David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Cast of Characters; Act 1, Scene 1


SATAN the great devil

PUG the less devil (an imp)

INIQUITY the Vice. The Vice was a stock character, often comic, in medieval morality plays. The Vice’s job was supposed to be to tempt people to do evil. The Vice accompanied Satan. At the time of Ben Jonson’s play, the Vice is an old-fashioned, out-of-date character.

FABIAN FITZDOTTREL a squire of Norfolk (a dotterel is a foolish bird)

MISTRESS FRANCES FITZDOTTREL his wife. “Mistress” means “female head of the house.” She was the mistress or lady-boss of the servants — or servant — in the household. Her husband sometimes calls her “wedlock,” which is appropriate because her marriage is a form of imprisonment.

MERECRAFT the projector (“mere” means “solely,” “completely,” or “only”; “crafty” means “tricky” in an unethical sense). A projector comes up with moneymaking schemes; projectors need money to put into effect their moneymaking schemes. Merecraft is a con man.

EVERILL his champion and defender. Everill gets Merecraft access to wealthy men to defraud. Everill is a con man.

WITTIPOL a young gallant. “Wit” means intelligence, and “pol” means “head” or “parrot.” The name is ambiguous, so readers will have to study his character to see whether he is an intelligent man or merely an intelligent parrot. Even an intelligent parrot is not very intelligent.

EUSTACE MANLY his friend. Manly is a good and ethical man.

ENGINE a broker (a middleman; an engine is a piece of trickery). Engine is a con man.

TRAINS the projector’s (Merecraft’s) manservant (a train is a lure or a bait)

GILTHEAD a goldsmith (a gilthead is a fish with gold markings on its head)


SIR PAUL EITHERSIDE a lawyer and Justice (lawyers can argue for either side: prosecution or defense)


LADY TAILBUSH the lady projectress

PITFALL her female attendant (a pitfall is a trap)

AMBLER her gentleman usher

SLEDGE a blacksmith, the constable

SHACKLES jail keeper of Newgate prison




The Scene



In this culture, a man 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.

The word “sirrah” is a term usually used to address a man of lower social rank than the speaker. This was socially acceptable, but sometimes the speaker would use the word as an insult when speaking to a man whom he did not usually call “sirrah.” Close friends, whether male or female, could also call each other “sirrah.”

A purse is used to carry money. Men carried what they called a purse.

The events of The Devil is an Ass take place in one day.

— 1.1 —

Satan and Pug, a minor devil, talked together in London. Pug had made a request to Satan that Satan was now laughing at. They were visiting earth, and Pug wanted to take possession of a body and stay there for a while.

“Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho,” Satan laughed. “To earth? And why do thou want to go to earth, thou foolish spirit? What would thou do on earth?”

“I want to go to earth to do, great chief, that which time shall show you,” Pug said. “I am asking only for my month on earth, which every petty, puny devil has. Within that length of time, the Court of Hell will hear something that may gain me a longer grant of time, perhaps, to spend on earth.”

Satan said, “For doing what?

“Laming a poor cow or two?

“Entering a sow to make her bear prematurely her farrow?

“Or somewhere between this place and the village of Tottenham crossing the path of a market-woman’s mare and diverting it from its destination?”

The village of Tottenham was only a few miles from London.

Satan continued, “These are your usual main achievements, Pug.

“You must have some plot now concerning the storing of ale in casks: You want to make the yeast stale.

“Or you want to manage the churn so that the butter doesn’t form, despite the housewife’s cord, or her hot spit. You want to keep the housewife’s cord or her hot spit from making butter.”

In this society, housewives believed that wrapping a cord around a churn or thrusting a hot spit into the cream would encourage the formation of butter.

Satan continued, “Or some good ribibe — old hag — about Kentish Town or Hoxton, in the area of north London, you would hang now for a witch because she will not let you play round Robin?”

Puck, in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is also known as Robin Goodfellow. He goes around and plays tricks such as some of the ones Satan says that Pug likes to perform. Puck’s tricks are annoying, but they are not life threatening.

Satan continued, “And you’ll go sour a citizen’s cream in preparation for Sunday, so that she may be accused of it, and condemned by a Middlesex jury, to the satisfaction of their offended friends, the Londoners’ wives, whose teeth were set on edge with it?”

Middlesex juries had a well-deserved reputation for severity.

Satan continued, “Foolish fiend, stay in your place, know your own strengths, and don’t go beyond the sphere of your activity. You are too dull, stupid, and foolish a devil to be trusted out in those parts, Pug, upon any affair that may concern our name on earth. It is not everyone’s work. The state of Hell must care whom it employs in point of reputation, here about London.

