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Theory and Criticism

Satan's Game Singularities

by Elmer G. Wiens

In his short story, Billy Budd, Herman Melville investigates the influence that the character traits shaping human conduct have on a tragic incident that takes place on the British Navy's warship, the Bellipotent, operating in the theatre of the 1797 war between Britain and France. The principal characters are Captain Edward Vere, Master-at-Arms John Claggart, and foretopman Billy Budd. Billy Budd's hanging for the murder of John Claggart is the singular event of Melville's tale. His story unfolds, based on the presences of each character's traits on the continua through the binary oppositions of rational and irrational, sane and mad, and loyal and disloyal. The choices available to the characters bifurcate the narrative into the sequence of events transmitted in the text, and a series of alternative scenarios shaped by decision options not taken by them. These untold stories heighten the explicit story line, insisting the narrative continue a long time past its denouement. By drawing out his account and providing distance as deferral in time from the bifurcation points, Melville sooths the persevering chaotic undercurrents. The poststructuralist form of critical reading, deconstruction, and the science of game theory provide convenient measures to expose the divergent, untold narratives, their différance as sunken, displaced scenarios initiated by the game-theoretic circumstances. In this context, Jacques Derrida's signifier, différance (Norton 1818), implies possible scenarios separated spatially and temporally from the events presented in Melville's text, whose alterity is supposed by a game-theoretic reading.

Melville's characters can be viewed as players in a sequence of interdependent, overlapping games. The players' choices in the text within these complex situations determine the games' outcomes, the characters' payoffs as made known subsequent to the incident. To investigate the import of the players' decisions, one can reduce crucial confrontations between characters in Billy Budd to four games with the following characteristics. Each game has two players, and each player has two options that mirror the player's character traits, allotting four outcomes to each game. Players choose an option one player after the other, giving one player the first move in the game. The player who instigates the game moves last. Some outcomes favour one player over the other player, exemplifying the players' irreconcilable, conflicting interests. Consequently, each player's ranking of the four outcomes of each game reflects his preferences, with his utility of an outcome expressed as a number ranging from one to four. The inception of each outcome occasioned by the players' choices generates a potentially différant storyline.

John Claggart's machinations obtain Billy Budd as his dupe when Billy chooses not to snitch on a Bellipotent's afterguardsman after he attempts to inveigle Billy into an alleged subterfuge involving impressed men on the warship. Obsessed with destroying Billy as a traitor, Claggart initiates the sting in his role as Chief of Police, instigating a loyalist / traitor game with Billy. In assessing Claggart's rationality, a lawyer might claim the extenuating circumstance of Billy's sex appeal unsettling the warship's chain of command, in the context of the recent Great Mutiny at Nore (Freud 179-81). Melville's narrator, however, endows Claggart with an undetectable, innate depravity, a "mania of an evil nature" (Melville 61). Claggart's game disturbs and confuses Billy, accustomed to undertaking orders and performing physical tasks, but unaccustomed to carrying out decisions in a miasma of intrigue and ambiguity. Billy's strategies polarize into S, snitch on the afterguardsman, and S, do not snitch. Claggart's strategies polarize into A, accuse Billy of being a traitor, and A, do not accuse. The players' paired strategies and their coupled outcomes appear in the following game tableau.

Claggart's loyalist / traitor game tableau.

 John Claggart

S (3, 1)(1, 3)
S(2, 4)(4, 2)

The entries in brackets represent the ordinal rankings (utilities) of the four outcomes by Billy and Claggart. For example, if Billy plays S = do not snitch and Claggart plays A = do not accuse, the players' choices and the resultant outcome are written as (Billy, Claggart) = (S, A) = (4, 2). This means Billy prefers the outcome (4, 2) to all others, while Claggart prefers it only to the outcome from (S, A) = (3, 1). These necessarily subjective, ordinal rankings of the outcomes reflect the players' actual choices in the text and prospects in the ensuing scenarios.

Billy's strategies bifurcate Melville's plot. Should Billy play S, or continue with his passive strategy of S? After sharing confidences with the Dansker, Billy disregards the hint that Claggart is down on him, choosing loyalty to his peers over loyalty to authority. Believing that Claggart's affability is sincere, Billy spurns playing S, unaware that Claggart, waiting for the opportune moment to play A, is planting doubts of Billy's loyalty among his messmates. Ironically, Billy's rejection of the afterguardsman's overture enhances his popularity, while Claggart's imaginary mutiny threatens to destabilize his authority as Master-of-Arms.

