The Boatswain as the Proletarian Sailor with Relative Autonomy
The concept of relative autonomy benefits literary studies because it questions the oversimplifying logic that says people have no agency. If people cannot control any aspect of their lives, why do dissatisfied citizens spark political revolutions? How can people within a society hold different opinions about the same issues? The claim that all humans are mindless sheep controlled by greater social forces exaggerates the truth. Many people question their circumstances and react against them even while knowing their objections may not instate permanent change. Therefore, relative autonomy stands as the realistic middle ground between idealistic individualism and excessive pessimism.
Freud’s theory of defense mechanisms also contributes to literary criticism. Noting characters’ uses of displacement helps readers to understand their motivation. For example, take Character X and Character Y. Character X’s willingness to deride Character Y for a problem the latter did not cause raises questions about the former. Why does Character X need to blame someone? Could it be that the blame for his problems rests on him? Do his insecurities crop up in other ways in the text? Asking these and other questions concerning displacement leads critics to a greater understanding of a given character’s psychology, thereby furthering their knowledge of a text.
In short, Deconstruction blows literary studies wide open. When after careful examination a character’s actions seem to warrant one clear interpretation, deconstructive theory enters the scene and blasts that notion to pieces. Deconstructionists open up brand new possibilities of meaning by considering multiple theses in a single essay and weighing their worth side-by-side. Deconstruction forces scholars to contemplate more, to generalize less, and to eliminate essentialist ways of thinking. This method, however, comes with several disadvantages. With Deconstruction, questions inevitably lead to more questions, and answers never come easily. As a result, Deconstructive essays sometimes appear to suck meaning out of a piece of literature instead of adding it. For example, suppose a narrator says, “Jack slapped his wife across the cheek.” A Deconstructive scholar could read that sentence in any number of ways. Perhaps, Jack outright hates his wife. Maybe Jack loves her but hates the way she acts. Alternately, Jack’s behavior could have nothing to do with his feelings love and hate toward her. In hurting his spouse, Jack displaces leftover anger from a bad workday onto his wife; hitting her relieves Jack’s stress. Maybe he only slapped her because it makes him feel powerful. Yet another theory says he views his abuse as a means to bring his wife back to reality. The possibilities for any plot point in literature are indefinite. If one considers all of the implications and cannot identify the most important one, what can he or she take away from that experience as a critic?
For decades, the allegedly colonialist conflicts in The Tempest have inspired critics to bark at each other over how they should interpret literature. On one side, conservative critics such as George Will deplore the notion that “culture is oppressive and a literary canon is an instrument of domination,” adding that “This ideology radically devalues authors and elevates. . . the critics – as indispensable decoders of literature. . .” (111). To Will, postcolonialist critics’ suppositions about literature reflect more about their political stances than the literary works. He laments the common trend of elevating the critic above the author, assuming that authors consider art and not politics when writing. Thus, he perceives the discourse that “Shakepeare’s ‘Tempest’ reflects the imperialist rape of the Third World” as a fallacy—an imposition by critics unintended by the dramatist himself.
Postcolonialist critics like Stephen Greenblatt exemplify the other end of the spectrum. Greenblatt writes that “it is very difficult to argue that The Tempest is not about imperialism” (Greenblatt 114). He cites historical facts about 17th century English history as evidence for his claim. At the time, England began in earnest its colonizing enterprises in the New World. Unlike Will, Greenblatt believes that scholars can read Shakespeare’s plays as social commentary. Shakespeare could have easily intended The Tempest to address 17th century colonialism, not just universal themes of conflict between adversaries.
While the conflict between Prospero, the colonizer, and Caliban, the colonized, remains a significant part of The Tempest, Will and Greenblatt’s exclusive foci on the value of imperialist readings neglect other equally important readings. They notably omit description of the struggle between the economic classes that occurs in the play’s first scene. Marxist readings shine a spotlight on the inequities between the traveling diplomats and the hardworking sailors. The Boatswain character in The Tempest offers a fine example of relative autonomy in practice. He reacts to the griping diplomats’ displacement of anger onto him by questioning their authority.
The Tempest opens to a scene of panicking men on a ship rattled by a massive storm. The Master warns the Boatswain, “Good, speak to the mariners. Fall to ’t yarely, or we / or we run ourselves aground. Bestir, bestir!” (1.1.3-4). In other words, if the mariners do not work quickly, the ship will collide with land too quickly and be dashed to bits. This tense situation in which every moment counts demonstrates the struggle between the working and employing classes. In this situation, the employers are Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, among others, who pay the boatmen for the service of ocean transport. Due to their position of privilege, they find nothing wrong with displacing anxieties about their fear of death onto the mariners, their inferiors. The tension thickens when the Boatswain lashes back at Alonso, Antonio, and Gonzalo after they bother him with questions:
ALONSO: Good Boatswain, have care. Where’s the Master? Play
BOATSWAIN: I pray now, keep below.
