The Tempest | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Tempest | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



The sailors onboard a ship are caught in a fierce and raging thunderstorm on their journey from the north coast of Africa to Italy. As they work to take down the sails to save the ship, the noble passengers Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Ferdinand, and Gonzalo come aboveboard. Tensions rise when the boatswain insists that the noblemen return below deck. The boatswain is irritated by the appearance of the noblemen because they are loud and they disrupt the work of the sailors: "You mar our labor," he says, "Keep your cabins. You do assist the storm." When they remind the boatswain of their importance, he points out that, while they have authority over men, they have none over nature.

They return below deck only to have Sebastian, Antonio, and Gonzalo reappear shortly after. Sebastian and Antonio are rude to the boatswain, calling him names. Gonzalo responds that the boatswain should remember the authority of the passengers they have onboard. More sailors appear, wet and weary from trying to save the ship. King Alonso, his son, and others pray desperately because it is clear the ship is destined for destruction. As the ship breaks apart Gonzalo acknowledges that they are going to drown.


The scene opens in the midst of a chaotic scene—the tempest—that hints at the supernatural power of forces beyond human control. Soon the characters will face more magic on the magician Prospero's island. For now the tremendous power of nature is more powerful than any human, despite the royal authority onboard the ship. Whether king or servant, all are human and powerless before storms that they cannot control. When it is revealed in the following scene that Prospero controls the tempest, the implication is it is he who has become the greater ruler.

The crisis onboard the ship reveals both the conflict between classes and the nature of several of the characters. The class hierarchy on the ship is clear. The sailors do the hard work of sailing the ship—and they are good at it. The boatswain is irritated by the appearance of the demanding noblemen because he knows they will all be dead if the sailors cannot save the ship—their nobility is useless in this life-or-death situation. The first scene of Act 1 also introduces readers to some of the character qualities of Antonio and Sebastian, who respond to the boatswain with harsh cursing. Both men use their authoritative power to verbally abuse someone with less power. This conflict between ruler and subject begins to develop the theme of exploitation and power that will weave its way through the entire play.

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