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At an English seaport, Lieutenant Ratcliffe of the H.M.S. Bellipotent is picking men for the ship's next expedition. A large handsome sailor is immediately chosen and taken aboard the ship, Billy Budd.
As the Bellipotent pulls out, Billy hops up on the prow to say goodbye to his old crew. He is yelled at to get down, but he didn't mean any harm.
Things are going pretty well for Billy Budd aboard the Bellipotent. The one problem, though, is that he keeps getting in trouble for stupid little things like not putting away his hammock properly.
Billy decides to go ask the Dansker, a wise old Danish man, why he can't keep out of trouble. The Dansker tells him that it's because Claggart doesn't like him, but Billy is incredulous. He has no idea why this would be so.
A few days later, Billy's below deck and the ship lurches, causing him to spill his soup just as Claggart is walking by. Claggart cracks a joke about it and Billy and all the men crack up. Billy thinks it's a sign that the Dansker doesn't know what he's talking about.
A bit later, Billy is snoozing aboard deck when an afterguard (one of the men from the lower decks) sneaks up to him in the night and asks him to assist with a mutiny against the captain. Billy becomes furious and begins to stutter as he tells the afterguard to get away from him. The other men on the top deck rush up to see what's the matter, but Billy simply tells them that the afterguard was on the top deck when he wasn't supposed to be.
Billy's confused. He sees the afterguard in the light of day, and he's nothing but friendly. When Billy asks the old Dansker what's up, he tells him that it's somehow related to Claggart. Billy doesn't understand.
A few days later, Claggart approaches Captain Vere and begins to allude to some problems among the crew. Vere is very suspicious of Claggart. He asks him to name names. Claggart names Billy Budd.
When Claggart begins to list more evidence against Billy, Vere decides that they will continue the conversation in his cabin with Billy present. Billy is not suspicious as he strolls to Vere's cabin. When he comes inside and hears Claggart's accusation, he is shocked. His stutter kicks in with full force and he cannot respond.
Vere tries to soothe Billy, but Billy's hand shoots out and he punches Claggart in the face.
Vere has Billy go in the back of the cabin and he calls the surgeon, who immediately can tell that Claggart is dead.
Vere can see what is coming. Unjust as the situation is, Billy is going to hang.
Billy testifies before court in Vere's cabin. He says that it is true that he killed Claggart but that it is not true that he was involved in a mutiny. Vere passionately tells Billy that he believes him.
Billy fails to mention the incident with the afterguardsman, but it's only because he can't imagine accusing another member of the crew.
Billy is condemned to hang in the morning. Vere himself goes to tell Billy the news.
In the morning, Billy appears on the deck ready to be hung with the entire crew gathered round. His last words are, "God Bless Captain Vere!" (25.2).