A fierce storm rages at sea, battering a ship that carries noble cargo: King Alonso of Naples; his son, Ferdinand, and brother, Sebastian; and Antonio, Duke of Milan.
From an island shore, the young Miranda watches with horror as her father, Prospero, looks on with delight. As Miranda suspects, the storm is her father’s doing. He tells her that the ship carries men who betrayed them. Twelve years before, he was the Duke of Milan, but his brother, Antonio, plotted with Alonso to overthrow him. Set adrift in a leaky boat with his infant daughter, Prospero has been marooned on this island with her ever since. Now, with the help of Ariel, an island spirit, and his own magic arts, Prospero seeks revenge.
Prospero allows the ship’s passengers to make land safely but separates them, leaving Alonso to believe his son, Ferdinand, has drowned. Sebastian sees Ferdinand’s loss as an opportunity; he plots to kill Alonso and seize his crown.
His is not the only plot afoot. Prospero’s slave— Caliban, the island “savage”—encounters the drunken butler, Stephano, and the jester, Trinculo, and persuades them to kill Prospero so they can rule the island. In the meantime, Ferdinand and Miranda meet and fall instantly in love. Prospero tests Ferdinand with hard tasks and then, finally satisfied with the young man’s worth, conjures up an elaborate masque to bless the young couple’s engagement.
But Prospero ends the revels before they are done, suddenly remembering he must deal with his enemies. As Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban prepare to attack, he sends Ariel to drive them off with spirits shaped like hunting dogs. Prospero also has Ariel bring Alonso and the other nobles before him. At Ariel’s intercession, he shifts his course from vengeance to forgiveness, releasing the men from the spell that has bound them and resolving to abjure his “rough magic” forever. After reuniting Alonso with his son, Prospero decides to return with them to see Miranda and Ferdinand married and then retire to Milan.
But he has business to finish. He pardons Caliban and grants Ariel his long-desired freedom. He then turns to the audience. Having cast his magic aside, Prospero needs their help to release him from the island. And so he asks them for their applause and their forgiveness for his wrongs: “Let your indulgence set me free.”