David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 4, Scene 2

— 4.2 —

Lady Would-be now arrived. With her were Nano the dwarf and her two waiting-women.

Lady Would-be said, “Where would this loose knight be, I wonder? I’m sure he’s in a whorehouse and part of his body is housed in a whore’s body.”

“Why, then he’s fast,” Nano the dwarf said, punning on the con game known as fast and loose.

By “fast,” he meant “fast-moving.”

She replied, “Yes, he plays both — fast and loose — with me. By “loose,” she meant that he was wanton and that he was now with a “loose” woman.

“Please stay here and rest for a moment. This heat will do more harm to my makeup than his heart is worth. I do not care to hinder and stop him, but instead to take him in the act.”

She rubbed the side of her nose and said, “How my makeup is coming off!”

The first woman-servant saw Sir Politic Would-be and said, “My master’s yonder.”

“Where?” Lady Would-be asked.

The first woman-servant pointed and added, “He’s with a young gentleman.”

Lady Would-be said, “That person is the party we’re after. She’s dressed in male apparel!”

Venice was known for both its female courtesans and for its many homosexual transvestite prostitutes. Resenting the competition, some female courtesans began to wear men’s clothing, apparently hoping to get business in sodomy. Lady Would-be thought that Peregrine, a young man, was a female courtesan who was wearing men’s clothing.

Lady Would-be said to Nano the dwarf, “Please, sir, jostle my knight to get his attention. I’ll be gentle out of concern for his reputation, however much he deserves blame.”

Seeing her, Sir Politic Would-be said, “My lady!”

“Where?” Peregrine asked.

“It is she indeed, sir,” he replied. “You shall know her. She is, I would say even if she were not mine, a lady of much merit as concerns fashion and behavior, and as for beauty I dare compare —”

“It seems you are not jealous,” Peregrine said, “since you dare to praise her to another man.”

“As for discourse and conversation —”

“Being your wife, she cannot miss that.”

Peregrine meant that if she were Sir Politic Would-be’s wife, she must be talkative.

Sir Politic Would-be tried to introduce Peregrine and his wife, “Madam, here is a gentleman. Please treat him well. He seems to be a youth, but he is —”

Lady Would-be finished the sentence: “— none.”

She meant that Peregrine was a female prostitute dressed in men’s clothing.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Yes, he is a gentleman who has put his face so soon into the world —”

By “so soon,” he meant “at so early an age.”

Lady Would-be misunderstood him: “You mean, ‘as early’? As early as today?”

She meant that Peregrine had begun to dress as a man only this day.

Sir Politic Would-be asked, “What do you mean?”

His wife replied, “Why, I mean in this suit of clothing, sir; you understand me, I am sure.”

She believed that her husband definitely knew that Peregrine was a female courtesan dressed in men’s clothing.

She continued, “Well, Master Would-be, this does not become you. I had thought the odor, sir, of your good name would have been more precious to you. I had thought that you would not have done this dire massacre on your honor, especially considering your gravity and rank! But knights, I see, care little for the oaths they make to ladies — chiefly, their own ladies.”

One such oath is the oath they make in the marriage ceremony.

“Now by my spurs, the symbol of my knighthood —” Sir Politic Would-be began.

Peregrine thought, Lord, how his brain is humbled for an oath!

In thinking of an oath to make to his wife, Sir Politic Would-be’s brain, aka thought, went down to his heels where his knight’s spurs were. Also, Peregrine believed that Sir Politic Would-be had bought his knighthood rather than earned it. King James I of England made people knights in return for money.

Sir Politic Would-be finished his oath, “— I don’t understand you.”

His wife said, “Right, sir, your cunning may carry it off, thus. Go ahead. Pretend that you don’t understand me.”

She then said to Peregrine, “Sir, I want to have a word with you. I would be loath to argue publicly with any gentlewoman, or to seem perverse, or violent. I want to act as The Courtier advises.”

The Courtier was a famous book of etiquette.

