Character Deep Dive: Elizabeth Swann

Keira Knightley in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean

Portrayed by: Keira Knightley
Film: Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise

To define Elizabeth Swann in a word, one automatically thinks “badass”. What makes her so intriguing as a character is that she has got it all–brains, courage, beauty, unwavering loyalty, compassion, and a selfless heart, all which establish her a vital role in the events of the first three movies. Naturally, fans quickly invested in her development and her story. Although many take issue with her ending, she remains a popular figure among franchise fans, and I think it’s because at the core, Elizabeth Swann possesses a strength so steadfast, it could only be admired. 

When we think of character introductions, it’s hard to argue the brilliance of the scene when the audience sees Captain Jack Sparrow for the first time. In less than two minutes, the scene establishes the tone of the character with the least amount of dialogue possible–we quickly surmise that this is no ordinary man; he oozes rare confidence, quick wit, honor, and charm while ever-present nonconformity screams about his presence. Compared to this iconic scene, Elizabeth’s own introduction may seem hardly important, but it exposes us to the very key characteristics we need to know about Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth Swann and the Introduction to Rebellion

In the film’s opening scene, we see a young Elizabeth in a ship as she and her father are escorted to Port Royal, where her father is governor. The well-dressed Elizabeth’s fascination and knowledge with pirates is immediately discussed, which is extremely out of place for a young woman in her position in society. Right away, we know she is someone who is different, perhaps a little naive about the dangers of piracy, since we learn and shortly see the brutality and violence that pirates seem to be capable of. As she watches over a young Will Turner, we see a glimpse of Elizabeth’s defiance from her father (and essentially, the British empire) by stealing Will’s necklace, partly because of her fascination with piracy, but also displaying compassion because as she later reveals, she believed that Will was a pirate and feared for his safety. 

We continue to see Elizabeth reject the societal norms of her time in the first film. She openly displays impropriety by addressing Will by his first name as they’re older and visibly displays boredom during Commodore Norrington’s ceremony and disinterest in a potential marriage with him. This is someone who wants more out of her life rather than to live by the expected role of a governor’s daughter. Figuratively, the island of Port Royal represents the trapped nature of Elizabeth. The sea, which surrounds the island and Elizabeth, is a constant reminder of the potential life that’s out there for Elizabeth–much like for Jack Sparrow, the sea means freedom for Elizabeth Swann. The moment Elizabeth falls into the rocks and plunges into the water during Norrington’s proposal and Jack dives in to save her, Elizabeth’s story shifts to her journey towards piracy. When Jack removes her dress and her corset, it symbolizes the life she will leave behind–the propriety, the status, the luxury, and British rule. 

The Acute Observance

One aspect that enables to adapt well to a pirate environment is her ability to acutely observe and quickly process information and think on her feet on the spot. On many occasions, she utilizes her femininity to her advantage. Despite having no experience at sea, Elizabeth Swann immediately begins offering ideas to fight off Barbossa and the Black Pearl after her rescue. She is able to get Jack drunk in order to send a signal out to the Royal Navy, and spits out Barbossa’s words about the pirate’s code being more of “guidelines” to convince others to help her, leading Sao Feng to believe she is Calypso, and negotiates an exchange after realizing that Will and Jack plan for Jack to kill Davy Jones.

Her ability to assess a complex situation and render a solution that benefits nearly all parties almost immediately demonstrates an analytical mind true of a great leader. However, this ability is not without her burdens. At the end of Dead Man’s Chest, Elizabeth recognizes that while Jack is alive, she and the rest of the crew will not survive in their attempt to make it out to land. Knowing that Jack won’t reject her advances, and under the guise of admiration for him, she distracts him with a kiss before chaining him to the Black Pearl for the Kraken to kill him. She also lies and tells the crew that Jack elected to stay behind to give them a chance. It’s a cold and calculating manipulation, but it was done out of necessity to save the lives of everyone else. 

Elizabeth’s ability as a natural leader is one crucial aspect that leads to the pirate’s success against the East India Trading Company and Davy Jones. A shining moment of this is immediately after Sao Feng’s death. With his dying breath, Sao Feng names Elizabeth captain, making her one of the pirate lords. Sao Feng’s first mate and men are visibly against this decision and claim that she is not their captain. As their ship is overrun by the Flying Dutchman, she and the crew are taken aboard Davy Jones’ vessel. A reunion with Norrington brings a quick moment of relief to see a familiar face, but after he offers her his quarters, Elizabeth stands firmly with the crew, despite their dislike for her, and remains with them while Norrington arranges their escape.

Elizabeth Swann gains the respect of her crew because of her bold address to Davy Jones and her ability to neglect her own comfort for the cause she believes in. However, her true display of leadership comes when convinces all the pirates to fight against their enemy in a rallying speech as she literally stands above the others and reminds them to fight for their freedom. It is a pivotal moment for Elizabeth as she is no longer the damsel in distress figure that she was in the first movie. She is not just the Pirate King because Jack basically gave the role to her.

The Pirate King, The Wife, The Mother

She is the Pirate King. She is the leader that the pirates choose to follow for, to die for. She knows the fight ahead is a difficult one, but she is the leader that willingly marches into battle, proud of who she represents and with them until her dying breath. 

Of course, one of the key aspects of Elizabeth throughout the films is her relationship with Will Turner. Their romance was hard-earned, enduring so much danger, separation, and bloodshed. Elizabeth loved Will for who he was, and not once did that love falter. She is devoted to him–that devotion is evident when she negotiates with Lord Beckett on behalf of Will’s freedom and after Will returns ten years after he becomes captain of the Flying Dutchman. She is there, happily awaiting his return along with her son, which is a direct contrast to Davy Jones and his relationship with Calypso. Whereas Calypso’s love for Davy Jones was unpredictable, Elizabeth’s love for Will was resolute. Although they experience some issues, once she meets Bootstrap Bill, she finally understands his actions to try to rescue him and picks up on the prearranged plan between Jack and Will and uses her power as Pirate King to help get Jack close to Davy Jones. Despite their best efforts, she and Will didn’t get the happy ending in the direction they had desired.

I know Dead Men Tell No Tales is not exactly a favorite among fans, but I think we can all agree that we were screaming for joy when the two finally reunited. A lot of people dislike how Elizabeth goes from Pirate King badass to a mother returning to civilized life, but I think it takes a long of courage and remarkable strength for Elizabeth to spend a good part of her life unable to see the man she loves except only once every ten years and raise a son alone. She, without the shadow of doubt, absolutely deserved the moment of getting her husband back. 

Elizabeth Swann’s evolution was a journey that broke the rules. She stands her ground and puts up a fight when she has to, but uses her intelligence to make sure she is always a step ahead of the men. She fully embraces a pirate’s life, yearning for adventure and relishing it. It’s no wonder that she quickly goes from “being rescued” to the one that does the rescuing. Her courage and her determination makes her a strong character that makes rooting for some “bloody pirates” all the more fun and meaningful. 

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