Billy Budd

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Captain Vere Character Analysis

The valiant, intellectual captain of the Indomitable, a bachelor of about 40 years of age. He has a strong sense of duty and is conflicted when Billy kills Claggart. His personal conscience tells him not to punish Billy, who he knows is an innocent, good soul. However, he is bound to obey maritime law and fears a possible mutiny, so he ultimately argues to the ship's drumhead court that Billy should be executed.

Captain Vere Quotes in Billy Budd

The Billy Budd quotes below are all either spoken by Captain Vere or refer to Captain Vere. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Natural Character and Appearance Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Billy Budd published in 1986.
Chapter 20 Quotes

Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker), Billy Budd, John Claggart
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 352
Explanation and Analysis:

Captain Vere has summoned Billy to his cabin and informed him of Claggart's accusations. Billy is so shocked that he cannot speak, and when Captain Vere compels him too, Billy strikes out his hand, accidentally killing Claggart. After the doctor pronounces Claggart dead, Captain Vere declares that Claggart has been "struck dead by an angel of God!". This dramatic language highlights the peculiarity of the events within the captain's cabin. First, despite his total innocence, Billy is unable to defend himself verbally. When he finally reacts to the accusation, it is by accidentally murdering his accuser. It is almost as if Billy's body has acted in revenge against Claggart, even while his mind and soul are unable to do so––an idea that reveals Billy's angelic purity. 

Captain Vere's words further emphasize the notion that Billy is an "angel," incapable of intentionally committing sin. Indeed, this connection furthers another comparison: the similarity between Billy and Jesus. Like Jesus, Billy is morally innocent––and yet is punished by death. Based on Captain Vere's exclamation, it seems clear that he knows it is unjust to hang Billy. However, as captain of the ship, Vere is also forced to maintain law and order, a fact that prohibits him from acting according to his own individual conscience and delivering justice. 

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Chapter 22 Quotes

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 among the crew, a sense of the urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every other consideration.

Related Characters: Captain Vere
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has commented that it is difficult to assess whether or not Captain Vere acted fairly in summoning a drumhead court (a court assembled "in the field" of battle for urgent matters). While the doctor was concerned that Captain Vere was suffering from momentary madness, in this passage the narrator suggests that Vere's actions were necessary in order to prevent a mutiny like the one that took place aboard the Nore. In this passage, the narrator describes historical events as being akin to "slumbering embers" that can be awakened within the present, thus recreating the "fire" of the original event. Within this analogy, Vere takes on the role of a fireman, extinguishing the embers before they destroy his ship. This also recalls the earlier comparison of the Nore Mutiny to a fire brigade strike in the middle of an arson attack. 

For the time, did I not perceive in you—at the crisis too—a troubled hesitancy, proceeding, I doubt not, from the clash of military duty with moral scruple—scruple vitalized by compassion.

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker)
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

Billy's trial is taking place, and the drumhead court has heard the accusations against him as well as Billy's own testimony. Billy has confirmed that he killed Claggart by accident, but added that Claggart was lying when he claimed that Billy was planning a mutiny. When asked if he knows of any mutinies being planned, Billy hesitates, before lying and saying that that he doesn't. In this passage, Captain Vere explains that he noticed Billy hesitate, and suspects that he was deciding to act on "military duty" or "moral scruple." This is a correct assessment of Billy's behavior, proving Captain Vere's keen insight into human nature. The fact that Vere is so perceptive and yet is still overseeing Billy's wrongful condemnation makes Billy's fate even more tragic. 

Captain Vere's words also highlight that the dilemma Billy faced as an individual is representative of a larger problem within the military. If there is a "clash" between one's individual moral principles and one's duty as a sailor, does this not indicate that there is something immoral about aspects of serving in the military? As Billy's case makes clear, whatever action he took would constitute a betrayal, whether of himself, his peers, or Captain Vere. 

But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?

Related Characters: Captain Vere (speaker), Billy Budd
Related Symbols: Christian Imagery
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

During his trial, Billy admits to accidentally killing John Claggart, but maintains that Claggart was lying about Billy's supposed plan to start a mutiny. Billy himself lies, however, when asked if he knows of any mutinies being planned and swears he doesn't. In this passage, Captain Vere ponders the difficulty of the decision facing the drumhead court. Because Billy has confessed to the "overt act" of killing Claggart, in some ways the matter is rather simple; he is inarguably guilty of committing murder, even if it was accidental. At the same time, as Vere points out, there is much more to the story than this simple picture.

Like the contradiction between Billy's outward appearance and the rumors Claggart attempted to pin to him, there is a large tension between the crime to which Billy has confessed and his evident kind and innocent character. This raises the question of whether we should judge a person based on their outer appearance or behaviors, or seek to evaluate the internal truth of their personality. As Vere points out, this becomes particularly complicated in the context of Christian beliefs about morality. Billy is seemingly "innocent before God," as God can see past superficial appearances into a person's internal motivations. However, in the context of the military, Billy is guilty and therefore must be condemned to death. 

