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FREE: William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”: A Retelling in Prose


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David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 2, Scenes 4-5

— 2.4 —

“Where are you, sir?” Merecraft called.

Merecraft andEngine entered the room.

Fitzdottrel said to his wife, “I see thou have no talent in this area of expertise, wife. Go up to thy gallery; go, chuck.Leave us who understand it alone to talk about it.”

“Chuck” was a term of endearment, but it need not necessarily be said endearingly.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel exited.

“I think we have found a place to fit you now, sir: Gloucester,” Merecraft said.

“Oh no, I’ll have nothing to do with Gloucester!” Fitzdottrel said.

“Why not, sir?” Merecraft said.

“It is fatal,” Fitzdottrel said.

Many dignitaries of Gloucester had died violently or under suspicious circumstances.

“You are right,” Merecraft said. “Spenser, I think, the younger,had his last honor from Gloucester. But he was only an earl.”

Hugh le Despenser’s father-in-law had been the Earl of Gloucester. When his father-in-law died, Hugh le Despenser was sometimes called the Earl of Gloucester.

“I did not know that, sir,” Fitzdottrel said. “But Thomas of Woodstock, I’m sure, was Duke of Gloucester, and he was made away with at Calais, as Duke Humphrey was at Bury. And King Richard III — you know what end he came to.”

Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, was murdered in 1397.

Duke Humphrey of Gloucester was the Lord Protector of King Henry VI; he died under suspicious circumstances in 1447.

King Richard III died in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth.

“By my faith, you are knowledgeable in the contents of the historical chronicle, sir,” Merecraft said.

“No, I confess I have my history from the playbooks, and I think they’re more authentic than the historical chronicle,” Fitzdottrel said.

Plays such as William Shakespeare’s histories were popular on the stage, but Shakespeare and other playwrights of the time did such things as compress time: Events that took years in real life could seem to take only a few days when presented on the stage. Playwrights also invented characters and ignored facts when convenient for their purposes.

“That’s surely true, sir,” Engine said.

“What do you say to being duke of this, then?” Fitzdottrel asked.

He said quietly the name of a place.

“No, a noble house lays claim to that,” Fitzdottrel said. “I will do no man wrong.”

“Then listen to one more proposition,” Merecraft said, “and hear it as past exception.”

“What’s that?” Fitzdottrel asked.

“To be duke of those lands you shall recover. Take your title from there, sir: Duke of the Drowned-lands, or Duke of the Drowned-land.”

“Ha! That last has a good sound! I like it well,” Fitzdottrel said. “The Duke of Drowned-land!”

“Yes,” Engine said. “It’s a name like Green-land, sir, if you notice.”

“Aye, and drawing thus your honor from the work, you make the reputation of that work greater, and that reputation will stay the longer in your name,” Merecraft said.

Every time people heard “the Duke of Drowned-land,” they would remember the great task of draining the swampland. Since Fitzdottrel would be the Duke of Drowned-land, the glory of draining the swampland would for a long time be attached to his name.

“That’strue,” Fitzdottrel said. “Drowned-lands will live in Drowned-land! The memory of Drowned-lands will live in the title of Duke of Drowned-land!”

Merecraft said, “Yes, it will live on in the title when you have no foot of land left, as that must be, sir, one day.

“And, even though it tarry in your heirs some forty, fifty descents, yet the longer liver must at last thrust them out of it, if no quirk or quibble in law or odd vice of their own doesn’t do it first.”

He was saying that eventually the recovered land would pass out of the possession of Fitzdottrel’s descendants: Someone else would own it. Perhaps the land would be left to the longer-lived of two people: one of Fitzdottrel’s descendants and perhaps the descendant’s creditor. If the creditor lived longer, the creditor would possess the recovered land. If the creditor happened to be a lawyer, the lawyer would possess the land.

Merecraft continued, “We see those changes daily. The fair lands that were the client’s are the lawyer’s now, and those rich manors there of goodman tailor’s had once more wood upon them than the yard by which they were measured out for the last purchase.”

One of Fitzdottrel’s descendants could overspend so much on extravagant clothing that the tailor would end up possessing the land.

“Nature has these vicissitudes. She makesno man a state of perpetuity, sir.”

“You’re in the right,” Fitzdottrel said. “Let’s go in, then, and conclude our business.”

Pug entered the room.

Seeing Pug, Fitzdottrel said, “Are you in my sight again? I’ll talk with you soon.”

Fitzdottrel, Merecraft, and Engine exited.

— 2.5 —

Alone, Pug said to himself, “Surely, he will geld — castrate — me if I stay. Or worse, he will pluck out my tongue. He will do one of the two.

“This fool, there is no trusting him. And to quit him would be a show ofcontempt against my chief past pardon.

“It was a shrewd disheartening this, at first! Who would have thought a woman so well harnessed, or rather well-caparisoned, indeed, who wears such petticoats and lace to her smocks, broad laces to cover the seams in her stockings (as I see them hang there), and garters that are lost, if she can show them, could have done this? Hell!”

Pug was wondering how Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel could dress so well and yet be so resistant to committing adultery. Why would a woman dress so well if not to attract someone who would beg a garter as a gift to treasure?

He continued, “Why is she dressed so splendidly? It cannot be to please Duke Dottrel, surely, nor the dull pictures of ancestors that hang in her gallery, nor to please her own dear reflection in her mirror.”

A dottrel is a stupid bird.

Pug continued, “Yet that last one may be true: I have known many women to begin their pleasure, but none to end it, there — that last one I consider to be right, as I think about it. Women may, for lack of better company, or lack of company that they think the better, spend an hour, or two, or three, or four, discoursing with their shadow, aka reflection. But surely they have a farther speculation. No woman dressed with so much care and study dresses herself in vain.”

According to Pug, any woman who dressed so well and had such a husband must be looking for a lover.

“I’ll consider this problem a little more before I leave it, surely.”

He exited.


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David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 2, Scenes 2-3

— 2.2 —

Pug said, “I have no singular service of this now, nor no superlative master!”

Pug had come to London to do villainy, but there was nothing singular about that because Londoners were already doing lots of villainy. Also, his master was not superlative. Pug’s chief, Satan, wished to do evil, but Pug’s earthly master, Fitzdottrel, was doing lots of evil. But Fitzdottrel was not a superlative master because so many people were willing and certainly seemed capable of doing evil to him.

Pug continued, “I shall wish to be in Hell again, and at my leisure!”

And why should he not be at leisure in Hell? People such as Fitzdottrel and Merecraft were already doing lots of evil. Even such a man as Wittipol was devoting himself to tempting a married woman to commit adultery.

Pug continued, “Should I bring a Vice from Hell? That would be as crafty a scheme as to bring broadcloth here to England, or to transport fresh oranges into Spain.”

There was no need to transport fresh oranges into Spain because Spain had lots of fresh oranges. There was no need to bring broadcloth here to England because England had lots of broadcloth. There was no need to bring a Vice from Hell to London because London had lots of vice.

He continued, “I find out the truth now. My chief was in the right. Can any fiend boast of a better Vice than by nature and practice they’re already owners of here?

“May Hell never own me if I am not impressed by such villainy as is here in London! The fine appeal of it pulls me along! To hear men grown such experts in our subtlest sciences!”

Certainly Merecraft was an expert in the art of conning greedy men.

Pug then said, “My first act now shall be to make this master of mine a cuckold. I will practice the earliest work of darkness!

“I will deserve so well of my fair mistress, by my revelations and useful information first, my advisory counsels afterward, and keeping secret counsel after that, as whosoever is one who sleeps with her, I’ll be another; to be sure, I’ll have my share. Most delicate damned flesh she will be!”

Pug intended to be one of those who slept with Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel and cuckolded her husband.

He continued, “Oh, that I could delay time now! Midnight will come too fast upon me, I fear, to cut my pleasure —”

At midnight he would return to Hell, thus cutting the amount of time he would have to sleep with Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel. Indeed, if midnight came fast enough, he would have no time to sleep with Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel entered the room and said, “Go to the back door. Someone is knocking; see who it is.”

Pug said to himself as he exited, “Dainty she-devil!”

Alone, Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said to herself, “I cannot get this venture of the cloak out of my fancy, nor the gentlemanly way Wittipol took, which, though it was strange, yet it was handsome, and had a grace that was beyond the originality.

‘Surely he will think me that dull stupid creature he talked about, and may end his attempt to seduce me, if I don’t find a way to thank him. He did presume, knowing that I was thinking about it, that I would give him an answer; and he will swear that my brain is very barren if it can yield him no return.”

Pug returned.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel asked him, “Who is it at the back door?”

Pug said, “Mistress, it is — but first, let me assure the very best of mistresses that I am, although my master’s manservant, my mistress’ slave, the servant of her secrets and sweet actions, and I know what fitly will conduce to either.”

“What’s this? I tell you to come to yourself and think what your job is: to make an answer to my question. Tell me this: Who is it at the door?”

“The gentleman, mistress, who paid the price of a cloak to speak with you this morning, and who expects only to take some small commandments from you — whatever commandments you please that are worthy your form, he says, and your gentlest manners.”

“Oh!” she said. “You’ll soon prove to be his hired man, I fear. What has he given you for this message?

“Sir, tell him to put off his hopes of straw and stop spreading his nets in full view like this.”

“Hopes of straw” are “no hopes.” The purpose of the net was to capture her the way that a woodsman would capture a bird.

She continued, “Although the nets may capture Master Fitzdottrel, I am no such fowl — nor a fair one, tell him — who will be had with stalking.

“And tell him tonot appear to me at the gentleman’s chamber-window in Lincoln’s Inn there, that opens to my gallery.”

The Fitzdottrels lived next to Lincoln’s Inn. Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel’s gallery — a large reception room — was close to a window at Lincoln’s Inn.

She continued, “If he does not, I swear that I will acquaint my husband with his folly and leave him to the just rage of his offended jealousy. Or if your master’s sense will be not so quick to right me, tell him I shall find a friend who will repair — mend — me. Say I will be quiet in my own house! I tell you, in those words give my message to him.”

Her words could be interpreted as a coded message to Wittipol, telling him to 1) communicate with her by making use of the window at Lincoln’s Inn, 2) be her “friend” — a word that can mean “lover” — who would mend her, perhaps in bed, and 3) know that she will be quiet in her own house — for example, when her husband was gone.

But her words were deliberately misleading and ambiguous in order to fool Pug: She was telling Wittipol that he should notappear at the window in Lincoln’s Inn. The word “friend” did not have to mean “lover.” The word “quiet” could mean “unmolested.”

Pug said to himself, “This is some fool turned!”

“Turned” meant “out of his — or was it her — wits.”

Perhaps he meant, “Wittipol is a fool whom my mistress is turning away.”

He exited to give Wittipol her message.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said to herself, “If Wittipol is the master now of that state and intelligence which I think that he is, surely he will understand me.

“I dare not be more direct because I find already that this officious fellow, my husband’s new servant, is a spy my husband has set upon me.

“Yet, if Pug just tells Wittipol my message using my words, Wittipol cannot but know that he is both understood and requited.

“I would not have him think he met a statue, or spoke to someone who was not there, although I remained silent when he spoke to me in my husband’s presence.”

Pug returned, and she asked him, “What is your news? Have you told him my message?”

 “Yes,” Pug replied.

“And what does he says?” she asked.

“What does he say?” Pug said, “He says that which I myself would say to you, if I dared.

“He says that you are proud, sweet mistress, and also that you are a little ignorant — that you don’t know enough to entertain the good that’s proffered to you by him.

