Nautical Characters

Introduction to Character Type | List of Plays | Up One Level

Introduction to Character Type

"Nautical Characters" refers to the group of characters associated with naval and merchant enterprises. This group of characters is easily distinguished by its use of nautical language in non-nautical situations. Despite their common dialect, however, nautical characters often cross between different social groups and play roles of varying importance in the collection of plays. Although none of the plays has an exclusively nautical focus, the frequent recurrence of this character type is indicative of the public's ongoing interest in nautical culture.

Like other professional dialects, such as legal language and military jargon, nautical language is characterized by its use of specific terms applied to situations in which these terms are not appropriate or expected. The nautical vocabulary is composed of terms distinct to sailors, and can be divided into descriptions of people, actions, expressions and vocabulary. The Walloons (1780; published 1813) includes a great deal of nautical vocabulary:

Davy. Heave off your grappling hooks, and give me sea room---veer away more cable, old girl, and let me swing---How is it, friend Tipple? Ah, Joyce, we have an entapis once again after a plaguy long chase.

Bumb. Seventeen leagues and a half by the log; Cape Finisterre bearing east, north-east, and by east, upon the weather bow, when we first set top gallants to give chase to the Spaniard.

Davy. Why, who's talking of the Spaniard, lubber? what tack are your wits upon now, Bumboat? we are come to an anchor, and your small venture of brains is out upon a cruise. Come, down with your trumpery---lower away handsome---How does father do, I ask you? what cheer over head? where's sister Agnes? shew that fellow to a warm birth by the kitchen fire, I'll rig myself in the galley, I've a better jacket in the bundle. Go along, Bumboat, and make ready (Cumberland 82-83).

Nautical descriptions of people include such epithets as "lubber", "pirate", "messmates" and "my hearty"; women are referred to with ship words, such as "my prize" and a "bark". Actions are often described metaphorically with sailing terms, such as "tack about", "veer off", "let out a reef", "stowing", and "seize the cargo". Nautical expressions and interjections, such as "Aye", "Avast", "Hark'ee", "Aye, aye, Sir", and the ubiquitous "damme", appear in the speech of figures associated with the sea. Finally, a nautical vocabulary is applied to land-based objects and activities: "lockers", "canvas", "cable", "gale", "aground", "cruize", "knots", etc. The orthography of nautical characters is fairly standard. Their grammar is often non-standard, but does not follow an observable pattern.

Nautical characters fall into different social groups, ranging from simple sailors to noblemen who join the navy. Characters from the former group are often not particularly nuanced and do not play a significant role in the plot, often only appearing for one scene. However, there are a few plays that are exceptions to this rule, such as Thomas and Sally (1760; published 1761) and The Brothers (1769; published 1770). In Thomas and Sally, the titular hero returns from the sea at just the right time to save his fiancée from a lecherous squire, playing a very important part in the action, while in The Brothers, Captain Ironsides, who is frowned upon by his noble nephew Belfield Senior, is central to the plot.

Noblemen who take professional positions in the navy appear in The Town Before You (1794; published 1795), The Walloons, First Love (1795), and The Romance of an Hour (1774). The phenomenon of noblemen-turned-sailors is likely the result of the English system of primogeniture, because of which a younger son would have to seek his fortune in a profession rather than inherit the property and the title from his father. However, some of the nautical noblemen return to their positions of birth at the plays' conclusions. For instance, Asgill, the disinherited nobleman in The Town Before You, turns to the navy as a way of continuing to support himself; after his fortune is reinstated, he reassumes his social position. However, at the play's conclusion, Asgill has undergone some character development as he has learned patriotism from the navy. The nautical tendencies of younger sons can occasionally lead to familial problems, as seen in The Romance of an Hour, in which the former naval officer Sir Hector Strangeways instructs his son Orson in nautical expressions. Sir Hector's wife Lady Di Strangeways has upper-class standards of behaviour to uphold in front of her friends, and is infuriated by her husband's use of nautical dialect and her son's resulting boorishness. However, Davy Dangle of The Walloons and David Mowbray of First Love are welcomed by their families, who do not object to their extensive use of nautical dialect.

The nautical characters' group is distinguished by its use of nautical vocabulary, as the group includes individuals of different classes and who demonstrate different behavioural trends and values. The recurrence of nautical characters throughout the collection indicates that the military and merchant navies played an important role in English public consciousness.

Works Cited:

Cumberland, Richard. "The Walloons." The Posthumous Dramatick Works of the Late Richard Cumberland. In two volumes. London: Printed for G. and W. Nicol ... by W. Bulmer [etc.], 1813. Literature Online. 15 August 2008.

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List of Plays

Thomas and Sally (Bickerstaff)

Love in the City (Bickerstaff)

The Spoil'd Child (Bickerstaff)

The Jealous Wife (Colman)

Man and Wife (Colman)

New Brooms! (Colman)

The Town Before You (Cowley)

The Brothers (Cumberland)

The West Indian (Cumberland)

The Walloons (Cumberland)

First Love (Cumberland)

The Eccentric Lover (Cumberland)

The Sailor's Daughter (Cumberland)

A Trip to Calais (Foote)

The Romance of an Hour (Kelly)

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©2008 Arden Hegele