The Tempest | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Tempest | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

On the shore of their island home Prospero and Miranda watch the ship being destroyed in the storm. Miranda suspects that her father's magical powers may have something to do with it, so she asks him to show mercy on the ship's inhabitants. Acknowledging his role, he promises that none shall come to harm.

He then tells her the story of what brought them to the island 12 years before when she was only three years old. Prospero was the duke of Milan. In order to spend more time in his study of books, Prospero put his much-loved brother Antonio in charge of some aspects of his government. But Antonio grew more powerful and persuaded people to be loyal to him as the real leader. Eventually he was able to get the support of the king of Naples, Alonso, who helped to forcefully drive out Prospero. Prospero's people loved him, so the conspirators did not dare to kill him and Miranda, but they put them to sea in a rotting boat, anticipating they would die at sea. However, the kind Gonzalo, a Neapolitan in charge of the plan to usurp Prospero, provided them with water, food, clothing, and some of Prospero's books, so they had something to live on when they landed on the island, where they have been ever since.

Prospero then reveals the very enemies who created this trouble for him were the people onboard the ship he had just wrecked in the storm. After he tells her all of this, Miranda falls unnaturally to sleep. The sprite Ariel appears, making it clear to the audience that the spirit has been the one executing the plan of the storm on the ship. He reports that everyone except the sailors has jumped out of the ship. The sailors are magically asleep on the ship, which has come safety to shore and is hidden in a cove. The passengers, too, are all safe and dispersed in groups around the island.

When Prospero begins to give Ariel more instructions, the spirit reminds Prospero he has promised freedom. Until now Prospero has been complimentary of Ariel, but he becomes irritated at Ariel because the spirit has not yet finished the agreed time of service. Prospero then recalls the story of how he rescued Ariel from imprisonment in a tree by the witch Sycorax. After being reminded of his former misery, Ariel thanks Prospero, apologizes, and promises to do Prospero's bidding. Prospero then sends Ariel as an invisible spy to the shipwrecked men on the island.

After Ariel leaves Miranda wakes from sleep. She and her father go to visit the slave Caliban, the son of the witch Sycorax. Caliban comes out of his cave cursing Prospero for taking the island, which had belonged to his mother, from him. Prospero calls him a liar and says he even tried to take care of Caliban in his own dwelling until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. After arguing with and cursing Prospero, Caliban leaves to go get fuel.

Now the first shipwrecked passenger appears, alone. Ferdinand, the son of Alonso, walks in with the invisible Ariel singing beside him. It's obvious that Ariel is leading Ferdinand to this specific location. Ferdinand remarks on the beauty of the song, wondering where it came from. Ariel then sings a song that suggests that Ferdinand's father is drowned, which is what Ferdinand believes.

Prospero and Miranda enter the scene, and Miranda notices Ferdinand. She has never seen another man besides her father and Caliban, and she is immediately enchanted by his handsomeness. Likewise when Ferdinand spots Miranda, he is smitten with her beauty. Prospero questions him, and Ferdinand reveals how he has seen his own father die in a shipwreck. Prospero suggests that Ferdinand is actually a spy who has come to take the island from him. Miranda is distressed by her father's lack of pity. She does not hear Prospero's asides that reveal he is merely testing Ferdinand, fearing that winning Miranda too easily will cause Ferdinand to value her less. When Prospero threatens Ferdinand, Miranda pleads with her father for mercy. Ferdinand, ready to be imprisoned, asks only that he might be able to look on Miranda once a day from his prison cell. Prospero is pleased with the outcome of Ariel's work and his own manipulations.

Analysis

In this scene readers learn that the "natural" tempest is actually a magical, supernatural event created by Prospero through Ariel in order to get the ship to the island, where he can execute his plan of revenge. And the motivation for that revenge becomes clear to the audience when Prospero tells the story of his past to his daughter.

As Prospero tells his story it will also become apparent that in his office in Milan he did not rule well. He was more interested in his obsession with magic and books than in fulfilling his responsibilities as a good leader. Now he is "ruling" Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban, and the audience will wonder whether he misuses his authority over his small island world, too. The scene reveals the following details of those relationships.