“And, pardon me for saying this to one as beautiful as you, he says that you are not all as wise as some true politic — crafty — wife would be, who, having married such a nupson, such a simpleton — my apology to my master — whose face has left to accuse him now, for it confesses him what you can make him, but will yet, out of scruple and a spiced — dainty — conscience, defraud the poor gentleman, or at least delay him in the thing he longs forand makes it his whole study how to compass only a title. If he would just write cuckold as his title, he would have what he deserved.”

According to Wittipol — and Pug — Fitzdottrel had a face that accused him of being a fool who deserved to be a cuckold, although he was not yet one, due to the dainty conscience of his wife. If Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel were like other wives, the ones who were crafty, she would help him get what he wanted: a title. True, the title that he wanted was the title of duke, but she could give him the title that he deserved: the title of cuckold.

Pug continued, “For, look you —”

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel thought, This can be nothing but my husband’s plan.

Pug was not talking to her the way a servant should. A servant would relay Wittipol’s message, but Pug was adding that Wittipol’s message is what he himself would say to her. Wittipol wanted her to commit adultery with him, and Pug was saying the same thing but about himself. Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel believed that this was a trap that her husband had set for her.

Pug continued, “— my precious mistress —”

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel thought, It creaks his engine — his trickery creaks. This servant would never dare otherwise to be so saucy if my husband had not put him up to this.

Pug continued, “— if it were not clearly his worshipful ambition, and the top of it, the very forked top, too” — readers should be thinking of the horned top of a cuckold — “why should he keep you thus walled up in a back room, mistress, never allow you a window opening to the street due to his fear of your becoming pregnant by the eyes with gallants? Why should he forbid you paper, pen, and ink, as if they were rat poison? Why should he search your half pint of muscatel lest a letter be sunk in the pot? And why would he hold your newly laid egg against the fire, lest any charm be written in invisible ink there?”

Lemon juice makes a good invisible ink. When heated, the dried juice turns brown and what is written becomes visible.

Pug continued, “Will you make yourself a benefit from knowing the truth, dear mistress, if I tell the truth to you? I don’t do it often!

“I am set over you, employed, indeed, to watch your steps, your looks, even your breaths, and report them to him.

“Now, if you will be a true, right, delicate, sweet mistress, why, we will make a cokes — a fool — of this ‘wise’ master. We will, my mistress, make of him an absolute fine cokes — and we will openly mock all the deep diligences of such a solemn and effectual ass, an ass to so good purpose as we’ll use him.

“I will contrive it so that you shall go to plays, to masques, to meetings, and to feasts.

“For why have all this rigging and fine tackle, mistress — all this fine clothing — if you neat handsome vessels of good sail do not ever and often put forth with your netsabroad into the world? It is your fishing.

“There you shall choose your friends, your servants, lady, your squires of honor.”

These friends, servants, and squires of honor would be her lovers.

Pug continued, “I’ll convey your letters, fetch answers, do you all the offices that can belong to your blood and beauty.

“And for the variety, when I am inclined, although I am not in due symmetry the man of that proportion, or in rule of medical science of the just complexion, or of that truth of fine fashion in clothes to boast a sovereignty over ladies, yet I know how to do my turns as a lover, sweet mistress.”

Pug was offering himself as a lover — for variety — to Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel. In doing so, he was engaging in false modesty, calling himself a man without a fine body, a fine face, or fine clothes. Actually, the hanged cutpurse whose body Pug had possessed had a fine body and a fine face, and Pug had gotten fine clothes elsewhere.

Pug continued, “Come, kiss —”

“What is this!” Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said.

Pug said, “Dear delicate mistress, I am your slave, your little worm that loves you, your fine monkey, your dog, your servant, your pug, that longs to be styled one of your pleasures!”

Thinking that this was a trap and that her husband was watching, Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said loudly, “Did you hear all this? Sir, please come out from your hiding place so you can applaud your servant who so well follows your instructions!”

— 2.3 —

Fitzdottrel entered the room and asked, “What is it, sweetheart? What’s the matter?”

“Good man!” his wife said, sarcastically, “You are a stranger to the plot! You did not set your saucy Devil here to tempt your wife with all the insolent uncivil language or action he could vent and express?”

She still believed that he had used Pug to set a trap for her.

Fitzdottrel asked Pug, “Did you do that, Devil?”

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said, “Not you? Weren’t you planted in your hole upon the stairs so you could hear him? Or weren’t you here, behind the wallhangings? Don’t I know your personal character? Did he dare to do it without you giving him directions? That is not possible!”

“You shall see, wife,” Fitzdottrel said, “whether he dared to do it on his own, or not, and what it was I directed him to do.”

He left, but immediately returned, carrying a cudgel.

“Sweet mistress, are you mad?” Pug asked.

He could guess who the cudgel was for, and he would like to get out of a beating by lying and blaming his mistress for giving false information to her husband.

“You most absolute rogue!” Fitzdottrel saidto Pug. “You open and clearly revealed villain! You fiend apparent, you! You declared Hell-hound!”

He began to beat Pug with the cudgel.

“Good sir!” Pug said.

“Good knave, good rascal, and good traitor!” Fitzdottrel said. “Now I find you to be part-devil indeed. Upon the point of trust? In your first charge? The very day of your probation? To tempt your mistress?”

Pug’s job had been to keep Fitzdottrel’s wife from committing adultery, yet he was attempting to persuade her to commit adultery.

Fitzdottrel saidto his wife, “You see, good wedlock — good wife — how I directed him.”

“Why, where, sir, were you?” Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel asked.

If he hadn’t been spying on her, then where had he been?

Fitzdottrel paused and then hit Pug again with the cudgel.

He said to Pug, “There is one more blow, for exercise; I told you I would do it.”

He had said that he would beat Pug if Pug displeased him. He also had said that he beat his servant for exercise.

Pug replied, “I wish that you were done beating me!”

Fitzdottrel said, “Oh, wife, the rarest, most splendid man!”

He struck Pug again and said, “Yet there’s another blow to help you remember the last one.”

He said to his wife, “Such a splendid man, wife, is inside! He has his projects, and he vents them. They are the gallantest projects!”

He said to Pug, “Were you tentiginous — horny? Ha? Would you be acting like an incubus, an evil spirit that sleeps with women at night? Did her silks’ rustling excite you?”

“Gentle sir!” Pug said.

“Get out of my sight!” Fitzdottrel shouted. “If thy name were not Devil, thou would not stay a minute with me. Go in! Yet stay. Yet go, too. I have decided what I will do; and you shall know it beforehand — as soon as the gentleman has gone, do you hear? I’ll help your lisping.”

Pug, who had been sputtering, exited.

“Wife, such a man, wife!” Fitzdottrel said. “He has such plots! He will make me a duke! No less, by heaven. You will have six mares to your coach, wife! That’s your share. And your coachman will be bald because he shall be bare enough!”

It was the fashion for the coachmen of rich ladies to be bareheaded.

“Don’t you laugh,” Fitzdottrel added. “We are looking for a place all over the map for me to be duke of. Have faith, and don’t be an infidel when it comes to me. You know I am not easily gulled and made a fool of.

“I swear, when I have my millions, I’ll make another woman a duchess, if you don’t have faith in me.”

“You’ll have too much, I fear, in these false spirits,” Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said.

She believed that he would invest too much money in conjurors: Her husband had not yet identified the man he had been talking to.

“Spirits? Oh, no such thing, wife!” Fitzdottrel said. “Wit, mere wit! I’m talking about intelligence and skill. This man defies the devil and all his works! He does his work by the use of ingenuity and devices, he does! He has his winged plows that go with sails and plow forty acres at once! And he has mills that will spout out water from ten miles away!

“All Crowland is ours, wife; and the fens, from us in Norfolk to the utmost bound of Lincolnshire!”

Crowland was a town in marshy territory in the north of England. Fitzdottrel was hoping to drain the marshes, aka fens, and make a huge profit from the recovered land.

Fitzdottrel continued, “We have viewed it, and measured it within all, by the scale! It is the richest tract of land, love, in the kingdom! There will be made seventeen or eighteen millions, or more, depending on how well it is handled! Therefore think, sweetheart: If thou have a fancy to one place more than another to be duchess of, name it now. I will have it, whatever it costs, if it will be had for money, either here, or in France, or in Italy.”

“You have strange fantasies!” his wife replied.


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David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 1

— 2.1 —

Merecraft the projector, Trains (Merecraft’s manservant), and three waiters entered the room, joining Fitzdottrel and Engine. The waiters were possibly the attendants of Merecraft’s clients and were waiting to get instructions from Merecraft. Or possibly they were helping Merecraft to con Fitzdottrel.

Merecraft was accurately named. His name meant “only tricks”: He was a con man who preyed on the greed of his clients. By promising to make them rich, he was able to get their money for himself.

He said to Fitzdottrel, “Sir, money’s a whore, a bawd, a drudge, fit to run out on errands; let her go. Via, pecunia!

This was Latin for “The way or path, the money!” The Italian via, however, meant “away” or “leave” or “onward.”

Merecraft wanted Fitzdottrel to let his money go so he — Merecraft — could possess it.

He continued, “When she’s run and gone, and fled and dead, then I will fetch her again with aqua-vitae — distilled spirits — out of an old barrel. While there are lees of wine, or dregs of beer, I’ll never lack money.”

He would use the lees of wine or dregs of beer to distill aqua-vitae.

He continued, “Coin her out of cobwebs and dust, but I’ll have her! Raise wool upon eggshells, sir, and make grass grow out of marrow-bones to make her come.”

Merecraft said to the first waiter, “Commend me to your mistress. Tell her, let the thousand pounds just be had ready, and it is done.”

The first waiter exited.

Merecraft said, “I would just like to see the creature of flesh and blood, the man, the prince, indeed, who could employ so many millions as I would help him to.”

Fitzdottrel said to Engine, “How he talks! Millions?”

Merecraft said to the second waiter, “I’ll give you an account of this tomorrow.”

The second waiter exited.

Merecraft said, “Yes, I will talk no less, and do it, too, if they were myriads — and without the devil, by direct means; it shall be good in law.”

He was talking about making millions without the help of conjuring. He was claiming to be able to do so legally.

King James I of England opposed conjuring.

“Sir,” Engine said.

Merecraft said to the third waiter, “Tell Master Woodcock I’ll not fail to meet him upon the Exchange at night. Tell him to have the documents there, and we’ll dispatch the business.”

A woodcock is a proverbially stupid bird.

The third waiter exited.

Merecraft turned to Fitzdottrel and said, “Sir, you are a gentleman of a good presence, a handsome man. I have considered you as a fit stock to graft honors upon. I have a project to make you a duke now.

“That you must be one, within so many months as I set down out of true reason of state, you shall not avoid it. But you must listen, then.”

“Listen?” Engine said. “Why, sir, do you doubt his ears? Alas! You do not know Master Fitzdottrel.”

“Do you doubt his ears?” meant 1) “Do you think he is deaf?” and 2) “Do you doubt that he has the ears of an ass?”

“He does not know me indeed,” Fitzdottrel said. “I thank you, Engine, for rectifying and correcting him.”

“Good!” Merecraft said.

He turned to Engine and said, “Why, Engine, then I’ll tell it to you — I see you have credit here, and I’ll not question that you can keep counsel. He shall be only an undertaker — a business partner — with me in a most feasible business. It shall cost him nothing —”

“Good, sir,” Engine said.

“— unless he wants to invest money,” Merecraft said. “But he shall lend his countenance — that I will have — to appear in it to great men, for which I’ll make him one.”

Fitzdottrel would join with him in business, and that support would help impress great men — according to Merecraft. In return for Fitzdottrel’s support, Merecraft would make Fitzdottrel a great man — or so Merecraft said he would do.

Men can be greedy for social status just as they can be greedy for money.

Merecraft continued, “He shall not open his wallet. I’ll drive his patent — execute his commission, his royal license — for him.”