Since Claggart plays last, he chooses knowing the strategy Billy chose. Accordingly, the following metagame tableau represents the outcomes of Claggart's four metagame strategies at the game's inception.

Claggart's loyalist / traitor metagame tableau

 John Claggart

S (3, 1)(1, 3)(3, 1)(1, 3)
S(2, 4)(4, 2)(4, 2)[2, 4]

The first two columns replicate the game tableau. The strategy A/A means always play A, while A/A means always play A. The third column is the tit-for-tat strategy, whereby Claggart plays A if Billy plays S, and he plays A if Billy plays S. The fourth column is the tat-for-tit strategy, whereby Claggart plays A if Billy plays S, and he plays A if Billy plays S.

Examining the payoffs, one sees that Claggart's tat-for-tit strategy, A/A, is a dominant strategy. It assures him of a utility of 3 if Billy plays S, and a utility of 4 if Billy plays S. Given Claggart plays A/A, Billy's optimal strategy is S, assuring him of a utility of 2. The outcome, (Billy, Claggart) = (S, A/A) = (2, 4), is called the metagame's equilibrium. Neither player can improve his utility by changing, unilaterally, his strategy. It is the outcome obtained in the text. Billy's persisting choice of S = do not snitch baffles the ignorant Claggart. Claggart must hoist the affair, or lose the respect of his peers and police corporals (82). If he successfully prosecutes Billy as a traitor, Claggart reckons his utility at 4 for the (Billy, Claggart) = (S, A) outcome.

Stimulated by Billy's harmlessness, Claggart's antipathy arouses him to use rational means to pursue irrational, even insane, ends. Although he recently transferred to the Bellipotent as Master-at-Arms, Claggart's seeming success in manipulating the ship's sailors to his will clouds his assessment of the upshot of his scam. In the wake of a fruitless pursuit of an enemy frigate, Claggart presents his petition to Captain Vere. Claggart's move bifurcates the narrative of Billy playing S = do not snitch, opening a network of possible future scenarios based on the games to be played, yet maintaining the ship's sailors' hesitant awareness of Billy's undecided circumstances and reactions as différant scenarios.

With a recluse Hebrew prophet's instinctive insight into human nature, tempered by much reading and experience, Captain Vere finds repellent Claggart's deportment and breach of his presence. Noted for his "prompt initiative" and decisions "under unforeseen difficulties" (84), Vere decides to test the veracity of Claggart's tale, without alerting the ship's company. He combats Claggart's scheming tactics with the positional move of arranging a confrontation between Claggart and Billy in the privacy of the Captain's cabin, with only Vere as witness. What is more, he instigates simultaneously the following irrational game with Claggart, and the subsequent condemnation game with Billy.

In the irrational game, Vere's strategies are R = rational, and R = irrational, while Claggart's strategies are R = rational, and R = irrational (insane).

Captain Vere - John Claggart irrational game

 Captain Edward Vere
game tableaumetagame tableau

R ( 3, 3)(2, 2)(3, 3)(2, 2)(3, 3)(2, 2)
R (4, 1)(1, 4)(4, 1)(1, 4)[1, 4](4, 1)

If Captain Vere disciplines the popular Billy on false evidence, the knowing crew might react with alarm, although Claggart's stature will be enhanced. The outcome (Claggart, Vere) = (R, R) = (4, 1), while best for Claggart, is the worst for Vere. On the contrary, if Vere absolves Billy, even though he suspects the good natured Billy failed to report an act of indiscretion, Vere obtains only his second worst outcome of (Claggart, Vere) = (R, R) = (2, 2). Both of these outcomes are fraught with consequences for Captain Vere with the Admiralty.

To obtain either his best outcome, (Claggart, Vere) = (R, R) = (1, 4), or his second best outcome, (Claggart, Vere) = (R, R) = (3, 3), Vere makes a move in his condemnation game with Billy below, that simultaneously plays the dominant tit-for-tat strategy of R/R in his irrational metagame above. Captain Vere induces Billy Budd, who knows what he did, to judge Claggart's allegation. If Claggart is playing rationally and has well-founded evidence that Billy is a traitor, Vere plays rationally and punishes Billy. Otherwise, Captain Vere must remove the peril to himself and the Bellipotent that Claggart's stratagem created. Vere's avowal to Claggart that "in a case like this, there is a yard-arm-end for the false-witness" (89) proves prophetic. Pressed by the exigencies of a more dangerous encounter with a French warship, Captain Vere smothers and erases the uncertainty that Claggart and Billy present. Vere plays Claggart through Billy, using irrational means to pursue rational ends.

