Scene 1: A ship seems to be wrecked in a storm.
Scene 2: Prospero comforts Miranda and tells her about their past. Prospero and Ariel discuss the safety of the shipwrecked people scattered around the island; they recall the past and Caliban's origins. There is a confrontation with Caliban; Ariel leads in Ferdinand with songs, Miranda feels admiration, Prospero fiercely uses magic to enfeeble him, with hidden purposes.
Scene 1: The court people: Alonso (king of Naples), Sebastian (his brother), Antonio (Prospero's usurping brother), the good Gonzalo, the lords Adrian and Francisco... Sebastian and Antonio mock Gonzalo's positive attitudes, his dreams of a Commonwealth. Ariel makes all sleep, except Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio suggests that Sebastian kill his brother to become king of Naples; Ariel prevents this by waking the king.
Scene 2: Caliban meets Trinculo the clown and the drunken butler Stephano, drinking; they make him drink too.
Scene 1: Ferdinand and Miranda meet and confess their love.
Scene 2: Caliban urges Trinculo and Stephano to murder Prospero and become lords of the island. Ariel overhears, plays trick with music, Caliban explains "the isle is full of noises."
Scene 3: The court people wander lost; Prospero watches as spirits offer them a banquet, which then disappears and Ariel speaks disguised as a Harpy, telling of their past misdeeds against Prospero. Alonso hears clearly and is filled with despair.
Scene 1: Prospero accepts the love of Miranda and Ferdinand and presents a masque of betrothals, which he interrupts: "I had forgot" about Caliban's conspiracy; "Our revels now are ended." Ariel delays Caliban's plot with magic; glistering apparel on a line attracts Trinculo and Stephano, they dress up. Prospero and Ariel lead in a pack of spirit-dogs and hunt them off.
Scene 1: Ariel describes the court people paralysed by magic, saying he feels pity for them. Prospero sends him to restore them. Prospero abjures his art. The court people come, under a spell still, Prospero greets each one, then dresses as Duke of Milan, while Ariel sings "Where the bee sucks." All awake, Alonso asks pardon; Miranda and Ferdinand are found playing chess; Alonso's joy, Miranda's admiration: "Brave new world!" Ariel brings in the sailors, then Caliban etc. for Prospero's judgement. All return to the cities now united with young rulers. Epilogue spoken by Prospero "Now my charms are all o'erthrown."
The main source for this play seems to have been a true story of shipwreck. In May 1609, a fleet of nine ships left England for the new colony in Virginia. In July, the ship Sea-Adventure with the leaders of the expedition was separated from the others during a storm, and finally ran ashore in the Bermudas. The ship remained unbroken, so that all escaped and were able to bring to land most of what it contained. In May 1610, they set out for Virginia and arrived safely, when everyone believed that they were long dead. The news of their safe arrival made a deep impression in England, as well as stories of the wonders they had seen on the island.
This true story sounds very like a traditional romance structure, with its interrupted journeys, and that is what Shakespeare may have seen in it. Using the story of a double shipwreck on an exotic island, Shakespeare tells of a father and daughter whose return to the outside world is preceded by a general recognition and reconciliation; they had been thought dead, and are alive. These themes are strong in all the last plays, but while there is much pain in plays like Pericles or The Winter's Tale, the atmosphere in The Tempest is closer to the happiness of earlier comedies.
This is stressed by the music, and in some ways the play is closer than any other to the court masques, with their exploration of exotic settings. Some of Shakespeare's most beautiful songs are from The Tempest. As Caliban says:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about my ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again. (Act III.ii)
Certain modern critics, looking for themes of contemporary interest, have made Caliban a victim of racism, a black "salvage" of the early colonial period, even a victim of Prospero's imperialism. Yet in the story told by characters in the play, Caliban's mother was a witch from Algiers, equally a stranger on this island, and his father a devil.
One of the main themes explored by the play is that of the harmony or conflict between nurture (we might say culture) and nature. Once more, as in King Lear, Shakespeare tries to come to terms with the difference in character and moral vision between people. In more recent terms, the play is about heredity and environment, with Miranda the true daughter and perfect pupil of Prospero.
In the light of the modern taste for moral ambivalence, Prospero is often viewed as a failed dictator. There have been performances in which Miranda and Ferdinand visibly disobey his command to refrain from sex! Certainly, the model of authority he represents is omniscient paternalism, and some Christians have read the play as an allegory of the Trinity: Father, Daughter, and Spirit (Ariel) find Satan (Caliban) making trouble in the garden. It is tempting but unwise to view the play as Shakespeare's farewell to the theater. Yet Prospero certainly has a theatrical side, both in his authorial manipulations of unsuspecting characters, and in his taste for masques.
The main reason for seeing the play as Shakespeare's final bow is the force of the speech by which Prospero explains his sudden interruption of the spirit-masque that celebrates the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great Globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.... (Act IV.i)
A few pages later he makes a solemn speech ending with the lines:
...this rough magic I here abjure... ...I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book. (Act V.i)
It is the way in which Prospero turns his back on the Art which has
been his whole concern, and gives up his power to create illusions, that
has drawn people to see Shakespeare in him, standing on the verge of final
retirement to Stratford. Prospero's fulfillment, though, is in the promise
of social peace he sees in the reconciling marriage of Ferdinand with Miranda.
The happy ending of The Tempest is a joy of fictitious fatherhood, happy
in the sweetness of mutual love seen in the young who must take charge
of the future. As in the mature comedies, marriage gives joy and identity,
and serves as a parable of social harmony. For Shakespeare, as for his
audience, it was probably no little thing to be able to leave the theater
with a message of hope for the future of humanity, of peace, forgiveness,