King James I of England gave monopolies to people to perform certain tasks that would result in profit for them and for the Crown.

Merecraft continued, “We’ll take in — include — citizens, commoners, and aldermen to bear the expenses, and blow them off again like so many dead flies when the business is carried.”

He was saying that he and Fitzdottrel would work with other people. The other people would pay the expenses. Sharing the profits was another matter. (“Take in” also means “deceive.”)

Red flag, that.

Merecraft continued, “The thing is for recovery of drowned land, whereof the Crown will have its moiety if it be owner; else, the Crown and landowners will share that moiety, and the recoverers of the drowned land will enjoy the other moiety for their return on their investment.”

Draining a swamp recovered land that could be used for profitable purposes.

A moiety is a share or part.

“The recovery of drowned land will take place throughout England?” Engine asked.

“Yes, which will arise to eighteen millions, seven the first year,” Merecraft said. “I have computed all, and made my survey down to the last acre. I’ll begin at the hollow, the lowest ground, not at the outskirts, the edges — as some have done, and lost all that they wrought, their timber-work, their trench, their banks all borne away, or else filled up with water again by the next winter. Tut, they never went the right and best way; I’ll have it all.”

“A gallant tract of land it is!” Engine said.

“It will yield a pound an acre,” Merecraft said. “We must rent cheap, always, at first.”

He then said to Fitzdottrel, “But sir, this project looks too large for you, I see. Come hither, we’ll have a lesser project.”

He motioned to Trains, his manservant, and said, “Here’s a plain fellow, you see him. He has his papers there, in a black buckram bag, and it will not be sold for the Earldom of Pancridge.”

No Earldom of Pancridge exists.

Merecraft then said to Trains, “Draw one out at random, and give it to me.”

Trains drew a paper out of the bag and gave it to him.

Merecraft said, “Project four. Dog skins? Twelve thousand pounds! Thevery worst, drawn out at first.”

Twelve thousand pounds is a lot of money, but according to Merecraft, this was the worst and least profitable of his moneymaking ideas.

“Please, let’s see it, sir,” Fitzdottrel said.

“It is a toy, a trifle!” Merecraft said.

“A trifle!” Fitzdottrel said. “Twelve thousand pounds for dogs’ skins?”

“Yes,” Merecraft said, “but you must know, sir, by my way of preparing and treating the leather to a height of better-quality goods, like your borachio of Spain, sir —”

A Spanish borachio is a wine bottle made from pigskin or goatskin.

Merecraft continued, “— I can fetch nine thousand for it —”

“From the King’s glover?” Engine asked.

Engine, another con man, was making it sound as if King James I of England was interested in purchasing great numbers of dog-skin gloves.

“Yes,” Merecraft said, “how did you hear that?”

“Sir, I know you can,” Engine said.

“Within this hour I can, and reserve half my secret,” Merecraft said.

He said to Engine, “Pluck another paper. See if thou have a more fortunate hand than Trains.”

Engine plucked out a second paper: one marked “Bottle-ale.”

Merecraft said, “I thought so. The very next worse to it! Bottle-ale. Yet, this is two-and-twenty thousand! Please pull out another two or three papers.”

“Good man,” Fitzdottrel said. “Wait, friend, by bottle-ale, you can make twenty-two thousand pounds?”

“Yes, sir,” Merecraft said. “It’s calculated to a penny-halfpenny-farthing. On the back of the paper, you may see it there. Read it.

“I will not reduce a harrington of the sum.”

A harrington is a farthing; it was named for Lord Harrington, who had a patent from the King that allowed him to coin farthings.

Merecraft continued, “I’ll win the sum in my water for making ale, and my malt, my furnaces, and the hanging of my copper vessels, the barreling, and the subtlety of my yeast, and then the earth — the clay — of my bottles, which I dig, turn up, and steep, and work, and fire in a kiln myself to a degree of porcelain.

“You will wonder at my calculations of what I will put up in seven years! For so long a time I ask for my invention.”

It would take seven years to produce and age the ale.

Merecraft continued, “I will save in cork, in my mere stoppering of the bottles, above three thousand pounds within that period of time, by gouging out the stoppers just to the size of my bottles, and not slicing the cork. There’s infinite loss in slicing the cork.”

Engine drew out another paper, which was marked “Raisins.”

“What have thou there?” Merecraft asked. “Oh, making wine out of raisins; this is in hand, now.”

Engine asked, “Isn’t it strange, sir, to make wine out of raisins?”

“Yes,” Merecraft said, “and as true a wine as the wines of France, or Spain, or Italy. Look at what kind of grape my raisin is, that wine I’ll render perfectly. From the muscatel grape, I’ll render muscatel wine. From the canary grape, I’ll render canary wine. From the claret grape, I’ll render claret wine. This is true of all kinds of grape, and I’ll lessen the prices of wine throughout the kingdom by fifty percent.”

“But, sir, what if you raze — wipe out — the other commodity: raisins?” Engine asked.

He was making a joke: punning on “raze” and “raisin.”

“Why, then I’ll make it out of blackberries, and it shall do the same,” Merecraft said. “It will just take more skill, and the expense will be less.

“Take out another paper.”

Fitzdottrel said, “No, good sir. Save yourself the trouble. I’ll neither look nor hear about any project but your first, there — the drowned land — if it will do as you say.”

Merecraft said, “Sir, there’s no place to give you demonstration of these things. They are a little too subtle.”

Red flag, that.

He continued, “But I could show you that the recovery of drowned land is so necessary that you must end up being what you want to be: a duke.

“You will become a duke despite the popular misconception that England bears no dukes.”

For many years in England there were no dukes, but with the accession of King James I, dukes had again appeared in England.

Merecraft said to Fitzdottrel, “If you will keep the land, sir; the greatness of the estate shall throw a dukedom upon you.

“But if you prefer to turn the estate to money instead of keeping the land, what may not you, sir, purchase with that wealth? Say you should part with two of your millions, to be the thing you would be — a duke — who would not do it?

“I say that I myself will, out of my dividend, bid for some pretty principality in Italy, outside the jurisdiction of the church.

“Now you, perhaps, fancy the mists of England rather? But — do you have a private room, sir, for us to withdraw to, to talk in more detail about this project?”

“Oh, yes,” Fitzdottrel said.

He called, “Devil!”

Merecraft said, “These, sir, are businesses that need to be carried out with caution, and in a cloud of secrecy.”

Red flag, that.

“I apprehend that they need to be done so, sir,” Fitzdottrel replied.

Pug entered the room, and Fitzdottrel asked, “Devil, where is your mistress?”

“She is above, sir, in her chamber,” Pug replied.

“Oh, that’s well,” Fitzdottrel said.

He then said to Merecraft, “Then go this way, good sir.”

“I shall follow you,” Merecraft said.

He then said, “Trains, give me the bag, and go immediately to commend my service to my Lady Tailbush. Tell her I have come from court this morning; say that I’ve got our business moved, and well. Entreat her to give you the fourscore angels — eighty coins — and see that they are disposed of to my counsel, the lawyer Sir Paul Eitherside. Sometime today I’ll wait upon her Ladyship and give her my report.”

Trains exited quickly.

Engine said, “Sir, how quickly Trains acts. Do you see?”

Merecraft asked, “Engine, when did you see my cousin Everill? Does he still stay at your quarter in the Bermudas?’

The Bermudas were a bad part of London.

“Yes, sir,” Engine said. “He was writing this morning very intensely.”

“Don’t let him know that I have come to town,” Merecraft said. “I have arranged some business for him, but I would take the business to him before he has time to think about it.”

Red flag, that.

“Is it past?” Engine asked.

“Not yet,” Merecraft said. “It is well on the way.”

“Oh, sir!” Engine said. “Your Worship takes infinite pains.”

“I love friends to be active,” Merecraft said. “A sluggish nature puts off man and woman.”

“And such a blessing follows it,” Engine said.

“I thank my fate,” Merecraft said.

He then said to Fitzdottrel, “Please, let’s go somewhere private, sir —”

“In here,” Fitzdottrel said.

“— where none may interrupt us,” Merecraft said.

He and Engine went into the private room.

Fitzdottrel said to Pug, “Listen, Devil. Lock the street doors fast, and let no one in — unless they are this gentleman’s followers — to trouble me.

“Have you been paying attention? You’ve heard and seen something today, and by it you may gather that my wife is a fruit that’s worth the stealing, and therefore she is worth the watching.

“Be sure, now, that you’ve all your eyes about you; and let in no lace-woman, nor bawd who brings French masks and cut-work embroidery.

“Do you understand? Let in no old crones who sell wafers and convey letters. Let in no youths disguised like country wives with cream and marrow-puddings. Much knavery may be conveyed in a pudding, much bawdy intelligence; they’re shrewd ciphers.

“Do not turn the key to any neighbor’s need, whether it be only to kindle fire, or beg a little fire — put the fire out, instead. Put it all out, to ashes, so that they may see no smoke.

“Or if neighbors need water, spill it; knock on the empty tubs, so that by the sound the neighbors may be forbidden entry.

“Say that we have been robbed if anyone comes to borrow a spoon, or something else.

“I will not have ‘good fortune’ or ‘God’s blessing’ let in while I am busy.”

Beggars would say, “Good fortune” or “God’s blessing,” while begging.

Pug said, “I’ll take care of it, sir. They shall not trouble you, even if they want to.”

“Well, do what I tell you to do,” Fitzdottrel said.

He joined Merecraft and Engine in the private room.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 1, Scenes 6-7

— 1.6 —

Fitzdottrel said, “Come, wife, this is the gentleman. No, don’t blush.”

“Why, what do you mean, sir?” Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said. “Do you still have your reason? Or have you lost your mind?”

“Wife, I don’t know that I have lent it forth to anyone, at least, without a pawn, wife, or that I’ve eaten or drunk the thing lately that should corrupt it,” Fitzdottrel said. “Therefore, gentle wife, obey me. It is thy virtue. Don’t argue with me.”

In this society, a good wife was an obedient wife.

“Aren’t you already enough the talk of feasts and meetings?” Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel asked. “Must you make a new topic for fresh gossip?”

Fitzdottrel said, “Why, careful wedlock — that is, you, my worried wife — if I have a longing to have one more tale told about me, what is that to thee, dear heart? Why should thou resent my delight, or cross it, by being solicitous when it doesn’t concern thee?”

“This does concern me,” Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said. “Yes, I have a share in this. The scorn will fall as bitterly on me, where both you and me are laughed at.”

“Laughed at, sweet bird?” Fitzdottrel said. “Is that what you have scruples about? Come, come, thou are a nyas.”

A nyas is an unfledged bird. An eyas is an unfledged hawk taken out of the nest for training. These words, however, were sometimes used interchangeably. Young birds are innocent, and when they are taken out of the nest, they cry. Fitzdottrel was saying that his wife was naïve.

Fitzdottrel continued, “Which of your great houses — I will not mean at home, here, but abroad — your families in France, wife, do not send forth something within a seven-years’-time that may be laughed at? I do not say seven months, nor seven weeks, nor seven days, nor seven hours, but seven years, wife. I give them time. Once, within seven years, I think they may do something that may be laughed at, in France — I keep my opinion about this, still.”

His point was that people in great houses — higher-class people — were laughed at; therefore, he was in good company. He was patriotic, however, and so talked about families in France.

He continued, “Therefore, wife, let them who wish to always laugh at me rather than weep for me.

“Here is a cloak that cost fifty pounds, wife, which I can sell for thirty, after I have seen all London in it, and London has seen me in it.”

Engine had said that the cloak was never made for under sixty pounds, but Fitzdottrel was a good judge of clothing and knew its worth.

