David Bruce: George Peele’s THE OLD WIVES’ TALE: A Retelling — Cast of Characters and Scene 1


Contemporary Characters:

Antic. A Servant. An antic person is a ludicrous person.

Frolic. A Servant. A frolicsome person is a merry, playful person.

Fantastic. A Servant. A fantastic person is a fanciful person.

Clunch. A Blacksmith.

Madge. His Wife. She is an old woman whom others call “gammer,” which means “grandmother.”


Fairy Tale Characters:

Sacrapant. An evil Conjuror.

First Brother, named Calypha. A Prince. He is Delia’s brother.

Second Brother, named Thelea. A Prince. He is Delia’s brother.

Delia. Sister to Calypha and Thelea. She is a Princess.

Eumenides. A Wandering Knight. In love with Delia.

Huanebango. A Braggart Knight.

Booby. A Clown. Huanebango’s companion.

Erestus.A benevolent old man who keeps (dwells at) the cross.

Venelia. Betrothed to Erestus, the benevolent old man.

 Neighbor to Erestus.

Zantippa. Daughter to Lampriscus by his first wife. She is pretty, but she is also shrewish and argumentative.

Celanta. Daughter to Lampriscus by his second wife. She is an ugly wench, but she is not shrewish.

Wiggen.Friend to Jack.

Corebus.Friend to Jack.

Ghost of Jack. A deceased person.

Churchwarden, named Steven Loach.The word “loach” means “idiot.” A churchwarden makes sure the church buildings and grounds are taken care of.

A sexton digs graves and looks after church grounds.

Hostess. Worker at an inn.


Minor Characters:

Friar, Harvestmen and Harvestwomen, two Furies, Fiddlers, etc.



Characters in early Elizabethan plays often refer to themselves in the third person.

The original play was published without scene divisions. Different editors divide the play into different numbers of scenes.

In this culture, a person of higher rank would use words such as “thee,” “thy,” “thine,” and “thou” to refer to a servant. However, two close friends or a husband and wife could properly use “thee,” “thy,” “thine,” and “thou” to refer to each other.

Some editions call Booby the Clownby the name “Booby” before switching to the name “Corebus.” Another character is named “Corebus” — this seems to be a different Corebus than Booby, so this book uses the name “Booby” consistently for the Clown.

The word “Eumenides” — the name of the good wandering knight — means “The Kindly Ones.” In Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the Furies are spirits of vengeance, but in the third play of the trilogy, they become spirits who protect justice and are renamed the Eumenides.

The word “wench” need not necessarily have a negative connotation. In this book, it is often used affectionately.

Zantippa is a shrewish woman. The ancient philosopher Socrates’ wife, Xantippe, was reputed to be shrewish.

— Scene 1 —

Antic, Frolic, and Fantastic, all of whom were young male servants to a lovesick master, were lost in the woods of England at night.

“How are you now, fellow Frolic!” Antic said. “All downcast and dejected? Does this sadness become thy madcapness? So what if we have lost our way in the woods? Don’t hang your head as though thou have no hope to live until tomorrow, for Fantastic and I will guarantee thy life tonight for twenty in the hundred.”

Antic was saying that he and Fantastic would offer 5-to-1 odds that Frolic would not die this night.

“Antic and Fantastic, as I am a frolicsome, merry, gay fellow, never in all my life was I slain so dead — I am practically already frightened to death and exhausted!” Frolic replied. “To lose our way in the wood, without either fire or candle, and to be so uncomfortable! Oh, coelum! Oh, terra! Oh, maria! Oh, Neptune!

The Latin words meant “Oh, heaven! Oh, land! Oh, seas!”

“Oh, Maria!” can also mean “Oh, Mary!” Mary is the Virgin Mary.

Neptune is the Roman name of the god of the sea.

“Why are thou acting so strange and carrying on like that, seeing Cupid has led our young master to the fair lady, and she is the only saint whom he has sworn to serve?” Fantastic said. “Our young master is in love with the beautiful lady.”

“What is left for us to do, then, but to entrust him to his wench, and each of us climb and take his stand up in a tree, and sing out our bad luck to the popular tune of ‘Oh, Man in Desperation’?” Frolic asked.

Frolic used the word “wench” affectionately.

“Desperately spoken, fellow Frolic, in the dark,” Antic said, “but seeing that things turned out this way, let us recite the old proverb:

Three merry men, and three merry men,

And three merry men be we:

I in the wood, and thou on the ground,

And Jack sleeps in the tree.

