The Tempest — Act Two Plot Synopsis: devils and gods

Previously, in The Tempest

Act One, Scene One begins on a ship. 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. Their royal passengers have come onto deck to check on the situation. Of course, at this point, we don’t know who exactly these men are; but we do get a sense of who-–or at least, what-–two of their party, Sebastian and Antonio, are: they are jerks, insulting and cursing the sailors. On the other hand, a third, Gonzalo has his head about him enough to make a joke or two. 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 puts us on a nearby island, where Miranda, a young woman, watches the storm out at sea and 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 her father Prospero 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 puts aside his magic robe, and begins to tell her a long story of what he’s never told her before: 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. And yes, those are the same characters we met in the first scene.

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 he has done: 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. 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 he would be set free today…lessening his 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 to be executed, but because she was with child, she was banished from Algiers (“Argier” [I.ii.265]); 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 imprisoned 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 his job, and Prospero wakes Miranda, and father and daughter go to 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 (“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 firewood. He exits, 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). Prospero points out the young man to Miranda, who 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 him “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. We begin to 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.

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. As his attempts continue, Antonio and Sebastian’s comments are as snarky and insulting as they were with the sailors. There is some bawdy verbal humor here, but none of these are clowns. Gonzalo makes optimistic comments, but to no avail. In fact, Sebastian does more than insult Gonzalo. He blames Alonso for the presumed drowning of Ferdinand, who would have never died if the king had not allowed his daughter to marry an African; it is her wedding from which they were returning when wrecked by the storm.

Gonzalo attempts to appeal to Sebastian’s kindness to stop tormenting his brother; when he fails, as a distraction, he goes on to describe a Utopia he would create on this island if he was ruler:

I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all,
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty—

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor; treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’ excel the Golden Age.
  • II.i.147-56, 159-64, 167-68

This is laughed off, as well.

Ariel plays music, putting all but the two jerks to sleep. And we learn that Antonio is more than a mere jerk. Upon questioning by the usurper of Milan, Sebastian admits that Ferdinand is most likely drowned. That heir is dead. And while the married daughter Claribel is next in line, she’s sooooo far away…which makes Sebastian next in line for the throne. Antonio then goes on to convince Sebastian to take the crown and usurp his own brother…by murder if necessary.

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 enters to wake 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 from selling chances to look at him. Thunder roars, and to protect himself, he dives under the cloak as well.

And enter Stephano, a drunken shipwreckee. He sings…and seemingly poorly, as Caliban–from beneath his cloak–calls out, “Do not torment me!” (II.ii.55). Stephano 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 decides give the beast a “taste from [his] bottle” (II.ii.73. And as he does so, 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.

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