Chapter 26 Quotes

Billy stood facing aft. At the penultimate moment, his words, his only ones, words wholly unobstructed in the utterance, were these—"God bless Captain Vere!"

Related Characters: Billy Budd, Captain Vere
Page Number: 375
Explanation and Analysis:

At four in the morning, Billy is executed. The chaplain accompanies Billy in his final minutes; as Billy stands ready, he cries out "God bless Captain Vere!" and is then hanged. Billy's choice of final words show that he is a loyal sailor right until the very last moment of his life. At first, it seems almost ridiculous that he should be so loyal, considering he is being unjustly killed for a crime he committed by accident.

On the other hand, by pledging loyalty to Captain Vere before his execution, Billy ensures that his death is not for nothing. Through his devotion, he inspires his fellow soldiers to remain obedient to their captain; the effectiveness of this is demonstrated by the fact that those present echo "God bless Captain Vere" after Billy's death. Meanwhile, Billy's words are also a message to Vere himself, showing the captain that Billy does not resent him for the way everything turned out. 

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Captain Vere Character Timeline in Billy Budd

The timeline below shows where the character Captain Vere appears in Billy Budd. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 6
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...the Indomitable there was no hint of mutiny, as the sailors were loyal to Captain Vere, a bachelor about 40 years old, who was brave and always mindful of his men's... (full context)
Chapter 7
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The narrator tells the reader it's worth saying more about Vere's character, because he plays a major role in the story. Vere was intellectual and loved... (full context)
Chapter 19
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...describes the Indomitable, which—on account of both its sailing capabilities and the character of Captain Vere—was often sent on missions by itself. During one mission, separated from the naval fleet, the... (full context)
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Shortly after this pursuit, Claggart paid a visit to Captain Vere. It was unusual for someone to approach the captain like this, so the captain knew... (full context)
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Claggart began speaking to the captain as if he didn't want to be the bearer of bad news, but felt compelled... (full context)
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Claggart told Captain Vere that he had been suspicious of this sailor for a while, but that now his... (full context)
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Captain Vere considered his options for responding to a possible mutiny, but also regarded Claggart's claims with... (full context)
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Citing Billy's handsomeness and general popularity on the ship, Captain Vere was incredulous, but Claggart told him that Billy's nice appearance and demeanor hid a more... (full context)
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Captain Vere was inclined to disbelieve Claggart and angrily asked if he had any proof for "so... (full context)
Chapter 20
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...be promoting him to the position of his coxswain. When he arrives and he, Captain Vere, and Claggart were alone in the cabin, though, Claggart repeated his accusation against Billy. (full context)
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Billy went pale at hearing the accusation and was so shocked he couldn't speak. Captain Vere told him to speak and defend himself, but Billy was so surprised by the accusation... (full context)
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Captain Vere had known a young schoolmate who suffered from a speech impediment similar to Billy's, so... (full context)
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Captain Vere was stunned, and his former fatherly demeanor toward Billy was "replaced by the military disciplinarian."... (full context)
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Captain Vere was overcome with emotion and cried out that Claggart was "struck dead by an angel... (full context)
Chapter 21
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The narrator wonders if Captain Vere made the right decision in calling for a trial immediately. The surgeon, for example, thought... (full context)
Chapter 22
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...insanity, and so says that it is up to the reader to decide if Captain Vere was suffering from some bout of madness (as the surgeon momentarily thought). The narrator emphasizes... (full context)
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According to the narrator, Captain Vere was not authorized to decide the matter on the "primitive basis" of right and wrong,... (full context)
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Captain Vere chose the first lieutenant, the captain of marines, and the sailing master to serve in... (full context)
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Billy then spoke. He said that Captain Vere had spoken the truth, that he had not meant to kill Claggart, and that he... (full context)
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...that it was merely the result of Billy's ignorance of the workings of evil. Captain Vere stepped in for Billy, saying that no one could know the answer to that question... (full context)
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Captain Vere then said that the court should only consider Billy's deed itself, and that the killing... (full context)
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...taken out of the room, and the members of the court stood in silence. Captain Vere finally spoke, telling the other members of the court that he knew they were feeling... (full context)
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Vere summarized their predicament as follows: Billy killed the ship's master-at-arms and deserved the punishment of... (full context)
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Captain Vere's long argument did more to agitate the troubled court than settle their minds, according to... (full context)
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Captain Vere left the court alone to reach their decision. He tells the reader that it is... (full context)
Chapter 23
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Captain Vere had the task of informing Billy of his sentence. He went to the room where... (full context)
Chapter 24
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...about an hour and a half passed between when Claggart and Billy first entered Captain Vere's cabin and when Captain Vere informed Billy of his sentence. In this time, some rumors... (full context)
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Captain Vere told the crew what had happened, and then Claggart was given a proper burial at... (full context)
Chapter 28
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...Right after his execution, a strange murmur started to grow among the crew, until Captain Vere ordered for everyone to return to their posts. The narrator calls the command "strategic," and... (full context)