As The Tempest begins, we–as an audience–are not on the island that will be our setting for the rest of the play. Instead, Act One Scene One is set on a ship near the island. It is a chaotic scene as we are in the midst of our titular storm.
The sailors are attempting to keep each other from panicking. Not helping matters is that their royal passengers have come onto deck to check on the situation. If we didn’t know of the importance of the passengers, a character named Gonzalo lets us know, as he tells the boatswain, “Remember who thou has aboard” (I.i.19). Of course, at this point, we don’t know who exactly Gonzalo is, nor Alonso; but we do get a sense of who–or at least, what–Sebastian and Antonio are: they are jerks, insulting and cursing the sailors. On the other hand, Gonzalo has his head about him enough to make a joke or two (they don’t translate to today, as they link the concepts of the gallows and drowning), and calls the sailor his “brother” (I.i.61). And as the scene ends, the only thing that seems clear is that the ship will be wrecked.
The second and last scene of Act One (and it’s a hefty one at 500+ lines), puts us on the island, where Miranda, a young woman, watches the storm out at sea, and we learn some very interesting bits of exposition when she tells her companion on the shore, “If by your art, my dearest father, you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (I.ii.1-2). The pair are father and daughter–and given that all the other romance/tragicomedies have had significant father/daughter pairings (Pericles/Marina, Cymbeline/Innogen, and Leontes/Perdita), this should come as no surprise. What is surprising is her stated belief that her father can create storms. She fears for the ship and any souls that may have been on it. He assures her that “no harm [was] done” (I.ii.15).
Prospero doesn’t deny that he has anything to do with the storm, and as he puts aside his magic robe, he then begins to tell her a long story of what he’s never told her before (good thing we’re here to hear it): her history. He tells her that they first came to the island when she was only three years old, and that this was twelve years ago. Before they were on the island, he had been “the Duke of Milan and / A prince of power” (I.ii.54-5). We learn that Prospero was betrayed by his own brother, Antonio, who took advantage of Prospero’s study of his magical arts and neglect of his office, and (with the assistance of the King of Naples) usurped power from Prospero. Father and daughter were taken and put aboard a small ship, “a rotten carcass of a butt, not rigged, / Nor tackle, sail, nor mast” (I.ii.146-7). Luckily, before they were cast away, “a noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo” (I.ii.161) provided the boat with garments, linens, food and Prospero’s beloved books.
If you think those names are coincidental to those of the opening scene, you really haven’t read much Shakespeare, have you? And at this point, he drops the mic on Miranda telling her that Fortune has brought all these men–and more–to the shore of this island. Before she can ask any follow-up questions, and on the power of suggestion (cough, magic, cough), Miranda falls asleep.
At this point, Prospero’s “servant” (I.ii.187), Ariel arrives. It seems that it was this sprite who carried out the tempest for Prospero. Ariel goes on to describe what she (he?) has done: the sailors are still on their ship, in its hold as it’s moored in a harbor. The royal passengers has been placed on the island in different locations, all in groups–except for the king’s son, who is alone on the island. We learn that it is just after two o’clock in the afternoon, and Prospero has more for Ariel to accomplish in the next four hours.
Ariel complains somewhat over the new work orders, as the sprite was under the impression that she would be set free today…lessening her term of service by “a full year” (I.ii.250). And in the ensuing discussion we learn more about the history of the island.
Once there had been a witch Sycorax, who was banished from Algiers (“Argier” [I.ii.265]), but because she was with child, she was cast away and was left on the island by sailors. Ariel had been her servant, but because Ariel was “too delicate / To act her earthly and abhorred commands” (I.ii.272-3), the witch imprisoned Ariel in a tree. After a dozen years, Sycorax died, and the sprite was left trapped in the tree, and at that point the island was populated only by the sprite as well as the witch’s son, Caliban. Upon arrival, Prospero had released Ariel from the tree, and then put both the sprite and Caliban into his own service. Prospero promises to release Ariel in two days if all his commands are acted out.
Ariel exits to do her job, and Prospero wakes Miranda, and one has to wonder if he’s done this before. Father and daughter go to visit Caliban, who at first refuses to come out of his cave, but later does to insult the magician, who then threatens to have Caliban suffer pains and cramps that night. According to Caliban, this island is his because it belonged to his mother. The way he sees it, when Prospero arrived, after Caliban showed him all the gifts that the island has to offer, Prospero enslaved him.
Of course, this isn’t how Prospero remembers things: he says that he housed Caliban in his own cell until Caliban attempted to rape Miranda (“violate / The honor of my child” [I.ii.347-8])…and Caliban doesn’t deny that. Miranda curses him, saying that he should have been nicer to her because she taught him language. And Caliban responds with one of the greatest lines from the play (or from the Canon for that matter): “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse” (I.ii.363-4).
Prospero then sends Caliban off to gather more firewood. He exits, and Ariel re-enters…only this time, invisibly, leading Ferdinand: a handsome but heart-broken young man (as he thinks his father is dead), who has been led to this place by music. Prospero points out the young man to Miranda, who is confused: is it another sprite? No, he tells her, this is another man, like them. She sees him as a “thing divine” (I.ii.419). Prospero obviously approves of how this is going, as he tells Ariel in an aside that he will free her “within two days for this” (I.ii.422). Ferdinand sees Miranda, and thinks she is a goddess. When she says that she is but a maid, he is astounded she speaks his language, and then states that his is “the best of them that speak this speech” (I.ii.430). When Prospero asks what would happen if the King of Naples heard him, Ferdinand says the he is now Naples. So, this is the son of the King of Naples. Hmmm. And we see what Propsero’s endgame is for this: love between the daughter of the Duke of Milan and the son of the King of Naples.
Of course, Prospero can’t let this happen too easily (after all, we still have four more acts to the play), and he plays the role of obstacle himself. Miranda marvels at how “ungently” (I.ii.445) her father is speaking to this lovely young man. Both young people speak of their growing affection, and Prospero reiterates to Ariel that for bringing the two of them together–and for carrying out the remainder of the magician’s commands–he will free the sprite within two days.
And with this, the first act of The Tempest ends.