How does the boatswain cheer up the mariners in The Tempest?

The boatswain cheers up the mariners by greeting them encouragingly and affectionately before directing specific actions. He knows that they must act quickly in order to save the ship, so he issues clear commands before they can get discouraged. He mocks the wind and amusingly puts the aristocrats in their place. Although these efforts at cheer may not be successful under the circumstances, he adopts a positive attitude and tries nevertheless.

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The Tempest opens on a ship tossed about in a violent storm at sea. The captain urges a boatswain—the officer in charge of the crew—to keep the men’s spirits up as they confront the tempest. He commands the boatswain,

Good, speak to th’ mariners. Fall to ’t yarely, or we...

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The Tempest opens on a ship tossed about in a violent storm at sea. The captain urges a boatswain—the officer in charge of the crew—to keep the men’s spirits up as they confront the tempest. He commands the boatswain,

Good, speak to th’ mariners. Fall to ’t yarely,
or we run ourselves aground. Bestir, bestir!

According to the captain’s orders, the boatswain must rally the mariners with a bit of “pep talk”—and quickly—in order to prevent them from becoming shipwrecked. So the boatswain calls out to the mariners as they enter,

Heigh, my hearts! Cheerly, cheerly, my hearts!
Yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to th’
Master’s whistle. Blow till thou burst thy wind,
if room enough!

Whether or not the boatswain successfully cheers up the mariners is debatable; nonetheless, his strategy is admirable under the harsh circumstances. First, he greets them heartily and encouragingly, using words such as heigh and cheerly. Second, by addressing them as “my hearts,” the boatswain displays friendly and paternal affection for his crewmen.

After establishing an upbeat mood despite the circumstances, the boatswain focuses the mariners’ attention on the tasks at hand. Instead of allowing them to become distracted, discouraged, confused, and scared, he immediately tells them what physical actions to take. Before they can even think or look around, the boatswain musters the group to lower the higher sail quickly and listen for the captain’s whistle.

Most importantly, the boatswain shows the mariners that he has confidence in their efforts against the natural elements. He dares the wind to blow itself until it is spent and addresses it with a familiar “thou.” The boatswain puts on a show of bravado in an attempt to reassure his crew that they really have nothing to fear when it comes to the storm.

The boatswain continues this display of boldness by standing up to the upper-class passengers and shielding the mariners from them. For example, when Alonso tells him to make his men work harder (“Play these men”) and Antonio asks where the captain is, the boatswain replies,

I pray now, keep below ...
You mar our labour: keep your
cabins: you do assist the storm.

The boatswain ignores Alonso’s command and protects his own men at work. To the annoyance of Alonso, Antonio, and Gonzalo, the boatswain tells them to get out of his and the sailors’ way as they try to save the ship. The aristocrats are just making things worse! This comeuppance of members of the privileged class by a laborer hopefully cheers up the mariners a bit.

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