10 January 2014

Emergencies Crown Their Own Kings

"Keep your cabins; you do assist the storm."  Boatswain, The Tempest



Ever reviled, accursed, ne'er understood,
Thou art the grisly terror of our age.
"Wreck of all order," cry the multitude,
"Art thou, & war & murder's endless rage."
O, let them cry. To them that ne'er have striven
The truth that lies behind a word to find,
To them the word's right meaning was not given.
They shall continue blind among the blind.
But thou, O word, so clear, so strong, so true,
Thou sayest all which I for goal have taken.
I give thee to the future! Thine secure
When each at least unto himself shall waken.
Comes it in sunshine? In the tempest's thrill?
I cannot tell - but it the earth shall see!
I am an Anarchist! Wherefore I will
Not rule, & also ruled I will not be!

— John Henry Mackay


The opening scene of The Tempest--the shipwreck--is like an overture throughout which we catch echoes, like distant thunder, of the themes that dominated the historical and tragic music dramas of Shakespeare's earlier periods. It is an extraordinary epitome. "What cares these roarers for the name of king?" Into that question--or exclamation, if you will--the disdainful Boatswain condenses not only King Lear but all that Shakespeare ever said on he subject of worldly place and power. Here are a group of "great ones"--from king down--up against it. "The king and prince at prayers!" The mingled surprise, humor, and consternation in those words of old Gonzalo says it all. When kings and princes are reduced to prayer, then indeed is the day of doom near. The roaring Boatswain...is the one man who shines in this crisis, his combined cheerfulness, energy, resourcefulness, and contempt being just the brew needed in the situation. Even the master of the boat relies on him to carry ship, mariners, passengers, and master himself through on his lone shoulders. Emergencies crown their own kings. As the Bastard needed no title in King John, so this man can stand on his own feet. Nature hands him the command and everybody of any account concurs. "Keep your cabins; you do assist the storm," he orders his royal passengers. There is a symbolic diagnosis of war in eight words, with a prescription for peace thrown in.

--Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare


  1. It has been many years since I last read The Tempest. I had not ever thought of it this way. Thanks for the nudge to reread it.

  2. My pleasure. Neither had I, but I've been pondering lately the two poles of "extreme" organization: Utopia and Anarchy. The "discovery" of a "new world" opened up opportunity to a greater understanding of human organization. Of course, ethnographers and anthropologists did not sail with Raleigh or Samuel Argall--though Raleigh was joined by Thomas Harriot (a "scientist" at the fulcrum of the Kuhnian paradigm shift from alchemy to science--much as John Dee was)--an astronomer, mathematician and, so called by the wikipedia entry, an ethnographer.