The Tempest — Act Three Plot Synopsis: music and shapes

Previously, in The Tempest

Act One begins on a ship in the midst of our titular storm. The sailors, attempting to keep each other from panicking, are joined by some royal passengers. Two of their party, Sebastian and Antonio, are jerks, insulting and cursing the sailors. On the other hand, a third, Gonzalo seems kindly enough. And as the chaotic scene ends, the ship wrecks.

The second scene of Act One puts us on a nearby island, where Miranda, a young woman, watches the storm out at sea, and and worries that her companion–her father, Prospero–has created the storm. She fears for the ship and any souls that may have been on it. He puts aside his magic robe, assures her that no one has been hurt, and begins to tell her what he’s never told her before: her history. When they first came to the island twelve years ago, she was only three years old. Previously, he had been the Duke of Milan. Prospero had been betrayed by his own brother, Antonio, who took advantage of Prospero’s study of his magical arts and neglect of his office, and usurped power from Prospero. Father and daughter were taken and put aboard a small boat; but before they were cast away, “a noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo” (I.ii.161) provided the boat with garments, linens, food and Prospero’s beloved books.

Before she can ask any follow-up questions, and on the power of suggestion, Miranda falls asleep. At this point, Prospero’s servant, Ariel arrives. This was the sprite who carried out the tempest for Prospero. We learn the sailors are still on their ship, in its hold as it’s moored in a harbor. The royal passengers have been placed on the island in different locations, all in groups–except for the king’s son, who is alone on the island. Prospero has more for Ariel to accomplish in the next hours.

And we learn more about the history of the island. Once there had been a witch Sycorax on the island. Ariel had been her servant, but the witch imprisoned Ariel in a tree. After a dozen years, Sycorax died, and the sprite was left trapped in the tree, and the island’s only other inhabitant was the witch’s son, Caliban. Upon arrival, Prospero 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 his job, Prospero wakes Miranda, and father and daughter visit Caliban. 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…and Caliban doesn’t deny that.

Prospero sends Caliban off to gather firewood, and Ariel re-enters invisibly, leading the king’s son, Ferdinand: a handsome but heart-broken young man (as he thinks his father is dead). Miranda sees him as a “thing divine” (I.ii.419). 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. Prospero obviously approves of how this is going, and we begin to see Propsero’s endgame: love between the young people. Of course, Prospero can’t let this happen too easily, and he plays the role of obstacle himself.

Act Two of The Tempest begins in another part of the island, where the main group of passengers have been placed: King Alonso, his brother Sebastian, Prospero’s brother, Antonio, the Duke of Milan, and the good Gonzalo. The king is disconsolate, thinking his son is dead, and Gonzalo attempts to cheer him. To no avail.

Ariel plays music, putting all but the two jerks to sleep. And we learn that Antonio is more than a mere jerk, trying to convince Sebastian to kill his brother to become king (as the heir Ferdinand is most likely drowned). Sebastian says he willing to become king, but Antonio would need to do the killing. Antonio agrees, but says that as he kills the king, Sebastian needs to kill Gonzalo. Both men draw, and Ariel wakes the sleepers. The would-be killers explain their drawn weapons as protection from something “bellowing / Like bulls, or rather lions” (II.i.310-1). This sounds reasonable, and the party moves on.

The second scene of the act takes us to another part of the island, where we find Caliban gathering wood for Prospero, whom he curses as he works, and describes the punishments Prospero has laid on the slave. When he hears someone coming, he believe it’s a “spirit” (II.ii.15) of Prospero’s, so he lays down and covers himself with his cloak. And enter Trinculo. He uncovers a portion of Caliban, and finds himself unable to describe it: “man or fish? Dead or alive?” (II.ii.24-5). He then imagines taking this thing back to England and making money of the creature. Thunder roars, and to protect himself, he dives under the cloak as well. Then enter Stephano, a drunken shipwreckee. He uncovers Caliban’s head, and immediately has a similar idea as Trinculo, presenting this “monster” (II.ii.64) to some king. When Caliban continues to plead for kindness, Stephano gives the beast a “taste from [his] bottle” (II.ii.73. Trinculo recognizes the voice and reveals himself. They are thrilled to not be the only solo survivors; and Caliban sees in them “fine things…a brave god and bears celestial liquor” (II.ii.114, 115-6), and kneels to Stephano. Caliban promises to show Stephano all the island has to offer, and leave Prospero’s tyranny. Trinculo finds this ridiculous–“to make a wonder of a poor drunkard!” (II.ii.162-3). But the three leave together, as the second act ends.

