Prospero asks Ariel how Alonso and his men are doing. Ariel reports that he has confined them, spellbound, in a grove of trees. He describes how sorrowful and frightened they are, and adds that the man Prospero calls "the good old lord, Gonzalo," has tears streaming down his face. Ariel says that if Prospero "beheld them, your affections / Would become tender" (5.1.18-19). Prospero, moved by the human-like compassion of the spirit, pledges to release his hold over them, saying, "The rarer action is in virtue, than in vengeance" (5.1.27-28). He sends Ariel to bring the men to appear before him.
In this dialogue with Ariel, Prospero for the first time seems to care what someone else thinks. Ariel's compassion for the suitors seems to restore Prospero's humanity. One can now look back and speculate as to whether his plan was to reconcile with his enemies all along, or whether he had planned on revenge until this conversation with Ariel changed his mind.
Alone on stage, Prospero invokes the various spirits who have aided him, describing the many incredible feats he has accomplished with his magic—"graves at my command have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth" (5.1.48-49)—and says that after performing this last act he will give up his powers, breaking his staff and drowning his book of magic.
Ariel leads the courtiers onto the stage, still spellbound by Prospero's charm. Prospero addresses them—praising Gonzalo for his goodness and loyalty and scolding Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio for their cruelty, treachery, and greed—and then forgives them. Noting that the spell is lifting, Prospero has Ariel bring him his old clothing so that the courtiers will see him as the Duke of Milan when they come out of their spell. Then, he orders Ariel to go fetch the Boatswain and mariners.
By changing into the clothes he wore as duke, Prospero is not using magic but is still using illusions by carefully crafting his image. He shows that although he lost power, he is still the real Duke of Milan. The change of clothes also indicates that Prospero plans to assert political rather than magical power from now on.
Prospero releases Alonso and his men from the spell. Alonso, shocked and confused at seeing Prospero, immediately begs Prospero's pardon and relinquishes his claim to Milan. Prospero then embraces Gonzalo, whom he calls "noble friend...whose honor cannot be measured or confined" (5.1.120–122).
The restoration of order, which was upset when Prospero was overthrown, begins when Alonso apologizes and returns Milan to Prospero. Gonzalo is finally treated with the respect he deserves.
Prospero next addresses Antonio and Sebastian, condemning them for overthrowing and exiling him and for plotting against Alonso. He goes on, however, to forgive them. Antonio and Sebastian do not respond, and are virtually silent for the rest of the play.
The silence of Antonio and Sebastian is telling. Like Caliban, they are sullen and angry in their powerlessness.
Alonso laments the death of Ferdinand. Prospero responds that he, too, has "lost" a child. Alonso assumes that Miranda has also died. Prospero invites Alonso to look into his cell, however, and reveals Ferdinand and Miranda sitting at a table playing chess. Ferdinand and Alonso rejoice to find each other alive.
The word "lost" (and variations of it) is used numerous times in the Alonso and Prospero's dialogue. Some critics think this emphasis reflects the Christian belief that loss leads to redemption.
Miranda marvels at the handsome men arrayed before her, saying, "How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in't!" (5.1.183–184). Prospero replies, "Tis new to thee" (5.1.184). Ferdinand tells his father of his recent marriage to Miranda, and Alonso gives his blessing.
Gonzalo observes that this voyage has served to unite people with each other and with their true selves. He says, "O rejoice beyond a common joy...in one voyage...Ferdinand...found a wife where he himself was lost; Prospero, his dukedom, in a poor isle, and all of us ourselves, when no man was his own" (5.1.206–213).
Ariel enters with the mariners. The Boatswain reports that the sailors awakened to find the ship miraculously restored to perfect condition. Next, Prospero asks Ariel to release Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo from their spell and bring them forward in their stolen absurd clothes. Prospero relates how the threesome has plotted against him, and he asks the courtiers if they recognize Stephano and Trinculo. Of Caliban, he says, "This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine" (5.1.274–275).
The aspirations of the three conspirators seem ridiculous as they stand in front of the true king and duke, yet their ambitions mirrored those of Antonio and Sebastian. It's unclear whether Prospero's comment about Caliban suggests that he sees him as his property, or that he takes some responsibility for what has happened to Caliban.
The courtiers and Prospero mock Stephano and Trinculo for their drunken state and foiled ambitions. Prospero orders Caliban to take the two men to his cell and prepare it for the guests, saying, "As you look to have my pardon, trim it handsomely" (5.1.290–291). Subservient again, Caliban complies, saying "What a thrice-double ass was I to take this drunkard for a god and worship this dull fool!" (5.1.293–295).
Even Caliban is given the hope of freedom, or at least pardon, as long as he follows Prospero's orders faithfully and well, as Ariel and Ferdinand did. Yet it's hard not to pity Caliban's ignorant naiveté when he curses himself for worshipping Stephano.
Prospero invites Alonso and his court to spend the night in his cell, where he promises to tell the story of his time on the island. In the morning, he says, they will all return to Naples, where Miranda and Ferdinand will be married. From there, Prospero says, he will return to Milan "where every third thought shall be my grave" (5.1.8-9).
Prospero has restored political order by regaining his dukedom and by establishing his line through the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. Now when he dies, the dukedom will pass to Ferdinand.
Prospero gives Ariel the final task of ensuring the ship a safe, speedy voyage back to Italy, then grants Ariel his freedom.
Ariel has served Prospero well. Now he gets freedom, his reward for loyalty and for his willingness to surrender his autonomy.