David Bruce: George Peele’s THE OLD WIVES’ TALE: A Retelling — Scenes 9-10

— Scene 9 —

Zantippa, the ill-tempered daughter, walked to the Well of Life with a pitcher in her hand.

“Now for a husband, house, and home,” she said to herself, “May God send me a good husband or none, I pray to God! My father has sent me to the well for the water of life, and he tells me that if I speak fair, flattering words, I shall have a husband. But here comes Celanta, my sweet sister. I’ll stand nearby and hear what she says.”

Celanta, the ugly wench, walked to the well for water with a pitcher in her hand.

“My father has sent me to the well for water, and he tells me that if I speak fair, flattering words, I shall have a husband, and none of the worst,” she said to herself. “Well, though I am black, I am sure all the world will not forsake me; and, as the old proverb is, though I am black, I am not the devil.”

The word “black” meant “with a dark complexion.” In this society, the devil was said to be black. This culture valued light complexions; it regarded dark complexions as ugly.

Zantippa came forward and said, “Marry-gup with a murren.”

This was an oath meaning “A pox on you!”

She continued, “I know why thou spoke that, but go thy ways home as wise as thou came, or I’ll send thee home with a wanion — a vengeance.”

She struck her pitcher against her sister’s pitcher, broke them both, and then exited.

“I think that she is the curstest quean — most ill-tempered hussy — in the world,” Celanta said. “You see what she is, a little pretty, but as proud as the devil, and the veriest vixen — the greatest shrew — who lives upon God’s earth. Well, I’ll let her alone, and go home, and get another pitcher, and, for all this, get myself to the well again for water.”

She exited.

The two Furies carried Huanebango out of Sacrapant’s living chamber and lay him by the Well of Life, and then they exited.

Carrying a pitcher, Zantippa, the pretty but ill-tempered daughter, returned to the well.

She said to herself, “Once again I am here for a husband; and, indeed, Celanta, I have got the head start on you; perhaps husbands grow by the well-side.

“Now my father says I must control my tongue. Why, alas, what am I, then? A woman without a tongue is like a soldier without his weapon, but I’ll have my water, and then be gone.”

A proverb stated, “A woman’s weapon is her tongue.”

Zantippa dipped her pitcher in the well.

A Voice came out of the well and said this:

Gently dip, but not too deep,

For fear you make the golden beard to weep.

A Head came up out of the Well of Life with ears of corn dangling from its hair and said this:

 “Fair maiden, white and red,

Comb me smooth, and stroke my head,

And thou shall have some cockell-bread.”

Cockell-bread was the name of a bawdy game played by maidens in which they pretended to knead bread dough with their buttocks while singing a song. According to folklore, if a maiden kneaded the dough in this way, baked the bread, and gave it to a young man to eat, it would act as a love charm. The Head meant that Zantippa would find a husband.

Such bawdiness may be appropriate. Zantippa had gone to the Well of Life for a husband and the water of life, and the impregnating fluid of life is semen.

Zantippa said,“What is this?

Fair maiden, white and red,

Comb me smooth, and stroke my head,

And thou shall have some cockell-bread”?

“‘Cockell,’ do thou call it, boy? Indeed, I’ll give you cockell-bread.”

Angered by the bawdiness implicit in “cockell-bread,” she broke her pitcher upon the Head. Thunder sounded and lightning flashed.

Huanebango, whom Sacrapant had made deaf, rose.

He said, “Philida, phileridos, pamphilida, florida, flortos.”

This is nonsense that sounds like Spanish.

He then said, “Dub dub-a-dub, bounce, said the guns, with a sulphurous huff-snuff.”

“Dub dub-a-dub” is an imitation of drumming. “Bounce” means “bang.” “A sulphurous huff-snuff” is the smell coming from a fired gun or cannon.

He then said, “Waked by a wench, pretty peat, pretty love, and my sweet pretty pigsnie.”

“Pretty peat” means “pretty girl.” “Pigsnie” literally means “pig’s eye,” but it figuratively means “sweetheart.”

