The Tempest (Folger Shakespeare Library)
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The Tempest Summary and Analysis

by William Shakespeare

Act II

Act 2, Scene I

King Alonso has landed on the island, with his brothers Sebastian and Antonio, noblemen Adrian and Francisco, and the councilor Gonzalo. Gonzalo tries to console Alonso upon their good fortune of surviving the shipwreck‹but Alonso is grieved‹not only because his son Ferdinand is missing and presumed dead, but because he was returning from his daughter's wedding in Africa, and fears he will never see her again because of the distance. Antonio and Sebastian show great skill with mocking wordplay, and use this skill to stifle Gonzalo and Adrian's attempts to speak frankly to the rest of the party. Ariel's magic makes the party fall asleep, with the exception of Antonio and Sebastian.

A strange seriousness, of Ariel's doing, falls upon Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio begins to concoct a plan to get his brother the kingship, which will be much easier if Ferdinand, the current heir, really is dead; and since Alonso's daughter is very far away in Tunis, Sebastian might be able to inherit the crown with only two murders, those of Alonso and Gonzalo. Ariel, however, hears to conspirators plan, and wakes Gonzalo with a warning of the danger he is in. Ariel intends to let Prospero know that the conspiracy has indeed been formed as he wished, and Prospero in turn will try to keep Gonzalo safe, out of appreciation for his past help in preserving the lives of Prospero and Miranda.

Act 2, Scene 2

Caliban curses Prospero, as another storm approaches the island; he takes the storm as a sign that Prospero is up to mischief, and hides at the approach of what he fears is one of Prospero's punishing spirits. Trinculo, Alonso's court jester, finds Caliban lying still on the ground and covered with a cloak, and figures him to be a "dead Indian"; but, the storm continues to approach, so he also hides himself, using Caliban's cloak as a shelter, and flattening himself on the ground beside Caliban's prostrate form.

Alonso's drunken butler, Stephano, enters, drunk and singing, and stumbles upon the strange sight of the two men under the cloak; he figures, in his drunken stupor, that Trinculo and Caliban make a four-legged monster. Caliban,in his delirium, thinks that Stephano is one of Prospero's minions, sent to torment him; Stephano thinks a drink of wine will cure Caliban of what ails him, and bit by bit, gets Caliban drunk as well. It takes Stephano a while to recognize his old friend, Trinculo, whom Caliban seems to be ignoring. Because of Stephano's generosity with his "celestial liquor," Caliban takes him to be some sort of benevolent god; much to Trinculo's disbelief, Caliban actually offers his service to Stephano, forsaking the "tyrant" Prospero. Stephano accepts the offer.

Analysis of Act II

Act 2 begins with a speech by Gonzalo that sounds similar to Claudius' speech to Hamlet in Act 1 of that play. Gonzalo tries to console the king over the loss of his son, saying that his "hint of woe is common," and speaking about all the people who share his "theme of woe". In Hamlet, Claudius bandies about similar language when soothing Hamlet, mentioning the "common theme" of paternal death, and begging him to cast off the "woe" that burdens him. The tone of these two speeches, also, is similar; both, though directed toward one person, are made before a larger audience of listeners, and so are somewhat formal, impersonal, and diplomatic in language and form, in order to sound proper and impress their point on those who are not being directly addressed.

However, Alonso responds badly to Gonzalo's good-hearted and carefully-worded attempt to cheer him up; "he receives comfort like cold porridge" is the simile that Sebastian uses to describe the King's reaction, and the comparison highlights King Alonso's sober, aloof, and disconsolate personality.

In the first scene of Act 2, Sebastian and Antonio first display a mischievous skill with language which they use to mock Gonzalo, then the nobleman Adrian. Sebastian teases the somewhat long-winded but good-hearted councilor by saying that Gonzalo is "winding up the watch of his wit, by and by, it will strike" when he begins another entreaty to the king. When Gonzalo opens his mouth again, he is answered with Sebastian saying "one," as if Gonzalo had struck the hour, like a clock.

Then, they change the subject of their puns to money; "what a spendthrift is he of his tongue," says Antonio, speaking of Gonzalo as if he were a character more akin to the very garrulous, somewhat foolish Polonius from Hamlet (II.i.25) Gonzalo and Polonius hold the same position, of head councilor to the king, but is not the same wastrel of words that Polonius proved to be; he makes a few remarks in this act that are beside the point, like his statements about their garments being "fresh," but nothing that sounds so foolish as Polonius' "brevity is the soul of wit" speech in Act 2 of Hamlet.

Antonio and Sebastian detach themselves from their party through their mocking wit. Adrian and Gonzalo try, in a levelheaded way, to both take stock of their situation, and hearten their party; they note the "subtle, tender, and delicate temperance" of the island, and report that "here is everything advantageous to life" (II.i.42,50). Gonzalo becomes optimistic, making statements about how "lush and lusty the grass looks"; Antonio and Sebastian's replies to Gonzalo's benign remarks are distinctly negative, contradicting Gonzalo with claims that "the ground indeed is tawny," and that "he lies" in his positive assessments (II.i.53,54). In this act, notice how Sebastian and Antonio are thoroughly characterized as heedless, careless, harsh, and arrogant through their disregard for their fellows, their predicament, and through their constant bickering and insulting remarks. All of their character flaws that are exposed in this act are important in the later action, foreshadowing their backstabbing tendencies and their eventual comeuppance.

