The Tempest opens in the midst of a storm, as a ship containing the king of Naples and his party struggles to stay afloat. On land, Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, watch the storm envelop the ship. Prospero has created the storm with magic, and he explains that his enemies are on board the ship.
The story Prospero relates is that he is the rightful Duke of Milan and that his younger brother, Antonio, betrayed him, seizing his title and property. Twelve years earlier, Prospero and Miranda were put out to sea in little more than a raft. Miraculously, they both survived and arrived safely on this island, where Prospero learned to control the magic that he now uses to manipulate everyone on the island. Upon his arrival, Prospero rescued a sprite, Ariel, who had been imprisoned by the witch Sycorax. Ariel wishes to be free and his freedom has been promised within two days. The last inhabitant of the island is the child of Sycorax and the devil: Caliban, whom Prospero has enslaved. Caliban is a natural man, uncivilized and wishing only to have his island returned to him to that he can live alone in peace.
Soon the royal party from the ship is cast ashore and separated into three groups. The king's son, Ferdinand, is brought to Prospero, where he sees Miranda, and the two fall instantly in love. Meanwhile, Alonso, the king of Naples, and the rest of his party have come ashore on another part of the island. Alonso fears that Ferdinand is dead and grieves for the loss of his son. Antonio, Prospero's younger brother, has also been washed ashore with the king's younger brother, Sebastian. Antonio easily convinces Sebastian that Sebastian should murder his brother and seize the throne for himself. This plot to murder Alonso is similar to Antonio's plot against his own brother, Prospero, 12 years earlier.
Another part of the royal party — the court jester and the butler — has also come ashore. Trinculo and Stefano each stumble upon Caliban, and each immediately sees a way to make money by exhibiting Caliban as a monster recovered from this uninhabited island. Stefano has come ashore in a wine cask, and soon Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano are drunk. While drinking, Caliban hatches a plot to murder Prospero and enrolls his two new acquaintances as accomplices. Ariel is listening, however, and reports the plot to Prospero.
Meanwhile, Prospero has kept Ferdinand busy and has forbidden Miranda to speak to him, but the two still find time to meet and declare their love, which is actually what Prospero has planned. Next, Prospero stages a masque to celebrate the young couple's betrothal, with goddesses and nymphs entertaining the couple with singing and dancing.
While Ferdinand and Miranda have been celebrating their love, Alonso and the rest of the royal party have been searching for the king's son. Exhausted from the search and with the king despairing of ever seeing his son alive, Prospero has ghosts and an imaginary banquet brought before the king's party. A god-like voice accuses Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian of their sins, and the banquet vanishes. The men are all frightened, and Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian run away.
Prospero punishes Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano with a run through a briar patch and swim in a scummy pond. Having accomplished what he set out to do, Prospero has the king's party brought in. Prospero is clothed as the rightful Duke of Milan, and when the spell has been removed, Alonso rejects all claims to Prospero's dukedom and apologizes for his mistakes. Within moments, Prospero reunites the king with his son, Ferdinand. Alonso is especially pleased to learn of Miranda's existence and that Ferdinand will marry her.
Prospero then turns to his brother, Antonio, who offers no regrets or apology for his perfidy. Nevertheless, Prospero promises not to punish Antonio as a traitor. When Caliban is brought in, Caliban tells Prospero that he has learned his lesson. His two co-conspirators, Trinculo and Stefano, will be punished by the king. Soon, the entire party retires to Prospero's cell to celebrate and await their departure home. Only Prospero is left on stage.
In a final speech, Prospero tells the audience that only with their applause will he be able to leave the island with the rest of the party. Prospero leaves the stage to the audience's applause.