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The action moves to an island, where we meet Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. If you read the "Names of the Actors," you know that Prospero is the "rightful Duke of Milan, usurped by his brother Antonio." If you didn't know this key piece of information, Prospero just seems to be an average old guy stranded with his daughter on a deserted island.
Miranda saw the ship sink and asks her father if he created the storm, cluing us in to the fact that Prospero has powerful magic, which they both call "art." Prospero doesn't deny he made the tempest, but instead says there was no harm done. He assures his daughter that everyone from the ship is safe, and that he only did it for her (which she'll learn more about later).
Prospero says the storm is a good occasion for him to reveal their family secret to her, which he's often started telling her but never finished. He promises to finish this time.
He asks if she remembers a time before they were on the island, and she says yes. This surprises Prospero, because she was only three years old then, but she clearly remembers that she used to have four or five women that took care of her. Miranda doesn't remember how she and her father came to the island, so Prospero tells her the long story, which we now sum up for you:
Twelve years ago, Miranda was a princess and her father was the Duke of Milan. Miranda is shocked to hear the news, and asks if Prospero isn't really her father. Prospero replies that, to the best of his knowledge, he was the only one sleeping with Miranda's mother. So yes, Prospero was a Duke and Miranda a princess. (Hmm. Didn't Perdita learn something similar about herself in The Winter's Tale?)
Miranda asks whether a blessing or curse brought them to the island. Prospero says it was both.
The story that follows is long, and Prospero keeps poking Miranda to stay awake (imagine we're doing the same to you, except in a non-weird, non-Facebook way).
Basically, the story goes like this: Prospero has a brother, Antonio, whom he used to love and trust. Prospero was devoted to the study of magic. He trusted his brother so much that he let him run the affairs of state while Prospero closeted himself away in his library.
Antonio, meanwhile, was busy learning how to run Milan, but also making all the right friends in all the right places. Eventually, he took advantage of Prospero's trust and, by sucking up constantly with tributes and compliments to the King of Naples. Antonio managed to get the King to give him his brother's title as Duke of Milan.
Hmm. Now, where have we seen an evil, usurping brother before? Oh, yeah, in Hamlet, where Claudius kills his brother and then takes his crown and his wife.
Antonio then sent an army at midnight, under the cover of darkness, to force Prospero and baby Miranda out of Milan. They weren't killed because Prospero was so well-loved by his people. Prospero and the baby were banished to sea on a used '83 Chevy Impala of a ship, which "even the rats left instinctively."
While on their rickety boat, the duo faced a terrible storm. Miranda, far from being trouble, gave Prospero the strength to continue on. Finally they washed ashore onto their present island. They survived because Gonzalo (the same guy from the first scene) was so kind; before leaving, he gave them food and water, fine clothes, and also Prospero's books. Prospero was able to use his small library to educate Miranda for the last twelve years, affording her a better education than most princesses, who generally spend their time combing golden locks and looking out of windows.
Finally, Prospero explains the reason he created the recent storm: his enemies, the ones from all those years ago, were on the ship. According to the stars, now is the moment of Prospero's good fortune, but his power depends on good timing.
Prospero then lulls Miranda to sleep with art (not boring postmodern art—magic art) and calls his servant, the spirit Ariel, so they can go to work right away.
We find out Ariel was in charge of the details of the tempest. He performed his duties down to the last detail: he appeared on the ship as fire, jumping between cabins and the deck. This, understandably, weirded everyone out on the ship, and while the mariners stayed on deck, everyone else jumped overboard.
Ariel then saw to it that they all made it ashore unharmed, but in separate groups. Most importantly, the King's son was separated from the rest of the group. Ariel left the mariners on their newly restored ship in an enchanted sleep, and sent the other vessels in the fleet back to Naples.
Prospero is glad of Ariel's good work, but demands that there is much more to do in the next four hours. Ariel reminds him then that he's already done lots of good work, and that Prospero promised that when his work was done, he would set the spirit-servant free. So SHOW HIM THE MONEY, essentially.
Prospero flies into something of a rage. He reminds Ariel that he once rescued him (therefore Ariel should be as indebted as a Harry Potter house-elf without socks for the rest of eternity).
