David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 5

— 2.5 —

A very angry and jealous Corvino dragged his innocent wife, Celia, into a room of their house. He had a sword in his hand.

Corvino said, “Death of my honor, with the city’s fool! A juggling, tooth-pulling, prating mountebank!”

Mountebanks sometimes performed tooth extractions.

He continued, “And at a public window! Where, while he, with his strained overacting, and his mugging of faces, to his drug lecture draws your itching ears, a crew of old, unmarried, noted lechers stood leering up like satyrs, and you smiled most graciously and fanned your favors forth — that is, you flirted — to give your hot spectators satisfaction!

“Was your mountebank their call? Their whistle? Were the spectators using the mountebank to call and whistle to you like hunters calling and whistling to lure birds to be caught?

“Or were you enamored of his copper rings and his saffron jewelry with the toadstone in it?”

Copper rings were cheap rings that could fool fools into thinking they were made of gold. Saffron jewelry was jewelry that was stained to make it look like gold. Toads were thought to have a precious jewel with magical abilities located in their head.

He continued, “Or were you enamored of his embroidered suit with the cope-stitch, a suit that was made out of a hearse-cloth? Or were you enamored of his old tilt-feather? Or were you enamored of his starched beard?”

Hearse cloth was a drape for a coffin. According to Corvino, the mountebank had made a suit of the cloth and embroidered it to make it fancy, using a cope-stitch — a stitch used in making copes, aka ecclesiastical gowns. Some men at this time stiffened their beards with egg whites or gum so that they kept a fashionable shape.

Corvino continued, “Well, you shall have him, yes! He shall come home, and minister to you the fricace — massage — for the mother.”

To treat a woman for hysteria, aka the mother, doctors would massage the woman’s genitals until the woman had an orgasm. Actually, many doctors disliked doing this because it took so much time and so they trained midwives to do it.

Corvino continued, “Or, let me see, I think you’d rather mount; wouldn’t you mount?”

He meant that his wife would like to mount the platform on which the mountebank performed — and he meant that his wife would like to sexually mount the mountebank.

He continued, “Why, if you’ll mount, you may; yes, truly, you may. And so you may be seen, down to the foot.”

If his wife climbed on the platform, people would get a good view of her and perhaps see more of her than this society thought was proper to be seen.

He continued, “Get yourself a cittern, Lady Vanity, and be a dealer with the manly man. Make one.”

Prostitutes often played the musical instrument called a cittern. “To be a dealer” meant to be either a prostitute or a bawd. To “make one” meant to copulate and make one person out of two.

Corvino continued, “I’ll just protest that I am a cuckold and save your dowry.”

A wife who was convicted of committing adultery forfeited her dowry to her husband.

He continued, “I’m a Dutchman, I am! For, if you thought me to be an Italian, you would be damned before you did this, you whore!”

Dutchmen were thought to be calm, while Italians — such as Corvino — were thought to be hot-tempered and capable of great violence.

He continued, “You would tremble to imagine that the murder of your father, mother, brother, and the rest of your family would follow your adultery — that is the Italian way of justice.”

His wife, Celia, pleaded, “Good sir, have patience.”

Corvino replied, “What could you propose I do to yourself less than that in this heat of wrath and stung with my dishonor I should strike this steel sword into you with as many stabs as you were gazed on by goatish — lecherous — eyes? That is what you deserve!”

“Alas, sir, be at peace!” Celia said. “I could not think that my being at the window would move your impatience now more than at other times. I did no harm by being at the window.”

“No!” Corvino said. “You didn’t try to seek and entertain a parley — conversation — with a known knave, before a multitude of witnesses! You were an actor with your handkerchief, which he most sweetly kissed when he got it, and might, no doubt, return it with a letter, and appoint a place where you might meet — your sister’s, your mother’s, or your aunt’s might serve the turn.”

In this society, the word “aunt” sometimes meant “bawd.” “Serve the term” meant both “serve the purpose” and “provide the sexual service.”

Celia said, “Why, dear sir, when do I make these excuses, or ever stir out of doors, except to go to the church? And that I do so seldom —”

“Well, it shall be less in the future,” Corvino said. “And your restraint before was liberty compared to what I now decree, and therefore pay close attention to what I now say.

“First, I will have this bawdy light — this window — dammed up, aka boarded up. And until that is done, some two or three yards away from the window, I’ll chalk a line. If you happen to set your desperate, reckless, violent foot over that line, more Hell, more horror, and more wild remorseless rage shall seize on you than shall seize on a conjurer who has heedlessly left his circle’s safety before his devil was sent back to Hell.”

Conjurors were reputed to be able to call devils from out of Hell, but devils were dangerous, and so conjurors made a magic circle to keep themselves safe while the devil was present. If a conjuror stepped out of the magic circle, he was at the nonexistent mercy of the devil.

Corvino held up a chastity belt and said, “And then here’s a lock that I will hang upon you.”

The chastity belt prevented a woman from having sex.

He continued, “And, now I think about it, I will keep you backwards. Your lodging shall be backwards, at the back of the house. You will walk backwards. What you see — your prospect — all shall be backwards, and the only sexual pleasure that you shall know will be backwards — the back hole rather than the front hole.

“Indeed, since you force my honest nature, know that it is your own fault. Your being too open makes me treat you thus because you will not contain your subtle and cunning nostrils — used for smelling out lust — in a sweet room, but they must snuff the air of rank and sweaty passersby.”

Knocking sounded at the door.

Corvino said, “Someone is knocking.”

He said to his wife, “Leave, and don’t be seen, on pain of your life. Don’t look toward the window. If you do — wait and hear this — then let me not prosper, whore, unless I will make you an anatomy by dissecting you myself, and read a lecture about you to the city, and in public.”

To make her an anatomy meant to make her a skeleton through dissecting her. It also meant to dissect her moral character in a lecture. Of course, Corvino now thought because of his jealousy that her moral character is bad.

He said, “Go away! Leave!”

A servant entered the room.

Corvino asked, “Who’s there at the door?”

“It is Signior Mosca, sir.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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