Expecting a promotion when he is conducted into the Captain's cabin, Billy is struck dumb by Claggart's accusations. When Captain Vere orders Billy to speak and defend himself, Billy is reduced to a paroxysm of stuttering. Knowing he took too trivially the afterguardsman's proposition, knowing he is guilty, Billy cannot verbalize a simple denial, taking literally Othello's dictum, "men should be what they seem" (Shakespeare 98). Locked into the condemnation game, Billy's options are T = take Claggart's accusation (passive response), and T = do not take (respond nonverbally), while Captain Vere's options are C = condemn Billy, and C = do not condemn.

Captain Vere - condemnation game (Billy innocent)

 Captain Edward Vere

T (1, 1)(4, 4)(1, 1)(4, 4)(1, 1)[4, 4]
T (2, 3)(3, 2)(2, 3)(3, 2)(3, 2)(2, 3)

At the onset of his condemnation game with Billy, Captain Vere's ranking of the outcomes is based on his presumption of Billy's innocence. For example, in the outcome (Billy, Vere) = (T, C) = (4, 4), Vere hangs Claggart, and Billy emerges as the innocent hero. If Billy plays T = do not take by thrashing Claggart, Vere prefers to punish Billy, play C = condemn Billy, perhaps by having him flogged. Examining the metagame tableau, one sees that Vere's tat-for-tit strategy, C/C, is dominant. Billy should play T = take Claggart's accusation.

If Vere, a "conscientious disciplinarian" (Melville 99), doubts Billy's innocence, his ranking of outcomes is adjusted accordingly, as in the next game tableau.

Captain Vere - condemnation game (Billy guilty)

 Captain Edward Vere

T ( 1, 3)(4, 1)( 1, 3)(4, 1)( 1, 3)(4, 1)
T (2, 4)(3, 2)[2, 4](3, 2)(3, 2)(2, 4)

Vere's ranking of the outcomes in this tableau is based on his presumption of Billy's guilt. In the outcome (Billy, Vere) = (T, C) = (4, 1), Vere fails to punish a guilty person, without resolving the ambiguity of Claggart, possibly condemning himself to a court martial by the Admiralty. Consequently, if Billy plays T = do not respond (take), Vere plays C = condemn Billy. Examining the tableau, one sees that C/C, is dominant for Vere. If he is convinced that Billy is guilty, Captain Vere condemns Billy regardless of Billy's response.

Vere's information set does not permit him to resolve Billy's guilt. That is, Vere does not know in which game he is playing, and he does not know if Claggart is playing R or R. Moreover, where does innocence or sanity end, and guilt or insanity begin? In the rainbow, who can draw where "the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins" (97)? Captain Vere is snared in the différance of the games. Vere relies on the ignorant, naturally untainted Billy to produce truth.

Vere's clairvoyant, fatherly admonition, "There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time" (93), is the epicentre of the story, and the crux of Billy's response. Traitors must be punished, or they must die. The power to ascertain truth lodges in Vere as Captain. Vere's statement empowers Billy, who knows that Claggart is a lying traitor. For an instant, power and truth as knowing reside in Billy (Foucault 324). As a liar and a traitor, Claggart must die, a task Billy assumes literally by killing him with a sudden blow to the forehead. Although Billy is the handsome sailor, the King's bargain, and the least likely sailor to join a conspiracy, he knows Claggart is treacherous because Billy too is guilty. Billy unwittingly, but honestly, plays T = do not take, releasing Vere from his net of games, and he crosses into Captain Vere's loyalist game depicted below. What's more, Billy bifurcates the narratives proceeding from Vere's irrational game with Claggart, and Vere's condemnation game.