Prospero tells us a story: Sycorax was a terrible witch, born in Algiers and banished from there because she got it on with the Devil himself. We don't get the details of that interesting night, but instead we learn that the pregnant Sycorax was banished to this very island, where she made Ariel her lackey. Still, because Ariel was too "delicate" to do the horrible things she commanded, Sycorax had a fit and imprisoned Ariel in the cleft of a pine tree, where he stayed rather stuck.
Twelve years later, Sycorax was dead, and Prospero came to the island to find the loud, sad, unearthly moans of Ariel coming from a tree. After he freed the spirit, Prospero committed Ariel to his service, with the promise of eventual liberty.
After Prospero tells this long story, he chides Ariel that any more whining will get him locked back into the tree. However, if Ariel behaves, Prospero will free him in two days, once all the work is done.
Brain Snack: The rest of the play actually takes place over the course of about four hours (not two days). In fact, The Tempest is one of two Shakespeare plays (including The Comedy of Errors) that takes place over the course of a single day in a single location. Literary critics have a fancy name for this—the "unities" of time and place. Contrast the action and location of The Tempest to, say, The Winter's Tale, which spans a huge length of time and space.
Prospero sends Ariel off in the shape of an invisible water nymph (we don't know either), and wakes Miranda so they can go together to see Caliban.
Miranda says she can't stand to look at Caliban, but her dad points out that Caliban (who has been enslaved by Prospero) does all those pesky island chores that nobody else likes to do (like fetch wood and build fires).
Prospero and Miranda stroll up to Caliban's pad and immediately begin to verbally abuse him, during which time we learn the following: Caliban was the island's only other inhabitant when Miranda and Prospero arrived; he is the child of Sycorax (the witch) and the Devil.
We also learn that, initially, Prospero had taken Caliban under his wing, taught him to speak, and fed him. In exchange, Caliban had shown him all the tricks and treasures of the island. Sadly, the friendship ended when Caliban tried to rape Miranda, with the intention of populating the island with little Calibans (or Mirand-abans, or whatever). Prospero then confined Caliban to servitude and a dwelling near a rock outside of Prospero's cell.
Caliban hates being a slave, but Prospero is powerful and likes to inflict Caliban with terrible body cramps for misbehaving and talking back. (Caliban eventually pipes down and leaves, but not before he hurls a few insults and curses Prospero.)
Ferdinand (the stranded Prince) enters with Ariel who is invisible and sings a tune so beautiful that the amazed Ferdinand quits mourning his father (who Ferdinand thinks has dies in the shipwreck) to follow the music.
Ariel leads Ferdinand to Miranda. When the prince and princess look into each other's eyes, it's love at first sight.
Miranda turns to her dad and announces that Ferdinand is the hottest guy she's ever seen (never mind the fact that the only men Miranda's seen for the past twelve years are Caliban and Prospero). Miranda thinks Ferdinand must be a god or a spirit.
Ferdinand declares that Miranda must be a goddess and then asks our girl if she's a "maid." (No, not the kind who washes your socks and cleans up your room. Ferdinand wants to know if Miranda's an unmarried virgin.)
Ferdinand announces that he's the King of Naples (now that his dad has perished in a dramatic shipwreck). However, this situation conveniently puts him in a good position to make Miranda Queen of Naples. Miranda meets all the practical requirements of love, so they're all ready for marriage in 26 lines.
Prospero, though he has been making asides all along that his plan is going well, declares to himself that if things are too easy for the young couple, then they won't take their vows of love seriously.
In order to add a bit of conflict to the romance, Prospero accuses Ferdinand of being a spy intending to steal the island. Prospero threatens to chain up Ferdinand and enchant him, but the Prince rebels against the accusation.
Miranda, newly in love, comes to the defense of Ferdinand.
Thankfully, Ferdinand feels the same way, and he says that the weight of his would-be father-in-law's threats and the death of his own father would seem light if he could only look out of his prison once a day and see Miranda. (Maybe he and his dad weren't that close. Who can say?)
Prospero insults Ferdinand, but we know Prospero is just putting on a tough dad act because he secretly comments to himself that he's glad to see the two falling in love, all according to his master plan.
Prospero calls Ariel to do more work, and again promises the spirit will soon be free as the mountain winds in Pocahontas.