He then said, “Just by thy side shall sit me, who is surnamed great Huanebango. Safe in my arms will I keep thee, no matter whether Mars threatens, or Olympus thunders.”

He put his arms around her.

Zantippa said to herself, “Ugh, what greasy groom — greasy man — have we here? He looks as though he crept out of the backside of the well, and he speaks like a drum whose skin has split at the west end.”

Huanebango said, “Oh, that I might — but I may not, woe to my destiny therefore! — 
kiss what I clasp! But I cannot. Tell me, my destiny, why?”

Apparently, Sacrapant’s spell had made Huanebango both deaf and unable to kiss Zantippa.

Also, perhaps, Huanebango’s destiny had changed. In his short speech, he mentioned “destiny” twice. His first “destiny” was to rescue Delia from Sacrapant the Conjuror, but now he believed his “destiny” was to marry Zantippa.

“Whoop!” Zantippa said to herself. “Now I have my dream — I have my husband. Did you ever hear so great a wonder as this: three blue beans in a blue bladder — rattle, bladder, rattle?”

To her, Huanebango’s babbling was like the sound of beans in a baby’s rattle.

Huanebango said to himself, “I’ll now set my countenance, and speak to her in prose. It may be that this rim-ram-ruff is too rude an encounter.”

His babbling — his rim-ram-ruff — had been an attempt at poetic flirting, an attempt that had failed.

He said, “Let me, fair lady, if you are at 
leisure, revel with your sweetness, and rant about that cowardly conjurer who has cast me, or congealed — frozen — me rather, into an unkind sleep, and polluted my carcass — he has violated my body.”

“Laugh, laugh, Zantippa,” she said to herself. “Thou have thy fortune: a fool and a husband under one.”

She intended to be the boss of the two.

“Truly, sweetheart, I am as I seem to be, about some twenty years old, in the very April of my age,” Huanebango said.

“Why, what a chattering ass is this!” Zantippa said to herself.

Huanebango began to speak love poetry:

“Her coral lips, her crimson chin,

“Her silver teeth so white within,

“Her golden locks, her rolling eye,

“Her pretty parts, let them without comment go by,

“Heigh-ho, have wounded me,

“That I must die this day to see!”

The “pretty parts” may be those underneath clothing. “Heigh-ho” is a sigh. In this culture, “to die” meant “to have an orgasm.”

“By Gogs-bones, thou art a flouting, mocking knave,” Zantippa said. “‘Her coral lips, her crimson chin!’ he says, wilshaw!”

“By Gogs-bones” is an oath meaning “By God’s bones.”

Zantippa was playing with words. “Wil” comes from a now obsolete Welsh word meaning “tricky.” (Think of “wily.”) Huanebango’s flouting, mocking words (he would call them poetic words) were tricky. She was saying “wil-shaw” rather than “p-shaw.” “Wil-shaw” combines the meanings of “tricky” and “pshaw.”

“True, my own, and my own because mine, and mine because mine, ha, ha!” Huanebango said. “Above a thousand pounds in possibility, and things fitting thy desire in possession.”

Huanebango was detailing his income: His lands provided him up to a thousand pounds annually.

Zantippa said to herself, “The sot thinks I ask about his lands. Lob be your comfort, and cuckold be your destiny!”

“Lob” means “clown” or “lout.” “Lob’s pound” is a slang term for “prison,” and Huanebango’s new “comfort” as a hen-pecked husband could be similar to being in prison.

His new destiny is to be a cuckold: a man with an unfaithful wife.

Zantippa said to him, “Listen, sir; if you will have us, you had best say so in good time — you had best propose to me right away.”

In referring to herself as “us,” she was using the majestic plural.

“True, sweetheart, and I will royalize thy progeny — children — with my pedigree,” he replied.

This may be a happy marriage. Huanebango, being deaf, will not know that Zantippa is a shrew. His deafness will also help her hide her unfaithfulness. Huanebango takes pride in his ancestry, and Zantippa is a proud woman. Being married to a person with important ancestors is something to brag about.

