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Claggart is about thirty-five years old, intelligent, pallid, and of small stature. His character is not terribly complicated. He is the symbol of evil in the book, the serpent to Adam (Billy Budd) and Billy's tempter and destroyer. Because he is envious of everything that Billy stands for -- youth, beauty, innocence, purity, and acceptance -- he tries to get rid of him by cunning and wicked means, a Satanic figure at work. In order to protect his own reputation and job, he does not do the dirty work himself; instead, he cajoles his underlings into torturing Billy. They charge him with all types of infractions of the rules and tempt him with money to join a mutinous plot against the captain. After Billy has been set up, Claggart then approaches Vere directly and accuses Billy of planning a mutiny. Claggart's timing is perfect and obviously planned. The Indomitable is alone on the sea, having sailed away from the British fleet, and Vere is nervous about the attitude of his men due to the recent mutinies in the British navy.
Claggart is an enigma in many ways. Nothing definite is known about his past, but rumors abound. It is supposed that he has joined the navy later in life to escape imprisonment for some crime. Many even suspect that he is not British, for he speaks with a slight accent. There is no clear explanation for his intense dislike of Billy Budd other than jealousy over the young sailor's handsome appearance and popularity. It is also mysterious that he never attacks Billy himself in anyway. In fact, he is normally kind and friendly to his face, proving his hypocritical nature.
When Claggart dies as a result of his own machinations, no one is particularly sorry. Captain Vere has never liked or trusted him, and says after his death he is like a dead snake. Most of the sailors openly fear him. Those who he has manipulated probably feel relieved to be out from underneath his grip. The irony of the death of this evil being is that he is lauded in the press as a "loyal" king's man, who was victimized by Billy Budd.
The commander of the Indomitable is entirely human. Billy, as the symbol of innocence, and Claggart, as the symbol of evil, represent types of two extremes, while Vere is a flesh-and-blood ordinary man who works hard and intelligently to understand and control his environment. He is respected as the commander of his ship for being a fair, but strict, disciplinarian, who has the interest of his crew at heart. His name, in fact, means truth.