David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 5, Scene 4

— 5.4 —

Outside Sir Politic Would-be’s house, Peregrine, who was in disguise, and three merchants talked.

Peregrine asked, “Am I well enough disguised?”

The First Merchant said, “I promise that you are.”

“All my ambition is only to frighten him,” Peregrine said. “That is the extent of my goal.”

The Second Merchant said, “If you could ship him away, it would be excellent.”

The Third Merchant said, “To Zant, or to Aleppo?”

Zant was a Greek island under the control of Venice, and Aleppo was a Syrian city. The merchants were talking about kidnapping Sir Politic Would-be and sending him far, far away.

“Yes, we could do that,” Peregrine said, “and then he would have his adventures put in the Book of Voyages and his gulled story registered for the truth.”

He was against kidnapping Sir Politic Would-be, although they could if they wanted. If they were to kidnap Sir Politic Would-be and ship him away, he would make up a fantastic tale — a tale to fool other people by making his part in it much more heroic than the reality — and it would appear in popular travel books of extraordinary tales. One such travel book was Richard Hakluyt’s three-volume The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation.

Peregrine said, “Well, gentlemen, when I have been inside for a while, and you think that Sir Politic Would-be and I are warm in our conversation, know your war-like approaches. Show up at the right time.”

The First Merchant said, “Trust it to our care. We will do it right.”

The merchants hid themselves.

Peregrine knocked, and a waiting-woman arrived.

He said, “May God save you, fair lady! Is Sir Pol inside?”

“I do not know, sir,” the waiting-woman replied.

“Please say to him that I am a merchant, on serious business, and I want to speak with him.”

“I will see, sir.”

She allowed him to go inside into a waiting room.

“Thank you.”

The waiting-woman exited.

Peregrine said to himself, “I see the servants of the household are all female here.”

He had recently referred to Sir Pol as “Sir Bawd.” He thought that Sir Pol’s house was a brothel.

The waiting-woman returned and said, “He says, sir, that he has weighty affairs of state that now require his whole attention. At some other time you may possess his time.”

Peregrine said, “Please go to him again and say that if those weighty affairs of state require his whole attention, these weighty affairs of state that I will talk to him about will forcibly compel him to pay attention. Those are the kinds of weighty affairs of state that I am bringing him tidings of.”

The waiting-woman exited.

Peregrine said to himself, “What might be his grave affair of state now! How to make Bolognian sausages here in Venice, leaving out one of the ingredients in order to reduce the cost of making them?”

The waiting-woman returned and said, “Sir, he says that he knows by your word ‘tidings’ that you are no statesman, and therefore he wills you to wait.”

Sir Politic Would-be believed that a statesman would use the word “intelligence” instead of “tidings.”

The waiting-woman’s words about willing Peregrine to wait were not clear. Peregrine thought that Sir Pol regarded him as being no statesman and therefore of no importance, and so Sir Pol was telling him to wait until Sir Pol deigned to meet him.

An angry Peregrine said, “Sweetheart, please return to him. I have not read as many proclamations and studied them for words to use, as he has done, but —”

He saw Sir Politic Would-be coming and said, “But — here he deigns to come.”

The waiting-woman’s words about willing Peregrine to wait really meant that since Peregrine was no statesman he was not dangerous to Sir Politic Would-be and so Sir Politic Would-be in fact would be out quickly to meet him. Sir Politic believed, or pretended to believe, that spies were watching him.

The waiting-woman exited.

Sir Politic Would-be said to the disguised Peregrine, “Sir, I must crave your courteous pardon. There has chanced today an unkind disaster between my lady and me, and I was penning my apology, to give her satisfaction, just as you came now.”

Sir Politic Would-be’s “weighty affairs of state” had been writing a letter of apology to his wife.

The disguised Peregrine said, “Sir, I am grieved that I bring you a worse disaster. The gentleman you met at the port today who told you that he was newly arrived —”

He was referring to himself.

Sir Politic Would-be asked, “Yes, was he a fugitive prostitute?”

He still believed that Peregrine had been a female prostitute dressed in men’s clothing.

“No, sir,” Peregrine said. “He was a spy set on you, and he related to the Venetian Senate that you professed to him to have a plot to sell the State of Venice to the Turks.”

“Oh!” Sir Politic Would-be said.

That crime was punishable by torture and death.

The disguised Peregrine said, “For which crime, warrants have been signed by this time to arrest you, and to search your study for papers —”

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Alas, sir, I have none, except notes drawn out of play-books —”

Many of his political ideas came out of books of plays.

“All the better to convict you, sir,” the disguised Peregrine said.

In fact, political authorities read and watched plays to ascertain if they were guilty of sedition. Political authorities sometimes arrested and tortured or threatened to torture playwrights.

Sir Politic Would-be continued, “— and some essays.”

Ben Jonson disliked many essays because he believed that the authors made too great use of quotations, thus making the essay’s information second-hand. Since Sir Politic Would-be got some of his political ideas from essays, any of that information he would impart would be third-hand.

Sir Politic Would-be asked, “What shall I do?”

The disguised Peregrine said, “Sir, it would be best to hide yourself in a chest for holding sugar. Or, if you could lie curled up, a frail would be splendid. In either case, I could send you onboard a ship.”

A frail is a rush basket used to ship figs and raisins.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Sir, I just talked about the plot merely for the sake of conversation.”

Knocking sounded at the door.

The disguised Peregrine said, “Listen! They are here!”

“I am a wretch! A wretch!” Sir Politic Would-be said.

