David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 1, Scenes 4-5

— 1.4 —

Wittipol, Manly, and Engine talked together. Wittipol was a young gallant, Manly was his friend, and Engine was a middleman or broker. Engine was carrying a cloak.

Engine said to Wittipol, “Yonder Fitzdottrel walks, sir. I’ll go lift him for you.”

The phrase “lift him” meant 1) “make him excited in emotion” and 2) “excite his pride.” In addition, “lift” is a pun because some engines do the work of lifting.

“To him, good Engine, raise him up by degrees, gently, and hold him there, too,” Wittipol said. “You can do it. Show yourself now a mathematical — exact and calculating — broker.”

“I’ll warrant you that I will for half a piece,” Engine said.

A piece is a gold coin worth 22 shillings.

“It is done, sir,” Wittipol said. “Half a piece, it is.”

Engine took Fitzdottrel aside and spoke to him.

Manly asked, “Is it possible that there should be such a man?”

Engine and Wittipol were trying to persuade Fitzdottrel to do something that most husbands would never consider doing.

“You shall be your own witness,” Wittipol said. “I’ll not labor to tempt you past your faith.”

In other words, Manly would see the evidence for himself that yes, such a man exists; there was no need for Wittipol to persuade him that such a man exists. That kind of persuasion could result in a trial of faith, including faith that men are basically good.

“And is his wife so very beautiful, do you say?” Manly asked.

“I have not seen her since I came home from travel, and they say she is not altered,” Wittipol said. “According to other people, she still looks the same as when I left. Back then, before I went, I saw her only once; but even so, she has stayed always in my mind’s eye — no object has removed her.”

“Beauty is a fair guest, friend,” Manly said, “and once lodged deep in the eyes, she hardly leaves the inn. How does her husband, Fitzdottrel, keep her?”

“He keeps her very finely dressed,” Wittipol said. “However sordid he himself is, he is sensual that way. In every dressing he studies her.”

Fitzdottrel carefully looked at his wife in each outfit she wore, and he may have carefully studied her each time she dressed.

The word “sordid” means “dirty” or “mean.” Certainly, Fitzdottrel overvalued money in some areas of his life. As we have seen, he paid his one servant only four pounds a year. In other areas of his life, however, such as his wife’s clothing, he was willing to spend money.

“And he furnishes himself from the brokers?” Manly asked.

A broker was a middleman in bargains; for example, some people would go to a broker and pawn fine clothing. For special occasions, Fitzdottrel rented fine clothes for himself. He was willing to spend much money to dress himself well.

“Yes,” Wittipol said, “that’s a hired suit he now hason in order to see the play The Devil is an Ass today. This man named Engine gets three or four pounds a week by him. Fitzdottrel dares not miss a new play or a feast, whatever the rate he has to pay for hired clothes, and he thinks that he himself is still new in other men’s old.”

The clothing he wore may have been other men’s old clothing, but the clothing was new to Fitzdottrel.

“But wait,” Manly said, thinking about the feasts Fitzdottrel attended. “Does he love food so much?”

“Truly, he does not hate it,” Wittipol said. “But that’s not it. His belly and his palate would be compounded with for reason — he puts other priorities before his appetite. Indeed, he has an intelligence of that strange credit with him as opposed to all other men, as it makes him do just what it wishes. This strange obsession ravishes him forth wherever it pleases, to any assembly or place, and would make him conclude that he is ruined should he miss one public meeting because of the belief he has of his own great and catholic — universal and all-encompassing — strengths in arguing and discourse.”

Fitzdottrel attended feasts but not because of the food. He had convinced himself that he was a very intelligent man and a fine persuasive speaker, and that was why he attended so many public meetings and assemblies.

Engine had persuaded Fitzdottrel to try on the cloak.

“My plot is working, I see,” Wittipol said. “Fitzdottrel hasgot the cloak on him.”

Fitzdottrel said to Engine, “This is afair garment, I swear by my faith, Engine!”

“It was never made, sir,for under threescore pounds, I assure you,” Engine said.

Any assurance made by Engine ought not to be reassuring: He was a con man.

Engine continued, “It will yield thirty pounds if sold.”

Threescore pounds is sixty pounds. Engine meant that the cloak could be worn for a while and then sold used for thirty pounds. Or perhaps the cloak was worth thirty pounds, not sixty.

Engine continued, “The plush, sir, cost three pounds, ten shillings a yard! And then there is the cost of the lace and velvet.”

This was a very fancy and very expensive cloak.

“I shall, Engine, be looked at prettily when I wear it!” Fitzdottrel said. “Are thou sure the play is played today?”

Engine handed Fitzdottrel a paper and said, “Oh, here’s the playbill, sir. I forgot to give it to you.”

