David Bruce: George Peele’s THE OLD WIVES’ TALE: A Retelling — Scenes 2-3

— Scene 2 —

Two brothers came to a cross that marked a three-way intersection.

“Be quiet, gammer,” Frolic said. “Here some come to tell your tale for you.”

“Let them alone,” Fantastic said. “Let us hear what they will say.”

“Upon these chalky cliffs of Albion — Great Britain’s white cliffs of Dover — we are arrived now with tedious toil,” the first brother said. “We are traveling the wide world round about, to seek our sister, fair Delia, wherever she is, yet we cannot so much as hear of her.”

“Oh, cruel and unkind Lady Fortune!” the second brother said. “Unkind in that we cannot find our sister — our sister who is unfortunate in her very bad luck. But wait! Who have we here?”

He saw Erestus, an old man who was by the cross, stooping to gather plants for his food.

“Now, father, God be your speed!” the first brother said. “Good luck to you! What do you gather there?”

In this society, people called an old man “father” even when the old man was a stranger to them.

“Hips and haws, and sticks and straws, and things that I gather on the ground, my son,” Erestus said.

Hips are rosehips, and haws are hawthorn berries. They are fruits.

“Hips and haws, and sticks and straws!” the first brother said. “Why, is that all your food, father?”

“Yes, son,” Erestus replied.

“Father, here is an alms-penny for prayers for me,” the second brother said, “and if I succeed in the project I am traveling for, I will give thee as good a gown of grey as ever thou did wear.”

Religious pilgrims wore grey gowns.

“And, father, here is another alms-penny for me,” the first brother said, “and if I succeed in my journey, I will give thee a palmer’s staff of ivory, and a scallop shell of beaten gold.”

A palmer is a religious pilgrim. Pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem brought back a palm leaf, while pilgrims who traveled to the Shrine of St. James of Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain brought back a scallop shell because it was a symbol of the saint.

Erestus, the old man, had the power of prophecy. He knew that they were seeking a woman.

“Was she fair?” Erestus asked. “Was she beautiful?”

“Yes, the fairest for white, and the purest for red, as the blood of the deer, or the driven snow,” the second brother said.

“Then hark well, and mark well, my old spell,” Erestus said.

In other words, listen carefully and pay attention to my old prophecy.

He continued:

Be not afraid of every stranger.

Don’t shy away from every danger.

Things that seem are not the same.

Blow a blast of breath at every flame.

For when one flame of fire goes out,

Then come your wishes well about:

If any ask who told you this good,

Say, the White Bear of England’s wood.”

The first brother said, “Brother, did you hear what the old man said?

Be not afraid of every stranger.

Don’t shy away from every danger.

Things that seem are not the same.

Blow a blast of breath at every flame.

For when one flame of fire goes out,

Then come your wishes well about:

If any ask who told you this good,

Say, the White Bear of England’s wood.”

The second brother said, “Well, if this should do us any good, then may the White Bear of England’s wood fare well!”

The two brothers exited.

Talking to himself, Erestus said, “Now sit thee here, and tell a heavy, distressing tale, sad and serious in thy mood, and sober in thy cheer.”

“Sober in thy cheer” meant 1) serious in your demeanor, and 2) frugal in your consumption of food. He was eating as he talked.

He continued, “Here sit thee now, and to thyself relate the hard misfortune of thy most wretched state. In Thessaly, land of witches and poisons, I lived in sweet happiness, until Lady Fortune worked my ruin, for there I was wedded to a dame who lived in honor, virtue, love, and fame. But Sacrapant, that cursed sorcerer, being besotted with my beauteous love, my dearest love, my true betrothed wife, sought the means to rid me of my life. But worse than this, he with his chanting and enchanting spells turned me immediately into an ugly bear, and when the sun settles in the west, then I begin to don my ugly hide, and all the day I sit, as now you see, and speak in hard-to-understand riddles, all inspired with prophetic ‘rage’ — inspiration. I seem to be an old and miserable man, and yet I am in the April of my age — I am actually a young man.”

Venelia — his lady — appeared. Anyone observing her could tell she was insane.

“See where Venelia, my betrothed love, runs maddened and frenzied, all enraged, about the woods, all because of the sorcerer’s cursed and enchanting spells,” Erestus said.

Erestus had said he was “wedded” to Venelia, and he had called her “my true betrothed wife.” Apparently, they were engaged to be married, which in this society was a legally binding contract, but the marriage ceremony had not yet occurred.

Venelia exited, and a man entered the scene.

Erestus said, “But here comes Lampriscus, my discontented neighbor.”

Lampriscus, a beggar, was carrying a pot of honey.

