Scene 2 opens on the island, with Prospero and Miranda watching the ship as it is tossed by the storm. Miranda knows that her father is creating the storm, and she begs him to end the ship's torment and her own, since she suffers as she watches the ship's inhabitants suffer. Prospero reassures his daughter that his actions have been to protect her. He also tells Miranda that she is ignorant of her heritage; he then explains the story of her birthright and of their lives before they came to be on the island.
Prospero begins his story with the news that he is the duke of Milan and Miranda is a princess. He also relates that he had abdicated day-to-day rule of his kingdom to his brother, Antonio. Prospero admits that books held more attraction than duties, and he willingly allowed his brother the opportunity to grasp control. But Antonio used his position to undermine Prospero and to plot against him. Prospero's trust in his brother proved unwise, when Antonio formed an alliance with the king of Naples to oust Prospero and seize his heritage. Prospero and his daughter were placed in a small, rickety boat and put out to sea. A sympathetic Neapolitan, Gonzalo, provided them with rich garments, linens, and other necessities. Gonzalo also provided Prospero with books from his library. Eventually, Prospero and Miranda arrived on the island, where they have remained since that time.
When he finishes the tale, Prospero uses his magic to put Miranda to sleep. The sprite, Ariel, appears as soon as Miranda is sleeping and reports on the storm, the ship, and the passengers. Ariel relates everyone, except the crew, was forced to abandon ship. Ariel tells Prospero that the passengers have been separated into smaller groups and are on different parts of the island; that the ship, with its sleeping crew, is safely hidden in the harbor; and that the remainder of the fleet, thinking that the king is drowned, has sailed home. Ariel then asks that Prospero free him, as had been promised. But Prospero has more need of his sprite and declares that Ariel's freedom must be delayed a few more days.
When Ariel leaves, Prospero awakens Miranda and beckons Caliban, the son of the witch, Sycorax. Caliban has been Prospero's slave, but he is insolent and rebellious and is only controlled through the use of magic. Caliban claims the island as his own and says that Prospero has tricked him in the past. Prospero is unmoved, claiming that Caliban is corrupt, having tried to rape Miranda. Prospero threatens and cajoles Caliban's obedience, but Caliban's presence makes Miranda uneasy.
After Caliban leaves, Ariel enters with Ferdinand, who sees Miranda, and the two fall instantly in love. Although this is what Prospero intended to have happen, he does not want it to appear too easy for Ferdinand, and so he accuses Ferdinand of being a spy. When Prospero uses magic to control Ferdinand, Miranda begs him to stop.
Prospero tells Miranda their history as a way to inform the audience of this important information. In addition, the audience needs to know what events motivate Prospero's decision to stir up the storm and why the men onboard the ship are his enemies — several share responsibility for Prospero's isolation. By sharing this information, Miranda — and the audience — can conclude that Prospero is justified in seeking retribution. At the very least, Prospero must make Miranda sympathetic to this choice. It is also important that Prospero gain the audience's sympathy because his early treatment of both Ariel and Caliban depict him in a less than sympathetic light.
Ariel and Caliban are both little more than slaves to Prospero's wishes, and, in the initial interactions between Prospero and Ariel and Prospero and Caliban, the audience may think Prospero callous and cruel. He has clearly promised Ariel freedom and then denied it, and he treats Caliban as little more than an animal. The audience needs to understand that cruel circumstance and the machinations of men have turned Prospero into a different man than he might otherwise have been. But Prospero's character is more complex than this scene reveals, and the relationship between these characters more intricate also.
During the course of the story, Prospero repeatedly asks Miranda if she is listening. This questioning may reveal her distraction as she worries about the well-being of the ship's passengers. Miranda is loving toward her father, but at the same time, she does not lose sight of the human lives he is placing at risk. However, his questioning is equally directed toward the audience. Prospero also wants to make sure that the audience is listening to his story, since he will return to the audience in the Epilogue and seek their judgment.
It is clear from Prospero's story that he had been a poor ruler, more interested in his books than in his responsibilities. Prospero, therefore, is not entirely blameless in the events that occurred in Milan. Antonio could not so easily seize power from an involved and attentive ruler. This information mitigates Antonio's actions in seizing his brother's place and is important because this play is not a tragedy. In order for the comedic or romantic ending to succeed, none of the villains can be beyond redemption or reconciliation. It is equally important that Prospero not be beyond redemption. Prospero must be heroic, and this he cannot be if he is perceived as vengeful. Ariel reassures the audience (as well as Prospero) that the ship and its crew have been saved and the passengers are safely on the island. No one has been hurt or lost at sea.
In addition to relating the past, this act also helps define the main characters and anticipate the future. Prospero has been injured, and he intends to serve justice on his captives. He delves in magic and has developed powers beyond those of his enemies. He is also intelligent enough and strong enough to control the spirits on the island; for example, he can control Caliban, who is not without power of his own. Prospero uses the magic of nature, a white, beneficent magic that does no harm. He does not use the black magic of evil. Prospero has learned of this magic, not through the use of witches or evil spells (as did the witches in Macbeth), but through his studies. Prospero's white magic has supplanted the black, evil magic of Caliban's mother, Sycorax, because Prospero, himself, is good.
Any initial concern that the audience might have because of Caliban's enslavement evaporates at the news that he attempted to rape Miranda. His subsequent behavior will further prove his character, but he can be redeemed, and his redemption is necessary if the play is to succeed. Furthermore, Caliban, who is initially bad and represents the black magic of his mother, serves as a contrast to the goodness of Ferdinand and Miranda. The young lovers are instantly attracted to one another, each one a mirror image of the other's goodness. It is their goodness that facilitates the reconciliation between Prospero and his enemies. In this reconciliation lies Ariel's freedom and Caliban's redemption.
betid happened or befell; here, it means that nothing has happened to the boat's inhabitants.
teen injury or harm. Prospero worries about the trouble that he has created for Miranda.
Signories domains or city-states in Northern Italy, subject to the rule of a lord or signior.
inveterate firmly established over a long period.
extirpate to pull up by the roots. The reference here is to Prospero and Miranda's being forced from their home and country.
bark any boat, but especially a small sailing ship.
trident a three-pronged spear used by a gladiator in ancient Roman gladiatorial combats and by the Greek god of the sea, Neptune.
Bermoothes refer to the Bermudas, a common word to describe tempests and enchantments.
twain two. Ferdinand refers to himself and his father as but two of the victims of the storm.
surety a person who takes responsibility for another. Miranda will be Ferdinand's guarantee.