David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 4, Scene 1

— 4.1. —

Sir Politic Would-be and Peregrine talked while standing on a street.

Sir Politic Would-be said, referring to the episode with the mountebank (but his words were appropriate to the just-finished episode of Volpone and Celia), “I told you, sir, it was a plot! You see what observation is! You see what keeping your eyes open can do for you!”

He added, “You mentioned to me that you had the need for some instructions about traveling. Since we have met here in this height, aka latitude, of Venice, I will tell you, sir, a few particulars I have set down that are relevant only for this meridian of Venice and are fit to be known by your inexperienced traveller, and they are these that I will tell you. I will not touch, sir, on your language or your clothes, for they are old.”

Sir Politic Would-be was using the word “your” indefinitely — “your clothes” meant the clothing of travelers in general. This use of “your” was an affectation that then-travelers to Venice picked up, but in order to make a joke, Peregrine pretended that Sir Politic Would-be was criticizing his clothes.

“Sir, I have better clothes,” Peregrine said.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “I meant, as they are themes, aka topics. Language and clothes are old themes that have been much talked about, and so travelers tend to know much about them.

“Oh, sir, proceed,” Peregrine said. “I’ll slander you no more of wit, good sir.”

His last sentence was ambiguous. Sir Politic Would-be understood it to mean this: I won’t misrepresent what you say in order to make a joke. Peregrine meant this: I won’t slander you by saying that you have wit.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “First, as for your demeanor, you must be grave and serious, very reserved, and closed-mouthed. Do not tell a secret on any terms, not even to your father. You can just barely tell a fable, aka fictitious story, but use caution: Make sure choice both of your company and of your discourse. Be careful that you never speak a truth —”

“What!” Peregrine said.

Sir Politic Would-be continued, “Don’t tell the truth to foreigners, for those are the people you must most converse with. Others — travelers from Britain — I would not know, sir, except at a distance, so that I still might be a saver in them. Otherwise, you shall have tricks passed upon you hourly.”

A saver is a gambler who neither wins nor loses, but comes out even. By avoiding travelers from his own country — Sir Politic Would-be ignored his own advice when it came to Peregrine — he lost what could have been new friends, but he saved money that he could have lost if he had given them loans. (Sir Politic Would-be spent much time thinking about money; he had taken out loans from the Jewish moneylenders of Venice.)

He added, “And then, as for your religion, profess none, but wonder at the diversity of all religions, and, for your part state that if there were no other than simply the laws of the land, you could be happy. Nick Machiavelli and Monsieur Bodin were both of this mind.”

Sir Politic Would-be advised professing to be an atheist as a way of keeping out of trouble while traveling in Venice. At the time, much anti-Catholic feeling was current in England, and Protestant English rulers worried that English travelers might acquire what the rulers considered to be bad religious thought in Catholic countries such as Italy.

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that political goals came before religious goals. Jean Bodin argued in La Republique that to avoid civic unrest political rulers ought to be religiously tolerant. It is wrong to say that these authors advocated atheism.

Of course, believers consider it a virtue not to hide their religion.

Sir Politic Would-be continued, “Then you must learn the use and handling of your silver fork at meals and the metal of your glass (these are important matters to your Italian) and to know the hour when you must eat your melons and your figs.”

Forks were still not widely used in England at the time, but they would be in a few years. Venice was famous for its glassware, and the “metal” of the glass referred to the quality of the molten glass used to make the glassware.

“Is that a point of state, aka a point of diplomacy, too?” Peregrine asked.

“Here in Venice it is,” Sir Politic Would-be said. “As for your Venetian, if he sees a man who is even a little bit preposterous and not behaving in the conventionally correct manner, he immediately makes a judgment about his character, and he strips him of his dignity by taunting him.”

Actually, that is true of many people other than Venetians. It was true of Peregrine, for example, as events have already and would soon show.