“How are you now, neighbor?” Erestus said. “You look toward the ground as well as I. You are musing on —thinking about — something.”

“Neighbor, I muse on nothing but on the matter I have so often talked to you about,” Lampriscus said. “If you do anything for charity, help me. If you do anything for neighborhood or brotherhood, help me. Never was anyone so encumbered and burdened and troubled as is poor Lampriscus; and to begin, I ask you to please accept this pot of honey to improve your dietary fare.”

“Thanks, neighbor, set it down; honey is always welcome to the Bear,” Erestus said. “And now, neighbor, let me hear the cause of your coming.”

“I am, as you know, neighbor, a man unmarried, and I lived so unquietly with my two wives that every year I keep holy both the days wherein I buried them,” Lampriscus said. “My first wife was buried on Saint Andrew’s day, the other on Saint Luke’s.”

Saint Andrew’s day is November 30; Saint Luke’s day is October 18.

Saint Andrew brought good luck to lovers.

October 18 was a day on which folklore said that young people could dream about their future spouse.

October 18 was also the day of the Horn Fair, leading to jokes about cuckolds: Men with unfaithful wives were said to grow invisible horns on their forehead.

“And now, neighbor, as you of this country — England — say, your custom is out — all the service you owed to your wives is paid,” Erestus said. “But go on with your tale, neighbor.”

“By my first wife, whose tongue wearied me when she was alive, and sounded in my ears like the clapper of a great bell, whose talk was a continual torment to all who dwelt by her or lived near her, you have heard me say I had an attractive daughter.”

“True, neighbor,” Erestus said.

“She it is who afflicts me with her continual clamors, and hangs on me like a burr,” Lampriscus said. “Poor she is, and proud she is; she is as poor as a sheep newly shorn, and as proud of her hopes as a peacock is proud of her well-grown tail.”

“Well said, Lampriscus!” Erestus said. “You speak it like an Englishman.”

Lampriscus continued, “She is as quarrelsome and bad tempered as a wasp, and as stubborn and uncooperative as a child newly taken from the mother’s teat; she is to my age as is smoke to the eyes, or as vinegar is to the teeth — she is very disagreeable.”

Proverbs 10:26 states, “As vinegar is to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so is the slothful to them that send him” (1599 Geneva Bible).

“Holily praised, neighbor,” Erestus said, recognizing the allusion to the Bible. “Do as much for the next daughter.”

“By my other wife, I had a daughter so hard-favored, so foul and ugly and ill-faced, that I think a grove full of golden trees, and the leaves of rubies and diamonds, would not be a dowry answerable to her deformity,” Lampriscus said. “She is so ugly that even the dowry of a wealthy person would not get her married.”

“Well, neighbor, now that you have spoken, hear me speak,” Erestus said.

He prophesied:

Send them to the well for the water of life;

There shall they find their fortunes unlooked for.”

Revelation 21:6 states, “And he said unto me, It is done, I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end: I will give to him that is athirst, of the well of the water of life freely” (1599 Geneva Bible).

Revelation 22:1 states, “And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God, and of the Lamb” (1599 Geneva Bible).

Jesus speaks of the water of life to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well in John 4:10: “Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest that gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me drink, thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee water of life” (1599 Geneva Bible).

In Christianity, the “water of life” is “living water” or “the Holy Spirit.”

Erestus then said, “Neighbor, farewell.”

“Farewell, and a thousand times farewell,” Lampriscus said. “May you fare well indeed.”


“And now goes poor Lampriscus to put in execution this excellent advice.”

— Scene 3 —

Frolic said, “Why, this goes round even without the musical accompaniment of a fiddling-stick.”

“This goes round” means “This story is going well,” but Frolic was punning on “round” as meaning a kind of song or dance. He also was saying that this story was as good an entertainment as a song or a dance.

He added, “But, listen, gammer, was this old man the man who was a bear in the night and a man in the day?”

“Yes, this is he!” Madge said. “And this man — Lampriscus — who came to him was a beggar, and dwelt upon a green.

“But be quiet! Who is coming here?

“Oh, these are the harvestmen — the reapers. Ten to one they sing a song of mowing — a song about cutting the grain with a scythe during harvest.”

She would have lost her bet; the harvestmen sang a song of sowing, not mowing.

The harvestmen sang this song:

All ye that lovely lovers be,

Pray you for me.

Lo, here we come a-sowing, a-sowing,

And sow sweet fruits of love;

In your sweet hearts well may it prove!

Pleased with their song, they sang it again:

All ye that lovely lovers be,

Pray you for me.

Lo, here we come a-sowing, a-sowing,

And sow sweet fruits of love;

In your sweet hearts well may it prove!

The harvestmen exited.


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)




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PS: I like online reviews.

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