After Billy's blow effectively obtains Captain Vere's preferred outcome, (Claggart, Vere) = (R, R) = (1, 4), in his game with Claggart, Vere immediately begins the endgame. He puts the onus of Claggart's death on his "fated boy" Billy. Saying, "Here, help me," Vere obtains Billy's cooperation to bring up Claggart's prostrate body to a sitting position, and then he isolates Billy in a stateroom (Melville 93-4). After initiating the trial of Billy by a summary court under the authority of the Articles of War, he contains all information about Claggart's murder. When the ship's Surgeon mutely questions Vere's comparison of Claggart's death to an angel of God striking Ananias and his wife dead for hypocrisy unto God, Vere elicits the Surgeon's cooperation to move the body to another stateroom. Moreover, knowledge of the displaced scenarios touching on mutiny must not spill over to the crew. Scrutinizing Vere's endeavours to control the crew's reactions, the Surgeon surmises that Vere is the victim of an aberration.

The Bellipotent's encounter with the enemy frigate occurred while distantly detached from the English squadron. Claggart's allegation and his murder by Billy "could not have happened at a worse juncture" (97). Another encounter with the enemy may be in the offing. Vere believes Billy's shipmates will view Claggart's death as "plain homicide committed in a flagrant act of mutiny" (108). Having the strength and presence of mind to take such steps he considers necessary, Captain Vere exercises the power and will to contain any consequences from hanging Billy. Nevertheless, the différant scenarios spawned by Billy ignorantly playing S = do not snitch in his game with Claggart carry on mutinously uncontained. During his trial, in Captain Vere's loyalist game below, the question of Billy's knowledge of any incipient mutiny arises explicitly, a distinct matter that preceded Claggart's murder.

Captain Vere's loyalist game

 Captain Edward Vere

L (3, 3)(1, 1)(3, 3)(1, 1)(3, 3)(1, 1)
L (4, 2)(2, 4)(4, 2)(2, 4)[2, 4](4, 2)

Captain Vere's options are F = forgive Billy, and F = do not forgive, while Billy's options are L = loyal to Captain Vere, and L = not loyal to Captain Vere.

When asked if "he knew of or suspected aught savoring of incipient trouble" (102), Billy falters, honour bound not to snitch on a shipmate. Even as he recalls the afterguardsman's proposal, he answers in the negative, believing now "that nothing really was being hatched" (103). Nonetheless, if he is innocent, why did Billy unconsciously kill Claggart if there was no malice between them? Although Billy's reply goes unchallenged, Captain Vere rebuffs Billy's jib. Given the outcome of their condemnation game, he surmises Billy has lied and is playing L = not loyal to Captain Vere. Besides, as a player's player, Vere knows this is Billy's dominant strategy. Thereafter, the Captain mutely plays F = do not forgive, obtaining the (Billy, Vere) = (L, F) = (2, 4) outcome.

If Captain Vere had taken Billy's testimony to the drumhead court at face value, he might have forwarded Claggart's murder to the Admiralty. Following a tacit rule in a military ship (115-6), Vere does not share wholly his understanding of the circumstances of Billy's blow with his subordinates, and the trouble that may be swirling in the ship. Knowledge and power subsist together (Foucault 133). Disregarding an officer's argument that Billy "purposed neither mutiny nor homicide" (Melville 107), the Captain ensures that Billy is condemned to death, demanding strict discipline from his drumhead court to suppress and prevent more trouble among the crew (108). Billy Budd, Captain Vere's false-witness, is hung from the main yard-end of the Bellipotent.

After Billy dies, a considerable measure of suppressed discontent stirs among the Bellipotent's sailors, conceivably at odds with their echo of Billy's poignantly expressed last words, "God bless Captain Vere" (124), seconds before he is hanged. Ignorant of "the secret facts of the tragedy," the Bellipotent's sailors think that Billy's execution was "somehow unavoidably inflicted from the naval point of view" (135). Nevertheless, they are confused because they "instinctively felt that Billy was a sort of man as incapable of mutiny as of wilfull murder" (135). The members of a warship's crew function as a mutually dependent and supportive team, particularly during a scrap with an enemy ship. Even a slight slip can induce a serious hitch in a ship's intended manoeuvre (49). During the Bellipotent's ensuing fight with the French ship, the Athée, Captain Vere is gravely wounded. Possibly during the ships' broadside, Captain Vere's person is unconsciously offered a musket shot from the enemy ship, Billy Budd's integrity with his shipmates ignorantly baffling Captain Vere.

Works Cited and Consulted

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  • Wiens, Elmer G. "Reduction of Games Using Dominant Strategies." M.Sc. Diss. U of British Columbia, 1969.




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