He continued, “Today, I go to the Blackfriars Playhouse to seeThe Devil is an Ass. I will sit where people can see me, salute all my acquaintance, rise up between the acts, let fall my cloak, show everyone that I am a handsome man and that I have an expensive suit of clothing — that’s the special reason why we go to the theater: to be seen. That is true of all of us who pretend to stand to show displeasure for what is on the stage.”

If a man disliked a certain playwright, that man could attend one of the playwright’s shows, and in between acts stand up with an expression of disgust and ostentatiously leave — it did not matter whether the play was good or bad. Of course, a person could also do that as a way of being the center of attention and displaying his fine clothing.

Fitzdottrel continued, “The ladies ask, who’s that? For they come to see us, love, as we come to see them. Shall I lose all this because of the false fear of being laughed at?”

He said sarcastically, “Yes, certainly!”

He then continued without sarcasm, “Let them laugh, wife. Let me have such another cloak tomorrow, and let them laugh again, wife, and again, and then grow fat with laughing, and then fatter, all my young gallants — and let them bring their friends, too, to laugh at me.

“Shall I forbid them? No, let heaven forbid them. Or let their intelligence forbid them, if intelligence has any kind of control of them.”

Fitzdottrel took her to the side and spoke privately to her: “Come, give me thy ear, wife. That is all I’ll borrow of thee.”

He said to Wittipol, “Set your watch, sir.”

He said privately to his wife, “Thou are to only listen, and not speak a word, dove, to anything he says. I tell you that in precept, and as an order. This is no less than counsel, on your wifehood, wife. Do not speak to him even if he flatters you, or courts you, or flirts with you, as you must expect him to do, or let’s say, if he rails at you — whatever his skills are, wife, I will have thee delude them with a trick, which is thy obstinate silence.

“I know advantages, and I love to hit these meddling young men at their own weapons. He will use eloquence, and your response of silence will neutralize him.”

Fitzdottrel led his wife to a place for her to stand, and he set his watch.

He then said to Wittipol, “Is your watch ready? Here my sail bears, for you.”

He said to his wife, “Tack toward him, sweet pinnace.”

Women were often figuratively called pinnaces, which were small sailing boats; however, other meanings of “pinnace” included “prostitute” and the sexual meaning of “mistress.”

In a way, Fitzdottrel was prostituting his wife for a cloak.

Fitzdottrel asked Wittipol, “Where’s your watch?”

Wittipol answered, “I’ll set it, sir, with yours.”

They were synchronizing their watches so they could agree when fifteen minutes had ended.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said to herself, “I must obey my husband.”

Noticing how sad she looked, Manly thought, Her modesty seems to suffer with her beauty, and so, as if his folly were away, it were worth pity.

He meant this: Because her modesty seemed to suffer with her beauty, she was worthy of pity. And if Fitzdottrel were not capable of such folly, he would be worthy of pity.

Or, possibly, he meant this: Because her modesty seemed to suffer with her beauty, then if Fitzdottrel were not capable of such folly, her modesty and her beauty — that is, she herself — would be worthy of pity. If this is what he meant, he was blaming her for marrying a fool.

Or, possibly, he meant this: Because her modesty seemed to suffer with her beauty, then if Fitzdottrel were not capable of such folly and therefore was not deserving of punishment by being made an ass of, it would be good to pity her and not continue with this situation.

Fitzdottrel compared his watch with Wittipol’s watch and said, “Now thou are right; begin, sir. But first, let me repeat the contract briefly.

“I am, sir, to freely enjoy this cloak I am wearing, as your gift, upon the condition that you may as freely speak here to my spouse your quarter of an hour, always keeping the measured distance of your yard, or more, away from my said spouse, and in my sight and hearing.”

In this society, one meaning of “yard” was “penis.”

He then asked Wittipol, “This is your covenant — your agreement — with me?

“Yes, but you’ll allow for this time we spent just now?” Wittipol asked.

Fitzdottrel had spent a few seconds going over their covenant.

“Let’s set our watches back that much time,” Fitzdottrel said.

Changing his mind, Wittipol said, “I think I shall not need the extra time.”

“Well, begin, sir,” Fitzdottrel said. “There is your boundary, sir. Do not go beyond that rush-mat.”

“If you interrupt me, sir, I shall discloak you,” Wittipol said.

He then began speaking to Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel:

“The time I have purchased, lady, is but short, and therefore, if I employ it thriftily, I hope I stand the nearer to my pardon. I am not here to tell you that you are fair, or lovely, or how well you dress yourself, lady; I’ll save myself that eloquence of your mirror,which can speak these things better to you than I. And it is a knowledge wherein fools may be as wise as a court parliament.”

During medieval times, a court of ladies would rule on questions of courtly love.

Wittipol continued, “Nor do I come with any prejudice — preconceived idea — or doubt that you should, to the realization of your own worth, need least revelation. She’s a simple woman who does not know her good — whoever knows her ill — and in every respect.”

A proverb stated, “Any woman is simple-minded who fails to know what’s best for her.”

Wittipol continued, “That you are the wife to so much blighted flesh as scarcely has soul,instead of salt, to keep it sweet, I think will need no witnesses to prove.”

The soul keeps the body alive and preserves it from rotting, just as salt preserves the flesh of animals for eating. Fitzdottrel’s covetousness showed that he had little soul.

Wittipol continued, “The cold sheets that you lie in, with the watching candle that sees how, dull to any thaw of beauty, bits and pieces of time, and quarter nights, half nights, and whole nights, sometimes, the devil-given elfin — malignant — squire your husband leaves you, quitting here his proper circle for a much worse one in the walks of Lincoln’s Inn, under the elms, to expect the fiend in vain there, will confess for you. All of these things are evidence of how your husband regards you.”

Wittipol was pointing out that Fitzdottrel neglected her: his wife. He left her circle — her vagina — in order to go to the walks of Lincoln’s Inn to see a conjuror’s circle in the vain hope of seeing the Devil.

“I looked for this nonsense,” Fitzdottrel said. “I expected you to say such things.”

Wittipol continued, “And what a daughter of darkness he makes you, locked up away from all society you wish to visit or object you wish to see.

“Your eye is not allowed to look upon a face under a conjurer’s — or under some mold, aka top of a head, hollow and lean like his — except but by such great means as I now make to allow you to see my face.”

Wittipol meant that Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel was allowed to look at no male faces except those under a conjuror’s mold or crown (both words mean “top of head”) or the face that was under her husband’s mold or crown, which was hollow (due to lacking a brain) and lean (the human brain is mostly made of fat: almost 60 percent).

He continued, “Your own too acutely felt sufferings, without the extraordinary aids of spells or spirits, may assure you, lady.”

Assure her of what? Wittipol was hoping that her acutely felt sufferings would assure her that she ought to spend time with him.

“As for my part, I protest against all such practice. I work by no false arts, medicines, or charms to be said forward and backward.”

Fitzdottrel said, “No, I object —”

“Sir, I shall ease you of the burden of that cloak,” Wittipol said.

He made a motion as if he were going to take the cloak from him.

Fitzdottrel said, “I am mum.”

Wittipol said to Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel, “Nor have I designs, lady, upon you more than this: to tell you how Love, Beauty’s good angel, he who waits upon her at all occasions, and no less than Fortune helps the adventurous, in me makes that proffer which never fair one was so fond to lose who could but reach a hand forth to her freedom.

“On the first sight I loved you; since which time, though I have travelled, I have been in travail more for this second blessing of your eyes that now I’ve purchased than for all aims else.

“Think about it, lady. Let your mind be as active as is your beauty; view your object well. Examine both my fashion and my years.

“Things that are like are soon familiar; and Nature joys still in equality.”

Wittipol was referring to two proverbs: “Like will to like” and “Marry your equal.” He did not think that Fitzdottrel was Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel’s equal, and he did think that he himself and Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel were alike.

He continued, “Let not the sign of the husband frighten you, lady, but before your spring is gone, enjoy it. Flowers, though fair, are often but of one morning. Think, all beauty does not last until the autumn.”

He was referring to this proverb: “Beauty does fade like a flower.” And, of course, he was advising her to seize the day: Carpe diem.

Wittipol continued, “You grow old while I tell you this. And such as cannot use the present are not wise. If Love and Fortune will take care of us, why should our will be wanting? This is all. What do you answer, lady?”

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel stood mute.

Her husband thought, Now the entertainment comes. Let him continue to wait, wait, wait, while the watch goes, and the time runs.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel made a motion as if she would speak, and her husband thought, Wife!He shook his head at her.

“What!” Wittipol said. “You don’t speak any word? No, and so then I taste a trick in it. Worthy lady, I cannot be so false to my own thoughts of your presumed goodness to conceive this as your rudeness, which I see is imposed. Yet since your cautelous — crafty, wily — jailer here stands by you, and you’re denied the liberty of the house, let me take warrant, lady, from your silence — which always is interpreted as consent — to make your answer for you, which shall be to as good purpose as I can imagine, and what I think you’d speak.”

Since Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel would not speak, he would speak in her behalf.

He moved Manly, his friend, in front of him.

Fitzdottrel objected, “No, no, no, no!”

Manly was beyond the rush-mat and close to Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel.

“I shall resume, sir,” Wittipol said to Fitzdottrel.

He moved Manly back behind the rush-mat.

“Sir, what do you mean?” Manly asked Wittipol. “What are you doing?”

Wittipol said to Fitzdottrel, “One interruption more, sir, and you go into your hose and doublet, and nothing saves you. You will get no cloak.”

Because Manley was now behind the rush-mat and at least a yard’s distance from Fitzdottrel’s wife, Fitzdottrel ought not to object.

Wittipol then said to Fitzdottrel, “And therefore listen. This is for your wife.”

Manly would represent Wittipol, and Wittipol would represent Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel and speak for her: He was going to speak the words that he wished she would say to him.

Not quite sure what was going on, Manly said to Wittipol, “You must play fair, sir.”

Wittipol said to Manly, “Stand for me, good friend. Represent me as I represent Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel and speak for her.”

Wittipol then pretended to be Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel and spoke the words that he wished that she would say to him:

“Truly, sir, what you have uttered about my unequal and so sordid match here, with all the circumstances of my bondage, is more than true.

“I have a husband, and a two-legged one, but he is such a moonling — a lunatic and an idiot — as no wit of man or roses can redeem from being an ass.”

In the Metamorphosesof Apuleius, a work that is sometimes called The Golden Ass, a man named Lucius is transformed into an ass. He recovers his human form by eating roses.

Wittipol continued speaking the words that he wished Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel would say to him:

“He’s grown too much the story told by men’s mouths to escape his lading, aka burden. Should I make it my study, and plan all ways, and indeed even call mankind to help to take his burden off — why, this one act of his, to let his wife out to be courted, and at a price, proclaims his asinine nature so loudly as I am weary of my title — my legal right as his wife — to him.

“But sir, you seem a gentleman of virtue no less than of good birth, and one who in every way looks as he were of too good quality to entrap a credulous woman, or betray her.

“Since you have paid thus dearly, sir, for a visit, and made such venture on your wit and charge — the cloak — merely to see me, or at most to speak to me, I would be too stupid, or — what’s worse — too much of an ingrate if I were not to return your venture.

“Think but how I may with safety do it; I shall trust my love and honor to you, and I shall presume you’ll always husband and protect both my love and honor against this husband — who, if we chance to change his liberal ears to other ensigns, and with labor make a new beast of him, as he shall deserve, cannot complain he is unkindly dealt with.”

By committing adultery with Wittipol, she would change her husband’s ass’ ears to the horns of a cuckold. (Men with unfaithful wives were said to have invisible horns growing out of their forehead.)

