Miranda and Prospero watch the tempest from the shore of an island. Miranda pities the seafarers, saying "O, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer!" (1.2.5-6). Suspecting that this is the work of her magician father, she pleads with him to calm the waters.
Prospero reassures her that no harm has been done and says that it's time to tell Miranda about her past. He takes off his cloak, saying, "Lie there my art" (1.2.24-25). Prospero then reveals to Miranda that he was once Duke of Milan and that Miranda was a princess.
Prospero's magic cloak represents his ability to construct illusions. He takes it off when he decides to tell Miranda the truth about her past.
Prospero explains how, while duke, he became wrapped up in reading his books, allowing his brother Antonio to handle the affairs of the state. Antonio proved a skilled politician and gained a great deal of power through his dealings, until he seemed to believe himself Duke of Milan.
Prospero essentially gave Antonio full power. Yet Antonio wanted more than power: he wanted to be duke, and in turn, to look powerful.
Antonio persuaded Alonso, the King of Naples and a long-time enemy of Milan, to help him overthrow Prospero. To sway Alonso, Antonio promised that, as duke, he would pay an annual tribute to Naples and accept Alonso as the ultimate ruler of Milan.
Alonso and Antonio arranged for soldiers to kidnap Prospero and Miranda in the middle of the night. The soldiers hurried them aboard a fine ship, and then, several miles out to sea, cast them into a rickety boat. The pair survived only through the generosity of Gonzalo, an advisor to Alonso, who provided them with necessities like fresh water, clothing, blankets, and food, as well as Prospero's beloved books.
Though they didn't use any magic, Alonso and Antonio created the illusion that Prospero and Miranda were sent away in a fine ship, in order to mask their evil intentions. Gonzalo's generosity shows his goodness.
Miranda says that she would like to meet Gonzalo someday. She then asks Prospero why he created the storm. Prospero replies that circumstances have brought his enemies close to the island's shores. He feels that if he does not act now, he may never have a chance again. Prospero then puts a spell on Miranda so that she sleeps and asks no more questions.
Miranda's wish foreshadows the reunion that Prospero has set in motion. His reply to her highlights how quickly fortunes can change, casting one person out of favor while another assumes power.
Prospero summons his servant Ariel, who greets Prospero as his "great master," then gleefully describes how he created the illusion of the storm. Following Prospero's instructions, Ariel made sure that no one was injured and dispersed the courtiers throughout the island, leaving Alonso's son all alone. The sailors are in a deep sleep within the ship, which is in a hidden harbor along the shore. The rest of the fleet sailed on for Naples, believing the king dead.
Ariel's glee when describing his exploits in creating the tempest indicates that he enjoyed doing it, and is willing to do whatever his master bids him to do. Ariel's response to Prospero's power over him is cheerful...
Prospero thanks Ariel. Ariel reminds Prospero that he had promised to reduce Ariel's time in servitude if Ariel performed the tasks that Prospero gave him. Prospero angrily reminds Ariel how he rescued Ariel from imprisonment. Ariel had refused to do the cruel bidding of Sycorax, the witch who ruled the island before Prospero's arrival. Sycorax then imprisoned Ariel in a tree, and didn't free him before she died. Ariel might have been stuck in that tree forever if Prospero had not freed him. Ariel begs Prospero's pardon, and Prospero promises Ariel his freedom in two days' time. Prospero then instructs Ariel to make himself invisible to all but Prospero. Ariel exits.
...yet clearly, Ariel would prefer to be free. Prospero and Ariel have a complex relationship. Prospero freed Ariel from imprisonment but then enslaved him himself. Prospero appears to be a pleasant and kind master to Ariel, until the moment it becomes clear that Ariel would prefer not to have a master at all. Then Prospero wields his power more harshly, and becomes friendly only when Ariel begs his pardon.
Prospero awakens Miranda and, calling for his "poisonous slave," (1.2.325) summons, Caliban, the malformed son of Sycorax. Caliban and Prospero immediately start trading curses. Caliban asserts his rightful claim to the island as Sycorax's son, and recalls how, when Prospero first came to the island "Thou strok'st me and made much of me; wouldst give me / Water with berries in't; and teach me how / To name the bigger light, and how the less ... and then I lov'd thee, / And show'd thee all the qualities o' th' isle, / The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place, and fertile" (1.2.338–344). But then, Caliban says, Prospero made Caliban, who had been king of the island, his subject and servant.
Like Ariel, Caliban is Prospero's slave. But where Ariel is cheerful in his servitude, Caliban is bitter. Why? Perhaps because Prospero rescued Ariel from a worse imprisonment, while Caliban previously had been free and powerful. The process Caliban describes, in which Prospero first befriended Caliban, educated him, and then enslaved him is similar to methods of European explorers—they often did the same thing to the natives in the lands they colonized.
Prospero angrily responds that he treated Caliban with "human care" (1.2.352) and even let Caliban live in his own home. Yet, in response, Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Caliban replies, "O ho! Would't had been done."
Prospero sees himself as having been nothing but kind to Caliban. Caliban's anger is so great that he is unrepetant for trying to rape Miranda.
Miranda angrily scolds Caliban, recalling how she tried to lift him out of savagery by teaching him to speak their language "When thou didst not, savage, / Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like / A thing most brutish" (1.2.361–363). Yet despite this gift of education, Miranda continues, Caliban remained innately vile and brutal. Caliban retorts, "You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse" (1.2.363–364). (Editor's note: some editions of The Tempest have Prospero, not Miranda, say the lines about teaching Caliban to speak).
The viewpoints of colonizer and colonized are on display here. Miranda believes Caliban owes her a debt of gratitude for trying to civilize him. But Caliban sees himself as having been free, and insists he was better off without all the "elevating," which resulted in him losing his autonomy.
Enraged, Prospero hurls new curses at Caliban and orders him to get to his chores. Caliban grudgingly obeys, knowing that Prospero's power is greater than his own, and exits.
Like Ariel, Caliban submits to Prospero's power. Ariel submitted humbly, but Caliban feels bitter and resentful in giving up his power.
Nearby, the invisible Ariel sings a haunting song to Ferdinand, Alonso's son, who has awakened to find himself alone on the island. The song's lyrics deceive Ferdinand into believing that his father drowned in the shipwreck: "Full fathom five thy father lies. / Of his bones are coral made" (1.2.396–397). Unseen, Prospero and Miranda watch Ferdinand approach. Miranda declares Ferdinand handsome. Ferdinand soon notices Miranda and, struck by her beauty, tells her of his troubles. She expresses pity for him, and they fall in love at first sight. Prospero, in an aside, admits that he is pleased by their attraction.
Ferdinand is another character deeply affected by loss—the death of his father. Alonso isn't really dead, but Prospero manipulates Ferdinand into thinking that he is. Prospero's trick reveals one of Miranda's best qualities—her sympathetic nature—to Ferdinand. Prospero's pleased response to Ferdinand and Miranda's attraction suggests that he desires reconciliation with his enemies, not revenge.
However, to test the depth of Ferdinand's love for Miranda, Prospero speaks sharply to Ferdinand and takes him into captivity as a servant. Miranda begs her father not to treat Ferdinand too harshly, but Prospero angrily silences her and leads Ferdinand away. For his part, Ferdinand says that the captivity and hard labor Prospero promises will be easy as long as he regularly gets to see Miranda.
Prospero has now enslaved three people. In contrast to Caliban, Ferdinand cheerfully accepts his loss of power. Ferdinand is cheerful because he dreams of Miranda's love. Caliban, whom Miranda saw as a savage, never had a chance at love with Miranda.