David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 2

— 2.2 —

Mosca and Nano the dwarf, wearing disguises, arrived, carrying material for erecting a temporary stage. Their disguises were those of zanies — the mountebank’s assistants, who would also perform. Some curious people followed them.

Peregrine asked, “Who are these people, sir?”

He was either asking about the gentlemen to whom Sir Politic Would-be had claimed to impart his important knowledge, or he was asking about the newly arrived people.

Mosca said, “Under that window, there the stage must be.”

Nano the dwarf pointed to a window, and Mosca said, “The same.”

The window was part of Corvino’s residence.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “These are fellows who will mount a bank. Didn’t your instructor in the valuable languages ever discourse to you about the Italian mountebanks?”

A mountebank is someone like the proprietor of an American medicine show. The term “mountebank” originated in the late 16th century. It comes from the Italian montambanco, which in turn comes from monta in banco! This means, “Climb on the bench!” Often, the mountebank would stand on a bench or other raised platform while performing and while selling his medicine.

Mountebanks would mount a bank — climb upon a temporary stage, which was often made of a bench or benches — and entertain the crowd of people who would gather. The mountebanks would then sell the crowd of people quack medicines.

“Yes, sir,” Peregrine replied.

“Why, here you shall see one,” Sir Politic Would-be said.

“They are quacks,” Peregrine said. “They are fellows who live by venting — loudly advertising and selling — oils and drugs.”

“Was that the character he gave you of them?” Sir Politic Would-be asked. “Is that what sort of people he told you Italian mountebanks are?”

“That’s what I remember,” Peregrine said.

“Pity his ignorance,” Sir Politic Would-be said. “Italian mountebanks are the only knowing — knowledgeable — men of Europe! They are great general scholars, excellent physicians, very admired statesmen, and the professed favorites and private advisors to the greatest princes. They are the only languaged men of all the world! They know the most languages, and they speak the most skillfully!”

Sir Politic Would-be believed the lies that mountebanks said while speaking to the crowds.

Peregrine said, “And, I have heard, they are most ignorant impostors, whose language consists of fancy words and bits of knowledge to use to baffle their audience with bullshit. They lie about being the favorites of great men just as much as they lie about their own vile medicines; they tell these lies while also making monstrous oaths. They will sell a drug for two-pence, before they depart, that they have valued at twelve crowns previously.”

Sir Politic Would-be replied, “Sir, calumnies are answered best with silence. You yourself shall judge for yourself.”

He asked the disguised Mosca and Nano the dwarf, “Who is it mounts, my friends? Who is the mountebank?”

Mosca replied, “Scoto of Mantua, sir.”

Scoto of Mantua was a famous Italian mountebank who had performed juggling and sleight-of-hand tricks before Queen Elizabeth I in England around 1576.

“Is it he?” Sir Politic Would-be said.

He then said to Peregrine, “Now, then, I’ll proudly promise, sir, you shall behold a different man than the man who has been fantasied to you. I wonder, though, that he should mount his bank — his stage — here in this undistinguished nook. After all, he has been accustomed to appear in the main part of the Piazza!”

Of course, “Scoto of Mantua” — actually, Volpone — was performing here because he wanted to see Corvino’s wife at the window under which he would perform.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Here he comes.”

Volpone, disguised as a mountebank doctor, arrived. A crowd of people followed him.

Volpone said to the disguised Nano the dwarf, “Mount, zany. Climb up to the temporary stage.”

Nano the dwarf climbed up on stage; he would perform.

The crowd made excited noises.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “See how the people follow him! He’s a man who may write a check for ten thousand crowns on a bank here. He’s wealthy.”

The disguised Volpone now climbed up on the temporary stage.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Observe closely how he moves. I always observe closely his stateliness as he climbs on stage.”

“It is worth seeing, sir,” Peregrine said.

The disguised Volpone said to the crowd, “Most noble gentlemen, and my worthy patrons! It may seem strange that I, your Scoto Mantuano, who was always accustomed to fix my bank, aka stage, in the main part of the public Piazza, near the shelter of the Portico to the Procuratia, where VIPs are seen, should now, after eight months’ absence from this illustrious city of Venice, humbly retire myself and mount my stage in an obscure nook of the Piazza.”

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Didn’t I just now say the same thing?”

Peregrine shushed him, “Be quiet, sir.”

The disguised Volpone said, “Let me tell you that I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet, or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate than I am accustomed to sell them for. Don’t look for bargain-basement prices.”

The Lombard proverb about cold on one’s feet meant that someone was so impoverished that he would sell things very cheaply out of a deep need to buy necessities.