Wittipol continued speaking the words he wished Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel would say to him:

“This day he is to go to a new play, sir, from whence no fear, no, nor authority, scarcely the King’s command, sir, will restrain him, now that you have fitted him with a garment he can wear while sitting on the stage, for the mere name’s sake, were there nothing else.”

The name of the play was The Devil is an Ass. Fitzdottrel would certainly want to see a play about devils; in addition, Wittipol had made an ass of the “devil” named Fitzdottrel by successfully tempting him with a cloak.

Wittipol continued speaking the words he wished Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel would say to him:

“And many more such journeys he will make, which, if they now or any time hereafter offer us opportunity, you hear, sir, me who’ll be as glad and eager to embrace, meet, and enjoy it as cheerfully as you.”

Wittipol now resumed his own voice and moved beside Manly and said to Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel, “I humbly thank you, lady.”

“Keep your ground, sir,” Fitzdottrel said.

He did not need to say that. Wittipol was still a yard away from Fitzdottrel’s wife.

“Will you be lightened by the removal of a cloak?” Wittipol said to Fitzdottrel.

Fitzdottrel said, “I am mum.”

Wittipol said to Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel, “And except that I am, by the solemn contract, thus to take my leave of you at this so envious distance, I would have taught our lips before this to seal the happy mixture made of our souls. But we must both now yield to the necessity of our parting.

“Yet do not doubt, lady, that I can kiss, and touch, and laugh, and whisper, and do those crowning courtships, too, for which day and the public have allowed no name — but now my bargain binds me and I must leave.

“It would be a rude injury to importune you any more, or urge a noble nature to what of its own bounty it already is prone to; otherwise, I would speak. But, lady, I love so well as I will hope you’ll do so, too.”

Wittipol then said to Fitzdottrel, “I have finished, sir.”

“Well, then, have I won?” Fitzdottrel asked.

Had he won the cloak? And had he won the contest for his wife?

“Sir,” Wittipol said, “and I may win, too.”

Fitzdottrel had won the cloak, but Wittipol hoped to win the wife.

Fitzdottrel said, sarcastically, “Oh, yes! No doubt of it. I’ll take care to order that my wife shall hang forth signs at the window to tell you when I am absent. Or I’ll keep three or four footmen ready always whose job shall be to run and fetch you when my wife longs to see you, sir. I’ll go and ordera gilt luxurious coach for her and you to take the air in — yes, you two shall ride into Hyde Park and thence into Blackfriars so you can visit the painters, where you may see pictures, and note the most good-looking limbs, and how to make them.”

The paintings would be of lovers. Wittipol and Fitzdottrel’s wife could study the paintings so that they could imitate the positions of the lovers.

Fitzdottrel continued, “Or what do you say to a middling gossip — a female go-between or panderer — to bring you together at her lodging under pretext of teaching my wife some rare recipe for making almond milk? Ha? It shall be a part of my care for my wife.

“Good sir, may God be with you. I have kept the contract, and the cloak is mine.”

“Why, much good may it do you, sir,” Wittipol said. “It may turn out that you have bought it at a high price, although I have not sold it.”

“A pretty riddle!” Fitzdottrel said. “Fare you well, good sir.”

Fitzdottrel turned his wife around so that she was not facing Wittipol as he said to her,“Wife, turn your face this way.”

He then said, “Look at me, and think you’ve had a wicked dream, wife, and forget it.”

Manly said, “This is the strangest puppet show I ever saw.”

He had witnessed a strange performance.

Wittipol and Manly exited.

Fitzdottrel said, “Now, wife, does this fair cloak sit the worse upon me for my great sufferings, or your little patience? Does it? Do they laugh, do you think?”

His wife replied, “Why, sir, and you might see them laughing. What they think about you may be soon known by paying attention to the words of the young gentleman’s speech.”

“Young gentleman?” Fitzdottrel said. “By God’s death! You are in love with him, are you? Couldn’t he be called ‘the gentleman,’ without the ‘young’? Go up to your room again.”

“My cage, you were best to call it!” she replied.

“Yes, sing there,” Fitzdottrel said. “You’d prefer to be makingblanc-manger with him at your mother’s! I know you.”

Blanc-manger is a dish made mainly of white ingredients, including fowl. Semen is white or whitish-gray, and Fitzdottrel was saying that his wife would prefer to be creating semen with Wittipol. In this society, the word “fowl” often meant “whore.”

He ordered his wife, “Go get you up to your room.”

His wife exited.

— 1.7 —

Pug the devil entered the room.

Fitzdottrel said, “How are you now! What do you say, Devil?”

“Here is a man named Engine, sir, who desires to speak with you,” Pug said.

“I thought he would bring some news about a broker!” Fitzdottrel said. “Well, let him come in, good Devil — or fetch him.”

Pug exited, and Engine entered the room.

Fitzdottrel said, “Oh, my fine Engine! What’s the affair? More cheaters?”

“No sir,” Engine said. “The wit, the brain, the great projector I told you of, has newly come to town.”

“Where is he, Engine?”

“I have brought him with me— he’s outside,” Engine said. “I brought him here even before he had time to pull off his boots, sir, but even so he was followed by people interested in conducting business with him.”

“You say that he is a projector, but what is a projector?” Fitzdottrel said. “I would like to understand that.”

Engine answered, “Why, a projector is a man, sir, who projects ways to enrich men, or to make them great, by petitions, by marriages, by undertakings, according as he sees they fancy it.”

People could petition the King for a monopoly to make a product or perform a service.

“Can’t he at all conjure?” Fitzdottrel said.

“I think he can, sir — to tell you the truth — but you know that recently the government has taken such note of conjurors, and compelled them to enter such great bonds, that the conjurors dare not practice their art,” Engine said.

“That is true,” Fitzdottrel said, “and I lie fallow for it all the while!”

In 1615, King James I had ordered the Lord Mayor of London to enforce more rigorously the laws restraining conjurors.

“Oh, sir!” Engine said. “You’ll grow the richer for the rest — the lying fallow — you are taking now.”

“I hope I shall,” Fitzdottrel said. “But Engine, you talk somewhat too much about my courses of action. My cloak-customer could tell me strange particulars.”

The cloak-customer — Wittipol — knew about Fitzdottrel’s dealings with conjurors, and Fitzdottrel believed that Engine must have told him about those dealings.

“By my means?” Engine asked.

“How else could he know about my courses of action?” Fitzdottrel said.

“You do not know, sir, what he has, and by what arts,” Engine said. “He is a moneyed man, sir, and he is as greatly involved with your almanac-men as you are!”

“Almanac-men” were men who created almanacs that contained weather predictions and medical lore. They were often astrologers.

“That gallant?” Fitzdottrel asked.

Uncomfortable, Engine changed the subject.

“You make the other man wait too long here,” Engine said, “and he is extremely punctual.”

“Is he a gallant?” Fitzdottrel asked.

“Sir, you shall see,” Engine said. “He’s in his riding suit, as he comes now from Court. But hear him speak. Minister matter to him, and then tell me whether he is a gallant.”


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David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 1, Scenes 4-5

— 1.4 —

Wittipol, Manly, and Engine talked together. Wittipol was a young gallant, Manly was his friend, and Engine was a middleman or broker. Engine was carrying a cloak.

Engine said to Wittipol, “Yonder Fitzdottrel walks, sir. I’ll go lift him for you.”

The phrase “lift him” meant 1) “make him excited in emotion” and 2) “excite his pride.” In addition, “lift” is a pun because some engines do the work of lifting.

“To him, good Engine, raise him up by degrees, gently, and hold him there, too,” Wittipol said. “You can do it. Show yourself now a mathematical — exact and calculating — broker.”

“I’ll warrant you that I will for half a piece,” Engine said.

A piece is a gold coin worth 22 shillings.

“It is done, sir,” Wittipol said. “Half a piece, it is.”

Engine took Fitzdottrel aside and spoke to him.

Manly asked, “Is it possible that there should be such a man?”

Engine and Wittipol were trying to persuade Fitzdottrel to do something that most husbands would never consider doing.

“You shall be your own witness,” Wittipol said. “I’ll not labor to tempt you past your faith.”

In other words, Manly would see the evidence for himself that yes, such a man exists; there was no need for Wittipol to persuade him that such a man exists. That kind of persuasion could result in a trial of faith, including faith that men are basically good.

“And is his wife so very beautiful, do you say?” Manly asked.

“I have not seen her since I came home from travel, and they say she is not altered,” Wittipol said. “According to other people, she still looks the same as when I left. Back then, before I went, I saw her only once; but even so, she has stayed always in my mind’s eye — no object has removed her.”

“Beauty is a fair guest, friend,” Manly said, “and once lodged deep in the eyes, she hardly leaves the inn. How does her husband, Fitzdottrel, keep her?”

“He keeps her very finely dressed,” Wittipol said. “However sordid he himself is, he is sensual that way. In every dressing he studies her.”

Fitzdottrel carefully looked at his wife in each outfit she wore, and he may have carefully studied her each time she dressed.

The word “sordid” means “dirty” or “mean.” Certainly, Fitzdottrel overvalued money in some areas of his life. As we have seen, he paid his one servant only four pounds a year. In other areas of his life, however, such as his wife’s clothing, he was willing to spend money.

“And he furnishes himself from the brokers?” Manly asked.

A broker was a middleman in bargains; for example, some people would go to a broker and pawn fine clothing. For special occasions, Fitzdottrel rented fine clothes for himself. He was willing to spend much money to dress himself well.

“Yes,” Wittipol said, “that’s a hired suit he now hason in order to see the play The Devil is an Ass today. This man named Engine gets three or four pounds a week by him. Fitzdottrel dares not miss a new play or a feast, whatever the rate he has to pay for hired clothes, and he thinks that he himself is still new in other men’s old.”

The clothing he wore may have been other men’s old clothing, but the clothing was new to Fitzdottrel.

“But wait,” Manly said, thinking about the feasts Fitzdottrel attended. “Does he love food so much?”

“Truly, he does not hate it,” Wittipol said. “But that’s not it. His belly and his palate would be compounded with for reason — he puts other priorities before his appetite. Indeed, he has an intelligence of that strange credit with him as opposed to all other men, as it makes him do just what it wishes. This strange obsession ravishes him forth wherever it pleases, to any assembly or place, and would make him conclude that he is ruined should he miss one public meeting because of the belief he has of his own great and catholic — universal and all-encompassing — strengths in arguing and discourse.”

Fitzdottrel attended feasts but not because of the food. He had convinced himself that he was a very intelligent man and a fine persuasive speaker, and that was why he attended so many public meetings and assemblies.

Engine had persuaded Fitzdottrel to try on the cloak.

“My plot is working, I see,” Wittipol said. “Fitzdottrel hasgot the cloak on him.”

Fitzdottrel said to Engine, “This is afair garment, I swear by my faith, Engine!”

“It was never made, sir,for under threescore pounds, I assure you,” Engine said.

Any assurance made by Engine ought not to be reassuring: He was a con man.

Engine continued, “It will yield thirty pounds if sold.”

Threescore pounds is sixty pounds. Engine meant that the cloak could be worn for a while and then sold used for thirty pounds. Or perhaps the cloak was worth thirty pounds, not sixty.

Engine continued, “The plush, sir, cost three pounds, ten shillings a yard! And then there is the cost of the lace and velvet.”

This was a very fancy and very expensive cloak.

“I shall, Engine, be looked at prettily when I wear it!” Fitzdottrel said. “Are thou sure the play is played today?”

Engine handed Fitzdottrel a paper and said, “Oh, here’s the playbill, sir. I forgot to give it to you.”

“Ha? The Devil is an Ass!” Fitzdottrel said. “I will not lose you, sirrah — I will not miss this play! But, Engine, do you thinkthat the gallant is so furious in his folly? So mad upon the matter that he’ll part with his cloak upon these terms you have told me?”

