A summary of the play for people who don’t understand Shakespeare, but want to.
This summary is adapted (with apologies) from the Hudson Shakespeare Company
Note: Act/Scene numbers, character descriptions and some events have been altered slightly to match our production.
- Prospero – a magician and the former Duke of Milan
- Miranda – his daughter
- Ariel – a magical being
- Caliban – a monster, raised by Prospero
- King Alonso – the King of Naples
- Gonzalo – Alonso’s long-winded advisor
- Antonio – Prospero’s evil brother who conspired to have him deposed
- Sebastian – Alonso’s jealous younger brother
- Ferdinand – Alonso’s son, and the prince of Naples
- Stephano – a drunkard and a fool, part of the King’s entourage
- Trinculo – a Fool, part of the King’s entourage
- Adrian – Gonzalo’s assistant
- Francisco – Alonso’s assistant
(what happened before the play):
Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, preferred to study magic instead of govern. His brother, Antonio, conspired with King Alonso to have Prospero removed. They placed Prospero and his two-year-old daughter, Miranda, in a boat and abandoned them at sea. However, Gonzalo (Prospero’s friend) snuck them supplies and Prospero’s books of magic. The pair of castaways washed up on an island that was at that time ruled by a witch. Prospero freed the air spirit, Ariel, from where it had been trapped in a tree by the witch. He also took in and raised the witch’s inhuman son, Caliban. Both Ariel and Caliban are now Prospero’s servants, though both wish for their freedom from him. Years pass and Miranda is now grown, and Prospero discovers that all of his old enemies are on a ship nearby, so he prepares for his revenge.
Act 1, Scene 1
Prospero uses magic to call up a terrible storm that drags the ship carrying his old enemies to the island, where it wrecks and washes them to shore.
Act 1, Scene 2
Miranda (long hair, white dress) is upset by the shipwreck. Prospero (green cloak, staff) assures her that everyone will survive. He tells her his backstory for the first time, who he was before and how they came to the island, and explains that the men on the ship are his enemies who he has brought here for revenge. He uses magic to make Miranda take a nap, and speaks to his sprite servant, Ariel. Ariel reports that the men have been enchanted and scattered around the island, with particular care devoted to separating the King from his son, Ferdinand. Prospero promises Ariel that if his revenge scheme is successful and Ariel does what Prospero says, that it will be freed at the end from its servitude.
Prospero wakes Miranda and summons the surly Caliban, who complains about his servitude. Prospero reminds him that he raised and educated him, and Caliban repaid this by attempting to assault Miranda. Prospero sends Caliban to fetch wood.
Ariel returns, singing fairy songs which have lured Ferdinand (dark hair, fancy gold vest) to follow. Miranda, who has never seen a young man, falls immediately in love with him, and he with her. But Prospero wisely decides to not make it too easy for the young lovers so that Ferdinand will appreciate Miranda, and takes a stern attitude and immediately imprisons Ferdinand.
Act 1, Scene 3
Elsewhere on the island, King Alonso (crown) is heartbroken over the loss of his son Ferdinand, who he believes has drowned. His advisor, Gonzalo (elderly, cane), who is a bit long winded and forgetful, attempts to cheer him up, recounting how they have just returned from the wedding of the King’s daughter. Antonio (Prospero’s evil brother, black and silver clothes) and Sebastian (the King’s brother, dark hair, orange coat) mock Gonzalo. Ariel, invisible, arrives and puts the King, Gonzalo, and their attendants to sleep. While they sleep, Antonio suggests to Sebastian that they should kill the king so that Sebastian can take the crown. Sebastian agrees, but before they can act, Ariel awakens everyone and they are forced to lie to explain themselves. They all go off to explore the island and search for Ferdinand.
Act 1, Scene 4
Caliban, while gathering wood, attempts to hide from Trinculo (green, orange, and yellow costume), a Fool, but Trinculo sees him and mocks him. Suddenly frightened, Trinculo hides under Caliban’s cloak. Stephano (drunk, yellow pants), another survivor of the wreck, is drunk on salvaged wine. He finds the two, happily embraces his friend, and gives Caliban wine to tame him. Caliban, tipsy, swears to serve Stephano and Trinculo as his new gods, if they will give him more wine.
Act 1, Scene 5
Ferdinand, forced to move a pile of logs by Prospero, reflects that – though his princely nature rebels against physical labor – he is happy to do it because Miranda sympathizes with him. She arrives and they confess their love for one another and agree to marry. Prospero, eavesdropping on them, is pleased.
Act 2, Scene 1
Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo are drunk and arguing comically. Caliban proposes that Stephano kill Prospero, steal his magic books and take possession of Miranda. Stephano agrees, wanting to be king of the island. Ariel, invisible, arrives and overhears their plotting, and decides to interfere, finally leading them away with fairy music.
Act 2, Scene 2
Prospero causes a magical banquet to appear before King Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian. They greedily approach it, only for Ariel, disguised as a harpy, to arrive. Ariel declares that they are all evil men and, for their crimes, destiny has stranded them on this island and taken Alonso’s son. Ariel, as the harpy, tells them that they will be tormented forever if they don’t atone for their sins. King Alonso leaves, declaring he will find his dead son and die beside him. Stephano and Antonio follow, intent on finding the spirits of the island. Gonzolo and his assistant follow them, believing they’ve all gone crazy and hoping to prevent them from harming themselves.
Act 2, Scene 3
Prospero agrees that Ferdinand and Miranda can marry. He asks Ariel to provide entertainment to celebrate. Ariel summons several “spirits” to impersonate the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno to perform a Masque (a play) for the young lovers. Afterward, Prospero, remembering Caliban’s plot, asks Ariel to bring him some clothes that he has prepared, and hangs them out in full view. Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo arrive, still drunk. Stephano and Trinculo see the clothes, and unable to help themselves, try them on, despite Caliban’s warnings. Prospero uses magic to chase them away, telling Ariel that now that all of his enemies are at his mercy, soon his task will be complete and Ariel will be free.
Act 2, Scene 4
Ariel reports that Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian are now all insane, and Gonzalo is grief-striken. Ariel feels sorry for them, and Prospero is so moved that something as inhuman as Ariel can feel sympathy for them, he decides to be merciful to his enemies despite his losses at their hands. He sends Ariel to fetch them, and decides that once he has cured them, he will renounce his magic and become the Duke of Milan again. Ariel brings his enemies to him, and they are amazed that Prospero still lives. Prospero forgives them, and they give him back his title and duchy.
Prospero reveals that Ferdinand is alive, much to Alonso’s joy, and Ferdinand introduces him to Miranda, who is thrilled to see so many new people. Alonso declares that Ferdinand and Miranda will be the next king and queen of Naples.
Ariel returns with the Boatswain and Master of the King’s ship, who reveal that the ship is whole and waiting for them, to take them all away from the island.
Ariel fetches Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, all still drunk. Prospero sends them to restore his stolen clothes, then invites everyone inside to hear the story of his time on the island.
He gives Ariel one last order – to prepare good winds and weather for their return to Milan – then gives Ariel his staff and sets them free.