David Bruce: George Peele’s THE OLD WIVES’ TALE: A Retelling — Scenes 6-8

— Scene 6 —

Eumenides, a knight errant, aka wandering knight, arrived at the cross.

He said to himself, “Tell me, Time. Tell me, just Time:

“When shall I see Delia?

“When shall I see the loadstar — the guiding star — of my life?

“When shall my wandering course end with her sight,

“Or I but view my hope, my heart’s delight?”

Seeing Erestus at the cross,he said, “Father, Godspeed! My best wishes to you! If you tell fortunes, please, good father, tell me mine.”

Erestus gave the wandering knight advice and prophecies:

Son, I do see in thy face

Thy blessed fortune is coming apace.

I do perceive that thou have intelligence and wit.

Ask thy fate to govern it,

For wisdom governed by good thinking and good advice,

Makes many fortunate and wise.

Bestow thy alms, give more than all—”

Erestus wanted Eumenides to give alms to the poor — and to give more than all.

Erestus continued his prophecy:

Till dead men’s bones come at thy call.

Farewell, my son: dream of no rest,

Till thou repent that which thou did best.”

Erestus exited.

Eumenides said, “This man has left me in a labyrinth of perplexity:

“He tells me to give more than all,

Till dead men’s bones come at my call;

“He tells me to dream of no rest,

Till I repent that which I do best.”

Despite the admonition to “dream of no rest,” he immediately lay down and slept.

Wiggen, Corebus, the churchwarden, and the sexton arrived. Wiggen’s and Corebus’ friend Jack had died, and they wanted him buried quickly. The churchwarden and the sexton wanted money to pay for the burial.

“You may be ashamed, you whoreson, vile, contemptible scabby sexton and churchwarden, if you had any shame in those shameless faces of yours, to let a poor man lie so long above ground unburied,” Wiggen said. “A rot on you all, you who have no more compassion for a good fellow when he is gone!”

“Would you have us bury him, and pay the costs ourselves to the parish treasury?” the churchwarden asked.

“Parish me no parishes,” the sexton said. “Pay me my fees, and let the rest run on in the quarter’s financial accounts, and put it down for one of your church’s good deeds, in God’s name! For I am not one who fastidiously stands upon the merits of the case.”

The sexton wanted to make sure he got the money that was due to him, and he was OK with the parish bearing the rest of the cost of the funeral.

“You whoreson, sodden-headed sheep’s face,” Corebus said. “Shall a good fellow do less service and more honor to the parish, and yet you won’t, when he is dead, let him have Christmas burial?”

Corebus sometimes made malapropisms. Instead of “less service,” he meant “more service.” Instead of “Christmas burial,” he meant “Christian burial.”

He, however, was gifted at invective. A person with a sodden head is one whose head is soaked with water — or alcohol. He was also saying that the sexton’s head resembled that of a stupid sheep.

“Peace, Corebus! Quiet!” Wiggen said. “As sure as Jack was Jack, the most frolicsome franion — the merriest fellow — among you, and as sure as I, Wiggen, was his sweet sworn brother, Jack shall have his funeral rites, or some of them shall lie on God’s dear earth for it, that’s settled once and for all — that’s for sure.”

“Wiggen, I hope thou will do no more than thou dare to be held accountable for,” the churchwarden said.

“Sir, sir, dare or dare not, more or less, answer or not answer, do this, or have this,” Wiggen said.

Wiggen hit the churchwarden with a pike-staff.A pike-staff is a walking stick with a metal tip on one end.

The sexton cried, “Help, help, help! Wiggen sets upon the parish with a pike-staff.”

The “parish” was the churchwarden, who was a parish official and the representative of the parish.

Eumenides the wandering knight woke up and came over to them.

“Hold thy hands, good fellow,” he said to Wiggen. “Stop fighting.”

Corebus said, “Can you blame him, sir, for taking Jack’s side against this shake-rotten and corrupt parish who will not bury Jack?”

“Why, who was that Jack?” Eumenides asked.

“Who was Jack, sir?” Corebus said. “Who, our Jack, sir? Why, he was as good a fellow as ever trod upon neat’s-leather.”

Neat’s leather is shoe leather. A neat is a cow or ox.

“Look, sir,” Wiggen said to Eumenides. “He gave fourscore and nineteen — ninety-nine — mourning gowns to the parish when he died, and because he would not make the number of gowns a full hundred, they would not bury him.”

According to Wiggen, Jack had given the church ninety-nine mourning gowns for the impoverished to wear at his funeral. This kind of thing is done for an aristocrat’s funeral.

Wiggen asked sarcastically, “Isn’t this good dealing?”

If Wiggen was correct about the gift, the good dealing was on Jack’s part, not on the church’s.

