This scene opens with all the passengers from the ship, except for Ferdinand, gathered on stage. Gonzalo begins with a speech celebrating their survival of the storm and their relative safety on the island, but King Alonso cannot be cheered because he is sure that his missing son, Ferdinand, has drowned. In the meantime, Antonio and Sebastian whisper among themselves and belittle both Alonso's grief and Gonzalo's cheer.
When Antonio and Sebastian join the general conversation around the king, they make no attempt to soothe him. Instead, they tell Alonso that he should not have permitted his daughter to marry the African. Sebastian tells Alonso that, had he not permitted the marriage, the royal party would not have been at sea and, thus, never in the storm. In short, Ferdinand would still be alive if Alonso had acted properly. These are harsh words to the grieving father, and Gonzalo gently chastises Sebastian for his insensitivity.
Ariel now enters, unseen by the group on stage, and puts all of them to sleep, except for Sebastian and Antonio. Left awake, Antonio and Sebastian devise a plot in which Sebastian will seize his brother's crown, much as Antonio had years earlier seized his brother's title and property. Although Sebastian has some concerns of conscience, Antonio dismisses such worries and urges action while everyone is asleep. Sebastian needs little convincing, and with Antonio, the two draw their swords and advance on the sleeping king and his party.
At this moment, Ariel takes action. He awakens Gonzalo in time to prevent the murders. Antonio and Sebastian quickly concoct a story to explain their drawn swords, warning of great noise, as if from bulls or lions. Alonso is easily convinced of his brother's sincerity, and the scene ends with the royal party leaving the stage in search of Ferdinand.
This act better defines the personalities of the king's party and more clearly establishes the good characters from the bad. Alonso's first thought is for his son's well-being. In Act I, Prospero's tale of Alonso's complicity in his personal tragedy created an image of an uncaring ruler, one who was willing to overlook Antonio's deceit as long as it was beneficial to the king. But now, the picture is that of a grief-stricken father, beyond comfort. Alonso says little, but Gonzalo's efforts to care for and cheer his king, and the efforts of Adrian and Francisco to comfort their king, reflect well on Alonso's character.
Gonzalo's character is also realized in more depth than in Act I, where his attention was focused on the storm and on the boatswain's insolence. Beyond the efforts to comfort and reassure his king, Gonzalo relates a vision of a utopian society. In this society, he would be king. There would be no commerce or law and no servant class. No one would grow food, and no one would work. Nature would simply create all that men needed. This vision reveals that Gonzalo, too, has some concerns about authority and privilege. In Gonzalo's vision, there would be no inherited wealth, and land would not be enclosed. Thus, there would be no aristocracy and no country estates. In short, the source of many of the conflicts that exist in English society would be eliminated. Gonzalo wants the authority that Alonso holds, since Gonzalo would be king in this visionary world, but he lacks the impetus to put his dreams into actions, as Antonio and Sebastian would do. In spite of his dreams of personal grandeur, Gonzalo is capable of seeing the positive aspects of their situation. He alone realizes that their survival of the storm is an achievement. He is thankful that they have landed on such a lovely island, and he remains hopeful that Ferdinand has survived. Gonzalo's outlook is positive in many ways, but his utopian dream indicates that there is a complexity to his personality. On the surface he appears happy with his situation, but his dreams of being king reveal that he is not completely satisfied with his lot in life.
In contrast, Antonio and Sebastian's characters are developing as unpleasant and arrogant. Their sarcastic asides counter Gonzalo's good humor. They justly point out the flaws in Gonzalo's utopian dream, but they go beyond pointing out the flaws to compete between themselves to see who can devise the cruelest ridicule of both Alonso and Gonzalo. The two are reminiscent of schoolboys, who giggle and whisper in the back of a classroom, in defiance of their teacher. And like schoolboys, Antonio and Sebastian are capable of cruelty, as when they tell Alonso that had he not married his daughter to the African, they would not be on this journey and Ferdinand would not be drowned. They are more than thoughtless and cruel, since they are also capable of forming a conspiracy to murder their king and Sebastian's brother.
Sebastian and Antonio's action hearkens back to the scene between the boatswain and Alonso in Act I. Alonso is king and represents authority. To plot his murder and to seize the crown is to usurp authority given by God. In England, the idea that a king was anointed by god was a crucial point in maintaining authority over the people. To kill God's representative on earth was a rebellion against the highest authority in the heavens. These two conspirators seek greater freedom and power than they are entitled to, and so they plot a coup. However, they forget that they are stranded on this island, with no kingdom to assume. Their plot to make Sebastian king neglects to ask king of what? They are far from Naples, with little expectation of rescue. Indeed, they never mention rescue, and thus, their plot to murder the king and seize his title would make Sebastian king of nothing.
The blending of illusion and reality, which was created in Act I with the imaginary storm, is carried forward in this scene, with Gonzalo's observation that their clothing is unharmed by the salt water, appearing as it did before the storm occurred. Gonzalo envisions a utopia, but the impossibility of such a thing happening is best illustrated by Antonio and Sebastian's plot. Even when there is no reason to plot a murder, they do so. It is in their nature, and one reason why Gonzalo's vision lacks reality is simply because it neglects to consider human nature, which fails to bow to illusion.
The party's whole existence on the island is an illusion and nothing is as it appears. Behind the scene and watching and manipulating all the action is Prospero. Although he never appears in this scene, he is very much present, functioning as a god-like entity. Antonio and Sebastian's swords are stayed because a higher authority prevents their actions. Prospero functions as a god would, protecting the innocent and guiding the action. However, Prospero is not a god, and that, perhaps, is the greatest illusion of all.
tawny brownish-yellow; here used to mean that the sun has turned the ground a parched brown color.
bourn a limit; boundary. Here used to mean that no land would be divided among landowners.
foison plenty; here, specifically, an abundance of produce.
hereditary sloth the natural inclination of a younger brother to be lazy, according to Sebastian, who sees the lack of a hereditary title as a reason to achieve nothing on his own.
feater more graceful. Here, Antonio's new rank — and clothes that befit it — looks graceful on him.
kibe a chapped or ulcerated sore, esp. on the heel. If Antonio's conscience were a sore on his foot, Antonio might put on a slipper.