The disguised Volpone continued, “Also, don’t believe that the calumnious reports of that impudent detractor, and shame to our profession — Alessandro Buttone, I mean — who stated in public that I had been condemned a sforzato, aka slave, to the galleys, for poisoning the Cardinal Pietro Bembo’s … shall we say ‘cook’ … have at all taken possession of me as would a serious illness or an officer of the law, much less merely dejected me.

“No, no, worthy gentlemen; to tell you the truth, I cannot endure to see the rabble of these ground ciarlitani, aka charlatans, who spread their cloaks on the pavement and stand on them rather than on a stage, as if they meant to do feats of acrobatics, and then come in lamely, with their moldy tales out of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, like the stale Tabarine the storyteller did. Some of these ground ciarlitani talk about their travels and about their tedious captivity in the Turks’ galleys, when, indeed, if the truth were known, they were the Christians’ galleys, where very temperately they ate bread and drank water, as a wholesome penance, prescribed them by their confessors, for base pilferies.”

According to the disguised Volpone, the ground ciarlitani were lucky to be the slaves of Christians, who helped them to be temperate — a virtue — by giving them only bread and water for nourishment.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Observe closely the mountebank’s bearing and his contempt for his rivals.”

The disguised Volpone continued, “These turdy-facey-nasty-patey-lousy-fartical rogues, with one poor groat’s-worth of unprepared antimony, finely wrapped up in several individual scartoccios, are able, very well, to kill their twenty patients a week, and then these rogues play and have fun with the money they made.”

A groat was worth four-pence.

The disguised Volpone was using “antimony” to baffle his hearers with bullshit. Unprepared antimony is the silvery ore; antimony is a chemical element that is a grey metalloid. The antimony is poisonous and kills people. Volpone may have wanted his hearers to think of anti-mony as anti-monk or monks’ bane. Antimony was used effectively in chemical purification, but any monk foolish enough to swallow the poisonous antimony as a purgative would probably die.

A scartoccio was a piece of paper. A dose of medicine was placed in the piece of paper and sold.

The disguised Volpone was saying that his mountebank rivals took a little medicine — oops, I meant poison — divided it into a large number of individual doses, and then sold it to enough people that it would kill twenty people a week. This gave the rivals enough money to play for a week.

The disguised Volpone continued, “Yet, these meager, starved spirits, who have half stopped the organs of their minds with earthy oppilations that cause mental constipation, do not lack their favorers among your shriveled salad-eating artisans, who are overjoyed that they may have their half-pennyworth of medicine. Even though the medicine may purge them into another world, it doesn’t matter.”

The disguised Volpone was making fun of the salad-eating Italians. At least one of the English members of Volpone’s audience — the English were meat eaters — approved.

“Excellent!” Sir Politic Would-be said to Peregrine. “Have you ever heard better language, sir?”

“Well, let them go,” the disguised Volpone said. “And, gentlemen, honorable gentlemen, know that for this time our stage, being thus removed from the clamors of the canaglia — the riff-raff — shall be the scene of pleasure and delight, for I have nothing to sell, little or nothing to sell.”

“I told you, sir, his purpose,” Sir Politic Would-be said.

He believed that the mountebank’s purpose was to serve and improve Humankind, not to make money.

“You did so, sir,” Peregrine said.

The disguised Volpone continued, “I protest that I and my six servants are not able to make enough of this precious liquor” — he held up a glass vial of the “medicine” he was selling — “so fast is it fetched away from my lodging by gentlemen of your city, foreigners from Venice’s mainland holdings, honorable merchants, and yes, senators, too. These people, ever since my arrival here in Venice, have detained me to serve them by giving me their splendidous — most splendid — liberalities.

“And this has been to their great benefit, for what avails a rich man to have his storehouses stuffed with muscatel wine, or with wine of the purest grape, when his physicians prescribe him, on pain of death, to drink nothing but water boiled and flavored with aniseeds?

“Oh, health! Health! The blessing of the rich! The riches of the poor! Who can buy you at too dear a rate, since there is no enjoying this world without you?

“Be not then so sparing of your purses, honorable gentlemen, as to abridge and shorten the natural course of life.”

Peregrine said, “You see his purpose in being here.”

He meant that the purpose was to make money.

Sir Politic Would-be replied, “Yes, isn’t it good?”

He meant that the purpose was to make people healthy.

The disguised Volpone continued, “For, when a humid discharge of catarrh, aka mucous, by the mutability of air, falls from your head into an arm or shoulder, or any other part, take a ducat, or a gold chequin, and apply it to the place affected, and see what good effect it can work.”

