A Clear-sighted Man is Hard to Find

Boatswain’s abandonment of hierarchical recognition in the face of the storm in Act one scene one of The Tempest brought to mind the famous scene at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” when the Misfit has a gun pointed to the grandmother’s head. When a moment of crisis arises, there is a tendency for people/characters to beg for life and to forget about their title(s) and attachments, which, in the face of death, seem awfully trivial. After the Misfit kills off the grandmother’s family members, she tells him that he is one of her children; she finally sees the common humanity in all human beings—beyond the complaints she passed at her family members before they met their ends—even in the man who killed them. The Misfit then kills the grandmother and famously remarks, “She could have been a good woman if someone had been around to shoot her every minute of her life.”
      Act one scene one of The Tempest mirrors this abandonment of trivialities. When Antonio, who is the assumed Duke of Milan, persistently asks Boatswain where the Master is, Boatswain does not cater to Antonio’s superior title; instead he commands him to “keep below” (1.1.10). Boatswain’s reluctance to act as an inferior in Antonio’s presence shows that this is a situation where a politician has no power and a professional of the sea has all. He tells Antonio, “You mar our labor. Keep/ your cabins; you do assist the storm” (1.1.12-3). Boatswain’s angry tone and insult comes about as caused by Antonio’s failure to see the true problem at hand: That the ship faces the danger of becoming wrecked and all aboard may die. Yet Antonio and Gonzalo believe the problem is that a commoner is speaking to a superior so foully. Gonzalo says to Boatswain, “Nay, good, be patient,” to which Boatswain responds, “When the sea is. Hence! What cares these roarers/ for the name of the king? To cabin! Silence; trouble us not” (1.1.14-6). The roarers, or waves, are representative of the forces of nature. I think what this scene is trying to say is that human constructs, such as social hierarchies, are in truth insignificant to the grand cosmic plan. Yet some characters, unlike in O’Connor’s story, remain blind and unmoved to the reality of the crisis that threatens their very existence—such as Gonzalo: “Good, yet remember whom thou hast aboard” (1.1.17). Boatswain responds by basically saying, I don’t give a shit about the king; I’m saving my own ass: “None that I more love than myself. You are a coun-/cillor; if you can command these elements to silence and work/ 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” (1.1.18-23). Boatswain calls Gonzalo out on his presumption of superiority; he challenges Gonzalo to use his political authority to stop the storm, which is, of course, impossible, but more so meant to tell Gonzalo that he should listen to him in this particular situation. Both Boatswain and the grandmother in O’Connor’s story share this common clarity in the face of death.

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2 thoughts on “A Clear-sighted Man is Hard to Find

  1. melissanau

    The parallel to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is really interesting and something I never personally would have thought of (even though I’ve analyzed it in like three different classes). This close reading of Act 1.1 is definitely applied well; social hierarchy means nothing here, which seems to be a reoccurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays. At this point I basically expect the person in power to “fall,” but not this early in the play. “None that I more love than myself” definitely took me by surprise: it’s extremely ballsy for an “inferior” character to be saying this early in the play…but what else can we expect in the face of death? It makes me wonder how power dynamics will continue to affect the play, since all characters are now stripped of their titles, except for the creator of the storm, Prospero.

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  2. jamesfrauenberger

    I really enjoyed this post, and I think you definitely justified the surprising parallel with “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In the face of impending disaster, the stifling impositions made on a character’s expressions become meaningless, and characters are free to say things that could result in death at any other time. I think the point you make is important, because it gives a reader a new way of looking at the beginning of the play. If the language of the opening scene represents a dissolution of social hierarchy, then the play that will follow promises to be an anarchic affair. The next scene introduces Prospero and his remote island kingdom; Shakespeare has effectively built up the suspense, as the reader is forced to wonder what will happen to social hierarchies on the island.

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