Summary and Analysis
As he leaves the captain's cabin, the surgeon is disturbed. He disapproves of Captain Vere's move to call a drumhead court and prefers that Billy be held prisoner until the fleet admiral can judge the case. Yet the surgeon refrains from seeming insolent or mutinous. The lieutenants and Mr. Mordant share the surgeon's surprise and concern.
Privately, Captain Vere would also prefer to delay judgment until the ship rejoins the squadron. He exhibits no authority for authority's sake, and he has no desire to monopolize responsibility that he can properly leave to his superiors or share with others. He feels, however, compelled by a potential mutiny to act swiftly in obedience to duty.
The makeshift court — composed of the first lieutenant, captain of the marines, and the sailing master — convenes quickly. Billy is arraigned; Captain Vere serves as the only witness. The first lieutenant asks Billy whether he agrees with the facts the captain has stated. Billy replies that the captain tells the truth, but that the master-at-arms spoke falsely, for he has been loyal to the king. He says he bore no malice toward Claggart and that he regrets that the man is dead, for he did not mean to kill him. He justifies his deadly act as his only means of reply when speech failed him.
The officer of marines asks Billy about rumors of mutiny, but Billy chooses to remain quiet rather than implicate the afterguardsman. Then the officer asks why Claggart should lie so maliciously about him. Billy has no answer and turns an appealing glance toward Captain Vere. After further questions from the court as to the mystery, Captain Vere states that it is a mystery that has nothing to do with military justice and turns the court's attention once more to Billy's deed. The officers understand the implications of this shift in emphasis; Billy does not.
In a lengthy summation, Captain Vere relates that the crew owes allegiance to the king and not to Nature. He will leave Billy's soul to heaven, a court less arbitrary and more merciful than a martial one. He contends that Billy must hang under the law of the Mutiny Act. Billy is formally convicted and sentenced to hang from the yardarm in the early morning watch.
The reader worries along with the surgeon as he carries out the captain's orders to alert the ship's officers. Again, Melville resorts to rhetorical questions to heighten drama and to draw attention to the question of the captain's sanity: Has the captain lost his customary aplomb for dealing with tense situations? Is he mentally stable after witnessing so harrowing a scene in his chambers? Is there a better way of judging the tragic act that has caused an underling to take the life of an officer?
Melville skillfully and dramatically contrasts differing points of view in the impromptu courtroom:
- Billy, vulnerable and wholly mystified by courtroom subtleties, depends on the captain to render justice.
- The captain of the marines, a soldier rather out of place among sailors, presses Vere for other testimony that might shed light on Claggart's accusation.
- The first lieutenant, resuming control of the proceedings, passes over the soldier's request, thereby abandoning study of mitigating circumstances so that he can return the testimony to the act itself.
- Captain Vere, acting as both witness and judge in the name of the king, presses the court for a death sentence in compliance with the Mutiny Act.
Had the soldier persisted with his request, Billy might have produced corroborating testimony from a number of people, namely the Dansker, the afterguardsman, and Squeak. Had the lieutenant ignored Vere's push for a speedy end to the trial, more data might have placed Billy in better light. Other solutions are possible, but they are mere conjecture, and therefore irrelevant.
At this point, the author delineates Captain Vere's dilemma: whether to demonstrate his personal esteem and compassion for Billy, or whether to heed his single-minded devotion to duty. Vere delivers a long speech which takes the form of both sides of a dialectic, or debate. At the conclusion, he diminishes himself somewhat by his choice: he prefers to act as agent for martial law than to rally the human side of his nature. Turning away from the "feminine in man," he condemns rather than consider a lesser penalty.
Repeatedly, Melville reminds the reader that the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, is of paramount influence. It must be remembered that mutinies have badly shaken the military during this period. Also, the Bellipotent, like a tiny microcosm, is separate from the main body of the fleet after sighting but falling to overtake a French warship. Such a separation elevates Captain Vere's power and responsibility as administrator to god-like status. The onus of his role as captain impels him to action. Thus, the pressures of the wartime situation mitigate somewhat the three panelists' — and the readers' — harsh judgment of Captain Vere's stern discipline.
the capital founded by Peter the Barbarian St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia established by Peter the Great (1672–1725), an autocratic czar.
the sailing master the navigation officer.
the poop deck the high deck at the stern (back) of the ship, named from a corruption of the Latin word puppis, which means "stern."
coadjutor an assistant.
a jury of casuists a panel of quibblers.
palliating circumstances excuses, or justifications.
according to the Articles of War As stated in Article XXII of the Principles and Practice of Naval and Military Courts Martial, enacted in 1749: "If any officer, mariner, soldier, or other person in the fleet, shall strike any of his superior officers, or draw, or offer to draw, or lift any weapon against him, being in the execution of his office, on any pretence whatsoever, every such person being convicted of such offence, by the sentence of a court martial, shall suffer death."
the Last Assizes the Christian concept of Judgment Day, when all souls will face Almighty God, the judge.
the Mutiny Act a law dating to 1689 which sought to halt mutiny and desertion from the British army.
the regicidal French Directory the five-man government that replaced the French monarchy following the execution of King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, in 1793.