Insults and nutshells, power-play and pulling rank (1.1.33-49)

Enter Boatswain.

BOATSWAIN  Down with the topmast! Yare! Lower, lower! Bring her to try with main course. (A cry within.) A plague upon this howling! They are louder than the weather or our office.


Yet again? What do you here? Shall we give o’er and drown? Have you a mind to sink?

SEBASTIAN    A pox o’your throat, you bawling, blaspheming, incharitable dog.

BOATSWAIN  Work you, then.

ANTONIO       Hang, cur! Hang you, whoreson, insolent noise-maker! We are less afraid to be drowned than thou art.

GONZALO       I’ll warrant him for drowning, though the ship were no stronger than a nutshell and as leaky as an unstanched wench.

BOATSWAIN  Lay her a-hold, a-hold! Set her two courses off to sea again! Lay her off! (1.1.33-49)

The Boatswain is getting on with his job, or trying to, shouting instructions to the Mariners: if the main sail (the topmast) is lowered quickly (yare! Be quick!) and other sails and rigging are adjusted too (this is what to try means) then perhaps the ship will slow down and not run aground, and be able to ride out the storm, at the mercy of the waves, yes, but less so that of the wind. The sailors might be visible, but silent, but the main implication is that they’re up in the rigging; if there are ropes hanging above the stage, they could be clinging to them. The cry within, it seems, is from one of the courtiers, a scream of terror or anger (rather than, say, the suggestion that the ship is taking on water), given that the Boatswain dismisses it as howling. (Again, it adds to the noise of the storm.) But the Boatswain is terrified and desperate too: the howling may be louder than the weather, but it’s also louder than his office, that is, than his ability to command, his job, his rank, any control that he might have (almost none, in the face of a storm like this).

There’s nothing to say that others of the courtiers don’t reappear silently too, but there’s a potential character note here if it’s just these three: Alonso the king has done what he was told and got out of the way, as has Ferdinand his son. But Antonio the usurping duke, and Sebastian, the king’s brother, have come back; they’re eventually going to separate themselves from the rest of the courtiers and start plotting. Sebastian’s first words in the play, to the Boatswain’s entirely reasonable, frustrated question (What do you here? what are you doing back again, you idiots, do you have a death wish?) are violent and insulting, how dare you talk to me like that, don’t you know who I am? It’s not surprising that the Boatswain’s reply is short and to the point: do your own dirty work, then, or, why don’t you do something to help? Then Antonio weighs in, with more insults. Both Antonio and Sebastian are obsessed with rank and status, one having got his title by usurpation, the other (as will be seen) prepared to contemplate fratricidal murder: in the meantime, they make themselves feel better, less impotent, more in control by insulting the working man, the man who – on this ship, and in this moment of crisis – is really the one in charge, if barely. We’re not afraid, because we’re nobles – that is, we’re terrified and we’re trying to make ourselves feel big. And Gonzalo blunders on, wanting to be in on the action, with a rather off-colour conceit of the ship as being like an unstanched wench, that is, a bleeding or perhaps sexually (or otherwise) incontinent woman. But Gonzalo also shifts the focus from the noise of the storm, the ropes and the sails specifically to the hull of the ship: how is it holding up? Is it weak, damaged, already taking on water? We might have been focusing on the ropes, the sails, the noise, but now we imagine the ship as a nutshell, tiny, fragile, being tossed around. (There’s strong evidence that nuts were sold and consumed in the Globe; a layer of hazelnut shells was found during excavations. Some in the audience might be, in effect, holding the ship in their hands, having just cracked open a nut themselves.) But the Boatswain isn’t listening any more, he’s desperately giving orders to the sailors, getting them to reset the sails that they’ve just lowered (set her two courses off to sea again) – because the main danger that he perceives is that the ship is being driven at speed on to the shore, and – however violent the waves and the storm – riding it out on the open sea is still the safer option. The stakes get higher and higher, and tempers shorter and shorter. Is anyone in charge?

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