Sir Politic Would-be continued, “I’ll acquaint you, sir, with the knowledge that I now have lived here some fourteen months since the first week of my landing here. Everyone took me for a citizen of Venice because I knew the forms so well —”

Peregrine thought, — the forms and nothing else.

He meant that Sir Politic Would-be knew the outward appearance but nothing of any real substance.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “I had read Contarini.”

Cardinal Gasparo Contarini’s De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum, was published in 1589. Sir Lewis Lewkenor’s English translation The Commonwealth and Government of Venice was published in 1599.

He continued, “I leased a house, dealt with my Jewish moneylenders to furnish it with moveable property — well, if I could but find one man, one man after my own heart, whom I dared to trust, I would —”

“Would what, sir?” Peregrine asked.

“— make him rich,” Sir Politic Would-be said. “Make him a fortune. He should not think again. I would command it.”

The other man would not have to think; Sir Politic would do the thinking for both of them.

“How?” Peregrine asked.

“With certain projects that I have,” Sir Politic Would-be said, “which I may not reveal.”

Sir Politic Would-be seems to have been leery of lending money to other travelers. That is good advice for Peregrine. Many people have hare-minded projects that are certain or almost certain to lose money. That was true then, and it is true now.

Peregrine thought, If I had even one person to wager with, I would lay odds now that Sir Politic will reveal his projects to me immediately.

“One of my projects,” Sir Politic Would-be said, “and it is one that I don’t care greatly who knows about it, is to serve the state of Venice with smoked herrings for three years, and at a certain rate, from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where I have correspondence.”

Given that Venice is located on the Adriatic Sea, one wonders about the intelligence of importing fish all the way from the Netherlands.

Holding a paper, Sir Politic Would-be continued, “There’s a letter, sent me from one of the States, and to that purpose.”

The word “States” was deliberately ambiguous. By “one of the States,” Sir Politic Would-be meant “one of the provinces”; Rotterdam is located in the province of South Holland. However, he was hoping that Peregrine would understand “one of the States” to mean “one of the members of the Dutch States-General,” the bicameral legislature of the Netherlands.

Sir Politic Would-be continued, “He cannot write his name, but that’s his mark.”

He wanted Peregrine to think the correspondent could not write his name on the letter because of the confidential content of the letter, but Peregrine was likely to think, Yes, Sir Politic Would-be is exactly the kind of man who would receive a letter from a man who is unable to write anything, including his own name.

Peregrine called the bluff: “Is the writer of the letter a chandler?”

A chandler is either a retail grocer or a ship’s provisioner.

Sir Politic Would-be replied, “No, a cheesemonger — a seller of cheeses and other dairy products. There are some others, too, with whom I treat about the same negotiation, and I will undertake it. For this is how it will work: I’ll do it with ease because I have planned it all. Your hoy carries only three men in her, and a boy.”

A hoy is a small Dutch sloop used for short hauls along the coast; it is too small for a voyage from the Netherlands to Venice, Italy.

He continued, “And she shall make me three round trips a year.”

That means three cargoes of smoked herring.

He continued, “So, if there comes to fruition only one of three, I save.”

He would break even if the hoy successfully made one voyage. However, this is true only if the first voyage is successful. If the hoy sinks on the first voyage, there will not be a second or a third voyage.

He continued, “If two voyages are successful, I can defalk.”

The word “defalcation” means “diminution” or “reduction.” Presumably, Sir Politic Would-be meant that if two voyages were successful, he would make a profit on the business venture and could pay back some of the money he owed to Jewish moneylenders. We should note that word “defalk” is very close to the spelling of the word “default,” which is likely what Sir Politic Would-be would do with any loan gotten to finance the business venture.

Sir Politic Would-be continued, “But this is only if my main project fails.”

“Then you have others?” Peregrine asked.