Engine said, “Trust not your Engine —”

Good advice, that.

He continued, “— if the gallant will not part with the cloak upon those terms, then break me to pieces, as you would a rotten crane or an old rusty jack-toolthat does not have one true wheel. Do just talk with him.”

“I shall do that to satisfy you, Engine,” Fitzdottrel said, “and myself, too.”

Fitzdottrelwent to Wittipol and Manly and said, “With your leave, gentlemen,which of you is he who is so complete an idolater to my wife’s beauty, and so very prodigal to my patience, that for the short parley of one swift quarter-hour’s conversation with my wife he will part with — let me see — this cloak here, the price of folly?”

Fitzdottrel thought that Wittipol was foolish to part with the cloak in return for fifteen minutes’ conversation with Fitzdottrel’s wife. Readers may think that Fitzdottrel was a fool for accepting the cloak in return for allowing Wittipol to have fifteen minutes’ conversation with Fitzdottrel’s wife.

He turned to Wittipol and asked, “Sir, are you the man?”

“I am that venturer, sir,” Wittipol said.

“Very good!” Fitzdottrel said. “Your name is Wittipol?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And it is told to me that you’ve travelled lately?”

“That I have, sir.”

“Truly, your travels may have altered your complexion,” Fitzdottrel said. “But surely, your intelligence stood still.”

“It may well be, sir,” Wittipol said. “All heads have not the same growth.”

Travel can alter people. It can make a complexion darker, and it can broaden one’s intelligence. Fitzdottrel was saying that Wittipol’s complexion may have changed, but his intelligence had remained the same — he had not grown more intelligent.

“The good man’s gravity that left you land, your father, never taught you these pleasant matches?” Fitzdottrel asked.

The word “match” has several meanings: 1) a husband or wife or lover, 2) an opponent, 3) a contest, and 4) a bargain.

Fitzdottrel was asking if Wittipol’s late father had taught him to make such bargains as the one Wittipol was now proposing. Perhaps the reason for Wittipol’s making such bargains was his father.

“No, nor can his mirth —the mirth of those with whom I make these pleasant matches — put me off,” Wittipol said.

Fitzdottrel was smiling at what he thought was the foolishness of Wittipol’s making such a bargain.

“You are resolved then to make this bargain?” Fitzdottrel asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Beauty is the saint you’ll sacrifice yourself to the very shirt?”

Would Wittipol give up his cloak and strip himself to the shirt in order to talk to a beautiful woman — another man’s wife — for fifteen minutes?

“So long as I may still clothe, and keep warm your wisdom!” Wittipol said.

The cloak would clothe Fitzdottrel and keep him warm; in addition, Wittipol would still have clothing to wear.

Wittipol was using the word “wisdom” ironically when using it to refer to Fitzdottrel. Each man thought that the other man was a fool.Currently, both men were right. Wittipol was pursuing Fitzdottrel’s wife, and Fitzdottrel was allowing Wittipol access to his wife.

“You lade me, sir!” Fitzdottrel said.

Fitzdottrel meant that Wittipol was lading him with a cloak — Wittipol was putting a cloak on Fitzdottrel’s back. One meaning of the verb “to lade” is “to load with gifts.” Readers may be forgiven for thinking of an ass being laden with a load.

Yet another meaning of “to lade” was “to burden with guilt.” Certainly, Fitzdottrel ought to feel guilty about the way he was acquiring this cloak, expensive as it may be.

“I know what you will bear, sir,” Wittipol replied.

An ass can bear a heavy load. Fitzdottrel could bear a heavy load of insults.

“Well, let’s get to the point,” Fitzdottrel said. “The point of this bargain is only, sir, you say, to speak to my wife?”

“Yes, it is only to speak to her.”

“And in my presence?”

“In your very presence.”

“And in my hearing?”

“Yes, in your hearing — as long as you do not interrupt us,” Wittipol said.

“For the short space you demand, the fourth part of an hour, I think I shall, with some convenient study, and this good help to boot” — Fitzdottrel lifted the cloak — “bring myself to agree to it.”

He shrugged himself into the cloak.

“I ask for no more,” Wittipol said.

“If you please, walk toward my house,” Fitzdottrel said. “Speak what you wish; that time is yours. My right I have departed with. But look for not a minute, or a second, beyond the fifteen minutes I have agreed to. Drawing out the length of time may much advance these matches, and so I will not allow it. And I forbid all kissing. Kisses are silent petitions always with willing lovers.”

Fitzdottrel knew that Wittipol wished to seduce his wife.

“Lovers?” Wittipol said. “How does your delusive imagination arrive at that fantasy?”

Wittipol wanted to be her lover — her only lover. Singular.

“Sir, I do know something,” Fitzdottrel said. “I forbid all lip-work.”

“I am not eager to go at forbidden dainties,” Wittipol said. “He who covets unfit things denies himself.”

He who covets unfit things denies himself the opportunity to be the best that he can be.

According to most people, Wittipol’s pursuing Fitzdottrel’s wife was unfit, but Wittipol regarded that wife as very fit, indeed. Wittipol may have convinced himself that pursuing Fitzdottrel’s wife was fitting for such a man as himself; he certainly regarded himself with more respect than he regarded Fitzdottrel.

“You say well, sir,” Fitzdottrel said. “That was prettily said, that same. He does indeed deny himself.

“I’ll have no touches, therefore, nor takings by the arms, nor tender circlescast about the waist — no hugs. Instead, all must be done at a distance.

“Love is brought up with those soft, dainty, delicate handlings.His pulse lies in his palm; and I forbid all melting joints and fingers. That’s my bargain I make with you — I forbid anything like physical action and touching.

“But talk, sir, and say whatever you will. Use all the tropes, figures of speech, and rhetorical devices that the classical rhetorician Prince Quintilian can give to you, and much good may it do your rhetoric’s heart. You are welcome, sir.”

He then said, “Engine, may God be with you.”

Wittipol said, “Sir, I must add the condition that I am allowedto have this gentleman — my friend Manly — present as a witness.”

“Well, I agree, as long as he is silent,” Fitzdottrel said.

“Yes, sir,” Manly agreed.

Wittipol, Manly, and Engine exited.

Pug had told Fitzdottrel that his name was “Devil,” and so Fitzdottrel called him that.

Fitzdottrel said to Pug, “Come, Devil, I’ll make you room in my house very soon. But I’ll show you first to your mistress, who’s no common one, you must conceive, that brings this gain to see her.”

His wife was so beautiful that she had brought an expensive cloak into his possession.

Fitzdottrel said to Pug, “I hope that thou have brought me good luck.”

“I shall do that, sir,” Pug said.

— 1.5 —

Wittipol, Manly, and Engine talked together in a room in Fitzdottrel’s house.

Wittipol said, “Engine, you hope to get your half piece? There it is, sir.”

He gave Engine eleven shillings and said, “Leave now.”

Engine took the money and exited.

Wittipol tapped Manly, who was staring into space, on his chest and said, “Friend Manly, who’s within here? Are you transfixed?”

“I am entirely in a fit of wonder,” Manly said. “What’ll be the outcome of this conversation you will have with Fitzdottrel’s wife?”

“As for that, don’t vex yourself until the outcome reveals itself,” Wittipol said. “How do you like Fitzdottrel?”

“I would gladly see more of him,” Manly said.

“What do you think about this?” Wittipol asked.

“I am past all degrees and all possible stages of logical thinking,” Manly said. “Old Africa and the new America with all their progeny of monsters cannot show so complete a freak as is Fitzdottrel!”

“Could you have believed, without seeing it yourself, that a mind so sordid inward should be so outwardly handsome and laid forth abroad to all the show that ever shop or ware was?” Wittipol asked. “He dresses as if he were a model advertising fine clothing.”

Fitzdottrel’s mind was sordid: dirty and ignoble. Despite this, however, he presented a handsome outward appearance — thus his appreciation of fine clothing and the expensive cloak that Wittipol had offered to him as a bribe to be allowed to talk to his wife.

“I believe anything now, although I confess that his vices are the most extreme I ever knew in nature,” Manly said. “But why does he loves the Devil so much?”

“Oh, sir!” Wittipol said. “He loves the Devil because of the hidden treasure he hopes to find, and he has proposed to himself that there is so infinite a mass of treasure to be recovered that he doesn’t care how much he transfers of his present wealth to his men of art — his conjurors — who are the race of men who may coin him: They are the kind of men who can take him and use him to make money for themselves. Make promises of mountains of gold, and the covetous are always the most prodigal.”

Conjurors were supposed to be able to get devils to tell them where treasure was hidden. Fitzdottrel believed that he would get mountains of gold, and so he was paying conjurors lots of money in anticipation of his great future wealth.

“But do you have faith that Fitzdottrel will hold to his part of the bargain?” Manly asked.

“Oh, dear sir!” Wittipol said. “He will not fail to live up to his part of the bargain. Fear him not. I know him. One baseness always accompanies another.”

Fitzdottrel’s accepting the cloak was one baseness; allowing Wittipol to speak to his wife was another.

Wittipol looked up and said, “See! He is here already, and his wife, too.”

Manly said about Fitzdottrel’s wife, “She is a wondrously beautiful creature — that statement is as true as the statement that I live is true!”


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David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 1, Scenes 2-3

— 1.2 —

Fitzdottrel, who was holding a picture of a devil, really wanted to see a devil. He had been trying to get help from occultists to do just that.

He said to himself, “Aye, they do now name Bretnor, as before they talked of Gresham, and of Doctor Forman, Franklin, and Fiske, and Savory — he was in on the murder, too — but there’s not one of these who ever could yet show a man the Devil in his true form.”

These people were con men, astrologers, and quacks. Some of them were connected with the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, who was poisoned in 1613. Anne Turner, who introduced the use of yellow starch in England, was executed in connection with that murder. Franklin was the apothecary who supplied the poison that killed Sir Thomas Overbury.

Fitzdottrel continued, “They have their crystals, I know, and rings, and virgin parchment, and their dead men’s skulls, their ravens’ wings, their candles, and pentacles with characters — I have seen all these.”

Charms were written on parchment; the skins of newborn lambs and kids (baby goats) are used to make virgin parchment. A pentacle is a pentagram; mystical characters were inscribed on pentagrams.

Fitzdottrel continued, “But — I wish that I might see the Devil! I would give a hundred of these pictures to see him once out in person and not in a picture.”

He looked at the picture of a devil and then said, “May I prove to be a cuckold, a man with an unfaithful wife — and that’s the one main mortal thing I fear — if I don’t begin now to think that the painters have only made up the Devil and that devils don’t really exist.

“By God’s light, the Devil would have been seen at one time or another if he really existed.

“The Devil would not let an antique gentleman of as good a family as most are now in England — because King James I sells titles for money — run wild and call upon him thus in vain, as I have done this past year.”

Fitzdottrel was an “antique” gentleman in the sense that the Fitzdottrels were a long-standing family of the gentle class.

He continued, “If the Devil does not at all exist, then why are there conjurers who say that they can summon devils? If they are not truly conjurors, then why are there laws against them? The best artists — learned men — of Cambridge, Oxford, Middlesex, and of London, Essex, and Kent, I have had in pay to raise the Devil these fifty weeks, and yet the Devil has not appeared. By God’s death, I shall suspect the conjurors can make circles only shortly — small circles made for only a short time — and know only his hard names.”

The conjurors had failed to summon the Devil. Why? Perhaps the circles they made around themselves for protection against the Devil they tried to summon were too small, or perhaps the conjurors gave up too quickly. Also, perhaps they lacked knowledge. Perhaps they knew only the names of the Devil — lists of these names were available — and lacked the other, specialized knowledge that a real conjuror possessed.

