Alonso, King of Naples, has washed up on shore with Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo, and attendant lords. Gonzalo tells everyone that they can balance their sorrow with comfort—at least they've survived the terrible shipwreck.
Antonio and Sebastian amuse themselves by teasing Gonzalo mean-spiritedly and then, after the King silences him, betting on who will speak up first: Adrian or Gonzalo. It's Adrian, which means Antonio wins the wager.
Interestingly, the two different sets of people see entirely different things when they survey the island. Gonzalo sees "lush and lusty grass," while Antonio and Sebastian only see a nasty, uninhabitable place—kind of like a glass half-full, glass half-empty deal. Adrian comes down somewhere in the middle. The island seems uninhabitable, and yet the air is sweet.
Gonzalo, the eternal optimist, notes their clothes are as fresh as the first time they were worn for the marriage of Alonso's daughter, Claribel, to the King of Tunis, which, of course, Antonio and Sebastian dispute...as they dispute pretty much everything Gonzalo says. Gonzalo takes their snarkiness in stride.
The King interrupts his bickering companions with his grief. He regrets that he married his daughter to a man in so far off a place—the voyage to visit her (this one) has cost him his son, and his daughter is so far away she might as well be dead, too. Francisco, an attendant lord, tries to reassure the King that Prince Ferdinand might still be alive, but the King won't hear any of this perky optimism.
Sebastian takes the opportunity to confirm that his brother, the King, needs a good kick in the teeth. As the King grieves his two lost children, Sebastian points out that the King's loss is his own fault; even though everyone harassed King Alonso about it, he chose to marry his daughter to a far-off African instead of a closer European.
Gonzalo gently tells Sebastian to hold off, and changes the subject back to the island, which shows itself to him as beautiful.
Gonzalo begins to talk of what he would do if he were king of the island—there would be no trade in money, no politicians, no schools, no rich or poor, no slavery, no inheritance, no dividing up the land, no metal, corn, wine or oil (things needing careful cultivation and work), and no occupation of any kind—just idle, wholesome, idyllic men and women living happily.
Brain Snack: Gonzalo's big speech is based on a famous passage from John Florio's 1603 translation of an essay called "Of Cannibals" by Montaigne.
Gonzalo's people would live off of the bounty of everything nature brings forth, and he announces he would govern to excel the Golden Age (according to classical mythology, this was the first of the "Ages of Man," when there was no violence, conflict, or injustice, and when nobody had to work for food or shelter).
Antonio and Sebastian make snide comments and the King tells everyone to pipe down,as they're all talking nonsense.
Ariel enters playing a song, and everyone suddenly drifts off to sleep, lulled by the music, except for Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio. Antonio and Sebastian agree they will keep watch over the King while he sleeps, as they are not at all sleepy, and wonder what happened to make everyone pass out so quickly.
Antonio, who we know took his brother's (Prospero's) dukedom through treachery, doesn't waste any time before suggesting to Sebastian that all that stands between Sebastian and the crown is the sleeping King. (They all think Prince Ferdinand is dead and Claribel, the princess, is so far away that she couldn't properly rule the kingdom.) Further, Antonio claims sleep is a sort of death; it would be easy for them to kill the King while he slumbers, and convince the others of Sebastian's noble title.
Sebastian quibbles a bit, and asks if Antonio's conscience doesn't bother him for stealing his brother's title. Antonio replies that he's led by practicality, not conscience. (Geesh. Who does Antonio think he is? Bad-brother Claudius from Hamlet?)
Sebastian comes around, and two plotters agree that if Antonio draws his sword to kill the King, Sebastian will draw on Gonzalo, and Sebastian's path to power will be clear. As the two unsheathe their swords, Ariel enters and whispers in Gonzalo's ear of their treachery, waking him up.
Gonzalo quickly wakes the King, and everyone rises to find Sebastian and Antonio with their swords drawn. The two are surprised in the midst of their horrible act. They claim they heard the howling of lions and only drew their swords to protect the King.
King Alonso is freaked out by the possibility of lions and, not knowing Antonio and Sebastian's wicked plan, Alonso suggests they all leave the place at once to see if they can find his son.
Ariel pledges to tattle to Prospero about Sebastian and Antonio's wickedness. Meanwhile, he will help the King safely seek the Prince.