sebastian. They were on their way home home from Tunis to Italy when the storm hit and demolished their ship. Shipwrecked with them are the courtier, Gonzalo, and the Duke of Milan, Antonio. 

Greg Wyatt Sculpture of The Tempest. A very complex design, containing a ship, storm waves, a cleft tree and the wing of Ariel, and the bearded face of Prospero.
Greg Wyatt Sculpture of The Tempest in the gardens of Shakespeare's New Place

From the island, Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, watches the storm and shipwreck with his 15 year-old daughter, Miranda. Miranda fears for the ship's crew, but Prospero assures her that everything is fine. He decides to open up about his past, telling her how 12 years previously, his brother Antonio had deposed him in a coup. 

With the aid of Gonzalo, Prospero had escaped in a boat with the infant Miranda and his books of magic. They travelled to the island, made it their home, and enslaved the only native islander, Caliban. The only other inhabitants of the island are the spirits including Ariel, whom Prospero had rescued from imprisonment in a tree. Since Antonio was on the boat that is now shipwrecked, Prospero hopes finally to rectify his past. 

As Miranda sleeps, Prospero discusses his role in the shipwreck with Ariel. They plot about what to do with the men now that they are on the shore. 

The Tempest Royal Shakespeare Company, 1998. A solemn-faced, white haired, seated Prospero stares out over the audience. On his right Miranda kneels, her hands on his thigh, staring up at him in concern. She has long curly hair and a light dress, contrasting with his dark robe with a long white collar.
Royal Shakespeare Company, 1998

The courtiers from the ship are cast ashore unharmed. But the King is near despair, believing that Ferdinand, his son, drowned. Ferdinand has actually arrived safely on a different part of the island where he meets Miranda and they instantly fall in love. Prospero, fearing for his daughter, captures Ferdinand and forces him to carry wood.  In the meantime, Ariel seeks his freedom. Prospero promises that he will liberate Ariel from servitude following the completion of just a few more tasks (typical). 

O brave new world that has such people in't!

— The Tempest, Act 5 Scene 1

Act II

Ariel uses music to lead the courtiers astray, while Sebastian and Antonio plot to kill the King while he is asleep. Their attempt is foiled by Ariel. All the people from the ship become ever more confused as they wander around. In another part of the island, the timid court fool, Trinculo, has come ashore and discovered Caliban. Trinculo hides beside Caliban from an approaching storm, and the ship's butler, Stephano finds them.    


Stephano, Caliban, and Trinculo, at Caliban's suggestion, intend to kill Prospero and make Stephano lord of the island. They get very drunk before setting off to the cell to kill Prospero.  Ariel, who saw the whole thing in his invisible state, reports this wicked plot to his master. Meanwhile, Prospero has relented and gives his blessing for Ferdinand and Miranda's marriage. Then he entertains them with a masque of goddesses and dancing reapers before he remembers Caliban's plots.  

Prospero and Ariel then set a trap for the three plotters. Stephano and Trinculo fall for the plot and become distracted by gaudy clothes hung out for them. After they touch the clothing, they are chased away by spirits disguised as dogs.

The Tempest Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006. Standing in front of a rock, a grim-faced Prospero holds his hands wide above his head. He is dressed in a black robe, over which he wears a furred cloak; held in his hands, this gives the impression of wings.
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006

We are such stuff As dreams are made on

— The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1

Act V

Ariel brings all the courtiers to the cell where Prospero, renouncing his magic, reveals himself. Instead of enacting his revenge, he forgives them and accepts the return of his dukedom. Ferdinand and Miranda are betrothed. Sailors come to announce that the ship is safe. Prospero fulfils his promise and frees Ariel while Caliban and the drunken servants are rebuked. The play ends as all go to celebrate their reunions, and Prospero asks the audience to release him from the play.  

Let your indulgence set me free

— The Tempest, Act 5 Epilogue

For additional reading, see our blogs on The Tempest

Learn what Shakespeare has to say on the subject of life in The Tempest and other plays: Shakespeare Quotes on Life

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