Gallows humour, and, ropes make a ship? (1.1.19-32) #StormTossed

GONZALO       Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard.

BOATSWAIN  None that I more love than myself. You are a councillor; 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!                    Exit.

GONZALO       I have great comfort from this fellow. Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him – his complexion is perfect gallows. Stand fast, good fate, to his hanging; make the rope of his destiny our cable, for our own doth little advantage. If he be not born to be hanged, our case is miserable.         Exeunt. (1.1.19-32)

Gonzalo, always having another go, well-meaning but a bit annoying too. Good could mean that yes, he’s listened to the Boatswain and concedes he has a point, or it could be an abbreviation of goodman (which is probably the sense that’s been used already in the scene). It’s as if maintaining the proprieties of rank, treating the king and nobles with the respect and deference which are apparently their due will compensate for – or even enforce – other kinds of order: if the Boatswain calms down and knows his place, then the storm and the waves might too. But there’s no chance of that, and the Boatswain lets him have it, with a vision of equality, or at least equal opportunities (of drowning) that slyly anticipates the speech that Gonzalo himself will make, later in the play, on the perfect commonwealth… but that’s a long way off. Gonzalo can reason politely all he likes, but it won’t make the slightest difference; he cannot command the elements; he cannot bring about peace (another indication that the storm is mostly made by noise, here). What Gonzalo should do – all he can do, and the rest of them with him – is to retire below decks and, in effect, prepare to die. It’s not a certainty, but it’s looking not unlikely.

Perhaps Gonzalo is simply in denial about the real danger that they’re in, perhaps he’s trying to keep up his spirits (and those of the other courtiers) but he is unshakably good-humoured, even as he puts the Boatswain in his place. His rather convoluted argument here (which hinges on the proverb that those fated to be hanged could not die by drowning, and vice versa) is that the Boatswain is acting like someone who will end up being hanged – his complexion, his temperament, his character – is perfect gallows. And if he’s destined not to drown, then the rest of them are safe too. It’s almost parodically gallows humour, in the circumstances, and not even a particularly good joke (as well as being hard to follow). But, as well as establishing Gonzalo’s character more strongly, at this stage, than that of any of the other Italian nobles, I think that this little exchange is helping to make the ship, and perhaps even indicating something about staging. There are surely ropes on stage: Gonzalo is imagining a hangman’s rope, or the thread of life (cut by the fates) as a rope of destiny; the life of the Boatswain is like the cable of an anchor, to which the lives of the passengers and crew are imagined as being inextricably bound. Waves might be tricky, and sails too bulky (and unconvincing if not the right scale) – but ropes, ropes dropped from the heavens, or over the galleries, with sailors pulling on them or climbing on them. Ropes can make a ship.

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