“Ha? The Devil is an Ass!” Fitzdottrel said. “I will not lose you, sirrah — I will not miss this play! But, Engine, do you thinkthat the gallant is so furious in his folly? So mad upon the matter that he’ll part with his cloak upon these terms you have told me?”

Engine said, “Trust not your Engine —”

Good advice, that.

He continued, “— if the gallant will not part with the cloak upon those terms, then break me to pieces, as you would a rotten crane or an old rusty jack-toolthat does not have one true wheel. Do just talk with him.”

“I shall do that to satisfy you, Engine,” Fitzdottrel said, “and myself, too.”

Fitzdottrelwent to Wittipol and Manly and said, “With your leave, gentlemen,which of you is he who is so complete an idolater to my wife’s beauty, and so very prodigal to my patience, that for the short parley of one swift quarter-hour’s conversation with my wife he will part with — let me see — this cloak here, the price of folly?”

Fitzdottrel thought that Wittipol was foolish to part with the cloak in return for fifteen minutes’ conversation with Fitzdottrel’s wife. Readers may think that Fitzdottrel was a fool for accepting the cloak in return for allowing Wittipol to have fifteen minutes’ conversation with Fitzdottrel’s wife.

He turned to Wittipol and asked, “Sir, are you the man?”

“I am that venturer, sir,” Wittipol said.

“Very good!” Fitzdottrel said. “Your name is Wittipol?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And it is told to me that you’ve travelled lately?”

“That I have, sir.”

“Truly, your travels may have altered your complexion,” Fitzdottrel said. “But surely, your intelligence stood still.”

“It may well be, sir,” Wittipol said. “All heads have not the same growth.”

Travel can alter people. It can make a complexion darker, and it can broaden one’s intelligence. Fitzdottrel was saying that Wittipol’s complexion may have changed, but his intelligence had remained the same — he had not grown more intelligent.

“The good man’s gravity that left you land, your father, never taught you these pleasant matches?” Fitzdottrel asked.

The word “match” has several meanings: 1) a husband or wife or lover, 2) an opponent, 3) a contest, and 4) a bargain.

Fitzdottrel was asking if Wittipol’s late father had taught him to make such bargains as the one Wittipol was now proposing. Perhaps the reason for Wittipol’s making such bargains was his father.

“No, nor can his mirth —the mirth of those with whom I make these pleasant matches — put me off,” Wittipol said.

Fitzdottrel was smiling at what he thought was the foolishness of Wittipol’s making such a bargain.

“You are resolved then to make this bargain?” Fitzdottrel asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Beauty is the saint you’ll sacrifice yourself to the very shirt?”

Would Wittipol give up his cloak and strip himself to the shirt in order to talk to a beautiful woman — another man’s wife — for fifteen minutes?

“So long as I may still clothe, and keep warm your wisdom!” Wittipol said.

The cloak would clothe Fitzdottrel and keep him warm; in addition, Wittipol would still have clothing to wear.

Wittipol was using the word “wisdom” ironically when using it to refer to Fitzdottrel. Each man thought that the other man was a fool.Currently, both men were right. Wittipol was pursuing Fitzdottrel’s wife, and Fitzdottrel was allowing Wittipol access to his wife.

“You lade me, sir!” Fitzdottrel said.

Fitzdottrel meant that Wittipol was lading him with a cloak — Wittipol was putting a cloak on Fitzdottrel’s back. One meaning of the verb “to lade” is “to load with gifts.” Readers may be forgiven for thinking of an ass being laden with a load.

Yet another meaning of “to lade” was “to burden with guilt.” Certainly, Fitzdottrel ought to feel guilty about the way he was acquiring this cloak, expensive as it may be.

“I know what you will bear, sir,” Wittipol replied.

An ass can bear a heavy load. Fitzdottrel could bear a heavy load of insults.

“Well, let’s get to the point,” Fitzdottrel said. “The point of this bargain is only, sir, you say, to speak to my wife?”

“Yes, it is only to speak to her.”

“And in my presence?”

“In your very presence.”

“And in my hearing?”

“Yes, in your hearing — as long as you do not interrupt us,” Wittipol said.

“For the short space you demand, the fourth part of an hour, I think I shall, with some convenient study, and this good help to boot” — Fitzdottrel lifted the cloak — “bring myself to agree to it.”

He shrugged himself into the cloak.

“I ask for no more,” Wittipol said.

“If you please, walk toward my house,” Fitzdottrel said. “Speak what you wish; that time is yours. My right I have departed with. But look for not a minute, or a second, beyond the fifteen minutes I have agreed to. Drawing out the length of time may much advance these matches, and so I will not allow it. And I forbid all kissing. Kisses are silent petitions always with willing lovers.”

Fitzdottrel knew that Wittipol wished to seduce his wife.

“Lovers?” Wittipol said. “How does your delusive imagination arrive at that fantasy?”