“You would make, I think, an agent to be sent to Lancashire properly enough, or some parts of Northumberland, as long as you would have good instructions, Pug.”

In other words, Pug could do good work in Lancashire or in Northumberland, but not in and around London, which is just too evil for an imp like Pug to deal with.

“Oh, chief!” Pug said. “You do not know, dear chief, what is in me.

“Test me for just a fortnight, or for a week, and lend me only a Vice to carry with me and help me corrupt any playfellow, and you will see that there will come more out of it than you’ll imagine, precious chief.”

A Vice was a companion of devils such as Satan. They had various names, which were the names of specific moral vices.

“What Vice?” Satan asked. “What kind of Vice would thou have?”

“Why, any,” Pug said. “Let the Vice be Fraud, or Covetousness, or Lady Vanity.

“Or old Iniquity — I’ll call him here.”

He called, “Iniquity!”

Iniquity the Vice appeared and said, “Who is he who calls upon me, and would seem to lack a Vice? Before his words are half spoken, I am with him in a trice, and here, there, and everywhere, as the cat is with the mice. I am truevetus Iniquitas.”

Iniquity the Vice knew Latin:Vetus Iniquitas is Latin for “old Inequity.”

The word “iniquity” means “gross injustice” or “wickedness.”

Iniquity the Vice said, “Do thou lack cards, friend, or dice? I will teach thee to cheat, child, to swindle and cheat, lie, and swagger, and forever and at once to be drawing forth thy dagger.

“I will teach thee to swear by Gog’s nowns — by God’s wounds — like a Lusty Juventus — like a Pleasure-Seeking Young Man.

“You will wear a cloak down to thy heel, and a hat like a penthouse, aka awning, Thy breeches will have three fingers of padding, and thy jacket will be all belly because it is stuffed with bombast — stuffing.

“And you will be with a wench who shall feed thee with aphrodisiacal cock-stones that are found in the gizzards of roosters — this wench will also feed thee with jelly.”

Iniquity the Vice skipped with delight.

Pug said to Satan, “Isn’t it excellent, chief? How nimble he is!”

Iniquity the Vice said, “Child of Hell, this is nothing! I willperform a leapfrom the top of the steeple of St.Paul’s Cathedral” — Iniquity the Vice was out of touch because lightning-caused fire had destroyed the steeple in 1561, and the current year was 1616 — “to the Standard, an ornamental pillar in Cheapside, and lead thee a dance through the streets without fail, as if I werea high-quality needle made in Spain, with a thread at my tail.”

Spanish lovers had a red-hot reputation, and readers can guess the meaning of a Spanish “needle.” (Non-metaphorical Spanish needles also had a reputation for good quality.)

The tail was the Vice’s bottom, and the non-metaphorical thread was his devil’s tail.

Iniquity the Vice now described a journey through disreputable areas of London, such as those filled with prostitutes, thieves, pubs, and lawyers:

“We will survey the suburbs, and make forth our sallies —

“We will go down Petticoat Lane and up the Smock Alleys — those haunts of prostitutes —

“We will go to Shoreditch, which is known for prostitutes; Whitechapel, which is known for thieves; and so continue on to St. Katherine’s precinct, which is known for pubs —we willdrink with the alcohol-loving Dutch there, and take away from there their patterns for weaving.

“From thence we will put in at Custom House Quay and see how the mercantile agents and apprentices play false with their masters; and geld — lighten — many a full pack, to spend it on pies at the Dagger and the Woolsack taverns.”

The mercantile agents and apprentices would steal items to sell to make money to spend on pies.

“Brave, brave Iniquity!” Pug said.

He then asked Satan, “Won’t this do, chief?”

Iniquity the Vice said:

“Boy, I will bring thee to the bawds and the roisterers feasting with claret wine and oysters at Billingsgate.

“From thence we will use oars to shoot boats upstream through the narrow arch-supports of the London Bridge, child, to go to the Cranes in the Vintry — three cranes used to upload wine from boats — and see there the gimlets that are used for piercing casks of wine, and see how they make their entry!

“Or if thou had rather go down to the Strand, in time to watch asthe lawyers come dabbled — they dabble in law — from Westminster Hall, and observe closely how they cling with their clients together. As ivy is to oak, so velvet is to leather.”

The lawyers wore velvet, and the clients wore leather.

Iniquity the Vice concluded, “Ha, boy, the things I would show thee!”

“Splendid!” Pug said. “Splendid!”