Prospero's Relationship with Miranda

Prospero loves his daughter dearly, citing her as the motive for his actions and as the balm that has comforted him in his exile. Miranda depends on him because she is still in her youth. And he sees himself as the authority in that relationship, repeatedly asking her "Dost thou attend me?" He believes he is entitled to control her life, which is revealed in his orchestration of bringing Ferdinand to her. Because Miranda does not know her or her father's past, and there are no other humans on the island, Prospero also "controls" what she does and does not know about him. For example, he marvels that his brother "should/Be so perfidious!—he whom next thyself/Of all the world I loved." In their isolation Prospero is free to present himself in whatever manner he wants, particularly as the wronged party in any of his doings in the past. The audience may be left wondering if that's too much control on the part of one person over another.

Prospero's Relationship with Ariel

In most of his dealings with Ariel, Prospero is complimentary and affectionate. He does not respond well, however, when Ariel, a servant, asks for a favor of his ruler. He retells the story of his imprisonment and uses that as a way to control Ariel's gratitude and behavior. Yet Prospero also continues to promise to free Ariel in two days. Again the audience will wonder about the nature of power and what defines a good ruler-and-subject relationship. It is worth noting that Ariel seems to do the majority of Prospero's magic for him; he has actually created the tempest and manipulated the position of the ship and its passengers. This suggests that Prospero devotes a lot of his magical energy to enslaving people to do his bidding for him rather than just doing his own magic; even magic, it seems, is primarily a tool of power and dominance.

Prospero's Relationship with Caliban

It is difficult to know exactly how Shakespeare sees Caliban. On the one hand Caliban attempted to rape Miranda, suggesting that his nature really is "brutish"; on the other his legitimate claim to the island makes Prospero seem as much like a usurper as his brother, Antonio. It is thought that Shakespeare included the attempted rape as a justification for Prospero's enslavement of Caliban—and thus, by extension, the Europeans' enslavement of Africans and Native Americans. This is complicated, however, by the fact that Caliban is treated cruelly and makes a compelling case for why he should be the owner of the island rather than a slave.

From the beginning Caliban is introduced as the embodiment of exploitation. Prospero controls Caliban through enslavement and speaks to him in a way he speaks to no one else in the story: "Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself." Unlike his treatment of his other subject, Ariel, Prospero's treatment of Caliban is harsh, insulting, and demanding. He never promises Caliban his freedom, though Caliban was free before Prospero ever came to his island.

When Miranda and Caliban argue, she reminds him that she and her father taught him language when he, a savage, "wouldst gabble like/A thing most brutish." Caliban agrees that the use of their language has enabled him to curse them. Here Shakespeare touches on both the power of language and the issues surrounding exploitation of any person by another. He seems to question whether it is really noble to teach someone to learn another language or culture if that person is not given the full expression of such learning. The play was written during a time of colonization when Europeans would travel to places they considered to be more primitive cultures, and they would force the native people there to adopt European customs, religion, and language. History has revealed the ill effects of such colonization. In the case of Caliban, his dominion over the island was taken away from him when a European nobleman landed on his territory, and he points out the island actually is his by rights, as he inherited it from his mother. (However, Sycorax herself is actually not from the island—she was born in Algiers, and imprisoned Ariel, who was there first, when she came to the island.)

Toward the end of this scene the audience learns that Prospero has not only orchestrated the terrible events of the storm. He has also orchestrated the meeting of Miranda and Ferdinand but wants there to be some challenge because "too light winning/Make the prize light." Although Prospero wants revenge on his enemies, it appears he also has good intentions in bringing these two together, even though Ferdinand is the son of an enemy. Perhaps the ultimate goal of Prospero is restoration rather than revenge?

Finally the theme of romantic love is introduced in this scene. Miranda and Ferdinand merely cast their eyes on one another and they are in love. There is a comical element to this, in part because Miranda has never seen any other young man except Caliban, who is represented as not being fully human.

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