Wittipol wanted to be her lover — her only lover. Singular.

“Sir, I do know something,” Fitzdottrel said. “I forbid all lip-work.”

“I am not eager to go at forbidden dainties,” Wittipol said. “He who covets unfit things denies himself.”

He who covets unfit things denies himself the opportunity to be the best that he can be.

According to most people, Wittipol’s pursuing Fitzdottrel’s wife was unfit, but Wittipol regarded that wife as very fit, indeed. Wittipol may have convinced himself that pursuing Fitzdottrel’s wife was fitting for such a man as himself; he certainly regarded himself with more respect than he regarded Fitzdottrel.

“You say well, sir,” Fitzdottrel said. “That was prettily said, that same. He does indeed deny himself.

“I’ll have no touches, therefore, nor takings by the arms, nor tender circlescast about the waist — no hugs. Instead, all must be done at a distance.

“Love is brought up with those soft, dainty, delicate handlings.His pulse lies in his palm; and I forbid all melting joints and fingers. That’s my bargain I make with you — I forbid anything like physical action and touching.

“But talk, sir, and say whatever you will. Use all the tropes, figures of speech, and rhetorical devices that the classical rhetorician Prince Quintilian can give to you, and much good may it do your rhetoric’s heart. You are welcome, sir.”

He then said, “Engine, may God be with you.”

Wittipol said, “Sir, I must add the condition that I am allowedto have this gentleman — my friend Manly — present as a witness.”

“Well, I agree, as long as he is silent,” Fitzdottrel said.

“Yes, sir,” Manly agreed.

Wittipol, Manly, and Engine exited.

Pug had told Fitzdottrel that his name was “Devil,” and so Fitzdottrel called him that.

Fitzdottrel said to Pug, “Come, Devil, I’ll make you room in my house very soon. But I’ll show you first to your mistress, who’s no common one, you must conceive, that brings this gain to see her.”

His wife was so beautiful that she had brought an expensive cloak into his possession.

Fitzdottrel said to Pug, “I hope that thou have brought me good luck.”

“I shall do that, sir,” Pug said.

— 1.5 —

Wittipol, Manly, and Engine talked together in a room in Fitzdottrel’s house.

Wittipol said, “Engine, you hope to get your half piece? There it is, sir.”

He gave Engine eleven shillings and said, “Leave now.”

Engine took the money and exited.

Wittipol tapped Manly, who was staring into space, on his chest and said, “Friend Manly, who’s within here? Are you transfixed?”

“I am entirely in a fit of wonder,” Manly said. “What’ll be the outcome of this conversation you will have with Fitzdottrel’s wife?”

“As for that, don’t vex yourself until the outcome reveals itself,” Wittipol said. “How do you like Fitzdottrel?”

“I would gladly see more of him,” Manly said.

“What do you think about this?” Wittipol asked.

“I am past all degrees and all possible stages of logical thinking,” Manly said. “Old Africa and the new America with all their progeny of monsters cannot show so complete a freak as is Fitzdottrel!”

“Could you have believed, without seeing it yourself, that a mind so sordid inward should be so outwardly handsome and laid forth abroad to all the show that ever shop or ware was?” Wittipol asked. “He dresses as if he were a model advertising fine clothing.”

Fitzdottrel’s mind was sordid: dirty and ignoble. Despite this, however, he presented a handsome outward appearance — thus his appreciation of fine clothing and the expensive cloak that Wittipol had offered to him as a bribe to be allowed to talk to his wife.

“I believe anything now, although I confess that his vices are the most extreme I ever knew in nature,” Manly said. “But why does he loves the Devil so much?”

“Oh, sir!” Wittipol said. “He loves the Devil because of the hidden treasure he hopes to find, and he has proposed to himself that there is so infinite a mass of treasure to be recovered that he doesn’t care how much he transfers of his present wealth to his men of art — his conjurors — who are the race of men who may coin him: They are the kind of men who can take him and use him to make money for themselves. Make promises of mountains of gold, and the covetous are always the most prodigal.”

Conjurors were supposed to be able to get devils to tell them where treasure was hidden. Fitzdottrel believed that he would get mountains of gold, and so he was paying conjurors lots of money in anticipation of his great future wealth.

“But do you have faith that Fitzdottrel will hold to his part of the bargain?” Manly asked.

“Oh, dear sir!” Wittipol said. “He will not fail to live up to his part of the bargain. Fear him not. I know him. One baseness always accompanies another.”

Fitzdottrel’s accepting the cloak was one baseness; allowing Wittipol to speak to his wife was another.

Wittipol looked up and said, “See! He is here already, and his wife, too.”

Manly said about Fitzdottrel’s wife, “She is a wondrously beautiful creature — that statement is as true as the statement that I live is true!”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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