The scene opens with Caliban cursing Prospero. When he hears someone approach, Caliban assumes it is one of Prospero's spirits, coming to torture him once again. Caliban falls to the ground and pulls his cloak over his body, leaving only his feet protruding. But instead of Prospero, the king's jester, Trinculo, enters. Trinculo is looking for shelter from the coming storm when he sees Caliban. With his body partially covered with the cloak, Caliban appears to be half man and half fish, or at least that is Trinculo's initial impression. Trinculo immediately sees the possibilities that this find presents. He can take this "monster" back to civilization and display it, charging admission to spectators who want to view this aberration of nature. Yet after touching Caliban, Trinculo decides that his "find" is not half man-half fish, but an islander. With the coming storm, Trinculo decides to seek shelter under Caliban's cloak.
The king's butler, Stefano, enters, clearly drunk. Stefano stops at the sight of the object on the ground, covered with a cloak and with four legs sticking out. Like Trinculo, Stefano immediately sees the financial possibilities that such a creature offers back home. But all of Stefano's poking has alarmed Caliban, who thinks that he is about to experience a new form of torture, beyond what Prospero has provided.
After pulling the cloak from Caliban's head, Stefano begins to pour wine into Caliban's mouth. Trinculo emerges from under the cloak and, happy to find another survivor of the storm on the island, joins Stefano and Caliban in drinking wine.
Caliban drunkenly watches the happy reunion of Stefano and Trinculo and decides that Stefano is a god, dropped from heaven. Caliban swears devotion to this new "god," and the three leave together, amid Caliban's promises to find Stefano the best food on the island.
For the first time, the audience is given a close look at Caliban, who appeared only briefly in Act I. He appears now, cursing Prospero, and so, the depth of Caliban's animosity is quickly evident. He is very frightened by Prospero, whom he both cowers before and hates. Prospero has made Caliban his slave. The island was originally Caliban's, and he lived under no man's control.
Although Caliban blames Prospero for all his troubles, it is clear that nature, itself, has turned against him. In his soliloquy that opens this scene, Caliban admits that the animals on the island make faces at him, bite him, and hiss at him. This he blames on Prospero, reasoning that he controls all nature. Every noise is thought to be a spirit, sent by Prospero to torture him. Caliban represents nature, unfettered by man's domesticity — nature, as it appears untouched by corrupt forces. And yet Caliban is not totally innocent. Prospero has already told the audience of Caliban's attack on Miranda. His behavior recalls the undisciplined nature of wild animals rather than that of natural man. He has not been civilized to the rules of social discourse and, instead, functions as the animals in the forest do — obeying the instincts of nature.
If Caliban represents the most basic elements of nature, then Stefano and Trinculo represent how low civilized men can sink without self-control. Both men are opportunists, ready to exploit the new "man" they discover under a cloak. Both Stefano and Trinculo share the same initial thought — how to make money from a being as unusual in appearance as Caliban. They immediately see the potential in exhibiting him as a freak of nature.
Of course, Shakespeare is commenting on a real phenomena in English society: the exhibition of American Indians, transported back to England from the new colonies in Virginia. Elizabethan entrepreneurs quickly saw a profit in the "natural" people who inhabited the Americas. These Native Americans were brought to England and displayed for profit. Most quickly succumbed to diseases for which they had no natural immunity. But more of these natural people were readily available, and so the trade continued for some time. Stefano and Trinculo's thinking reveals them to be little more than charlatans, out to make a quick profit.
Stefano and Trinculo readily fall into agreement with Caliban and plot to commit murder because they think there is a profit to be made. But there is another reason, as well. Stefano enjoys his new status as Caliban's god. He delights in the adoration, the reversal of fortune. He has gone from butler to god and sees it as a huge improvement in status. Just as Sebastian and Antonio expect power as a reward for violent behavior, the butler and the court jester would like power with a minimal amount of effort. If murdering Prospero will make them kings of the island, they are ready to do Caliban's bidding. Of course, just as Sebastian and Antonio were being watched, so too are these three drunken conspirators.
This scene involves low comedy, the kind of slapstick that depends more on actions than words. Caliban, Stefano, and Trinculo are funny because the audience thinks their efforts ridiculous. Trinculo is dressed as a clown, and Trinculo rode the storm to safety in a wine cask. Although Sebastian and Antonio's plot might represent real danger to Alonso (if Prospero were to permit it), Trinculo and Stefano's plot can only represent impotence. Their plan to murder Prospero and ravish Miranda is doomed from the start, and the audience is always aware of this. In their drunkenness, they are ineffectual and thus can be enjoyed. In Caliban's innocence, he has allied himself with buffoons. He bribes his accomplices with promises of choice foods and is too unsophisticated to realize that these men would also enslave him if given the opportunity. Stefano and Trinculo represent the worst that civilization has to offer — debauchery and absurdity.
inch-meal inch by inch. Here, Caliban hopes for Prospero's fall.
bombard a large leather container meant to hold liquor.
swabber the sailor who washes the ship and keeps the decks clean.
chaps jaws. Stefano is telling Caliban to open his jaws and drink more.
long spoon alluding to an old proverb that a man must have a very long spoon to eat with the devil. Stefano thinks that Trinculo is a ghost.
moon-calf [Obs.] a monstrosity; a misshapen creature born under the moon's influence.
Scamels The meaning is uncertain but thought to be either shellfish or rock-inhabiting birds.