The third act of The Tempest begins with Ferdinand, laboring to bring in logs as fuel for Prospero. The king’s son is more than willing to do this labor if it means being near Miranda. Miranda enters (with her father watching from afar); she bemoans the labors her father has put this young man to, and wants to help him. He chivalrously refuses, but asks her name. Of course, when Miranda tells him, she also exclaims, “O my father, / I have broke your hest to say so!” (III.i.36-7). Whoops. Compliments are exchanged–with Miranda recalling that even by talking to him, she’s forgotten her father’s orders–and Ferdinand reveals himself, “[to be] a prince, Miranda; I do think, a king / (I would not so)” (III.i.60-1). He wishes that his father was still alive, but even as a monarch, he is willing to be her “patient log-man” (III.i.67). Exchanges of love then promises of future marriage are made. When they leave, Prospero reveals that he cannot be as glad of this as they are (since they are surprised by it), and he says that he still has business to attend to.

Act Three, Scene Two, takes us to another part of the island, and the trio of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. They’re facing a crisis: they’re running out of alcohol. It’s a comic scene, a fool’s scene, full of puns and jokes. But when Ariel enters, the fools turn serious as Caliban tells his new masters that he is “subject to a tyrant” (III.ii.42). Then in a bit that is reminiscent of Puck and the male lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ariel speaks and each of the men thinks that the other is speaking, and the sprite is able to spur discord between them. Between the confusion and the gags, Caliban reveals a plan to his masters: “brain [Prospero], / Having first seized his books … Batter his skull … Or cut his wesand with thy knife” (III.ii.87-8, 89, 90). And this done, Miranda will become their “bed” (III.ii.103), something to lay and lie on.

Caliban knows that Prospero naps in the afternoon, and that they’ll have their opportunity then. Ariel plays music, and Caliban warns the men not to worry, as “the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” (III.ii.134-5). The men can see only a future with a kingdom for themselves, and are easily lead by Ariel’s music to parts unknown.

The third and final scene of Act Three returns us to the royal party, which is being slowed in its trek across the island. Like old Adam in As You Like It, Gonzalo is–at his age–not fit for travel. Alonso commiserates with the old lord and admits to “weariness” (III.iii.5) himself. Meanwhile, in a series of asides, Antonio and Sebastian reiterate their plans to rid themselves of these old men at “the next advantage” (III.iii.13).

Strange music begins, but instead of it being brought about by Ariel, it is Prospero himself who is controlling the music. And it’s not just music. The stage directions call for even more:

Enter several strange Shapes, bringing in a banquet; and dance about it with gentle actions of salutations; and, invighting the King etc. to eat, they depart.
  • III.iii.19 stage direction

Sebastian sees these shapes as “a living drollery” (III.iii.21), one so real that both he and Antonio believe in greater myths. The shapes disappear, but leave food behind, perfect for the hungry men. But as they ready to feed, Ariel enters “as a harpy” (III.iii.52 stage direction), and makes the banquet disappear. As if in explanation, Ariel tells the group that there are “three men of sin” (III.iii.53) who must be punished. He states that he has “made [them] mad” (III.iii.58). When they draw their swords, Ariel makes those weapons feel “too massy for [their] strengths” (III.iii.68). And then tells them of what they are accused: “you three / From Milan did supplant good Prospero” (III.69-70).

Remember how I told you about Antonio receiving the assistance of the King of Naples in the usurpation of Prospero? This is why there are three stated villains. With thunder Ariel exits, the Shapes reappear to take away the table. Prospero, watching, is happy with Ariel’s work, now that his enemies are “in [his] power” (III.iii.90). And the magician leaves.

Alonso, feeling guilt over his actions against “Prosper” (III.iii.99), leaves with the rest of the party in tow.

And thus ends Act Three of The Tempest.

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