Billy Budd by Herman Melville is a story about a young, charismatic sailor, Billy Budd, who is called to be transferred to Bellipotent, a British warship, from Rights of Men, a merchant ship. Billy Budd works diligently on the new boat and wins the favors of most of the crew, including Captain Vere, the captain of the ship. However, like the old saying, no good deed goes unpunished; Billy Bud soon catches the attention of Claggart, the ship’s master-of-arms. Claggart is envious of Billy Budd because of his appeal.
Claggart accuses Billy of planning a mutiny in front of the captain. Unable to make a sensible response to defend himself, Billy strikes Claggart on the forehead with a fatal blow. Captain Vere has no choice but to punish Billy swiftly and decisively despite his personal fondness of the young sailor. The captain has to assert the law even if it means sacrificing a well liked person because a crime that goes unpunished would send echoes to the crew that they can get away with anything. Captain Vere’s Dilemma
Right from the moment that Billy Budd struck Claggart, Captain Vere knows that he must do something to punish the guilty. To the captain’s horror, Claggart dies from the blow delivered by Billy. It was then that he knew that Billy’s fate is sealed despite his likeness of the boy. The captain even sees the death of Billy as some sort of divine justice, with Billy playing the role of the angel that swiftly take the lives of the wicked. Nevertheless, the angel must be punished as the captain said, “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!
” (Budd 121). Captain Vere has no choice but to see to it that Billy gets punished for what he did. He even talks to the jury that they must set aside their personal feelings and look at the case objectively so that justice would be upheld: “But let not warm hearts betray heads that should be cool” (Budd 141). The captain rigorously appeals to the jury that they must do what they have to do to uphold justice and condemn Billy because even if the young sailor is dear to him and his crew, the fact is, he has killed someone and it must be punished.
Captain Vere is not that straight of a man; what fears him most is that a mutiny like what happened in Nore would happen again if a deed like what Billy has done would be left unpunished: “Feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, the deed of the Foretopman, so soon as it should be known on the gun decks, would tend to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore” (Budd 127). Historically, the Nore is ship that committed mutiny.
The captain is caught between his personal feelings and his duties to the Royal Navy. He must choose one that would be for the greater good of everyone. Unfortunately for Billy Budd, the greater good would be at the cost of his death. In a sense, he serves as a sacrifice. The captain chooses Billy’s death reluctantly so that the law would be exercised and Billy’s punishment would serve as a warning to all those who plan to break the law.
The captain’s dilemma is a classic case of choosing between two evils and between a personal and a dutiful choice. Despite the captain’s personal feelings towards the case, he must treat it objectively if he is to set a good example among his men. If he has not pushed for the punishment of Billy Budd, the chances of mutiny happening in his ship would greatly increase. Billy Budd’s death is unfortunate but necessary for keeping the peace. Works Cited Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. Plain Label Books, 1889.