In other words, money and gold won’t cure a disease such as rheumatism, which people at this time thought was caused by a change in the weather making mucous descend from the head into another part of the body.

The disguised Volpone continued, “No, no, money and gold won’t cure the disguise. It is this blessed unguento, aka unguent, aka ointment, this rare extraction, that has the only power to disperse all malignant humors that proceed either of hot, cold, moist, or windy causes.”

Peregrine said, “I wish that he had mentioned dry, too.”

The disguised Volpone had mentioned “hot, cold, moist, or windy causes” of illnesses. According to the medical theory of humors, the causes of illnesses were hot, cold, moist, or dry.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Please observe him closely.”

The disguised Volpone said, “This blessed ointment has the power to fortify the sourest stomach suffering from indigestion, yes, even if it were one that, through extreme weakness, vomited blood, by applying only a warm napkin to the place, after the application of the ointment and massage.

“This blessed ointment has the power to cure dizziness in the head if you put only a drop in your nostrils and likewise behind your ears. It is a most sovereign and approved remedy.

“This blessed ointment can also cure these ailments:

“The mal caduco, aka the falling sickness, aka epilepsy.





Tremor cordia, aka palpitations of the heart.

“Retired nerves, aka shrunken sinews.

“Ill vapors of the spleen, aka hysteria.

“Stoppings of the liver.

“The stone, aka kidney stones.

“The strangury, aka difficult urination.

Hernia ventosa, aka a windy hernia.

Iliaca passio, aka painful obstruction of the small intestine.

“It also immediately stops dysentery.

“It eases the torsion of the small guts, aka colic.

“It also cures melancholia hypocondriaca, aka depression.

“This medicine cures all of these diseases as long as it is taken and applied according to my printed instructions.”

The disguised Volpone held high first the instructions and then the vial of medicine as he said these things:

“For this is the physician, and this is the medicine.

“This counsels, and this cures.

“This gives the direction, and this works the effect.”

He then said, “And, in sum, both together may be termed an abstract of the theory and practice in the Aesculapian art.”

Aesculapius is the god of medicine.

The disguised Volpone continued, “It will cost you eight crowns. And —”

He pointed to Nano the dwarf and said, “Zan Fritada, please sing a verse extempore in honor of it.”

“Zan Fritada” means “Jack Pancake.” He was a zany who was famous for his skills in providing entertainments such as storytelling, singing, and ad-libbing.

Sir Politic Would-be asked, “How do you like him, sir?”

Peregrine replied, “Most strangely, I do!”

“Strangely” meant “unfavorably,” and it meant “exceptionally.” Peregrine meant “unfavorably,” but Sir Politic Would-be understood him to mean “exceptionally well.”

Sir Politic Would-be asked, “Is not his language rare?”

Peregrine replied, “I never heard the like except for alchemy or Broughton’s books.”

Alchemical texts were very difficult to understand, as were the theological texts of the Puritan Hugh Broughton.

The disguised Nano the dwarf and the disguised Mosca played musical instruments and sang this song:

Had old Hippocrates, or Galen,

That to their books put med’cines all in,

But known this secret, they had never

(Of which they will be guilty ever)

Been murderers of so much paper,

Or wasted many a hurtless [harmless] taper [candle];

No Indian drug had e’er been famed,

Tobacco, sassafras not named;

Ne [Nor] yet, of guacum one small stick, sir,

Nor Raymond Lully’s great elixir.

Ne [Nor] had been known the Danish Gonswart,

Or Paracelsus, with his long sword.

Hippocrates and Galen were ancient physicians, each of whom had written many books, thereby murdering paper and candles.

Tobacco, sassafras, and guacum were used as medicines. Guacum came from the guacium tree.

Raymond Lully was thought to be an alchemist who had discovered the Elixir of Life, which would greatly lengthen one’s life, possibly even making the person immortal.

The Danish Gonswart kept his secrets so closely hidden that no one today knows who he was. Or, possibly, “Danish Gonswart” is a portmanteau word combing “Danewort” (an herb also known as Dwarf Elder) and Goutwort (an herb used to cure gout). A “wort” is an herb used in medicine.

Paracelsus was an early Renaissance physician who combined medicine with magic. He was believed to keep his most important medicine and magics in the hollow pommel of his long sword. He was believed to have made the Philosopher’s Stone, which would turn base metals into gold and silver. Powdered Philosopher’s Stone was believed, if consumed, to cure all illnesses and greatly extend life.

Peregrine said, “All this, yet, will not do. Eight crowns is too high a price to pay.”

The disguised Volpone said to Nona the dwarf, “No more.”