“Oh, Lord, sir, how he lies!” the churchwarden said. “Jack was not worth a halfpenny, and he drunk every penny, and now his fellows, his drunken companions, would have us bury him at the expense of the parish. If we make many such ‘bargains,’ we may as well pull down the steeple, sell the roof and bells, and use cheap thatch as the roof for the chancel. Jack shall lie above ground until he dances a lively galliard about the churchyard, as far as I, Steven Loach, am concerned.”

The chancel is the part of the church near the altar.

Sic argumentaris, Domine Loach,” Wiggen said.

The Latin means, “Thus you argue, Master Loach.”

Wiggen added, “You say, ‘If we make many such ‘bargains,’ we may as well pull down the steeple, sell the bells, and use cheap thatch as the roof for the chancel — in good time, sir, and hang yourself in the bell ropes, when you have done. Domine, opponens praepono tibi hanc quaestionem—”

The Latin means, “Master, in opposition, I put before you this question.”

He continued, “— will you have the ground broken to bury Jack or your heads broken first? For one of them shall be done at once, and to begin acting my preference, I’ll seal it upon your coxcomb.”

He meant that he would begin beating their heads.

Jesters, aka Fools, wore hats that resembled the coxcomb of a cock.

“Hold thy hands, please, good fellow,” Eumenides said. “Don’t be too hasty.”

Corebus said, “You capon’s face — you who have the face of a castrated cock — we shall have you turned out of the parish one of these days, with not even a tatter of clothing to cover your arse; then you will be in a worse condition than Jack.”

Perhaps he was talking to the churchwarden.

“Indeed, and his condition is bad enough,” Eumenides said.

He then said to the churchwarden, “This fellow is just doing the part of a friend: He seeks to bury his friend. How much money will it take to bury him?”

“Indeed, about some fifteen or sixteen shillings will bury him respectably,” Wiggen said.

“Aye, or even thereabouts, sir,” the sexton said. “Therabouts” could have referred to the “fifteen or sixteen shillings” or to the adjective “respectably.”

“Here, take it, then,” Eumenides said.

As he counted out the money, he said to himself, “And I have left for me only one poor three half-pence. Now I remember the words the old man spoke at the cross:

“‘Bestow all thou have’ — and this is all —

“‘till dead men’s bones come at thy call.’”

Eumenides then said, “Here, take it, and so farewell.”

He gave the money to the churchwarden.

Wiggen said, “May God, and all good, be with you, sir!”

Eumenides exited.

Wiggen then said to the churchwarden and the sexton, “You cormorants, I’ll bestow one peal of the church bell for Jack at my own proper costs and charges.”

Cormorants are greedy seabirds.

Corebus said to the churchwarden and the sexton, “You may thank God the long staff and the bilbo-blade didn’t cross your coxcomb. You’re lucky we didn’t beat you.”

A bilbo-blade is a sword, so called because good swords were made in Bilboa, Spain.

He then said to Wiggen, “Well, we’ll go to the church-stile and have a pot of ale.”

He imitated the sound of drinking: “Trill-lill.”

Often, an alehouse was located at the stile at the entrance of a churchyard. A stile allowed people but not herding animals to cross a fence. Alehouses and churches were the main places of social interaction in villages.

Corebus and Wiggenexited.

The churchwarden said to the sexton, “Come, let’s go.”

They exited in a different direction from that of Corebus and Wiggen.

— Scene 7 —

Fantastic said, “But listen, gammer, I think that this Jack had a great influence in the parish.”

“Oh, this Jack was a marvelous fellow!” Madge said. “He was just a poor man, but very well beloved. You shall see soon what this Jack will come to.”

The harvestmen arrived, holding hands with the harvestwomen.

“Quiet!” Frolic said. “Who do we have here? Our amorous harvesters.”

“Aye, aye, let us sit still, and let them alone,” Fantastic said.

The harvestmen sang this song:

Lo, here we come a-reaping, a-reaping,

To reap our harvest-fruit!

And thus we pass the year so long,

And never be we mute.

Pleased with their song, they sang it again:

Lo, here we come a-reaping, a-reaping,

To reap our harvest-fruit!

And thus we pass the year so long,

And never be we mute.

— Scene 8 —

Huanebango stood outside Sacrapant’s Castle.

“Quiet!” Frolic said. “Who have we here?”

“Oh, this is an ill-tempered gentleman!” Madge said. “All you who love your lives, keep out of the smell — the range — of his two-hand sword. Now he goes to see the conjurer.”

“I think the conjurer should put the fool into a conjuring-box,” Fantastic said.

Some kinds of conjuring-boxes are used to make people disappear.

Huanebango recited these lines:

“Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman,

‘Conquer him who can,

“Come for his lady bright.