Earlier, Erestus had prophesied to Booby the Clown, “He shall be deaf when thou shall not see.

The prophecy had come true.

Booby the Clown, while Huanebango was blind.

— Scene 10 —

Eumenides stood on a nearby road.

He said to himself, “Wretched Eumenides, still unfortunate, hated by fortune and forlorn by fate, here waste away and die, wretched Eumenides. Die in the spring, the April of my age! Here sit thee down, repent what thou have done: I wish to God that it were never begun!”

He was repenting that which he had done best: resolve to rescue the princess from the evil sorcerer. Earlier, Erestus had told him this:

Farewell, my son: dream of no rest,

Till thou repent that which thou did best.”

The Ghost of Jack came up from behind him and said, “You are well overtaken, sir.”

A polite traveler would customarily say that to another traveler he had caught up to.

“Who’s that?” Eumenides asked. 

“You are heartily well met, sir,” the Ghost of Jack, invisible, said, giving him a playful pinch.

“Stop it, I say,” Eumenides said. “Who is that who pinches me?”

In this culture, ghosts often pinched people, sometimes maliciously.

The Ghost of Jack now materialized behind Eumenides and then stood where Eumenides could see him.

The Ghost of Jack said, “Trusting in God, good Master Eumenides, that you are in so good health as all your friends were at the making hereof, may God give you a good morning, sir!”

The Ghost of Jack was assuming that Eumenides’ friends had toasted his health, and God had responded by actually making Eumenides healthy. In this culture, some letters began with this kind of salutation. Travellers also often greeted each other by wishing that God would give the other a good morning. The Ghost of Jack was being very respectful to Eumenides.

The Ghost of Jack then asked, “Don’t you need a neat, competent, handsome, and clean young lad, about the age of fifteen or sixteen years, who can run by your horse, and, when needed, make your mastership’s shoes as black as ink?”

Footmen literally ran by their master’s horse.

The Ghost of Jack then asked, “How do you answer me, sir?”

Eumenides, who apparently did not know that this was a ghost, said, “Alas, pretty lad, I don’t know how I will provide for myself, much less a servant, my pretty boy, because my state of finances is so bad.”

“Be content,” the Ghost of Jack said, “You shall not be so ill a master but I’ll be as bad a servant. Tut, sir, I know you, though you don’t know me. Aren’t you the man, sir — deny it if you can, sir — who came from a strange place in the land of Catita, where a jackanapes flies with his tail in his mouth. Didn’t you come here to seek out a lady as white as snow and as red as blood?”

The Ghost of Jack continued to be playful. Catita is a fairy-tale land with fairytale creatures such as a jackanapes (which is usually a monkey), but it is true that Eumenides came from a faraway land — perhaps even Catita — and that he came here to seek and find a lady.

“Ha, ha!” the Ghost of Jack said. “Have I now said something that touches you closely?”

“I think this boy is a spirit,” Eumenides said to himself, beginning to catch on to the truth. “Someone who knows such private matters must be a ghost.”

He then asked, “How do thou know all this?”

The Ghost of Jack said, “Tut, aren’t you the man, sir — deny it if you can, sir — who gave all the money you had to the burying of a poor man, and had only one three-half-pence coin left in your purse? Be satisfied, sir, that I’ll serve you, that is certain.”

“Well, my lad, since thou are so insistent, I am happy to entertain — employ — thee, not as a servant, but as a copartner in my journey,” Eumenides said. “But to where shall we go? For I have not any money more than one bare three-half-pence coin.”

“Well, master, be content,” the Ghost of Jack said, “for unless my divination is wrong, that shall be spent at the next inn or alehouse we come to; for, master, I know you are exceedingly hungry. Therefore, I’ll go ahead of you and provide dinner for when you come; no doubt but you’ll come fair and softly — that is, at your own leisure — after me.”

“Aye, go before me; I’ll follow thee.”

“But listen, master? Do you know my name?”

“No, I promise thee, not yet.”

“Why, I am Jack.”

“Jack!” Eumenides said.

Realizing that he was talking to a ghost, he said, “Why, so be it, then.”


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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