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Ariel, Shakespeare Shakespeare Company, 1946

The Tempest

Summary of William Shakespeare's The Tempest: A crew of men are shipwrecked on a magical island and tormented by an old man and his slaves.

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 their ship is demolished in the process. Shipwrecked with them are the courtier, Gonzalo, and the Duke of Milan, Antonio.

Greg Wyatt Sculpture of The Tempest in the gardens of Shakespeare's New Place
Greg Wyatt Sculpture of The Tempest in the gardens of Shakespeare's New Place

From the island, Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, and his fifteen year-old daughter, Miranda, watch the storm and the shipwreck. 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 twelve years previously, he had been deposed in a coup by his brother, Antonio. 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 and made it their home, while the only native islander, Caliban, was made their slave. The only other inhabitants of the island are the spirits including Ariel, whom Prospero had rescued from imprisonment in a tree. Since Antonio is on the boat that is now shipwrecked, Prospero hopes finally to rectify his past. As Miranda sleeps, Prospero plots with Ariel about his role in the shipwreck and what to do with the men now that they are on the shore.

Royal Shakespeare Company, 1998
Royal Shakespeare Company, 1998

The courtiers from the ship are cast ashore unharmed, but the King is near despair, believing that Ferdinand is drowned. Ferdinand has actually arrived safely on a different portion of the island. He meets Miranda and they instantly fall in love with one another. Prospero, fearing for his daughter, captures Ferdinand and forces him to carry wood home to his cell. In the meantime, Ariel seeks his freedom, and he is promised that he will be liberated 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, and all of 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 discovers Caliban, who has hidden from the tormenting spirits. Trinculo hides beside Caliban from an approaching storm and they are found by the ship's butler, Stephano. 


Stephano, Caliban, and Trinculo get very drunk before setting off to the cell where, at Caliban's suggestion, they intend to kill Prospero and make Stephano lord of the island. 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 a marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda, and then 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.

Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006

We are such stuff As dreams are made on

— The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1

Act V

All the courtiers are brought by Ariel 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, and Ariel is promised freedom as 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

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