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 the 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 coun-
cillor; 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. (1.1.8-21)
The self-important diplomats’ feel entitled to continue pestering the Boatswain in a time of emergency. Immediately after Alonso asks the Boatswain “Where’s the Master?”, and the latter dismisses Alonso, Antonio repeats the same question. Yet again, the Boatswain refuses to give a superior a straight answer, this time blaming Antonio for distracting the mariners and “assist[ing] the storm” by bothering them with trivial questions. Because he knows more about handling catastrophes at sea, logic should tell the diplomats to listen to the Boatswain. With dozens of lives on the line, the Boatswain resents the diplomats’ insistence on wasting time. The diplomats’ needless repetition of the same question illustrates their displacement of frustration onto the Boatswain. Not used to adversity, they revert to childish repetitiveness in moments of panic. Instead of considering that the Boatswain did not cause the storm, the diplomats prevent him from conducting the very work they pay him for in the first place. They realize that cursing the weather sounds silly because the pouring clouds are not sentient beings. Thus, they unleash the wrath of their anxiety on the Boatswain because using the defense mechanism of displacement releases their stress. They permit themselves as employers to ridicule their employees.
As a response to the Boatswain’s unwillingness to listen to him, Gonzalo reminds the Boatswain “remember whom thou hast aboard.” By refusing to tell the diplomats the location of the Master, the Boatswain forgets that his passengers are not merely fellow sailors but important men of high political stature, including the King of Naples! When one might expect the Boatswain to humbly oblige, he fights back, demonstrating his relative autonomy. He rebuts Gonzalo’s reminder of “whom [he] hast aboard” by replying, “None that I love more than myself.” In this dire situation of life and death, the Boatswain would rather look out for his own livelihood than anyone else’s—especially his abusive superiors. Even though he cannot achieve more power and agency by declaring his love for himself, he boldly protests Gonzalo’s haughty reminder of who has power.
The Boatswain then strengthens his point by questioning the diplomats’ worth. Since the diplomats are authority figures in their homeland, he tells them to use their authority to cease the tempest raging about them. “Command these elements to silence,” says the Boatswain, because if the diplomats truly have authority, the mariners “will not hand a rope more.” The Boatswain argues that Gonzalo, Alonso, and Antonio’s political importance elsewhere does not matter while at sea. If their royal blood possessed real value, the men on the ship would not need to adjust the sail by handling ropes. In a spontaneous life-or-death situation, the alleged power figures have no control over the situation. The Boatswain commands the figureheads, “Use your authority,” but they cannot because their authority is merely a social construct. Thus, the Boatswain uses his relative autonomy to criticize the ruling class and to prove that even diplomats’ power fails to exceed a certain limit.
Always seeking multiplicity in literary meaning, a proponent of Deconstruction might also argue that the point of blame could go in either direction. Perhaps the Boatswain’s rant against the diplomats demonstrates not his relative autonomy but his displacement of anger. Instead of criticizing Gonzalo, he should blame himself for not steering the boat as carefully as he could have. In this reading, his displacement of anger unrightfully lifts the yolk of blame from him and unloads it on Gonzalo, Alonso, and Antonio.
Yet the anti-Boatswain argument lacks credibility because it ignores the events to follow. The diplomats leave in search of the ship’s Master, after which the Boatswain shouts commands to his sailors in attempts to steady the ship. When Sebastian, Antonio, and Gonzalo return, the Boatswain asks them “Have you a mind to sink?” (1.1.36). In the moment of truth where the diplomats can either leave the Boatswain alone in order to save the ship or ruin the ship by distracting him, they choose the latter, calling the Boatswain a “dog,” a “whoreson,” and a “noisemaker” (1.1.37-40). They doubt the importance of his work and think he should observe decorum and respect his employers at all times. The text responds to the diplomats’ cruelty to the Boatswain by wrecking the ship. The disaster smites their false confidence in the ship holding up without the Boatswain’s maintenance. Therefore, the Boatswain had reason to berate King Alonso and his men, and his fuel for ridicule derived from his relative autonomy instead of displacement.
The imperialism debate between the likes of George Will and Stephen Greenblatt rages on, disregarding the Marxist struggle between employer and employee in Act I Scene I. If for no other reason, critics should study the Boatswain versus King Alonso section because of its placement in The Tempest. As the play’s first scene, it chronologically precedes the notorious conflict between Prospero and Caliban and must serve as a pretext. Critics should compare Caliban’s woe to the Boatswain’s struggle for relative autonomy, taking not only Postcolonialist Studies, but also Marxist methods, into account.
Graff, Gerald and James Phelan, eds. The Tempest: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Best Way to Kill our Literary Inheritance Is to Turn It into a Decorous Celebration of the New World Order.” Graff and Phelan, 113-115.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Graff and Phelan, 10-13.
Will, George. “Literary Politics.” Graff and Phelan, 110-113.