Thunder sounded and lightning flashed as a storm struck a ship at sea.
The Captain of the ship shouted, “Boatswain!”
“Here I am, Captain. How goes it?”
“Good fellow, speak to the sailors and give them orders. All of us must get on with the work — and briskly — or else we will run aground. Hurry! Hurry!”
Both the Captain and the Boatswain had a whistle around their necks. At times the sound of wind and waves would drown out human speech, and the sailors had been trained to get their orders from the sounds of the whistles.
The Captain exited, and some sailors came on deck and started working with the ropes.
The Boatswain said to the sailors, “Good work, mates! Work with a good will, sailors! Quickly! Take in the topsail. Listen to the whistle for your orders.”
He shouted at the storm, “Blow as hard as you like, as long as we are on the open sea and not close to sand reefs or rocks!”
Several passengers — members of the upper class — came on deck. They included Alonso, the King of Naples; Sebastian, his brother; Antonio, who had stolen the Dukedom of Naples from Prospero, who was his brother; Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, who was a Prince; Gonzalo, an honest old counselor, and others.
King Alonso said, “Good Boatswain, take care. Where’s the Captain?”
To the sailors, King Alonso said, “Be men now.”
The Boatswain replied, “Please, keep below. Do not be on deck now.”
Antonio, Prospero’s brother, said, “Where is the Captain, Boatswain?”
The Captain’s whistle could be heard, giving orders to the sailors behind the mast. The Boatswain was in charge of the sailors before the mast.
The Boatswain replied to Antonio, “Can’t you hear him?”
To all the upper-class passengers, he said, “You are interfering with our work. Stay in your cabins. You are assisting the storm, not us sailors.”
Gonzalo, an old counselor, said, “Good Boatswain, be calm.”
“I will be calm when the sea is calm,” the Boatswain said. “Get below! Alonso is the King of Naples, but what do these roaring winds and waves care for the title of King? Go to your cabins and be quiet! The only people who should be on deck now are sailors!”
Gonzalo was loyal to King Naples, right or wrong. He said, “Good Boatswain, remember whom you have on board this ship.”
The Boatswain had already made it clear that he was not impressed by his passengers’ titles and positions in society — certainly not when his life depended on competence in dealing with a storm at sea.
He said, “I love none of the ship’s passengers more than I love myself. You are a counselor, so if your talents are useful now, put them to work. If you can command these winds and waves to be calm and if you can bring peace out of the current turmoil, we sailors will not handle any more ropes. If you can do these things, then do them. If you cannot do these things, then give thanks that you have lived so long, and go to your cabin below and prepare yourself both spiritually and physically for whatever misfortune may occur.”
The Boatswain said to the sailors, “Good work, mates,” and then he said to the upper-class passengers, “Get out of our way.”
The Boatswain left to look after another part of the ship, and Gonzalo said, “I receive great comfort from this Boatswain. I look at him and see no indication that he will die by drowning. No, indeed, but I do see every indication that he will die by hanging. I look in his face, and I see reflected in his eyes a gallows. That is good news for us. If he does not drown today, then we probably won’t drown. Stand fast, good Fate — do not let his destiny change. He who is born to be hanged shall never drown. The Fates spin the thread of life — in the Boatswain’s case, that thread is a rope. Let the rope that will hang the Boatswain be our anchor chain that will keep us safe since the anchor chain we have now does little good for us. If the Boatswain was not born to be hanged, then we are in a bad way.”
The upper-class passengers went below deck, and the Boatswain returned to give the sailors more orders. He wanted the correct amount of sail on the ship: enough to keep the ship moving away from the rocks, but not enough that the winds would capsize the ship and sink it. Right now, the ship was getting dangerously close to the shore of an island, and so the Boatswain wanted to lower the topmost section of the main mast to reduce the amount of weight aloft.
The Boatswain ordered, “Down with the topmast! Quickly! Lower! Lower! Lower the mainsail and keep as close to the wind as we can!”
The upper-class passengers below shouted with fright and excitement.
The Boatswain said, “Damn this howling! These passengers are louder than the roars of the winds and waves and louder than we sailors are at our work.”
Sebastian, Antonio, and Gonzalo came up on deck again.
“Yet again!” the Boatswain said. “What are you doing here? Shall we give up, stop working, and drown? Do you want the ship to sink?”
Sebastian, an unpleasant man, said, “May you get cancer of the throat, you bawling, blasphemous, uncharitable dog!”
“Do some work, then!” the Boatswain replied.
Antonio, another unpleasant man, said, “Hang from the gallows, cur! Hang, you son of a whore! Hang, you insolent noisemaker! We are less afraid of being drowned than you are!”
Gonzalo said, “I still say that the Boatswain will never drown — I guarantee it — even if the ship were no stronger than a nutshell and as leaky as a menstruating woman.”
The Boatswain was still trying to do his job despite the interference of the passengers: “Lay her close to the wind! Set her two courses off to sea again — let’s use the main sail and the fore sail to reach the open sea again!”
Some thoroughly drenched sailors shouted, “All is lost! Pray! All is lost!”
“What! Must we die with cold mouths?” the Boatswain said. “Must we drown in the cold sea?”
Gonzalo said, “King Alonzo and Prince Ferdinand are praying! Let us pray with them. They and we are in the same situation!”
Sebastian said, “I have run out of patience.”
Antonio said, “We will die, and why! Because drunk sailors are cheating us of our lives! This big-mouthed Boatswain — I wish that this rascal would be hung at the low-water mark and left hanging until ten tides had washed over him, although the usual punishment for pirates is to be left hanging until only three tides wash over them.”
“The Boatswain will be hanged yet,” Gonzalo said, “although every drop of water swears that he will be drowned and tries its best to swallow him.”
Several people cried out:
“Have mercy on us!”
“The ship is splitting in two!”
“The ship is breaking up!”
Antonio said, “Let’s go to King Alonso and sink with him.”
Sebastian said, “Let’s say goodbye to the King.”
Antonio and Sebastian left, leaving Gonzalo behind, who said to himself, “I would give over a hundred miles of sea for an acre of barren ground that can grow only long heather, brown gorse, or any other kind of weed. May God’s will be done! But I would prefer to die on dry ground!”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
Note: The above is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here: