As the play opens, a tempest-tossed ship is wrecked upon the shores of an enchanted isle whereon dwell Prospero and his lovely daughter, Miranda, alone save for Caliban, a deformed and brutish half man/half beast whom Prospero has enslaved, and Ariel, a dainty spirit of the winds and Prospero’s servant. After the ship is split apart on the rocks and as the tempest begins to subside, Prospero tells his daughter of his past life: Formerly duke of Milan, Prospero allowed his affairs of state to lapse in order that he could study magic. Eventually his dukedom was usurped by his wicked brother, Antonio, and Alonso, the king of Naples. The conspirators then set Prospero and Miranda adrift in a “rotten carcass of a boat,” where they would have perished except for a humane Gonzalo, who provisioned their craft with enough food and water for them to reach the island. During the twelve years of their exile, Prospero has perfected his magical arts, gained control of the various spirits and creatures that inhabit the island, and educated Miranda.
Knowing through his magic that his ancient enemies are in the wrecked vessel, Prospero brings the voyagers safely ashore and scatters them in groups about the island. Ariel, at Prospero’s bidding, leads Ferdinand, gallant son of the king of Naples, to the cave of Prospero—and Miranda, who does not remember ever having seen any other man than her father, immediately is smitten with the handsome prince. Prospero, who had hoped the two would fall in love, pretends to frown upon him, subdues him with magic arts, and sets him to work hauling logs.
On another part of the island, Alonso, his brother Sebastian, Antonio, and others wander sadly, convinced that the young Prince Ferdinand is dead. All but Sebastian and Antonio are lulled to sleep by Ariel, but these two remain awake to plot the death of the sleeping king and their taking over of his kingdom. They might have succeeded had not the watchful Ariel awakened the intended victim just in time.
On a third isolated part of the island, Trinculo, the king’s jester, is reeling drunk. He encounters Caliban, and they are soon joined by the butler, Stephano, who so delights Caliban with “moon-liquor” that Caliban swears to follow him forever. The three then make their own drunken plot to break free, through force, of their various masters, but Ariel, who has heard every word, lures them astray with magical music.
Meanwhile Miranda and Ferdinand have exchanged vows of love, and Prospero, who is now convinced of their true love, blesses their engagement. While the lovers are conversing, Prospero and Ariel mock the king’s court with a lavish banquet which vanishes as soon as they try to eat. They then rebuke them for their crimes against “good Prospero . . . and his innocent child.”
Finally, after Miranda and Ferdinand are treated to a prenuptial masque enacted by the spirits of Iris, Ceres, Juno, and their nymphs, Prospero decides that all have suffered enough and that it is time to forgive for injuries of the past. Spellbound by Ariel’s magic, everyone, for the first time, is brought before Prospero, where he reveals himself as the wronged duke of Milan. Prospero first brings in Prince Ferdinand, supposed dead, and announces his engagement to Miranda. He then frees his faithful servant, Ariel, and returns the island to Caliban. The crew of the ship, which is magically afloat again, arrives to take all back to Milan, and Prospero renounces his magical powers, with a last order to Ariel to command “calm seas and auspicious gales” for the voyage ahead.