The Boatswain: Authority and Power Politics in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest contains a minor character, the Boatswain, who is rarely examined, yet is pivotal to understanding not only the dynamics of the play, but also the underlying metaphors of authority and power. The Boatswain, although his total spoken lines are less than one page, is a character that problematizes both Plato’s and Machiavelli’s philosophical readings of power.  The Boatswain does not possess what Michel Foucault would call “judicial political power” (the power of the prosecutor to be a representative of the sovereign), but through his deliberative actions the Boatswain deploys executive power. The wrecked boat, much like the island upon which all of the major and minor characters are assembled, is symbolic of the nation-state and is teeming with complex and vibrant characters who are intertwined within a socio-cultural hierarchy, pseudo-racial politics, and politico-religious intricacies representative of society in relation to the power echelon. 

In The Tempest, extending Plato’s metaphor of the “ship of state”, Shakespeare offers a microcosm of the state instilled in human contradiction and folly. Despite the brevity of lines uttered in the play, Boatswain’s words and actions are a sub-microcosm of human contradiction and deeds in a time of crisis as well as in a time of peace. The Boatswain is a veritable signpost for trompe l’oeil.  In this short essay, my aim is to perform a close read of the Boatswain’s few lines (despite his monumental existence) highlighting notions of: 1) authority and hierarchy of skills in relation to royalty or the polity of the king, and 2) impulsivity toward obedience when structures of power are in place and a clear victor is at the helm.  My reading of the Boatswain will interpellate Plato and Machiavelli to help anchor the state of authority that the Boatswain questions in the context of human impotency vis-à-vis nature and the inevitability of death.

Battered by the gale of a cyclone in the Atlantic Ocean that caused a royal boat to crash into the Bermudan shores, panic ensued on the ship and only the utility of a seafarer’s or a crewman’s skills were of importance. Here, rank, class, and privilege would be more hindrance than of actual value.  Hence, the Boatswain’s earnest rhetoric might be construed as arrogant or contemptuous of authority: 

          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.

For the Boatswain, the “roarers”, which here can be interpreted as “rowers”, would only be concerned about the safety of the boat, which would also imply their own safety. These “roarers” are personified by the Boatswain as a united body, similar to a citizenry of a republic, who are uttering a form of discontent or protest against the “king”. However, what Shakespeare is driving at, through the speech-act of the Boatswain, is the fact that the roaring wind is functioning outside of men’s institutional prerogatives, and has no conscience, no language of rank, class, or respectability politics; its role as a storm is to blow, and whatever is on its path will be blown away. Additionally, the brevity of each of the exclamatory utterances is informative of not only the urgency of the moment, but also of the imperative of power that nature de-aligned and circumstantially altered from the nobles to the crew. Thus, an antagonistic binary of realms is set-up: man versus nature, and a juxtaposition of importance: the individual versus the state.

          Boatswain: None that I more love than myself.  You
               are a councilor; if you 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 mis-
               chance of the hour, if it so hap.  Cheerly, good
               hearts!  Out of our way, I say.

The Boatswain explicitly and categorically presents Gonzalo (an old councilor) as a paradox of power.  In his expression, the power of the sovereign resides only in the realm of the sovereign over the citizenry and nothing more. Henceforth, it must be proven that if the power of the sovereign is omnipotent, then the sovereign must have power to preside over the elements. Another way of reading the Boatswain’s positionality to power is as a prelude, or a foreshadowing of a constituent who might possess the skills to reign over the elements.  If such a person exists, then the Boatswain will abide by such power.  For the Boatswain, authority and power must be useful, and practical. Symbolic power, or the power to methodically inquire, in the context of an emergency, is futile. It is through Boatswain’s interactions with the nobles that we can see the contours of power, and the interplay between authority and legitimacy of leadership with regard to the survivability of the ship, or the ship of state.

A passage from Plato’s Republic might be helpful in illuminating my point. In conversing with Glaucon about “Primary Education for the Guardians”, and in reference to religion and fear, Plato asks: “don’t you think that courage and fearing death are mutually exclusive” (1993: 80, line 386b)?  If courage and fearing death are mutually exclusive, then the Boatswain’s ability to speak truth to power at a definitive moment is very revealing of the Boatswain’s psychology or state of mind. Perhaps, it is not simply the combination of courage and death that propels the Boatswain to be decisive in his approach vis-à-vis the nobles. Perhaps, as Plato indicates, “if you need to accept authority, you must dance attendance on someone in authority who is capable of providing it”  (209- 210, line 489c). In that context, Gonzalo and the other nobles did not serve any useful purpose, and therefore their authority was annulled by the imminent circumstance.  In times of crisis, only the qualified must lead, and therefore in a well-balanced society leadership is skill-based.

