Prospero’s desire to return home to Italy and reclaim his position as the rightful Duke of Milan drives the plot of The Tempest. However, we don’t know about Prospero’s history until the second scene of the play. Instead, the play begins by hurtling the audience straight into the action. The first scene opens on a ship in the midst of a storm. By opening with the chaos of the tempest, Shakespeare has drawn on the literary technique of “in medias res,” which involves starting a narrative “in the midst of things” and hence without preamble. In doing so, Shakespeare places the audience in the same position as the shipwrecked crew, confused and disoriented on a strange island. The audience doesn’t meet Prospero until the second scene, when we learn that he conjured the storm. Knowing that his enemies were aboard a passing ship, Prospero used his training in sorcery to fashion a tempest and cause the ship to wreck on the island. The storm therefore constitutes the inciting incident of the play, setting events into action.
In the second scene we also learn about the circumstances that landed Prospero on the island and made him cause the storm. Prospero was the Duke of Milan until his brother, Antonio, conspired with Alonso, the King of Naples, to assassinate Prospero and seize control of Milan. Prospero managed to escape alive with help from his loyal councilor Gonzalo. These events occurred twelve years prior to the events of the play itself. This means that by the time the play begins, Prospero has already spent a long time seething with rage on the island, where he lives alone with his daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban. Prospero recounts this backstory to Miranda in Act I, Scene 2. In order to realize his desire to return to Italy and reclaim his position, Prospero needs to resolve the conflict with his brother Antonio. These themes of separation and reunion will define the action of the play, as characters are torn apart from each other before being happily reunited at the end.
The wreck that Prospero has orchestrated separates the ship’s crew into three groups: Ferdinand gets stranded by himself and soon encounters Prospero and Miranda; Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and Gonzalo wind up on another part of the island; and Trinculo and Stephano wash up together on yet another shore. By separating these groups, Prospero forces them live through an experience not unlike his own. Just as Prospero has been cut off from his home and loved ones, the shipwrecked crew wanders around cut off from one another, believing that their missing companions have perished in the squall. The separation causes a great deal of sorrow and confusion, and Prospero uses his command of the island’s spirits—and Ariel in particular—to confuse and disorient his enemies further. However, as the play continues, Prospero’s designs grow clearer. After making his enemies suffer, he eventually employs Ariel to guide each group toward his camp, where reunion and reconciliation can at last take place.
Prospero’s manipulations enable the play’s climax, in which he confronts his enemies. When Alonso and his company arrive at his camp, Prospero confronts Alonso and Antonio over their past betrayal when they tried to assassinate him. Prospero also continues with his emotional manipulation, claiming that he has lost his daughter in the tempest. Alonso, who is mourning his son Ferdinand, who he still believes died in the tempest, feels deeply for Prospero’s loss, and in the process forges an emotional bond with the man he wronged so many years ago. After Alonso restores Prospero’s dukedom, Prospero performs his greatest trick of all, pulling back the curtain to reveal Ferdinand, alive. Alonso is overcome with happiness, and the play that began in the midst of chaos ends with an atmosphere of serenity and joy. By forcing his enemies through an experience of separation and reunion, Prospero has resolved the play’s central conflict and ensured his own return home, thereby bringing everything in the play full circle.