A dog barked.

“Hush!” Fantastic said. “A dog in the wood, or a wooden dog!”

He was punning: the word “wood” could mean  “insane” or “rabid” or “ferocious,” and the word “wooden” could mean “stupid.”

“Oh, what a comfortable thing to hear!” he continued, “But I had just as soon that the chamberlain of the White Horse Inn had called me up to bed.”

In this society, a chamberlain was the person in charge of the bedrooms at an inn.

Frolic said, “Either this trotting cur — this ambling dog — has gone out of his circuit, or else we are near some village, which should not be far off, for I perceive the glimmering of a firefly, a candle, or a cat’s eye, I bet my life against a halfpenny!”

Clunch, a blacksmith carrying a lantern and candle, arrived.

“In the name of my own father, even if you are an ox or ass that appear, tell us who thou are,” Frolic said.

“Who am I? Why, I am Clunch the blacksmith. Who are you? What do you make in my territories at this time of the night?”

In this society, “What do you make?” meant “What are you doing?”

“What do we make, do thou ask?” Antic asked. “Why, we make faces out of fear; they are such that, if thy mortal eyes could behold them, would make thee pee down the long sides of thy trousers, blacksmith.”

“And, truly, sir, unless your hospitality relieves us, we are likely to continue to wander, with a sorrowful sigh — heigh-ho — among the owlets and hobgoblins of the forest,” Frolic said. “Good Vulcan, for Cupid’s sake who has tricked us all, befriend us as thou may; and command us howsoever, wheresoever, whensoever, in whatsoever, for ever and ever. We will be in your debt for ever and ever.”

Vulcan is the Roman name of the blacksmith god and is therefore a good nickname to call Clunch the blacksmith.

Cupid is the god of love and the son of Venus. Frolic and his fellow servants are lost because of events following their master’s falling in love, and so it is appropriate for Frolic to blame Cupid for their plight.

“Well, sirs, it seems to me you have lost your way in the wood,” Clunch said, “in consideration whereof, if you will go with Clunch to his cottage, you shall have houseroom and a good fire to sit by, although we have no bedding to put you in.”

Antic, Frolic, and Fantastic cried together, “Oh, blessed blacksmith! Oh, generous Clunch!”

“For your further entertainment, it shall be as it may be, and so on,” Clunch said. “Things must be as they shall be.”

They walked until they reached Clunch’s home, where they heard a dog bark.

“Listen!” Clunch said. “This is Ball, my dog, that bids you all welcome in his own language. Come, when you go inside, be careful not to stumble on the threshold — that’s bad luck.”

He called, “Open the door, Madge; we have guests.”

His old wife, Madge, opened the door.

“Welcome, Clunch, and good fellows all, who come with my goodman,” Madge said. “For my goodman’s sake, come on, sit down. Here is a piece of cheese, and a pudding of my own making.”

A pudding is either a sausage or a sweet dish.

In this society, the word “goodman” meant “head of the household”; in this case, it also meant “husband.”

“Thanks, gammer,” Antic said. “You are a good example for the wives of our town.”

In this society, the word “gammer,” which meant “grandmother,” was used as a nickname for an old woman.

“Gammer, thou and thy goodman sit lovingly together,” Frolic said. “We come to chat, and not to eat.”

Frolic was polite and did not want to put their hosts to any trouble. And since the blacksmith and his wife were not expecting guests, chances are there was not really enough food to go around.

“Well, sirs, if you will eat nothing, let’s clear the table,” Clunch said.

He was polite and did not want to eat in front of them.

Clunch then asked, “Come, what will we do to pass away the time?”

He said to his wife, “Lay a crabapple in the fire to roast for lamb’s-wool.”

Lamb’s-wool was a drink made of ale, the pulp of roasted apples, sugar, and spices.

He then asked his guests, “Shall we have a game at trump or ruff to drive away and pass the time? What do you say?”

Trump and ruff are card games.

“This blacksmith leads a life as merry as a king with Madge, his wife,” Fantastic said. “Sirrah Frolic, I am sure thou are not without some round or other. I have no doubt that Clunch can bear his part.”

In this case, “sirrah” was an affectionate form of address, one friend to another. Neither friend ranked high socially.

A round is a song in which different singers sing various parts, one singer at a time.

“Else you think that I am badly brought up, start the song when you will,” Frolic said. “I will sing my part.”

