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Ralph Rackstraw
Ralph is the main character of the production. He is seen among the sailors to represent the ideal sailor in Victorian eyes for he is known for his devotion to the duties of sailing and his image as a loyal crewman. Ironically Ralph's abilities on board ship are limited by his poor balance. Yet instead of navigational and officer duties, Rackstraw has been assigned to work in the upper rigging of the ship.
    Ralph demonstrates love for the captains daughter, Josephine, but is aware his class as a common sailor prevents any chance of marriage between him and the daughter of an aristocrat.
    On a different level Rackstraw can be seen as a satire on the use of a hero in literature. Rackstraw personifies the qualities of a dutiful sailor and a hero in an exaggeration which stretches so far as to enjoy acknowledgment from the admiralty and crew as a perfect sailor (though his balance troubles the performance of his duties).

    Captain Corcoran's daughter Josephine loves Ralph Rackstraw but, aware he is of lower social class, knows she may not marry him.  Josephine, an aristocrat herself, is engaged to Sir Joseph though she barely meets class requirements as ordained by Joseph. Hesitant to commit to Joseph, Josephine appears worried to her father and the admiral. Corcoran suggests that Sir Joseph's rank overwhelms her. Joseph's assurance that 'love levels all ranks' only convinces her to marry Ralph despite his class prompting objection from her father and Sir Joseph.
    Josephine serves partially as the innocent in the work.  More so she is a plot device of indecisiveness. To an extent she stereotypes the Victorian role of women for she is initially considered helpless and unable to act for herself for her father takes charge of arranging her marriage. Her over dramatic disposition and violent shifts of mood mock the aristocracy.

Captain Corcoran
    Captain Corcoran, captain of Her Majesty's Ship Pinafore, serves as a comical device and a satire of incompetence, British custom, and the role of the gentleman. Corcoran absurdly addresses his crew in an excessively gentlemanly tone, partially prompted by Sir Joseph's orders.  Corcoran, the "last person to insult a British sailor," stands preoccupied with etiquette and manners toward his crewmen rather than attending to any serious matters. Gilbert reveals in dialogue between Corcoran and Sir Joseph that the only reason Corcoran is a captain comes from birth to a family of wealth.
    Corcoran has attempted to arrange marriage for his daughter Josephine and Sir Joseph yet Ralph is found to stand in the way. Corcoran demonstrates hypocrisy about his courtesy as his restraint on anger dissolves upon learning his daughter desires to marry Ralph. Corcoran, like Sir Joseph, openly claims to sympathize with all classes as equals those this sympathy rarely extends beyond the aristocracy. Corcoran's arrogance is humorous though as it is portrayed through exaggeration and satire.

The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. First Lord of the Admiralty
     Sir Joseph personifies the target Gilbert and Sullivan aimed for when compiling HMS Pinafore. Joseph, an aristocrat who rose to power by associating with the bureaucracy of the British government, has made a career of apple polishing for his superiors.  Pinafore, itself a work of satirization through exaggeration, relies much on Sir Joseph to characterize and portray absurdities and targets of mockery (see song: When I was a Lad) Gilbert later described Sir Joseph in text:

Now as England is a great maritime country it is very important that all Englishmen should understand something about men-of-war. So as soon as it was discovered that his ignorance of a ship was so complete that he did not know one end of it from the other, some important person said: "Let us set this poor ignorant gentleman to command the British Fleet, and by that means give him an opportunity of ascertaining what a ship really is."
Sir Joseph's commentary on the issue of class further mocks the aristocracy of the day for after noting that "love levels all ranks" decides that a certain marriage would be stretching it too far.  Sir Joseph's commentary on rank, overemphasis on foolish traditions and etiquette, and general inability within the navy he rules serve a purpose as a key comic device.

Miss. Cripps (Buttercup)
    Miss Cripps, better known as Little Buttercup, serves important plot, comical, and satirical purposes.  Buttercup, who in actuality is anything but little, is a local peddler of goods to sailors in port.  She is well acquainted with the crew of the Pinafore as well as Captain Corcoran.  Much of her satire plays on the tendency of the aristocracy to turn over the care of children to a nurse. As an adolescent Buttercup cared for younger children, including Captain Corcoran and Ralph Rackstraw.  She accidentally switched the two at a young age, by returning them to the wrong parents, one family being wealthy and the other poor.  The impoverished family, either of carelessness or simple incompetence did not realize the switch nor did the often away family of wealth. Gilbert targets the practice of hiring another to care for children by exaggeration again.
Dick Deadeye
    Dick Deadeye's role is both satirical and comical. Deadeye is the only true villain in the work.  Characterized by dislike from other crew members and a tendency to bluntly relay facts as he observes them.  As told by Bill Bobstay "but you can't expect a chap with such a name as Dick Deadeye to be a popular character - now can you?"  This stereotypical villain, one who often serves as the model for stereotyped villains in modern stage and film productions, serves the plot by relaying Josephine's plan to marry Ralph to the Captain. Ironically the melodramatic bluntness of Deadeye make him the only character in the entire play who speaks with any true wisdom and logic. Gilbert intentionally created him as such to mock the society surrounding him on shipboard, the Victorian culture of England at the time.

Boatswain Bill Bobstay
    The Boatswain serves minor purposes as both a companion of Rackstraw and a mediator of events. His service of counsel is often found as he boosts morale at times of conflict or depression through observation and song.

    Hebe, Sir Joseph's first cousin, is one of the many "sisters, cousins, and aunts" who accompany Sir Joseph "wherever he may go."  At the conclusion of Act II Sir Joseph takes Hebe as his wife. Naturally the other women accompanying him leave immediately. Hebe's primary function is that of a target at the practice of marriage within the blood line among the upper aristocracy.

1999. Analysis written by PWM. All Rights Reserved.