The royal party has searched futilely for Ferdinand and collapses, exhausted upon the beach. Unknown to the royal party, Prospero arrives and watches their actions. Within a few moments, a number of ghostly shapes arrive and with them, a lavish banquet. After gesturing to the party that they should approach and eat, the spirit shapes depart. The royal party is incredulous, but they are also hungry and ready to eat. Yet Ariel appears, disguised as a harpy. He makes the banquet disappear and accuses Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso of being the instruments of sin. Although the men draw their swords, they are frozen in place by magic and unable to lift up their arms. The king is shaken by what he has seen and heard, and he flees, as do Antonio and Sebastian. Worried that they might do themselves harm, Gonzalo sends Adrian and Francisco to watch them.
This scene provides the climax of Prospero's plan and the denouement of Antonio's many plots. Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso are powerless against Prospero's magic. Their plotting against him — and Antonio and Sebastian's subsequent plotting against Alonso — is ineffectual in the face of Prospero's greater power. This is the moment of revenge that Prospero has awaited for 12 long years, and he offers no clue what form the punishment will take. However, because he has encouraged Miranda and Ferdinand's love, it is clear that any retribution directed toward Alonso will not be severe, since he would not risk his daughter's happiness in such a way. That is not the case, however, for Sebastian and Antonio, who have every reason for concern.
As he has from the beginning, Ariel carries out Prospero's wishes efficiently and effectively. Ariel, who projects delicacy and eagerness in all that he does, is a spirit of the air. He is eager to be free, and his freedom has been promised in two days, at the conclusion of this mission. Ariel is eager to please Prospero, who freed him from Sycorax, the witch who had imprisoned him in a tree for refusing to do her bidding. Although he wants his freedom in exchange, Ariel approaches his tasks with enthusiasm, quickly doing what is asked and reporting promptly any activities that he observes. Earlier, Ariel had reported the plot to murder Prospero, and now he assists in punishing Prospero's enemies. Ariel's obedience is an important symbol of Prospero's humanity because he ameliorates Prospero's role on the island and humanizes the action that he takes against his old adversaries. Finally, Ariel's willing obedience of Prospero's wishes stands in stark contrast to Caliban's cursing and plotting against the same master.
This scene illustrates the deep disparity between what is real and what is imagined. The disappearing banquet was never real, although it briefly appears so to the hungry captives. Ariel appears briefly as a harpy, a mythical creature with a vulture's wings and claws and the face of a woman, yet it is not Ariel's voice that speaks but a deep voice that seems to come from the heavens. Neither the harpy nor the voice is real. None of this is real, and all of it is carefully staged, a theatrical spectacle designed to frighten and punish Prospero's enemies. Prospero is the puppet-master, carefully pulling the strings and manipulating the action. But he remains unseen and, like the deep voice and the banquet, even this scene is illusionary. His victims cannot know that Prospero waits, unseen in the wings. All that is real is the madness that this confrontation has evoked in the three sinners.
Br'r lakin "By your ladykin"; a referece to the Virgin Mary.
a living drollery probably a puppet-show with live actors.
Wallets here, meaning wattle, the fleshy, wrinkled, often brightly colored piece of skin that hangs from throat of a turkey.
dowle small feather.
too massy unable to move. Here, through magic, the men are paralyzed.
bass my trespass Here, meaning that the condemnation (my trespass) was uttered in a deep bass voice. The thunder proclaimed his sin, according to Alonso, like a noise from the heavens.