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Due to its length, Act I, scene ii is treated in two sections. Beginning through Miranda’s awakening (I.ii.1–308)
Prospero and Miranda stand on the shore of the island, having just witnessed the shipwreck. Miranda entreats her father to see that no one on-board comes to any harm. Prospero assures her that no one was harmed and tells her that it’s time she learned who she is and where she comes from. Miranda seems curious, noting that Prospero has often started to tell her about herself but always stopped. However, once Prospero begins telling his tale, he asks her three times if she is listening to him. He tells her that he was once Duke of Milan and famous for his great intelligence.
Prospero explains that he gradually grew uninterested in politics, however, and turned his attention more and more to his studies, neglecting his duties as duke. This gave his brother Antonio an opportunity to act on his ambition. Working in concert with the King of Naples, Antonio usurped Prospero of his dukedom. Antonio arranged for the King of Naples to pay him an annual tribute and do him homage as duke. Later, the King of Naples helped Antonio raise an army to march on Milan, driving Prospero out. Prospero tells how he and Miranda escaped from death at the hands of the army in a barely-seaworthy boat prepared for them by his loyal subjects. Gonzalo, an honest Neapolitan, provided them with food and clothing, as well as books from Prospero’s library.
Having brought Miranda up to date on how she arrived at their current home, Prospero explains that sheer good luck has brought his former enemies to the island. Miranda suddenly grows very sleepy, perhaps because Prospero charms her with his magic. When she is asleep, Prospero calls forth his spirit, Ariel. In his conversation with Ariel, we learn that Prospero and the spirit were responsible for the storm of Act I, scene i. Flying about the ship, Ariel acted as the wind, the thunder, and the lightning. When everyone except the crew had abandoned the ship, Ariel made sure, as Prospero had requested, that all were brought safely to shore but dispersed around the island. Ariel reports that the king’s son is alone. He also tells Prospero that the mariners and Boatswain have been charmed to sleep in the ship, which has been brought safely to harbor. The rest of the fleet that was with the ship, believing it to have been destroyed by the storm, has headed safely back to Naples.
Prospero thanks Ariel for his service, and Ariel takes this moment to remind Prospero of his promise to take one year off of his agreed time of servitude if Ariel performs his services without complaint. Prospero does not take well to being reminded of his promises, and he chastises Ariel for his impudence. He reminds Ariel of where he came from and how Prospero rescued him. Ariel had been a servant of Sycorax, a witch banished from Algiers (Algeria) and sent to the island long ago. Ariel was too delicate a spirit to perform her horrible commands, so she imprisoned him in a “cloven pine” (I.ii.279). She did not free him before she died, and he might have remained imprisoned forever had not Prospero arrived and rescued him. Reminding Ariel of this, Prospero threatens to imprison him for twelve years if he does not stop complaining. Ariel promises to be more polite. Prospero then gives him a new command: he must go make himself like a nymph of the sea and be invisible to all but Prospero. Ariel goes to do so, and Prospero, turning to Miranda’s sleeping form, calls upon his daughter to awaken. She opens her eyes and, not realizing that she has been enchanted, says that the “strangeness” of Prospero’s story caused her to fall asleep.
Act I, scene ii opens with the revelation that it was Prospero’s magic, and not simply a hostile nature, that raised the storm that caused the shipwreck. From there, the scene moves into a long sequence devoted largely to telling the play’s background story while introducing the major characters on the island. The first part of the scene is devoted to two long histories, both told by Prospero, one to Miranda and one to Ariel. If The Tempest is a play about power in various forms (as we observed in the previous scene, when the power of the storm disrupted the power relations between nobles and servants), then Prospero is the center of power, controlling events throughout the play through magic and manipulation. Prospero’s retellings of past events to Miranda and Ariel do more than simply fill the audience in on the story so far. They also illustrate how Prospero maintains his power, exploring the old man’s meticulous methods of controlling those around him through magic, charisma, and rhetoric.
Prospero’s rhetoric is particularly important to observe in this section, especially in his confrontation with Ariel. Of all the characters in the play, Prospero alone seems to understand that controlling history enables one to control the present—that is, that one can control others by controlling how they understand the past. Prospero thus tells his story with a highly rhetorical emphasis on his own good deeds, the bad deeds of others toward him, and the ingratitude of those he has protected from the evils of others. For example, when he speaks to Miranda, he calls his brother “perfidious,” then immediately says that he loved his brother better than anyone in the world except Miranda (I.ii.68). He repeatedly asks Miranda, “Dost thou attend me?” Through his questioning, he commands her attention almost hypnotically as he tells her his one-sided version of the story. Prospero himself does not seem blameless. While his brother did betray him, he also failed in his responsibilities as a ruler by giving up control of the government so that he could study. He contrasts his popularity as a leader—“the love my people bore me” (I.ii.141)—with his brother’s “evil nature” (I.ii.).