She continued, “Doing that comes too near rusticity, aka country vulgarity, in a lady, which I would shun by all means, and whatever I may deserve from Master Would-be, yet to have one fair gentlewoman thus be made the unnatural instrument to wrong another, and one she does not know, and to persevere in doing so … well, in my poor judgment, that is not warranted because it is a solecism in our sex, if not in manners.”

A “solecism” is an impropriety in grammar or in behavior.

In addressing Peregrine, she sometimes referred to him as male and sometimes as female. She believed him to be biologically female but dressed as male.

“What is this!” Peregrine said.

Sir Politic Would-be said to his wife, “Sweet madam, come nearer to your aim. Speak more plainly.”

“Indeed, and I will, sir,” Lady Would-be said, “since you provoke me with your impudence and laughter about your light, aka licentious, land-Siren here, your Sporus, your hermaphrodite —”

In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Sirens are dangerous creatures with beautiful voices that they use to lure sailors to sail their ships close to shore and wreck them on the rocks. Since her husband was on dry land, Lady Would-be called Peregrine a land-Siren.

Sporus was a young boy who was a favorite of the dissolute Roman Emperor Nero, who had him castrated and dressed in female clothing. Nero then “married” him.

“What do we have here?” Peregrine said. “Poetic fury, and historic storms?”

The Sirens came from poetry, and Sporus came from history.

Sir Politic Would-be said about Peregrine, “The gentleman, believe it, is a worthy man, and he is from our nation.”

He meant that Peregrine was from England.

His wife said, “Yes, he is from your Whitefriars nation.”

Whitefriars was a place in London where prostitutes flocked because it was a “liberty,” a place where sanctuary was given.

Lady Would-be said, “Come, I blush for you, Master Would-be, and I am ashamed you should have no more forehead, aka sense of shame, than thus to play the patron, or St. George, to a lewd harlot, a base fricatrice, a female devil, wearing a male’s appearance.”

A “fricatrice” is a masseuse, or in this case, a prostitute.

Sir Politic Would-be now understood what his wife thought Peregrine was, and he thought that she might be right!

He said to Peregrine, “If you are such a person as my wife thinks you are, I must bid adieu to your delights. The case appears too liquid.”

The word “liquid” meant “clear and transparent.”

His wife said to him as he exited, “Yes, you may carry it clear and pretend not to know that this ‘man’ is a woman, with your state-face — your hypocritical demeanor!

“But as for this, your carnival concupiscence, who has fled here to Venice for liberty of conscience, from the furious persecution of the Marshal, I will discipline her.”

The “carnival concupiscence” was Peregrine, whom she thought to have the lechery that was displayed by many people during carnivals.

Lady Would-be thought that Peregrine had fled to Venice for liberty of conscience. Puritans and Catholics and other people whose religion was persecuted used “liberty of conscience” to mean religious freedom, but she used it to mean “freedom from conscience” — the freedom to do whatever evil action one wishes to do without having to worry about being punished — often with a whipping — by the Marshal.

“This is fine, indeed!” Peregrine said. “And do you often act like this? Is this the way you exercise your wits in preparation for when you have the opportunity to use them? Madam —”

“Come off it, sir,” Lady Would-be said sarcastically.

She grabbed his shirt and tried to pull it off in an attempt to show that Peregrine was in fact a woman.

“Do you hear me, lady?” Peregrine said. “Why, if your knight has made you beg for shirts, or to invite me home, you might have done it a nearer way, by far.”

Peregrine was now thinking that Sir Politic Would-be had set a trap for him, a trap that perhaps included pimping his wife to Peregrine.

Lady Would-be said, “Your words won’t get you out of my snare.”

She held on tightly to his shirt.

“Why am I in your snare?” Peregrine said. “Tell me that. Indeed, your husband told me you were fair, and so you are, only your nose inclines, that side that’s facing the Sun, to the queen-apple.”

The queen-apple is red. Peregrine was saying that one side of her nose was red. The other side had lost its makeup when Lady Would-be had rubbed her nose.

“This cannot be endured by any patience,” Lady Would-be said.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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