Gonzalo is among the men cast ashore during the tempest that opens the play. He serves as a counselor to Alonso, the King of Naples, though he once worked in Prospero’s service, back when he was Duke of Milan. In fact, Gonzalo helped Prospero and Miranda escape Milan. He filled their shabby boat with food, clothing, and prized books on the magic arts from Prospero’s library. The care he took to ensure Prospero and Miranda’s survival indicates an innate kindness and compassion that he continues to embody throughout the play. Gonzalo attempts to get other characters to act kindly toward one another. In Act II, for instance, Gonzalo chastises Sebastian for blaming the shipwreck on Alonso. “My lord Sebastian,” he says: “The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness / And time to speak it in. You rub the sore / When you should bring the plaster” (II.i.). With these lines, Gonzalo articulates his philosophy that kindness is always more productive harshness.
For all that Gonzalo represents a beacon of kindness, he’s also somewhat naïve. For instance, when he tries to cheer Alonso up at the top of Act II, his words only offer cold comfort: “Beseech you, sir, be merry. You have cause, / So have we all, of joy, for our escape / Is much beyond our loss” (II.i.). Alonso, who believes he’s just lost his son to the sea, doesn’t find Gonzalo’s cheerful words very consoling, despite their good intentions. Gonzalo’s naïveté also provides a source of amusement for Antonio and Sebastian, who talk circles around him and laugh at his expense. Yet Gonzalo may not be as naïve as these two cynics believe. He knows he’s an object of ridicule, but he remains steadfast in the face of their inconstancy. At one point, when Antonio tells him not to get upset on account of their jokes, Gonzalo responds maturely: “No, I warrant you, I will not adventure my discretion so weakly” (II.i.). Ultimately, with the reconciliation that concludes the play, Gonzalo’s kindness wins out over his companions’ cynicism.