In The Tempest, why is Gonzalo certain that the ship will not sink?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Tempest opens aboard a ship in the midst of a terrible storm. Shakespeare must have enjoyed simulating a storm at sea on his stage. It makes a great attention-grabber. The stage directions read:

On a ship at sea. A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard.

The characters would all be shouting at each other as if to make themselves heard above the thunder, wind, and crashing waves, some of which would be provided by sound effects offstage. We later learn that the storm was aroused by Prospero, who has powers of sorcery.

Gonzalo is an elderly counselor to the King of Naples, who is also aboard the ship. Gonzalo persists in annoying the Boatswain, who is trying desperately to save the ship by issuing orders to the sailors. The Boatswain has a natural contempt for landsmen, or landlubbers, anyway; but he is particularly annoyed at having to cope with them at this critical time. Gonzalo, for his part, feels free to ask anything he likes because he is of a far higher social status and actually represents Alonso, the King of Naples. It is a funny situation because the storm changes the relations between the working men and the noblemen aboard. The Boatswain and his men fear for their lives, and this puts them temporarily on an equal footing with the noblemen whose lives are in equal danger. The equality of the risk of losing their lives makes all men equal while the storm lasts. When Gonzalo tells the Boatswain to remember whom he has aboard, the Boatswain replies with the great line:

None that I more love than myself.

When Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, and other passengers appear, they have evidently been cowering below decks and have all come up together to see what is happening. They may be very important men on land, but the Boatswain feels contempt and annoyance. The Boatswain speaks very rudely to all these gentlemen. He and Gonzalo take an immediate dislike to each other because Gonzalo insists that the Boatswain should treat his superiors with proper deference even in these perilous conditions.

There is a strong contrast between these two characters. The rough, plainspoken Boatswain makes Gonzalo seem more of a genteel aristocrat, while Gonzalo makes the Boatswain seem more like an uneducated workman who knows his occupation thoroughly and despises men who can do nothing but talk and display their fine clothes and fine manners. The audience will sympathize with the Boatswain and enjoy hearing him insult the passengers, and especially Gonzalo, who is the biggest nuisance of the bunch. The Boatswain exits to tend to serious matters after telling Gonzalo:

Out of our way, I say!

This is where Gonzalo declares he is sure that the ship will not sink. He says to himself:

I have great comfort from this fellow. Methinks he hath
no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect
gallows. Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging. Make
the rope of his destiny our cable, for our own doth little
advantage. If he be not born to be hanged, our case is

In other words, if the Boatswain is born to be hanged, as Gonzalo prognosticates, then the Boatswain cannot be drowned in this storm. And if the Boatswain survives in order to be hanged later on, that means that everybody else will survive with him. Later Gonzalo repeats his presentiment:

I'll warrant him for drowning, though the ship
were no stronger than a nutshell and as leaky as an
unstanched wench.

By "warrant him for drowning," Gonzalo means he will guarantee that he will not drown because he has the hanging look in his features. Some people used to believe that men could have a hanged-man's look about them while they were still alive. The French use the word pendard, which originally meant a man who had been hanged. They may call a living man a pendard because he looks as if he is bound to be hanged sooner or later. There may be no validity to this bit of physiognomy, but there certainly are more than a few men who look as if they are destined to do something that will result in their being hanged. 

Read the study guide:
The Tempest

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