“What will you do, sir?” the disguised Peregrine said. “Haven’t you a cask or barrel to leap into? They’ll torture you on the rack; you must be quick to avoid being arrested.”

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Sir, I have a stratagem —”

The Third Merchant yelled from outside, “Sir Politic Would-be!”

The Second Merchant yelled from outside, “Where is he?”

Sir Politic Would-be continued, “— that I have thought up before this time in case it was needed.”

“What is it?” the disguised Peregrine asked.

“I shall never endure the torture,” Sir Politic Would-be said to himself.

He then said to the disguised Peregrine, “Indeed, it is, sir, a tortoise shell that is fit for this emergency. Please, sir, help me.”

He lifted a cover to reveal the shell of a large sea turtle and said, “Here I’ve got a place, sir, to put my legs. Please lay the shell on me, sir.”

He lay down while the disguised Peregrine placed the shell on top of him.

Sir Politic Would-be said, “With this cap, and my black gloves, I’ll lie, sir, like a tortoise, until they are gone.”

The disguised Peregrine thought, And you call this a stratagem?

“It’s my own idea,” Sir Politic Would-be said. “Good sir, tell my wife’s waiting-women to burn my papers.”

The disguised Peregrine exited.

The three merchants now rushed into the room.

The First Merchant asked, “Where has he hidden?”

The Third Merchant said, “We must and surely will find him.”

The Second Merchant asked, “Which is his study?”

The disguised Peregrine returned.

The First Merchant asked, “Who are you, sir?”

The disguised Peregrine said, “I am a merchant who came here to look at this tortoise.”

The Third Merchant said, “What!”

The First Merchant said, “By St. Mark, what beast is this!”

The disguised Peregrine said, “It is a fish.”

The Second Merchant said to the “tortoise,” “Come out here!”

The disguised Peregrine said, “You may strike the tortoise, sir, and walk on him. He’s strong enough to bear a cart.”

The First Merchant said, “What? Strong enough to bear a cart running over him?”

The disguised Peregrine said, “Yes, sir.”

The Third Merchant said, “Let’s jump on him.”

The Second Merchant said, “Can’t he move?”

“He creeps, sir,” the disguised Peregrine said.

The First Merchant said, “Let’s see him creep.”

“No, good sir,” the disguised Peregrine said. “You will hurt him.”

The Second Merchant said, “By God’s heart, I will see him creep, or I will prick his guts.”

The Third Merchant said to the “tortoise,” “Come out here!”

“Please, sir!” the disguised Peregrine said.

He whispered to Sir Politic Would-be, “Creep a little.”

The First Merchant said, “Come forth.”

The “tortoise” moved a little.

The Second Merchant said, “Come farther still.”

“Good sir!” the disguised Peregrine said.

He whispered to Sir Politic Would-be, “Creep.”

The Second Merchant said, “We’ll see his legs.”

The three merchants pulled the shell off Sir Politic Would-be.

The Third Merchant said, “By God’s soul, the tortoise is wearing garters!”

The First Merchant said, “Yes, and gloves!”

The Second Merchant said, “Is this your fearful tortoise!”

The tortoise at one time had made its prey fearful, but now the “tortoise” was full of fear.

Peregrine removed his disguise and said, “Now, Sir Pol, we are even. I shall be prepared for your next project. I am sorry for the funeral — on a burning pier — of your notes, sir.”

Peregrine thought that Sir Politic Would-be had tried to set a trap for him with the help of Lady Would-be. Peregrine was wrong.

The First Merchant said, “This would make a splendid puppet show to be seen in Fleet Street.”

The Second Merchant said, “Yes, in the Term, when the law courts are in session and lots of people are in town.”

The First Merchant, “Or at Smithfield, when Bartholomew Fair is being held.”

Because the three merchants had a good knowledge of England and were apparently good friends with Peregrine, they may have sailed together on the same ship to Venice and disembarked earlier this day.

The Third Merchant said, “I think this is just a melancholy sight.”

Peregrine said, “Farewell, most politic tortoise!”

Peregrine and the three merchants exited.

Sir Politic Would-be said to the waiting-woman, “Where’s my lady? Does she know about this?”

He thought that she might have known about the trick.

The waiting-woman replied, “I don’t know, sir.”

Sir Politic Would-be said, “Find out.”

The waiting-woman exited.

He lamented, “Oh, I shall be the fable told at all feasts, the freight of the newspapers, the tale of the ship-boys, and which is worst, even the main topic of gossip at the taverns.”

The waiting-woman returned and said, “My lady’s come home. She is very melancholy and says, sir, she will immediately go to sea for her health.”

Sir Politic Would-be said, “And I will go to sea in order to shun this place and climate forever. I will creep with my house on my back and think it well to shrink my poor head in my politic shell.”

Sir Politic Would-be and his wife would most likely return home to England. Apparently, he had learned something: not to pretend to be a statesman or a spy. A tortoise is a symbol of positive qualities: It does not pretend to be what it is not. Its house, which it carries on its back, is exactly what it needs. No tortoise has a grander or a lesser house than it needs. The tortoise is known for its slow but steady movement, and its ability to steadily move toward a goal often allows it to achieve the goal when faster, flashier, overconfident animals cannot; this is the moral of the Aesop fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Whether or not Sir Politic Would-be had come to Venice to gain knowledge, he had gained knowledge.

Erasmus wrote that “the mind fortified with virtue and philosophy fears the assaults of Fortune no more than a tortoise fears flies.” Many characters in this book need to learn this.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


Lulu (Paperback Books)


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