Fitzdottrel continued, “They say that the Devil will meet a man in person who has a mind to him. If he would do so, I have a mind and a half for him. By God’s light, he should not be long absent.

“I pray to thee, the Devil, come — I long for thee!

“If I were with child by him, and my wife, too, I could not long for thee more.

“Come, yet, good Beelzebub!”

Beelzebub was one of the Devil’s many names. “Good” is an adjective not normally applied to Satan.

Fitzdottrel continued, “If he were a kind Devil, and had humanity in him, he would come just to satisfy one’s longing.

“I would treat him well, I swear, and I would treat him with respect, if he were to test me.

“I would not treat him as the conjurers do when they have raised him. They put him in bonds, and send him posthaste on errands a thousand miles in distance. That is preposterous, and, I believe, that is the true reason he does not come. And he has good reason. Who would be bound, who might live freely, as he may do?

“I swear all the conjurors are wrong. The burnt child dreads the fire. They do not know to treat the Devil and keep him in service. I would so welcome him, observe his diet, get him his own chamber that is decorated with wall hangings — two of them — in my own house, lend him my wife’s embroidered pillows, and as I am an honest man, I think, if he had a mind to my wife, too, I would grant her to him, to make our friendship perfect. I would not do that for every man.

“I wish that the Devil would just hear me now, and would come to me in a brave young shape, and would take me at my word!

“Ha! Who is this?”

— 1.3 —

Pug walked over to Fitzdottrel. Pug had possessed the body of the recently hanged handsome young cutpurse, and he was nowdressed in a fine new suit.

Pug said, “Sir, I beg your good pardon for my thus presuming upon your privacy. I was born a gentleman, I am a younger brother, and I am in some disgrace now with my friends and need some little means to keep me upright, until things can be reconciled. May it please you to let my service be of use to you, sir.”

The bulk of an inheritance passed to the oldest son, and so a younger son, who was the oldest son’s brother, was often left with little wealth.

Pug was asking Fitzdottrel to employ him — to put him in service.

“Service?” Fitzdottrel said to himself. “Before Hell, my heart was at my mouth until I had viewed his shoes well, for those roses on his shoes were big enough to hide a cloven foot.”

Fitzdottrel had just asked the Devil to appear, and Pug had appeared, and so Fitzdottrel at first thought that Pug was the Devil, especially because the Devil was thought to have cloven feet that could be covered by the large roses that Pug was wearing on his feet.

Fitzdottrel carefully looked again at Pug’s feet to see if he could tell whether they were cloven. They weren’t, but Pug will explain that the Devil’s — and the devils’ — cloven feet are just a myth.

“No, friend, my number of servants is full,” Fitzdottrel said to Pug. “I have one servant, who is my all, indeed, and does everything from the broom to the brush, for just so far I trust him. He is my wardrobe man, buyer of provisions, cook, butler, and steward; he looks after my horse, and helps to watch my wife. He has all the places that I can think of, from the garret downward even to the manger and the curry-comb for currying horses. My one servant does all of that.”

“Sir, I shall put Your Worship to no charge other than my food, and as for my food I eat only a very little,” Pug said. “I’ll serve you for your friendship.”

Pug was offering to work for no wages, but only food. He did not ask for shelter because he was authorized to be on earth and out of Hell for only one day.

“Ha?” Fitzdottrel said. “You will work without wages? I’d hearken in my ear, if I were at leisure. But now I’m busy. Please, friend, forgive me. If thou had been a devil, I would say somewhat more to thee. Thou are hindering now my meditations.”

“Sir, I am a devil,” Pug said.

“What!” Fitzdottrel said.

“I am a true devil, sir.”

“Nay, now you lie — under your favor, friend, for I’ll not quarrel,” Fitzdottrel said.

This society had rules regarding duels. Normally, being called a liar meant challenging the person who called you a liar to duel. But using the phrase “under your favor” and using the word “friend” qualified the assertion enough that a challenge to duel need not be issued.

Fitzdottrel said, “I looked at your feet earlier; you cannot trick me. Your shoe’s not cloven, sir, you are whole hoofed. Devils have cloven hooves.”

Fitzdottrel looked at Pug’s feet again.

“Sir, that’s a popular error that deceives many,” Pug said. “But I am what I tell you I am: I am a devil.”

“What’s your name?”

“My name is Devil, sir.”

“Is what you are saying true?”

“Indeed, it is, sir.”

“By God’s eyelid!” Fitzdottrel said. “There’s some omen in this! What part of the country are you from?”

“I am from Derbyshire, sir, about the Peak Cavern,” Pug said.

“That hole belonged to your ancestors?”

“Yes, it is called the Devil’s Arse, sir.”

Fitzdottrel said to himself, “I’ll employ him for the namesake, and I will turn away my other manservant, and save four pounds a year by doing that! There’s luck, and thrift, too! The Devil himself may come hereafter as well.”

He said to Pug, “Friend, I receive you into my service. But first I must inform you of this beforehand: If you offend me, I must beat you. It is a kind of exercise I am accustomed to use, and I cannot be without it.”

“Yes, if I do not offend, then you can follow your rule, certainly,” Pug said.

If he never offended, he would never be beaten, and so Pug was OK with Fitzdottrel following that rule.

“Indeed, Devil, I will follow my rulevery heartily!” Fitzdottrel said. “I’ll call you by your surname, because I love it.”


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David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Cast of Characters; Act 1, Scene 1


SATAN the great devil

PUG the less devil (an imp)

INIQUITY the Vice. The Vice was a stock character, often comic, in medieval morality plays. The Vice’s job was supposed to be to tempt people to do evil. The Vice accompanied Satan. At the time of Ben Jonson’s play, the Vice is an old-fashioned, out-of-date character.

FABIAN FITZDOTTREL a squire of Norfolk (a dotterel is a foolish bird)

MISTRESS FRANCES FITZDOTTREL his wife. “Mistress” means “female head of the house.” She was the mistress or lady-boss of the servants — or servant — in the household. Her husband sometimes calls her “wedlock,” which is appropriate because her marriage is a form of imprisonment.

MERECRAFT the projector (“mere” means “solely,” “completely,” or “only”; “crafty” means “tricky” in an unethical sense). A projector comes up with moneymaking schemes; projectors need money to put into effect their moneymaking schemes. Merecraft is a con man.

EVERILL his champion and defender. Everill gets Merecraft access to wealthy men to defraud. Everill is a con man.

WITTIPOL a young gallant. “Wit” means intelligence, and “pol” means “head” or “parrot.” The name is ambiguous, so readers will have to study his character to see whether he is an intelligent man or merely an intelligent parrot. Even an intelligent parrot is not very intelligent.

EUSTACE MANLY his friend. Manly is a good and ethical man.

ENGINE a broker (a middleman; an engine is a piece of trickery). Engine is a con man.

TRAINS the projector’s (Merecraft’s) manservant (a train is a lure or a bait)

GILTHEAD a goldsmith (a gilthead is a fish with gold markings on its head)


SIR PAUL EITHERSIDE a lawyer and Justice (lawyers can argue for either side: prosecution or defense)


LADY TAILBUSH the lady projectress

PITFALL her female attendant (a pitfall is a trap)

AMBLER her gentleman usher

SLEDGE a blacksmith, the constable

SHACKLES jail keeper of Newgate prison




The Scene



In this culture, a man of higher rank would use words such as “thee,” “thy,” “thine,” and “thou” to refer to a servant. However, two close friends or a husband and wife could properly use “thee,” “thy,” “thine,” and “thou” to refer to each other.

The word “sirrah” is a term usually used to address a man of lower social rank than the speaker. This was socially acceptable, but sometimes the speaker would use the word as an insult when speaking to a man whom he did not usually call “sirrah.” Close friends, whether male or female, could also call each other “sirrah.”

A purse is used to carry money. Men carried what they called a purse.

The events of The Devil is an Ass take place in one day.

— 1.1 —

Satan and Pug, a minor devil, talked together in London. Pug had made a request to Satan that Satan was now laughing at. They were visiting earth, and Pug wanted to take possession of a body and stay there for a while.

“Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho,” Satan laughed. “To earth? And why do thou want to go to earth, thou foolish spirit? What would thou do on earth?”

“I want to go to earth to do, great chief, that which time shall show you,” Pug said. “I am asking only for my month on earth, which every petty, puny devil has. Within that length of time, the Court of Hell will hear something that may gain me a longer grant of time, perhaps, to spend on earth.”

Satan said, “For doing what?

“Laming a poor cow or two?

“Entering a sow to make her bear prematurely her farrow?

“Or somewhere between this place and the village of Tottenham crossing the path of a market-woman’s mare and diverting it from its destination?”

The village of Tottenham was only a few miles from London.

Satan continued, “These are your usual main achievements, Pug.

“You must have some plot now concerning the storing of ale in casks: You want to make the yeast stale.

“Or you want to manage the churn so that the butter doesn’t form, despite the housewife’s cord, or her hot spit. You want to keep the housewife’s cord or her hot spit from making butter.”

In this society, housewives believed that wrapping a cord around a churn or thrusting a hot spit into the cream would encourage the formation of butter.

Satan continued, “Or some good ribibe — old hag — about Kentish Town or Hoxton, in the area of north London, you would hang now for a witch because she will not let you play round Robin?”

Puck, in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is also known as Robin Goodfellow. He goes around and plays tricks such as some of the ones Satan says that Pug likes to perform. Puck’s tricks are annoying, but they are not life threatening.

Satan continued, “And you’ll go sour a citizen’s cream in preparation for Sunday, so that she may be accused of it, and condemned by a Middlesex jury, to the satisfaction of their offended friends, the Londoners’ wives, whose teeth were set on edge with it?”

Middlesex juries had a well-deserved reputation for severity.

Satan continued, “Foolish fiend, stay in your place, know your own strengths, and don’t go beyond the sphere of your activity. You are too dull, stupid, and foolish a devil to be trusted out in those parts, Pug, upon any affair that may concern our name on earth. It is not everyone’s work. The state of Hell must care whom it employs in point of reputation, here about London.

“You would make, I think, an agent to be sent to Lancashire properly enough, or some parts of Northumberland, as long as you would have good instructions, Pug.”

In other words, Pug could do good work in Lancashire or in Northumberland, but not in and around London, which is just too evil for an imp like Pug to deal with.

“Oh, chief!” Pug said. “You do not know, dear chief, what is in me.

“Test me for just a fortnight, or for a week, and lend me only a Vice to carry with me and help me corrupt any playfellow, and you will see that there will come more out of it than you’ll imagine, precious chief.”

A Vice was a companion of devils such as Satan. They had various names, which were the names of specific moral vices.

“What Vice?” Satan asked. “What kind of Vice would thou have?”

“Why, any,” Pug said. “Let the Vice be Fraud, or Covetousness, or Lady Vanity.

“Or old Iniquity — I’ll call him here.”

He called, “Iniquity!”

Iniquity the Vice appeared and said, “Who is he who calls upon me, and would seem to lack a Vice? Before his words are half spoken, I am with him in a trice, and here, there, and everywhere, as the cat is with the mice. I am truevetus Iniquitas.”

Iniquity the Vice knew Latin:Vetus Iniquitas is Latin for “old Inequity.”

The word “iniquity” means “gross injustice” or “wickedness.”

Iniquity the Vice said, “Do thou lack cards, friend, or dice? I will teach thee to cheat, child, to swindle and cheat, lie, and swagger, and forever and at once to be drawing forth thy dagger.

“I will teach thee to swear by Gog’s nowns — by God’s wounds — like a Lusty Juventus — like a Pleasure-Seeking Young Man.

