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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 1
A ship carrying the members of the royal party of Naples is caught in a storm at sea. The frightened passengers are Alonso the King of Naples, his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand, his advisor Gonzalo, and Antonio the Duke of Milan. The boatswain (first officer) is on deck trying to handle the ship, but the members of the royal family are getting in his way, trying to give him orders, and commanding him to do something. Finally the boatswain tells them all to go below. Gonzalo scolds the boatswain and tells him he must be patient. The boatswain, however, has no patience or respect for royal authority in matters of the sea, and he finally decides to simply ignore the nervous passengers who are interfering with his work. Gonzalo trusts that the boatswain is more than capable, but Antonio and Sebastian are skeptical and rude to him. Suddenly the other crewmen come on deck and announce that the ship is going down. Gonzalo leads the royal party downstairs to pray for deliverance. The passengers have resigned themselves to dying and cry out, "The wills above be done."
The play opens with a tempest, a violent storm at sea. On board the ship that is caught in the storm, the scene is full of conflict and tension, resulting in two tempests raging. Much of the conflict stems from the desire of the frightened royal passengers to somehow control the storm and their own fate. It is made perfectly clear, however, that the boatswain needs and wants no advice from the royal passengers; he is an expert sailor who resents their interference. Even the captain defers to the boatswain's expertise, as shown when he commands the boatswain to manage the crew. This opening scene immediately captures the attention of the audience, for it is swift, wild, and loud -- full of noise, chaos, and commotion.
Shakespeare uses the stormy scene to reveal some of the more salient traits of the characters. Antonio and Sebastian expose their evil and wicked natures by shouting and behaving rudely toward the boatswain. It is an early revelation that they like to be in control, even in matters about which they know very little. They resist the authority of someone as lowly as a sailor and try to give orders and commands. Their rude behavior foreshadows their later hunger for a different kind of control. By contrast, the king, the prince, and Gonzalo behave with dignity. They have the wisdom and humility to listen to good counsel, surrender their royal authority to the better judgment of the boatswain, and go below.
It is important to notice the brevity of this opening scene that accomplishes so much. It is probably the most spectacular and effective short scene Shakespeare ever wrote. With its noise from the storm and the screaming and the frantic movements of the actors on and off the stage, it immediately engages the audience in the action and reveals the characters with amazing accuracy. This first scene is definitely a dramatic and literary accomplishment.