The Afterguardsman: The Afterguardsman is a sailor who tries to cause trouble for Billy by asking him to join what he vaguely hints might be a rebellious plot developed by certain members of the crew.
Billy Budd: Billy Budd is a young man of great masculine beauty, who also possesses a likable, totally innocent personality. He is always good natured and has no malice for anyone. His only defect is a speech impediment, which manifests when he is excited or troubled.
Billy does not know who his parents were, since he was a “foundling,” an abandoned child who was found in a basket hanging from a doorknob in the port city of Bristol. When he was grown, Billy joined the merchant ship, the Rights-of-Man. He had a very positive influence on the crew, who became less quarrelsome when he was aboard. Billy was then forced into service on the Indomitable, a British warship. This is when the story begins. Billy accepts his “impressment” without complaint. He is popular with the crew, except for John Claggart, who plots against him. When Claggart falsely accuses him of plotting mutiny, Billy is indignant, but cannot get any words out because of his speech impediment. Instead, he lashes out and kills Claggart. For this he is condemned to hang, but he shows no fear of death. His last words are “God bless Captain Vere!”
John Claggart: John Claggart is the thirty-five-year-old master-at-arms on the Indomitable. His main job is to keep order on the gun decks, which ensures that he is not popular amongst the crew. Claggart takes an unreasoning dislike to Billy Budd and makes his life on the ship difficult. His hatred becomes an obsession, and eventually he accuses Billy, in the presence of Captain Vere, of plotting a mutiny. Billy lashes out and kills him.
There is no rational explanation of Claggart’s hatred of Billy and desire to destroy him, other than the fact that Claggart is possessed by “elemental evil” (chapter 13). That is his nature, although he is able to hide it behind a reasonable exterior. He is drawn to hate Billy because of the innocence of Billy’s spirit. Because Claggart is an intelligent man, he can appreciate just how unusual and special Billy is. But this only serves to goad him more, because he knows that such goodness is unobtainable for him.
The Dankser: The Dankser is a cynical old sailor, but he likes Billy Budd, whom he calls Baby, a name which is soon adopted by everyone on the ship. When Billy goes to him for advice about why he is dogged by little troubles on the ship, the Dansker warns him that Claggart dislikes him.
Captain Graveling: Captain Graveling is the captain of the merchant ship from which Billy Budd is taken for service on the warship.
Lieutenant Radcliffe: Lieutenant Radcliffe is an officer on H.M.S. Indomitable who first selects Billy Budd for service.
Captain Vere: Captain Vere’s full name is Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere. He is the captain of the Indomitable, and is known as “Starry Vere,” to distinguish him from one of his relatives who is also a naval officer. Captain Vere is a thoughtful man who reads a lot. He is more of an intellectual than most naval officers, and for that reason others tend to see him as a little aloof and pedantic. But he is also a very practical man, and he has a distinguished naval record. He has a favorable impression of Billy Budd, and it grieves him to have to testify against him at the trial. But he does not allow sentiment to intrude on what he regards as his military duty. He persuades the court to impose the death penalty on Billy Budd, although he does so with a heavy heart. He is fully aware of the arguments that could be put against his position, but he insists on upholding military law. As a political conservative, he abhors the ideas of the French Revolution, and fears that leniency on Billy Budd might encourage the crew to perceive him as weak. This might create trouble on the ship.