Another way of reading the decisiveness of the Boatswain’s action is through the Machiavellian’s lens.  “A Prince should also show his esteem for talent, actively encouraging able men, and honouring those who excel in their profession. Then, he must encourage his citizens so that they can go peaceably about their business, whether it be trade or agriculture or any other human occupation” (Machiavelli, 1984: 123). Although the King had stayed in his cabin to pray, one can assume that a prince or king would not be foolish enough to intervene in the affairs of his skilled citizens particularly at a time of crisis. If anything, the prince or the king would encourage determined self-proficiency in order to better the lot of the state/kingdom/ship. Moreover, Machiavelli asserts that the “first opinion that is formed of a ruler’s intelligence is based on the quality of the men he has around him” (124). Here, one could extrapolate from this, that a crew chosen to ferry nobles must be a trusted and tested crew, and therefore are the most able mariners. Despite the fact that Gonzalo, Sebastian, and Antonio were quite upset with the Boatswain’s attitude, they had to heed his call of clearing the deck.

The role of the Boatswain is quintessential in establishing the boundaries of power, as well as in reinstituting the Boatswain himself within the proper socio-political hierarchy once the structures of power were re-established under a perceived benevolent king. He, the brave Boatswain, gladly follows this leader who is both capable of pardoning and also inflicting harm on his disobedient or rebellious subjects.  Once Prospero measuredly utilized his persuasive power to regain his throne and formed a royal alliance between Milan and Naples, the Boatswain re-appeared in the final act for one more revealing speech-act that captured his desire (or that of the masses), and, in a way, re-oriented it for the benefit of the re-established king, and by proxy, the Boatswain, himself.

          Boatswain: The best news is that we have safely found
               Our king and company; the next, our ship,
               Which, but three glasses since, we gave out split,
               Is tight and yare and bravely rigged as when
               We first put out to sea.
                                                            (Act 5.1, Line 220)

It is worthwhile to ponder the pronouncement of the Boatswain’s use of the pronoun “our” when referring to the king, when in the first act he showed contempt for the nobles, particularly since they were useless during the storm. Could the shift in language, and the absence of bravado is due to the spatiality of the terrain? As Foucault astutely posits, “the state, like nature, has its own proper form of rationality, albeit of a different sort” (Foucault, 2000: 213).  On land, the Boatswain is like a fish without water, he needs the favor and trust of the nobles, and is therefore too eager to reinforce his skills, and display his readiness to ferry them back to Europe on their “bravely rigged” ship.

It emerges that the interest of the state supersedes the interest of the individual, since the individual bundles his own interests in the identifiable common good. This, ostensibly, is the interest of the nobles—for the benefit of “our royal, good, and gallant ship”, as Boatswain claims. The ship is now gallant, since it is also a royal vessel. Or, one could also read it as: our royals are gallant, and so is the ship. Order is re-established, and the Boatswain is happily placed in a useful position of auspicious mutual dependency.



Foucault, Michel. Power.  Edited by James D. Faubion. New York: The New Press, 2000
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. England: Penguin Classics, 1984.
Plato. Republic. Tr. by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. New York: Signet Classic, 1998

Photo by Sergio Capuzzimati on Unsplash

Patrick Sylvain

Sylvain is a poet, writer, social and literary critic. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Published in several creative anthologies, journals, periodicals, and reviews including: African American Review, Agni, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The Caribbean Writer, Chicago Quarterly Review, Ep;phany, Magma Poetry, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. Sylvain has degrees from the University of Massachusetts (B.A.), Harvard University (Ed.M.), Boston University (MFA), and Brandeis University (PhD). Sylvain is an Assistant Professor at Simmons University, and he is also on faculty at Harvard University’s History and Literature Division. Sylvain’s poetry chapbook, Underworlds, is published by Central Square Press (2018), and he is the leading author of Education Across Borders: Immigration, Race, and Identity in the Classroom (Beacon Press, Feb 2022).