“To prove himself a knight,

“And win her love in fight.”

Boobythe Clownarrived. Not seeing Huanebango, he said, “Who-haw, Master Bango, are you here?”

Seeing Huanebango, Booby said, “Listen, you had best sit down here, and beg for an alms with me.”

The alms would be entrance into the castle.

Huanebangoreplied, “Hence, base cullion!”

Literally, a “cullion” is a testicle. Figuratively, it is a rascal.

He continued, “Here is a man — me — who commands his ingress and egress — his entering and exiting — with his weapon, and will enter at his own voluntary wish and free will, no matter whosoever says no.”

A voice said, “No.”

A flame of fire shot upward, and Huanebango fell down, clanging his sword on a rock.

“So with that they —Huanebango and the ground — kissed, and spoiled the edge of as good a two-hand sword as ever God put life in,” Madge said. “Now goes Boobyin, in spite of the conjurer.”

Sacrapant, whose voice had said, “No,” and two Furies entered the scene.

“Take him away into the open fields, to be a ravening prey to crows and kites,” Sacrapantsaid.

Actually, the crows and kites — birds of prey — were ravening: They were ravenous. Sacrapant may have deliberately used the oxymoron to describe a moron.

The two Furies carried out Huanebango.

Sacrapant added, “And as for this villain, let him wander up and down in nothing but darkness and eternal night.”

He struck Booby blind.

Using anickname for Huanebango, Booby the Clown said, “Here have thou slain Huan, a slashing, spirited knight, and robbed poor Boobyof his sight.”

A slashing knight is a swashbuckler, which literally means a person who noisily hits another person’s buckler, aka shield.

“Go away from here, villain, go away!” Sacrapant ordered.


“Now I have given a potion of forgetfulness to Delia,” Sacrapant said, “so that, when she comes, she shall not know her brothers. Look, where they labor, like rural slaves; with spade and mattock, they dig and loosen this enchanted ground!”

A mattock is a kind of pickaxe.

He continued, “Now I will call her by another name, for never shall she know herself again until Sacrapant has breathed his last.”

He looked up and said, “See where she comes.”

Delia entered the scene.

“Come here, Delia, take this goad for prodding cattle,” Sacrapant said. “Here hard at hand two slaves work and dig for gold. Gore — wound — them with this, and thou shall have enough.”

He handed her a goad.

“Good sir, I don’t know what you mean,” Delia said.

“She has forgotten to be Delia, but she has not forgotten as much as she should forget,” Sacrapant said to himself.

She was talking to him using formal words such as “sir” and “you.” Sacrapant wanted her to like him and use the informal, familiar words “thou” and “thee” when talking to him.

Sacrapant said to himself, “But I will change her name.”

He then said to Delia, using her new name, “Fair Berecynthia, for so this country calls you, go spur these strangers, wench; they dig for gold.”

The goddess Cybele, protector of castles, was worshipped on a mountain named Berecynthia.


“Oh, heavens, how I am beholden to this handsome young man!” Delia said about Sacrapant.

Because of his sorcery, he appeared to her to be a handsome young man.

She then said, “But I must spur these strangers to do their work. See where they come.”

Her two brothers, in their undershirts, were digging with spades.

“Oh, brother, see where Delia is!” the first brother said.

“Oh, Delia, we are happy to see thee here!” the second brother said.

“Why are you telling me about Delia, you prating, chattering country workers?” Delia said. “I know no Delia, nor do I know what you mean. Apply yourselves to your work, or else you’re likely to smart when I prod you with my goad.”

“Why, Delia, don’t thou know thy brothers here?” the first brother asked. “We have come from Thessaly to seek thee, and thou deceive thyself, for thou are Delia.”

“Yet more of Delia?” she said. “Then take this, and smart.”

She pricked them with the goadand then said, “Do you devise tricks to defer your labor? Work, villains, work; it is for gold you dig.”

“Be quiet, brother, be calm,” the second brother said. “This vile enchanter has completely stolen away Delia’s senses, and she forgets that she is Delia.”

“Cease, cruel thou, thou who hurt the miserable,” the first brother said to Delia.

He then said to the second brother, “Dig, brother, dig, for she is hard as steel. “

They dug, and they saw a light in a glass under a little hill.

“Stop, brother,” the second brother said. “What have thou revealed?”

“Go away, and don’t touch it,” Delia said. “It is something that my lord has hidden there.”

After she covered it again, Sacrapant returned.

“Well done!” he said to her. “Thou drive these diggers well.”

He then ordered the two brothers, “Go get you inside, you laboring slaves.”

Thetwo brothersexited.

Sacrapant said to Delia, “Come, Berecynthia, let us go inside likewise, and hear the nightingale sing her notes.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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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.



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