“I would be loath to draw the subtle and cunning air of such a place as Venice without coming up with a thousand schemes of my own,” Sir Politic Would-be said. “I’ll not lie, sir. Wherever I come to live, I love to be considerative: I love to analyze what is around me.

“And it is true that I have during my free hours thought upon some certain benefits for the state of Venice, which I call ‘my Precautions,’ and, sir, which I mean, in hopes of being granted a pension, to propound to the Great Council, then to the Forty, and so on up to the Ten.”

The Great Council, the Forty, and the Ten were the most important governing bodies of Venice.

He continued, “My means are made already —”

The “means” were his means of access. He had to get access to the Great Council, the Forty, and the Ten in order to make his proposals to them. Normally, to do that you had to know someone important.

“By whom are they made?” Peregrine asked.

“Sir, by one whom, although his position is obscure and low, yet he can sway, and they will hear him. He’s a police officer.”

This is a minor court official who is in charge of arresting and summoning offenders.

“What!” Peregrine said. “A common sergeant?”

He was incredulous that such a minor court official could get Sir Politic Would-be access to the Great Council, the Forty, and the Ten.

“Sir, even minor court officials such as the police officer put into the mouths of the Great Council, the Forty, and the Ten what they should say, sometimes, just like greater men do. I think I have my notes to show you —”

He began to look through his pockets.

Peregrine began, “Good sir —”

Sir Politic Would-be interrupted, “But you shall swear to me, as you are a gentleman, not to steal my ideas —”

“I, sir!” Peregrine said.

“— nor to reveal any of the details of my plans.”

He stopped searching his pockets and said, “My notes are not on me.”

“Oh, but you can remember your ideas, sir,” Peregrine said.

“My first idea concerns tinderboxes,” Sir Politic Would-be said. “You must know that no family is here without its tinderbox. Now, sir, let’s say that you or I were ill disposed toward the Venetian government. Tinderboxes are very portable, and with one in our pockets, might not you or I go into the Arsenal and come out again?”

The implication was that they could easily set fire to the Arsenal, which was the shipyard where ships and ordnance were located. In fact, in the 1560s, the Arsenal had exploded and burned.

Sir Politic Would-be continued, “And no one would be the wiser.”

“Except yourself, sir,” Peregrine said. Peregrine would definitely not set fire to the Arsenal, and he did not think the people of Venice would do so. Since the Arsenal was heavily guarded, it also seemed unlikely that the enemies of Venice would be able to use tinderboxes to set fire to the Arsenal.

“Very well, then,” Sir Politic Would-be said. “I therefore would warn and advise the Venetian government how fitting it would be that none but such people as are known patriots, sound lovers of their country, should be allowed to enjoy tinderboxes in their houses. Also, those tinderboxes would be licensed at some government office, and they would be so big that they could not be hidden in pockets.”

“Admirable!” Peregrine said.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “My next idea concerns how to find out by an immediate demonstration whether a ship, newly arrived from Syria or from any suspected part of all the Levant, aka the Eastern Mediterranean, is guilty of carrying the plague.”

This would be useful, indeed, if it could be done accurately.

He continued, “Right now ships are quarantined for forty, fifty days, sometimes, around the two islands with a lazaretto, aka quarantine house, for their trial period. If no signs of plague show up after forty or fifty days, then the ships can come to Venice. I’ll save that expense and loss for the merchant, and in an hour show whether or not the ship carries the plague —”

“Indeed, sir!” Peregrine said.

Sir Politic Would-be continued, “— or I will lose my labor.”

If his test for determining whether a ship was or was not carrying the plague were implemented and failed, he could lose his life — and thousands of other people could lose their lives.

Peregrine said, “By my faith, that’s much.”

“Sir, understand me,” Sir Politic Would-be said. “It will cost me in onions, some thirty livres —”

Livres are French pounds.

“Which is one pound sterling,” Peregrine said.