Satan said to Iniquity the Vice, “Be quiet, dotard!”

He then said to Pug, “And thou more ignorant thing, who so admires Iniquity the Vice, are thou the spirit thou seem to be? Are thou so poor and misguided that thou choose this for a Vice to advance the cause of Hell now, as vice stands this present year?

“Remember what number this year is: six hundred and sixteen.”

The year was 1616, but Satan did not want to number years using “A.D.,” which is an abbreviation of the Latin “Anno Domini,” which means “In the year of Our Lord.”

Satan was missing a thousand years in his reckoning.

Revelation 20:1-3 states this (King James Version):

1 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.

2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,

3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.

Most Christian authorities would say that these thousand years of imprisonment have not yet occurred, for they occur after the Second Coming of Christ.

Satan continued, “Had the number but been five hundred, though some sixty above — that’s fifty years gone, and six —”

He meant the year 560, although that year was actually 1560 A.D. From 616 take away 56, and you have 560. In the year 1560, the theatrical characters known as Vices were popular on the stage in England. By 1616, these characters were old fashioned.

Satan continued, “Back then, when every great man had his Vice stand by him — the Vice wearing a long coat and shaking his wooden dagger — I could consent that then this your grave choice might have done, with his lord chief, that which most of his chamber can do now. Back then, a Vice could be an effective diabolical companion.

“But Pug, as the times now are, who is it who will receive thee? What company will you go to, or whom will thou mix with?

“Where can thou carry the Vice, except to taverns? In a tavern, the Vice will stand on a joint-stool with a Jew’s harp, in order to put down and defeat the improvisatory jester Cokeley, and such performances must be before ordinary citizens. He never will be admitted there where Vennar comes.”

Richard Vennar announced that a new play would be performed on 6 November 1602 at the Swan Theater; he collected the admission money to see the play and then disappeared without having the play performed. According to Satan, Iniquity the Vice may be able to compete against the jester Cokeley in modest venues, but never could he compete against a con man such as Vennar, who operated in better venues.

Satan continued:

“Iniquity the Vice may perhaps, at the end of a sheriff’s dinner, skip with a rhyme on the table from new nothing — sing a doggerel song about nothing new — and take his almain — dancing — leap into a giant custard. This shall make my Lady Mayoress and her sisters laugh with all their French hoods over their shoulders.”

The Fool of the Lord Mayor of London would traditionally leap into a large bowl of custard as part of the entertainment at some feasts.

Satan continued:

“But this kind of thing is not what will do to accomplish the purposes of Hell.

“There are other things that are received now upon earth for Vices. There are stranger, and newer, Vices — and they are changed every hour.

“The newer Vices ride the older Vices like they ride their horses off their legs, and the older Vices come here to Hell, whole legions of them, every week, tired and exhausted.”

According to Satan, Vices such as old Iniquity could no longer compete with the new Vices that were appearing in London. The competition to commit vice had grown so fierce that Hell struggled to keep up.

Satan continued:

“We still strive to breed and rear up new Hell-Vices for Londoners, but the new Hell-Vices do not stand tall when they come to London. The Londoners turn our new Hell-Vices upside down and on our hands, and it is feared that the Londoners have a stud of their own that will put down ours.”

Satan was punning bawdily. The noun “a stand” means “an erection” and the verb “to stand” means “to have an erection.” The new Hell-Vices were impotent against the Londoners and their London-Vices.

Satan continued:

“Both our breed and trade will suddenly decay and dwindle unless we prevent it. Unless our Hell-Vice is a Vice of Quality or of Fashion now, the Londoners will not take it from us.

“Cart-men have gotten into the use of yellow starch, and chimney-sweepers have gotten into the use of their tobacco and strong waters: the strong ale known as hum, and mead, and obarni, which is scalded mead.”

A woman named Anne Turner introduced the use of yellow starch to England. In 1615, she was tried for complicity in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. Found guilty, she was forced to wear yellow ruffs at her execution, at which she confessed that the devil had possessed her.

Satan continued:

“We must therefore aim at sending extraordinarily subtle Hell-Vices now, when we send a Vice to London, to keep us up in credit. We must not send old Iniquities!”

Satan said to Iniquity the Vice, “Get you back all the way to Hell, sir. Return to the making of your rope of sand again.”

No one can make a rope out of sand; attempting to do so is meaningless work.