“You will wear a cloak down to thy heel, and a hat like a penthouse, aka awning, Thy breeches will have three fingers of padding, and thy jacket will be all belly because it is stuffed with bombast — stuffing.

“And you will be with a wench who shall feed thee with aphrodisiacal cock-stones that are found in the gizzards of roosters — this wench will also feed thee with jelly.”

Iniquity the Vice skipped with delight.

Pug said to Satan, “Isn’t it excellent, chief? How nimble he is!”

Iniquity the Vice said, “Child of Hell, this is nothing! I willperform a leapfrom the top of the steeple of St.Paul’s Cathedral” — Iniquity the Vice was out of touch because lightning-caused fire had destroyed the steeple in 1561, and the current year was 1616 — “to the Standard, an ornamental pillar in Cheapside, and lead thee a dance through the streets without fail, as if I werea high-quality needle made in Spain, with a thread at my tail.”

Spanish lovers had a red-hot reputation, and readers can guess the meaning of a Spanish “needle.” (Non-metaphorical Spanish needles also had a reputation for good quality.)

The tail was the Vice’s bottom, and the non-metaphorical thread was his devil’s tail.

Iniquity the Vice now described a journey through disreputable areas of London, such as those filled with prostitutes, thieves, pubs, and lawyers:

“We will survey the suburbs, and make forth our sallies —

“We will go down Petticoat Lane and up the Smock Alleys — those haunts of prostitutes —

“We will go to Shoreditch, which is known for prostitutes; Whitechapel, which is known for thieves; and so continue on to St. Katherine’s precinct, which is known for pubs —we willdrink with the alcohol-loving Dutch there, and take away from there their patterns for weaving.

“From thence we will put in at Custom House Quay and see how the mercantile agents and apprentices play false with their masters; and geld — lighten — many a full pack, to spend it on pies at the Dagger and the Woolsack taverns.”

The mercantile agents and apprentices would steal items to sell to make money to spend on pies.

“Brave, brave Iniquity!” Pug said.

He then asked Satan, “Won’t this do, chief?”

Iniquity the Vice said:

“Boy, I will bring thee to the bawds and the roisterers feasting with claret wine and oysters at Billingsgate.

“From thence we will use oars to shoot boats upstream through the narrow arch-supports of the London Bridge, child, to go to the Cranes in the Vintry — three cranes used to upload wine from boats — and see there the gimlets that are used for piercing casks of wine, and see how they make their entry!

“Or if thou had rather go down to the Strand, in time to watch asthe lawyers come dabbled — they dabble in law — from Westminster Hall, and observe closely how they cling with their clients together. As ivy is to oak, so velvet is to leather.”

The lawyers wore velvet, and the clients wore leather.

Iniquity the Vice concluded, “Ha, boy, the things I would show thee!”

“Splendid!” Pug said. “Splendid!”

Satan said to Iniquity the Vice, “Be quiet, dotard!”

He then said to Pug, “And thou more ignorant thing, who so admires Iniquity the Vice, are thou the spirit thou seem to be? Are thou so poor and misguided that thou choose this for a Vice to advance the cause of Hell now, as vice stands this present year?

“Remember what number this year is: six hundred and sixteen.”

The year was 1616, but Satan did not want to number years using “A.D.,” which is an abbreviation of the Latin “Anno Domini,” which means “In the year of Our Lord.”

Satan was missing a thousand years in his reckoning.

Revelation 20:1-3 states this (King James Version):

1 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.

2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,

3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.

Most Christian authorities would say that these thousand years of imprisonment have not yet occurred, for they occur after the Second Coming of Christ.

Satan continued, “Had the number but been five hundred, though some sixty above — that’s fifty years gone, and six —”

He meant the year 560, although that year was actually 1560 A.D. From 616 take away 56, and you have 560. In the year 1560, the theatrical characters known as Vices were popular on the stage in England. By 1616, these characters were old fashioned.

Satan continued, “Back then, when every great man had his Vice stand by him — the Vice wearing a long coat and shaking his wooden dagger — I could consent that then this your grave choice might have done, with his lord chief, that which most of his chamber can do now. Back then, a Vice could be an effective diabolical companion.

“But Pug, as the times now are, who is it who will receive thee? What company will you go to, or whom will thou mix with?

“Where can thou carry the Vice, except to taverns? In a tavern, the Vice will stand on a joint-stool with a Jew’s harp, in order to put down and defeat the improvisatory jester Cokeley, and such performances must be before ordinary citizens. He never will be admitted there where Vennar comes.”

Richard Vennar announced that a new play would be performed on 6 November 1602 at the Swan Theater; he collected the admission money to see the play and then disappeared without having the play performed. According to Satan, Iniquity the Vice may be able to compete against the jester Cokeley in modest venues, but never could he compete against a con man such as Vennar, who operated in better venues.

Satan continued:

“Iniquity the Vice may perhaps, at the end of a sheriff’s dinner, skip with a rhyme on the table from new nothing — sing a doggerel song about nothing new — and take his almain — dancing — leap into a giant custard. This shall make my Lady Mayoress and her sisters laugh with all their French hoods over their shoulders.”

The Fool of the Lord Mayor of London would traditionally leap into a large bowl of custard as part of the entertainment at some feasts.

Satan continued:

“But this kind of thing is not what will do to accomplish the purposes of Hell.

“There are other things that are received now upon earth for Vices. There are stranger, and newer, Vices — and they are changed every hour.

“The newer Vices ride the older Vices like they ride their horses off their legs, and the older Vices come here to Hell, whole legions of them, every week, tired and exhausted.”

According to Satan, Vices such as old Iniquity could no longer compete with the new Vices that were appearing in London. The competition to commit vice had grown so fierce that Hell struggled to keep up.

Satan continued:

“We still strive to breed and rear up new Hell-Vices for Londoners, but the new Hell-Vices do not stand tall when they come to London. The Londoners turn our new Hell-Vices upside down and on our hands, and it is feared that the Londoners have a stud of their own that will put down ours.”

Satan was punning bawdily. The noun “a stand” means “an erection” and the verb “to stand” means “to have an erection.” The new Hell-Vices were impotent against the Londoners and their London-Vices.

Satan continued:

“Both our breed and trade will suddenly decay and dwindle unless we prevent it. Unless our Hell-Vice is a Vice of Quality or of Fashion now, the Londoners will not take it from us.

“Cart-men have gotten into the use of yellow starch, and chimney-sweepers have gotten into the use of their tobacco and strong waters: the strong ale known as hum, and mead, and obarni, which is scalded mead.”

A woman named Anne Turner introduced the use of yellow starch to England. In 1615, she was tried for complicity in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. Found guilty, she was forced to wear yellow ruffs at her execution, at which she confessed that the devil had possessed her.

Satan continued:

“We must therefore aim at sending extraordinarily subtle Hell-Vices now, when we send a Vice to London, to keep us up in credit. We must not send old Iniquities!”

Satan said to Iniquity the Vice, “Get you back all the way to Hell, sir. Return to the making of your rope of sand again.”

No one can make a rope out of sand; attempting to do so is meaningless work.

The punishments in Hell often consist of meaningless work, as these two punishments show:

1) The fifty sons of Aegyptus wanted to marry the fifty daughters of Danaus. Danaus was suspicious of Aegyptus and his fifty sons, so he fled with his fifty daughters, but Aegyptus and his fifty sons pursued them. To avoid a battle, Danaus told his fifty daughters to marry the fifty sons of Aegyptus, but although he allowed the marriages to be performed he also ordered his fifty daughters to kill the fifty sons of Aegyptus. All of his daughters except Hypermnestra, who had married Lynceus, obeyed. Hypermnestra spared Lynceus because he treated her with respect and did not force her to have sex with him their first night together. The gods did not like what the forty-nine women who had killed their husbands had done, and so those forty-nine daughters are punished in the Land of the Dead with meaningless work. They are condemned to spend all their time trying to fill up with water a container that has a big leak and so can never be filled. Only one daughter avoided this eternal punishment.

2) When Sisyphus was on his deathbed, he ordered his wife not to give his corpse a funeral. After his death, his spirit went to the Land of the Dead and complained to Pluto, King of the Dead, that he had not yet had a funeral. Pluto allowed him to return to the Land of the Living so that he could tell his wife to give him a funeral, but once he was back in the Land of the Living, he refused to return to the Land of the Dead. He lived to an advanced old age and then died again. Now he is forced to forever roll a boulder up a hill. Just as he reaches the top of the hill, he loses control of the boulder and it rolls back to the bottom of the hill again. Sisyphus can never accomplish this task, which has no value, and so his punishment is endless meaningless work.

Satan continued speaking to Iniquity the Vice:

“You are not for the Londoners’ manners, nor the Londoners’ times.

“They have their Vices there in London that are very similar to Virtues. You cannot tell them apart by any difference. They wear the same clothes, eat the same food, sleep in the same beds, ride in those coaches — or, very likely, four horses in a coach — as the best men and women.

“Tissue gowns, garters, and the shoe decorations known as roses, which are worth fourscore pound a pair,embroidered stockings, cut-work smocks and shirts — all of these are more certainly marks of lechery and pride now, than ever they were of true nobility!”

Religious people preached sermons against lechery and pride, both of which are deadly sins.

They also preached sermons against extravagant clothing and starch, including yellow starch. Tissue gowns were expensive — tissue cloth looked like cloth of gold. Roses were ornaments on the tops of shoes. Cut-work was elaborate embroidery with pieces of cloth cut out.

At one time in London, only the nobles wore such expensive clothing — laws of the time forbade wearing clothing designated for those above one’s station in life. But now, in 1616, because of the sinful nature of the Londoners, even the drivers of carts had been using yellow starch. Previously, you could separate the nobles and the common people in London, but now that was difficult. Previously, you could separate the vices and the virtues in London, but now that was difficult — often, what seemed to be a virtue turned out to be a vice.

Iniquity the Vice bowed his head in shame and exited.

Satan then said, “But Pug, since you burn with such desire to do the commonwealth of Hell some service, I am content that you assume a body, go to earth, and visit men for one day.

“But you must take a ready-made body, Pug. I can create you none. Creation is not reserved for devils such as me.

“Nor shall you form yourself an airy body, for instead you must become subject to all impressions of the flesh you take so far as human frailty. You will be able to feel pain.

“So, there is a handsome cutpurse to be hanged at Tyburn this morning. Once his spirit has departed, you may enter his body.

“As for clothes, employ your credit with the hangman, or let our tribe of brokers furnish you with clothing.”

Pug would go to earth and take possession of a naked dead body. He could get clothing from the hangman, part of whose compensation was the clothing of the people he hanged, or he could go to a pawnbroker, a member of a profession closely associated with Hell. Or he could find a third way to get clothing.

Satan continued:

“And see how far your subtlety can workthrough those organs; with that body, spy among mankind — you cannot there lack vices to spy upon, and therefore the less need you have to carry Vices with you. But as you make your soon-to-come early-at-night’s relation of your day to us, we will listen and if we shall find it merits reward from the state of Hell, you shall have both trust and employment from us.”

Satan was using the majestic plural.

“Most gracious chief!” Pug said.

“Only this much more do I bind you,” Satan said. “You must serve the first man whom you meet — and that man I’ll show you now.”

A mortal man named Fitzdottrel walked near them.

Satan continued:

“Observe him. Yonder is the man whom you shall see first, after you find some clothing to wear.

“Follow him. But once you are engaged to serve him, there you must stay and be fixed in that job, and not shift to any other employment until the midnight’s cock crows.”

“I agree to any conditions so long as I can be gone!” Pug said.

“Leave, then,” Satan said.

Satan and Pug exited.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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