He then said to his audience, “Gentlemen, I wish I had time to discourse to you the miraculous effects of this my oil, surnamed Oglio del Scoto, aka Scoto’s Oil, with the countless catalogue of those whom I have cured of the illnesses I have mentioned, and of many more diseases.

“Gentlemen, I wish I had time to discourse to you the patents and privileges of all the princes and commonwealths of Christendom.”

Patents are official certificates that confer certain rights, such as the right and the privilege to sell something. Of course, the disguised Volpone wanted his audience to think that all the princes and commonwealths of Christendom had given this right and privilege to him.

The disguised Volpone continued, “Gentlemen, I wish I had time to discourse to you just the depositions of those who appeared on my behalf before the Signiory of the Sanita, which licenses mountebanks, and the most learned College of Physicians, where I was authorized, after notice was taken of the admirable virtues of my medicaments, and my own excellency in the matter of rare and unknown secrets, not only to disperse them publicly in this famous city, but also in all the territories that happily experience joy under the government of the most pious and magnificent states of Italy.

“But some gallant fellow may say, ‘Oh, there are many people who claim to have as good, and as proven-by-experiments medicinal formulas as yours.’

“Indeed, very many people have attempted, like apes, in imitation of that which is really and essentially in me, to make this oil. They have bestowed great cost in such alchemical equipment as furnaces, stills, and alembecks, as well as continual fires and preparation of the ingredients (as indeed there goes into it six hundred different herbs, besides some quantity of human fat, for the conglutination, aka gluing together — we buy the human fat from the anatomists), but when these practitioners come to the last decoction, aka boiling down, they blow, blow, puff, puff to make the fire hotter, and all flies in fumo — everything goes up in smoke! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Anybody who consumes the “medicine” is consuming human fat and so is a cannibal.

In fumo is Latin for “in smoke.”

“Poor wretches! I pity their folly and indiscretion rather than their loss of time and money because time and money may be recovered by industry, but to be born a fool is an incurable disease.

“As for myself, I always from my youth have endeavored to get the rarest secrets, and learn them, either in exchange for my own secret knowledge or for money. I have spared neither cost nor labor, where anything was worthy to be learned.

“And gentlemen, honorable gentlemen, I will undertake, by virtue of chemical art, out of the honorable hat that covers your head, to extract the four elements — that is to say, the fire, air, water, and earth — and return to you your felt hat without burn or stain.”

The secret knowledge that the disguised Volpone said he had labored so hard for so long and so expensively to acquire allows him to remove burn marks and stains from felt hats.

The disguised Volpone continued, “For, while others have been playing the ball game known as the Balloo, I have been at my books and I am now past the craggy paths of study and have come to the flowery plains of honor and reputation.”

Sir Politic Would-be said, “I do assure you, sir, that is his aim.”

According to Sir Politic Would-be, the mountebank’s aim was to acquire honor and reputation.

The disguised Volpone continued, “But, about our price —”

Peregrine said, “And that is another of his aims, Sir Pol.”

According to Peregrine, the mountebank’s aim was to acquire money.

The disguised Volpone continued, “You all know, honorable gentlemen, I have never valued this ampulla, or vial, at less than eight crowns, but for this time, I am content to be deprived of it for six. Six crowns is the price, and less, I know you cannot offer me out of courtesy.

“Take it, or leave it; in either case, both it is and I am at your service. I ask you not for the price that the value of the thing would demand, for then I should demand from you a thousand crowns.

“That is the price that the Cardinals Montalto and Fernese, the great Duke of Tuscany, the godfather of my child, and several other princes, have given me, but I despise money.

“Only to show my affection to you, honorable gentlemen, and your illustrious State here, I have neglected the messages of these princes, neglected my own duties, made my journey here, just to present you with the fruits of my travels.”

He then turned to the disguised Nano the dwarf and the disguised Mosca and said, “Tune your voices once more to the touch of your instruments, and give the honorable assembly some delightful recreation.”

Peregrine said, “What monstrous and most painful circumstance — unnecessary ado — is being made here just to get some three or four small coins, some three-pence in the whole! For that is what the profits will come to.”

The disguised Nano the dwarf and the disguised Mosca sang this song:

You that [who] would last long, list [listen] to my song,

Make no more coil [fuss], but buy of this oil.

Would you be ever fair [always beautiful] and young?

Stout of teeth, and strong of tongue?

Tart [Keen] of palate? Quick of ear?

Sharp of sight? Of nostril clear?

Moist of hand? [Horny.] And light of foot?

Or, I will come nearer to’t [state what I mean more clearly],

Would you live free from all diseases?

