What happens in The Tempest

In What Happens in Shakespeare this month, let’s dive into The Tempest. Climate change has brought us some vicious hurricanes this month. How fitting that the tempest in The Tempest was also human-engineered.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Not even stranding your daughter on an island will keep her from discovering boys.”

What happens in The Tempest

Prospero was the Duke of Milan. He was also a magician. His brother Antonio usurped his position as Duke and put Prospero and his young daughter Miranda in a leaky boat, presumably hoping they would get lost at sea. They washed up on an island that had only 2 people living on it: Caliban, a wild-seeming man, and Ariel, a magic spirit.

Twelve years pass. Prospero rules the island with magic and treats Caliban and Ariel as his slaves.

Ariel regularly asks Prospero for his freedom. Prospero puts him off.

Prospero’s Italian enemies – his false-Duke brother Antonio, plus the King of Naples and a handful of others – are coming near the island. Prospero uses magic to shipwreck them. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

All the Italian enemies survive the shipwreck, but they go ashore on the island and get separated. The King of Naples believes his son Ferdinand is dead. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

Prospero orders Ariel to magically obfuscate the enemies and cause them to get lost. Ariel leads them all hither and yon, but Ferdinand gets special treatment—Ariel leads him straight to Prospero’s home. Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. Prospero is not having this, and despite owning two slaves, makes Ferdinand do manual labor. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

There is a subplot where the rest of the enemies and Caliban plot to kill Prospero and take over the island. The one person in the cast with an actual claim to the place is Caliban, who was born there and whose mother owned the land. Ariel undoes their plans with magic, which is not much of a challenge since they were not overly detail-oriented even before they started drinking. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

Prospero has a change of heart. He decides Ferdinand will do fine as a son-in-law now that he has passed the test of upper-body strength. He uses magic to throw Miranda and Ferdinand an engagement party. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

Prospero removes his magical disguise (he had been wearing a magical disguise) and reveals to his enemies that voila, he is the original Duke of Milan. He forgives Antonio and the rest of the shipwrecked Italians. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

Prospero swears off magic. He prepares to leave the island for Milan, where he will become the Duke again. And he finally sets Ariel free.


For a better summary, real scholarship, and some wonderful visuals, visit the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on The Tempest.