The punishments in Hell often consist of meaningless work, as these two punishments show:

1) The fifty sons of Aegyptus wanted to marry the fifty daughters of Danaus. Danaus was suspicious of Aegyptus and his fifty sons, so he fled with his fifty daughters, but Aegyptus and his fifty sons pursued them. To avoid a battle, Danaus told his fifty daughters to marry the fifty sons of Aegyptus, but although he allowed the marriages to be performed he also ordered his fifty daughters to kill the fifty sons of Aegyptus. All of his daughters except Hypermnestra, who had married Lynceus, obeyed. Hypermnestra spared Lynceus because he treated her with respect and did not force her to have sex with him their first night together. The gods did not like what the forty-nine women who had killed their husbands had done, and so those forty-nine daughters are punished in the Land of the Dead with meaningless work. They are condemned to spend all their time trying to fill up with water a container that has a big leak and so can never be filled. Only one daughter avoided this eternal punishment.

2) When Sisyphus was on his deathbed, he ordered his wife not to give his corpse a funeral. After his death, his spirit went to the Land of the Dead and complained to Pluto, King of the Dead, that he had not yet had a funeral. Pluto allowed him to return to the Land of the Living so that he could tell his wife to give him a funeral, but once he was back in the Land of the Living, he refused to return to the Land of the Dead. He lived to an advanced old age and then died again. Now he is forced to forever roll a boulder up a hill. Just as he reaches the top of the hill, he loses control of the boulder and it rolls back to the bottom of the hill again. Sisyphus can never accomplish this task, which has no value, and so his punishment is endless meaningless work.

Satan continued speaking to Iniquity the Vice:

“You are not for the Londoners’ manners, nor the Londoners’ times.

“They have their Vices there in London that are very similar to Virtues. You cannot tell them apart by any difference. They wear the same clothes, eat the same food, sleep in the same beds, ride in those coaches — or, very likely, four horses in a coach — as the best men and women.

“Tissue gowns, garters, and the shoe decorations known as roses, which are worth fourscore pound a pair,embroidered stockings, cut-work smocks and shirts — all of these are more certainly marks of lechery and pride now, than ever they were of true nobility!”

Religious people preached sermons against lechery and pride, both of which are deadly sins.

They also preached sermons against extravagant clothing and starch, including yellow starch. Tissue gowns were expensive — tissue cloth looked like cloth of gold. Roses were ornaments on the tops of shoes. Cut-work was elaborate embroidery with pieces of cloth cut out.

At one time in London, only the nobles wore such expensive clothing — laws of the time forbade wearing clothing designated for those above one’s station in life. But now, in 1616, because of the sinful nature of the Londoners, even the drivers of carts had been using yellow starch. Previously, you could separate the nobles and the common people in London, but now that was difficult. Previously, you could separate the vices and the virtues in London, but now that was difficult — often, what seemed to be a virtue turned out to be a vice.

Iniquity the Vice bowed his head in shame and exited.

Satan then said, “But Pug, since you burn with such desire to do the commonwealth of Hell some service, I am content that you assume a body, go to earth, and visit men for one day.

“But you must take a ready-made body, Pug. I can create you none. Creation is not reserved for devils such as me.

“Nor shall you form yourself an airy body, for instead you must become subject to all impressions of the flesh you take so far as human frailty. You will be able to feel pain.

“So, there is a handsome cutpurse to be hanged at Tyburn this morning. Once his spirit has departed, you may enter his body.

“As for clothes, employ your credit with the hangman, or let our tribe of brokers furnish you with clothing.”

Pug would go to earth and take possession of a naked dead body. He could get clothing from the hangman, part of whose compensation was the clothing of the people he hanged, or he could go to a pawnbroker, a member of a profession closely associated with Hell. Or he could find a third way to get clothing.

Satan continued:

“And see how far your subtlety can workthrough those organs; with that body, spy among mankind — you cannot there lack vices to spy upon, and therefore the less need you have to carry Vices with you. But as you make your soon-to-come early-at-night’s relation of your day to us, we will listen and if we shall find it merits reward from the state of Hell, you shall have both trust and employment from us.”

Satan was using the majestic plural.

“Most gracious chief!” Pug said.

“Only this much more do I bind you,” Satan said. “You must serve the first man whom you meet — and that man I’ll show you now.”

A mortal man named Fitzdottrel walked near them.

Satan continued:

“Observe him. Yonder is the man whom you shall see first, after you find some clothing to wear.

“Follow him. But once you are engaged to serve him, there you must stay and be fixed in that job, and not shift to any other employment until the midnight’s cock crows.”

“I agree to any conditions so long as I can be gone!” Pug said.

“Leave, then,” Satan said.

Satan and Pug exited.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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