The Tempest opens with a storm at sea and a shipwreck, a dramatic and ambitious beginning for a seventeenth-century play. While the scene is light on stage directions, Shakespeare does call for "a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning" to set the mood. Characters run on and off the stage, shouting orders and arguing with one another, lending the scene a sense of chaos and confusion. They have lost control of their ship, much as the characters will lose control of what happens to them once they are marooned on Prospero's island.
The dialogue between the ship's crew and the noble passengers onboard is rich in characterization and conflict. Antonio and Gonzalo insist that the ship's crew remember who is on board (that is, the king and the prince) when the boatswain implores them to quit bothering the crew as they try to figure out how best to survive the elements. The nobles criticize the manner of the crew while the crew desperately tries to keep the ship afloat:
ANTONIO. Where is the master, boatswain?
BOATSWAIN. Do you not hear him? You mar our labor.
Keep your cabins. You do assist the storm.
GONZALO. Nay, good, be patient.
BOATSWAIN. When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers for the name of king? To cabin! Silence! Trouble us not.
GONZALO. Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.
BOATSWAIN. None that I more love than myself. You are a counsellor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present, we will
not hand a rope more. Use your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long, and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of
the hour, if it so hap.—Cheerly, good hearts!—Out of our way, I say.
Antonio and Gonzalo come off as foolish and out of touch with reality, while the crew are more relatable in their concern with fighting the storm.
These exchanges do more than create conflict: they establish the themes of class conflict in the play. Within the storm, the usual noble-commoner or master-servant dynamic is upset, with the crew speaking harshly to the nobles in a way that would not happen in less life-threatening circumstances. These conflicts foreshadow interactions between Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel on the island, as well as Prospero's employing the noble Frederick for menial labor.
By the end of The Tempest, the social order is restored, with Prospero returning to his rightful place in society, but before that, all is turned upside down due to Prospero's magic. The storm in act 1, scene 1 is a great illustration of how the characters' social stations will be turned inside out in the action to follow.