“Beside my waterworks,” Peregrine said, “for this is what I will do, sir. First, I will bring in your ship between two brick walls, but those the state shall invest in. On the one wall I will stretch a fair tarpaulin, and in that I will stick my onions, cut in halves. The other wall will be full of loop-holes, out at which I will thrust the noses of my bellows; and those bellows I will keep, using the waterworks, in perpetual motion, which is the easiest matter of a hundred. Now, sir, your onion, which does naturally attract the infection of plague, and your bellows blowing the air upon the onion, will show, instantly, by its changed color, that there is contagion, or if there is no contagion of the plague the onion will remain as fair as it was at the first.”

His plan had a few faults:

1) The waterworks are powered by moving water, but Venice is unlikely to have a suitable source of moving water. Sir Politic Would-be seems to have gotten this part of his idea from a water-driven mill on a river.

2) People of the time believed that a cut onion would absorb plague particles from the air. This is wrong, but Sir Politic Would-be would look at the cut onion and see if its color had changed. In a short time, a cut onion will turn brown through exposure to even pure air. If Sir Peregrine were to look instantly at the onion, as he had said, the onion would not have changed color and so his test would conclude that every ship was free of the plague. If Sir Peregrine waited a short time to look at the onion, since it would take time for the test to be done, the onion would have changed color and so his test would conclude that every ship was infected with the plague.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Now my idea is known, it is nothing.”

He meant that once his idea was known, it seemed obvious.

“You are right, sir,” Peregrine said.

He meant that the idea was worth nothing.

“I wish I had my notes,” Sir Politic Would-be said as he looked through his pockets.

“Indeed, I wish the same thing,” Peregrine said. “But you have done well for once, sir.”

He had done well at amusing Peregrine.

“If I were traitorous, or would be made so,” Sir Politic Would-be said, “I could show you ways that I could sell this state of Venice now, to the Turks, in spite of the Venetian galleys, or their —”

He was verging on getting himself — and Peregrine — in real trouble with the Venetian government, whose enemies were the Turks.

Peregrine began to caution him, “Please, Sir Pol —”

Sir Politic Would-be took the hint and said, “I don’t have my notes on me.”

“I feared that,” Peregrine said, meaning both Sir Politic Would-be’s treasonous ideas and his not having his notes on him.

Sir Politic Would-be found a notebook, and Peregrine said, “There are your notes, sir.”

“No,” Sir Politic Would-be said. “This is my diary, in which I note my actions of the day.”

“Please let me see it, sir,” Peregrine said.

Sir Politic Would-be handed him his diary, and Peregrine asked, “What is here?”

He read a part of Sir Politic Would-be’s diary out loud:

“Notandum, a rat had gnawn my spur-leathers; notwithstanding, I put on new spur-leathers, and did go forth, but first I threw three beans over the threshold.”

Notandum is Latin for “It should be noted.”

Sir Politic Would-be wore spurs to indicate his status as a knight, despite there being no practical reason for wearing spurs in Venice, a city without horses. Spur-leathers are laces that are used to tie spurs to boots.

His diary entry showed that he was superstitious. Throwing three beans over the threshold was supposed to ward off the evil foretold by the rat’s gnawing the spur-leather.

Peregrine continued reading out loud:

I went and bought two toothpicks, of which I broke one immediately, in a discourse with a Dutch merchant about ragion’ del stato.”

Ragion’ del stato are “reasons of state,” aka “political matters.”

Peregrine continued to read Sir Politic Would-be’s diary out loud:

From him I went and paid a moccinigo, aka small coin, for mending my silk stockings. Along my way, I bargained for herring, and at St. Mark’s I peed.”

Peregrine said, “Indeed, these are politic notes!”

Meanings of “politic” include “political, shrewd, cunning, and scheming.” A better word to describe the contents of Sir Politic Would-be’s diary is “trivial.”

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Sir, I let pass no action of my life without making a note of it.”

“Believe me, that is wise!” Peregrine said.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Sir, continue to read.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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