Do the act your mistress pleases;

Yet fright [frighten] all aches from your bones?

Here’s a med’cine for the nones.

The song stated that the medicine would do such things as give the taker a keen appetite and clear his or her sinuses. It was also very good at helping clear up sexual troubles. It would make the taker moist of hand — a sign of amorousness. You can guess the act that pleases your mistress. The medicine would also make the taker light of foot — promiscuous. It would also frighten the ache from the taker’s bones — it would cure the venereal disease that made the bones ache.

It is a medicine for the nones — it will cure none, aka no one person, and it will cure none, aka no one disease, and it will cure at none, aka no one time or occasion. That is the reason for the plural: nones. Volpone, however, wanted the audience to think that “nones” was “nonces.” “Nonce” means “particular purpose” and “particular occasion.” This medicine would cure no one particular purpose at no one particular occasion.

The disguised Volpone said, “Well, I am in a humor — the mood — at this time to make a present of the small quantity my coffer contains; to the rich, in courtesy, and to the poor for God’s sake.

“Therefore, now listen carefully: I asked you to pay six crowns, and six crowns, at other times, you have paid me, but you shall not now give me six crowns, nor five, nor four, nor three, nor two, nor one; nor half a ducat; no, nor a moccinigo. Six—”

Crowns, ducats, and moccinigos are all pieces of money.

The disguised Volpone paused to make the audience wait for the medicine’s true price, and then he continued, “— pence it will cost you, or else it will cost you six hundred pounds, for I won’t go any lower — expect no lower price, for I swear by the banner displayed in front of my stage that I will not abate a bagatine, or knock off a farthing.”

He continued, “I will have only a small amount of money that is a pledge of your loves, so that I can carry something from among you away to show I am not despised by you.

“Therefore, now, toss your handkerchiefs, cheerfully, cheerfully, and be advised that the first heroic spirit who deigns to grace me with a handkerchief, I will give him or her a little remembrance of something, in addition to the medicine, that shall please that heroic spirit better than if I had presented it with a double pistolet.”

The disguised Volpone was promising to give the first buyer an extra gift that would be valued at more than a double pistolet, which is a valuable coin.

Buyers of the medicine would tie the money in a handkerchief and toss it to the mountebank, who would take the money, tie the medicine in the handkerchief, and toss it back to the buyer. The first buyer would receive an additional gift in the handkerchief. At this time, handkerchiefs were used for ornamental rather than hygienic purposes.

Peregrine asked, “Will you be that heroic spark, Sir Pol? Will you be the first buyer?”

Celia, Corvino’s wife, had been watching from the window. She now threw down her handkerchief — in which was tied six pence — to the disguised Volpone.

Peregrine said, “Oh, look! The lady at the window has beaten you and got there first.”

The disguised Volpone said, “Lady, I kiss your bounty, and for this timely grace you have done your poor Scoto of Mantua, I will return you, over and above my oil, a secret of such high and inestimable nature that it shall make you forever enamored of that minute wherein your eye first descended on so mean, yet not altogether to be despised, an object.

“Here is a powder concealed in this paper, about which, if I would state its true worth, nine thousand volumes were but as one page, that page as a line, that line as a word — so short is this pilgrimage of man (which some call life) to the expressing of it.”

The disguised Volpone had been speaking volumes of words about Scoto’s oil — and now this powder — but if he were to state their true worth, he could do it in one word: crap.

He continued, “Would I reflect on the price? Why, the whole world is but as an empire, that empire as a province, that province as a bank, that bank as a private purse to the purchase of it.”

The price of his medicine had gone from eight crowns to six pence. At this time, one crown was worth five shillings. A shilling was worth twelve pence. Therefore, one crown was worth 60 pence. The original price was eight crowns, or 480 pence. The final price was six pence.

He continued, “I will only tell you; it is the powder that made Venus a goddess (Apollo gave the powder to her) and kept her perpetually young, cleared her wrinkles, firmed her gums, filled her skin and made it free of wrinkles, and colored her hair.

“From Venus the secret of the powder went to Helen of Troy, and at the sack of Troy it was unfortunately lost until now, in this our age, it was as happily recovered, by a studious antiquarian, out of some ruins of Asia, who sent a moiety of it (but much adulterated) to the court of France and the ladies there now color their hair with it.

“The rest, at this present time, remains with me; it has been refined to a quintessence, so that, wherever it simply touches, it perpetually preserves that part in youth, restores the complexion in age, and seats your teeth — even if they have danced like the strings of a piano — as firmly as a wall and makes your teeth as white as ivory, even if they were as black as —”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved 


Lulu (Paperback Books)





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