The Tempest | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Tempest | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The scene opens with everyone from the king's party except Ferdinand. Gonzalo encourages the nobles to see the good in their circumstances. They have escaped a deadly disaster and find themselves on a beautiful island. Adrian, too, praises the features of the island where "The air breathes upon us here most sweetly." Meanwhile Antonio and Sebastian maintain a private running mockery of Gonzalo's positive attitude. When Gonzalo says, "How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!" he is quickly derided by Antonio ("The ground indeed is tawny") and Sebastian ("With an eye of green in 't"). Gonzalo also marvels that their clothing has not suffered from the sea wreck and are "now as fresh as when we put them on first in Africa, at the marriage of the King's fair daughter Claribel to the King of Tunis." This explains where the king's party has been. They have just been to the wedding in Africa and were on their return voyage home when they ran into the terrible storm. This places the island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

King Alonso, believing his son Ferdinand is dead, is consumed with grief. At mention of his daughter's marriage he laments he made her marry so far from home because the journey was the reason for Ferdinand's loss. Now he has lost both his children. When Francisco tries to give him hope that Ferdinand is alive, Alonso insists he is dead. Antonio and Sebastian are cruel to the king in the face of his grief. They suggest that "the fault's your own" because Alonso let her marry an African rather than a European. Gonzalo gently reprimands the pair, but they are not affected.

Gonzalo then describes the type of utopian commonwealth he would develop if he were in charge of the island. In his commonwealth there would be no trade or lawyers, no rich or poor, no slaves or kings. Everyone would share the bounty of nature that would provide "all abundance,/To feed my innocent people." Antonio and Sebastian mock Gonzalo's vision, reminding him his ideal includes Gonzalo actually being the ruler himself.

Ariel, invisible, enters the scene and puts everyone but Antonio and Sebastian to sleep. Then Antonio begins to plant an idea in Sebastian's mind. He suggests that Sebastian has long cherished a secret hope to become king in Alonso's place. With Ferdinand surely drowned and Claribel far away in Africa, Sebastian is heir to the throne and might supplant Alonso. Antonio reminds Sebastian of how he did the same to Prospero and feels no guilt for it: "Look how well my garments sit upon me." Sebastian is convinced, and they agree to kill both Alonso and Gonzalo that very moment. But Ariel returns and wakes the sleeping men. When Alonso and Gonzalo question why the men have drawn their swords, Antonio and Sebastian make the excuse they thought they had heard lions and were preparing to defend the king. The whole group decides to go again in search of Ferdinand's body.

Analysis

Act 2, Scene 1, is more about the true nature of the important characters from the king's party—particularly the unrealistic optimism of Gonzalo and the scheming nastiness of Sebastian and Antonio. Where Gonzalo sees a beautiful landscape and hope, the other pair sees tigerlike danger as well as an opportunity to show ill will toward others. They show no respect for the older counselor in commenting, "he will carry this island home in his/pocket and give it his son for an apple." Even before they develop their scheme against the king, it is clear they are selfish, ungrateful men who do not have anyone else's interest at heart.

What the audience has learned about Gonzalo's optimistic character paves the way for the ideas he presents about the perfect commonwealth he envisions. Gonzalo's utopia is in many ways the opposite of the basic structure of English society at the time and undoubtedly owed a debt to an essay by the French writer Montaigne, "Des Cannibales," which gave an idealized view of the indigenous peoples of the New World.

In Shakespeare's time the fact that social classes and economic barriers restricted people from any social mobility and land ownership was the key to a powerful and wealthy existence for the nobles. Although Gonzalo says there will be no sovereignty, he does not eschew all authority as he suggests that he will "govern" the commonwealth, which Sebastian, who raises a legitimate criticism of the feasibility of Gonzalo's utopian vision, points out. It is a vision that belongs to someone, and that someone is the default ruler, even if that someone decries authority. Moreover while Gonzalo is a goodhearted man—he helped Prospero to survive when he was exiled, and he is deeply loyal to his king—he is not a particularly perceptive or effective person, and he is not able to do much practical good. The discussion again raises the issue of who should rule whom and how leaders should best govern those they serve—the theme of exploitation and power that recurs throughout the play.

The theme of magic also appears again in this scene in a number of ways. Gonzalo notices the men's clothes have not been affected by the sea or their current circumstances. The strangeness reminds the audience that things are not as they seem; an extended metaphor involving clothing begins here for the purpose of contrasting Gonzalo's idealism against Sebastian and Antonio's realism and opportunism. Gonzalo is actually correct: their clothing is fresher than before the shipwreck, whereas Sebastian and Antonio's pragmatism hold them bound to the illusion Ariel has created. Prospero's magical control and ability to see into the future is also seen at work in the sleep of all but Antonio and Sebastian. Their plotting itself is part of Prospero's overall plan. Shakespeare uses the symbol of sleep to illustrate just how much Prospero, through Ariel, is able to manipulate circumstances exactly as he wishes.

Taken together these magical elements reveal how Prospero controls all, and, like a playwright, creates an illusionary world to fulfill a specific purpose. Antonio and Sebastian's plot against the king parallels Antonio's earlier plot against his brother Prospero. Antonio urges Sebastian to pursue a form of revenge against his own brother, but it is Prospero, in pursuit of his own revenge, who is controlling what happens. The audience wonders what Prospero's ultimate purpose is for bringing the men to the island—is it merely revenge, or might there be more to it?

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