They sang:

When the rye reach to the chin,

And chopcherry, chopcherry ripe within,

Strawberries swimming in the cream,

And schoolboys playing in the stream;

Then, O, then, O, then, O, my true-love said,

Till that time come again

She could not live [as] a maid.”

“Chopcherry” is a game in which the player tried to catch in his or her mouth a cherry suspended on a string.

“Maids” are maidens: unmarried women, virgins.

“This entertainment is good,” Antic said, “but I think, gammer, that a merry winter’s tale would drive away the time trimly and well. Come, I am sure you are not without a score of such merry tales to while away a winter’s evening.”

“Indeed, gammer,” Fantastic said. “A tale of an hour long is as good as an hour’s sleep.”

“Look, gammer, I am sure you know such tales as that of the giant and the king’s daughter, and I know not what else,” Frolic said. “I have seen the day, when I was a little one, I would have followed a moving storyteller for a mile so I could hear such a tale.”

“Well, since you are so insistent, my goodman shall fill the pot with ale and get him to bed,” Madge said. “They who ply their work must keep good hours. One of you, go lie with him.”

Her husband had already heard her winter’s tales, so it made sense for him to rest so he could work hard the next day.

In this society, it was considered proper for individuals of the same sex to share beds. In winter, sharing a bed helped keep both people warm.

Madge said, “He is a clean-skinned man, I tell you, without either spavin or windgall.”

She meant that her husband the blacksmith was healthy and free of disease. His skin was free of sores, and he did not suffer from either spavin or windgall — which are horse diseases!

“Do that, and I am happy to drive away the time with an old wives’ winter’s tale,” she said.

“There’s no better hay in Devonshire; on my word, gammer,” Fantastic said. “I’ll be one of your audience.”

A “hay” is a dance. Fantastic was saying that there was no better entertainment in Devonshire than an old wives’ winter’s tale.

“And I will be another,” Frolic said. “That’s settled.”

“Then I must go to bed with the goodman,” Antic said. “Bona nox, gammer. God night, Frolic.”

Bona nox” is Latin for “good night.”

“God night” means “May God give you a good night.”

“Come on, my lad,” Clunch said. “Thou shall take thy unnatural rest with me.”

The rest was unnatural because normally the blacksmith shared the bed with his wife, but the blacksmith was also gently joking that it was unnatural because a mature man and a young man were sharing the same bed.

Antic and the blacksmithexited.

“Yet we shall have this advantage over them in the morning,” Frolic said. “We will be ready at the sight of the dawn to leave extempore — no preparation needed because we will have our shoes on.”

“Now this agreement, my masters, I make must with you,” Madge said. “You will say ‘hum’ and ‘ha’ to my tale, so I shall know you are awake.”

“Agreed, gammer,” Frolic and Fantastic said. “We will do that.”

Madge began telling her old wives’ winter’s tale:

“Once upon a time, there was a king, or a lord, or a duke, who had a beautiful daughter, the most beautiful who ever was; she was as white as snow and as red as blood, and once upon a time his daughter was stolen away, and he sent all his men to seek out his daughter, and he sent so many for so long, that he sent all his men out of his land.”

“Who prepared his dinner, then?” Frolic asked.

“Either hear my tale, or kiss my tail,” Madge said.

“Well said!” Fantastic said. “On with your tale, gammer.”

Madge continued her tale:

“Oh, Lord, I quite forgot! There was a sorcerer, and this sorcerer could do anything, and he turned himself into a great dragon, and carried the king’s daughter away in his mouth to a castle that he made of stone; and there he kept her I know not how long, until at last all the king’s men went out so long that her two brothers went to seek her.

“Oh, I forget! She — I mean, he, the sorcerer — turned a handsome young man into a bear in the night, and into a man” — she meant an oldman — “in the day, and he, the man, lived by a cross that marked a three-way intersection, and he, the sorcerer, made the enchanted handsome young man’s sweetheart run mad.”

She looked up and said, “By God’s bones, who is coming here?”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


Buy the Paperback

This is an easy-to-read retelling of George Peele’s “THE OLD WIVES’ TALE.” It is a play within a play. An old wife tells a fairy tale to visitors. As she tells the tale, the characters come to life and act out the fairy tale.




FREE eBook: davidbrucehaiku #14 (pdf)




John Ford’s The Broken Heart: A Retelling, by David Bruce












THE TROJAN WAR: 4 Epic Poems (Iliad, Posthomerica, Odyssey, Aeneid)




Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY: A Retelling in Prose



This entry was posted in Retelling and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s