Several allusions to The Aeneid are sprinkled throughout the play, Antonio and Sebastian's debate about the "widow Dido" and the uniqueness of Carthage among the most prominent of these. Although the Carthage/ Tunis debate is elusive, and perhaps nonsensical, Gonzalo is correct that "Tunis, sir, was Carthage," because Tunis became the political and commercial center of North Africa after Carthage,as it is described in The Aeneid, was destroyed (II.i.82). The Tempest inhabits, roughly, the same geographic realm as Virgil's work; Alonso's ship, before the shipwreck, was following the same route that Aeneas took from Carthage to Naples. The Aeneid raises issues about royal auhority and political legitimacy that are also present in Shakespeare's work; and the allusions are, at the least, noteworthy because of the associations present during Shakespeare's time between the strong, intelligent, and powerful Queen Dido, and the equally strong, intelligent, and powerful Queen Elizabeth.

Note the contrast in tone between Alonso's lament in lines 104-111 of scene 2, and Franscisco's answer to the king; Alonso's statement is somewhat crude in its metaphors, describing how the "stomach of [his] sense" is being force-fed by having to listen to his friends' long-winded chatter. Francisco answers this complaint with elevated rhetoric, about how he saw Alonso's son "beat the surges under him" and "trod the water, whose enmity he flung aside"; Francisco's formalized description is more elegantly worded and image-laden than Alonso's, and the difference in language signifies a possible difference in knowledge and communicative abilities in the two characters.

As in Act 1, there are a number of allusions to proverbs in this act as well, one of which appears in line 136. "Rub the sore" is a phrase Gonzalo uses to tell Sebastian that his attempts to console the king do no more than aggravate the loss; and this phrase was a popular one during Shakespeare's time, and is much easier to understand than some of the more obscure and outmoded allusions that Shakespeare includes in his work.

Once Antonio and Sebastian begin to conspire in scene 1, parallels with Macbeth begin to surface. "My strong imagination sees a crown dropping upon thy head," Antonio says to his brother, creating an image similar to the one that the three witches describe for Macbeth in Act 1, scene 3 of Macbeth. The presence of a conspiracy against the throne and a plot of murder creates another similarity; and Sebastian reacts to his brother's ambitious vision as Macbeth reacts to the witches-- that is, with thoughts of murder.

Before Sebastian is convinced to follow his brother's plan, he exclaims that he is "standing water"; the statement is a metaphor, but the words are somewhat vague in their connotation. What Sebastian means with this comparison is that he is waiting to be moved in some direction, and will remain still, or "standing," until he finds his purpose and motivation. The phrase could be alluding to another proverbial saying, but exactly which saying is being referred to is unclear.

Act 2 returns to the themes of political legitimacy, source of power, and usurpation that arose in the first act. While Prospero firmly believed that the only legitimate power was the power that came from one's knowledge and hard work, Antonio believes that the power he usurped from his brother is legitimate, because he deserved it more and had the skill to wrestle it away. "Look how well my garments sit upon me, much feater than before," Antonio brags to Sebastian; Antonio's lack of remorse over his crime, and his arrogant claim that his power is just because he uses it better, foreshadow a confrontation with his brother Prospero, and an eventual fall from this ill-gained power.

However, Ariel's involvement in this conspiracy shows it to be part of Prospero's plan; Ariel makes all but Antonio and Sebastian go to sleep, and then causes conspiratorial seriousness to settle on them as well. The situation is created as part of Prospero's project, to reinforce his idea of his brothers as villains, and act as Prospero "foresees through his art" that they will. "His project dies" if Antonio and Sebastian's deviant plot is not made; and here, Prospero again shows himself to be a manipulator of the play's events, influencing the course of the play from within. There is great dramatic irony in this situation, and in the fact that Prospero causes his brothers to do the very things that he condemns them for.

The most important literary elements in the second scene are probably those that are used to refer to Caliban. Upon finding Caliban lying on the ground, Trinculo calls him a "dead Indian"; indeed, in Elizabethan times, natives were brought back to England from foreign lands, and their captors could earn a great deal of money exhibiting them in London. Trinculo's speech is significant because he describes Caliban as a "fish," and a "strange beast," showing his Western contempt and lack of understanding of a person with a different skin color than his own. Stephano assumes that Caliban is a "mooncalf," or a monstrosity, the term alluding to a folk tale of the time.

Although Caliban asserted his natural authority over the island in Act 1, Prospero's usurpation of Caliban's power is negated by Caliban's portrayal as a savage seeking a new master. Caliban proves Prospero's view of him, as a natural servant, to be true, when Caliban immediately adopts Stephano as his new master upon Stephano's sudden appearance. Caliban, as a native, is seen as a "monster," not only by Prospero, but by Trinculo and Stephano also; their contempt for dark-skinned Caliban is analogous to Europeans' view of "natives" in the West Indies and other colonies, and Shakespeare's treatment of Caliban provides some interesting social commentary on colonization. In fact, when this play appeared in the First Folio of Shakespeare's work, shortly after Shakespeare's death in the early 17th century, Caliban's character description marks him as "a savage and deformed slave," despite glimpses of his noble character in the play. As a representation of a man apart from Western society, Caliban is seen as a contemptuous character because of prejudices of Shakespeare's time; these Elizabethan-period social prejudices also belong to many of the characters in the play, and are the prime determinant of the negative view that Prospero, Stephano, and Trinculo have of Caliban in the play.

Other colonization-related themes are raised by Gonzalo's description of his Utopia, from lines 145 to 162 in Act 2, scene 1. Gonzalo's speech recalls many of Thomas More's ideas from his book Utopia, and summons up the spirit of Renaissance political idealism with his ideas about reform. These topics were particularly relevant at the time of the play, because of New World colonization, and Europeans finally had the chance to start new governments and societies that reflected these idealistic tenets. But, Gonzalo's imagining is also self-contradictory and impractical, as Antonio and Sebastian are quick to notice; and perhaps this is Shakespeare's statement about the naivete of Utopian thought in general.

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