David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 2, Scenes 2-3

— 2.2 —

Pug said, “I have no singular service of this now, nor no superlative master!”

Pug had come to London to do villainy, but there was nothing singular about that because Londoners were already doing lots of villainy. Also, his master was not superlative. Pug’s chief, Satan, wished to do evil, but Pug’s earthly master, Fitzdottrel, was doing lots of evil. But Fitzdottrel was not a superlative master because so many people were willing and certainly seemed capable of doing evil to him.

Pug continued, “I shall wish to be in Hell again, and at my leisure!”

And why should he not be at leisure in Hell? People such as Fitzdottrel and Merecraft were already doing lots of evil. Even such a man as Wittipol was devoting himself to tempting a married woman to commit adultery.

Pug continued, “Should I bring a Vice from Hell? That would be as crafty a scheme as to bring broadcloth here to England, or to transport fresh oranges into Spain.”

There was no need to transport fresh oranges into Spain because Spain had lots of fresh oranges. There was no need to bring broadcloth here to England because England had lots of broadcloth. There was no need to bring a Vice from Hell to London because London had lots of vice.

He continued, “I find out the truth now. My chief was in the right. Can any fiend boast of a better Vice than by nature and practice they’re already owners of here?

“May Hell never own me if I am not impressed by such villainy as is here in London! The fine appeal of it pulls me along! To hear men grown such experts in our subtlest sciences!”

Certainly Merecraft was an expert in the art of conning greedy men.

Pug then said, “My first act now shall be to make this master of mine a cuckold. I will practice the earliest work of darkness!

“I will deserve so well of my fair mistress, by my revelations and useful information first, my advisory counsels afterward, and keeping secret counsel after that, as whosoever is one who sleeps with her, I’ll be another; to be sure, I’ll have my share. Most delicate damned flesh she will be!”

Pug intended to be one of those who slept with Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel and cuckolded her husband.

He continued, “Oh, that I could delay time now! Midnight will come too fast upon me, I fear, to cut my pleasure —”

At midnight he would return to Hell, thus cutting the amount of time he would have to sleep with Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel. Indeed, if midnight came fast enough, he would have no time to sleep with Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel entered the room and said, “Go to the back door. Someone is knocking; see who it is.”

Pug said to himself as he exited, “Dainty she-devil!”

Alone, Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said to herself, “I cannot get this venture of the cloak out of my fancy, nor the gentlemanly way Wittipol took, which, though it was strange, yet it was handsome, and had a grace that was beyond the originality.

‘Surely he will think me that dull stupid creature he talked about, and may end his attempt to seduce me, if I don’t find a way to thank him. He did presume, knowing that I was thinking about it, that I would give him an answer; and he will swear that my brain is very barren if it can yield him no return.”

Pug returned.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel asked him, “Who is it at the back door?”

Pug said, “Mistress, it is — but first, let me assure the very best of mistresses that I am, although my master’s manservant, my mistress’ slave, the servant of her secrets and sweet actions, and I know what fitly will conduce to either.”

“What’s this? I tell you to come to yourself and think what your job is: to make an answer to my question. Tell me this: Who is it at the door?”

“The gentleman, mistress, who paid the price of a cloak to speak with you this morning, and who expects only to take some small commandments from you — whatever commandments you please that are worthy your form, he says, and your gentlest manners.”

“Oh!” she said. “You’ll soon prove to be his hired man, I fear. What has he given you for this message?

“Sir, tell him to put off his hopes of straw and stop spreading his nets in full view like this.”

“Hopes of straw” are “no hopes.” The purpose of the net was to capture her the way that a woodsman would capture a bird.

She continued, “Although the nets may capture Master Fitzdottrel, I am no such fowl — nor a fair one, tell him — who will be had with stalking.

“And tell him tonot appear to me at the gentleman’s chamber-window in Lincoln’s Inn there, that opens to my gallery.”

The Fitzdottrels lived next to Lincoln’s Inn. Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel’s gallery — a large reception room — was close to a window at Lincoln’s Inn.

She continued, “If he does not, I swear that I will acquaint my husband with his folly and leave him to the just rage of his offended jealousy. Or if your master’s sense will be not so quick to right me, tell him I shall find a friend who will repair — mend — me. Say I will be quiet in my own house! I tell you, in those words give my message to him.”

Her words could be interpreted as a coded message to Wittipol, telling him to 1) communicate with her by making use of the window at Lincoln’s Inn, 2) be her “friend” — a word that can mean “lover” — who would mend her, perhaps in bed, and 3) know that she will be quiet in her own house — for example, when her husband was gone.

But her words were deliberately misleading and ambiguous in order to fool Pug: She was telling Wittipol that he should notappear at the window in Lincoln’s Inn. The word “friend” did not have to mean “lover.” The word “quiet” could mean “unmolested.”

Pug said to himself, “This is some fool turned!”

“Turned” meant “out of his — or was it her — wits.”

Perhaps he meant, “Wittipol is a fool whom my mistress is turning away.”

He exited to give Wittipol her message.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said to herself, “If Wittipol is the master now of that state and intelligence which I think that he is, surely he will understand me.

“I dare not be more direct because I find already that this officious fellow, my husband’s new servant, is a spy my husband has set upon me.

“Yet, if Pug just tells Wittipol my message using my words, Wittipol cannot but know that he is both understood and requited.

“I would not have him think he met a statue, or spoke to someone who was not there, although I remained silent when he spoke to me in my husband’s presence.”

Pug returned, and she asked him, “What is your news? Have you told him my message?”

 “Yes,” Pug replied.

“And what does he says?” she asked.

“What does he say?” Pug said, “He says that which I myself would say to you, if I dared.

“He says that you are proud, sweet mistress, and also that you are a little ignorant — that you don’t know enough to entertain the good that’s proffered to you by him.

“And, pardon me for saying this to one as beautiful as you, he says that you are not all as wise as some true politic — crafty — wife would be, who, having married such a nupson, such a simpleton — my apology to my master — whose face has left to accuse him now, for it confesses him what you can make him, but will yet, out of scruple and a spiced — dainty — conscience, defraud the poor gentleman, or at least delay him in the thing he longs forand makes it his whole study how to compass only a title. If he would just write cuckold as his title, he would have what he deserved.”

According to Wittipol — and Pug — Fitzdottrel had a face that accused him of being a fool who deserved to be a cuckold, although he was not yet one, due to the dainty conscience of his wife. If Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel were like other wives, the ones who were crafty, she would help him get what he wanted: a title. True, the title that he wanted was the title of duke, but she could give him the title that he deserved: the title of cuckold.

Pug continued, “For, look you —”

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel thought, This can be nothing but my husband’s plan.

Pug was not talking to her the way a servant should. A servant would relay Wittipol’s message, but Pug was adding that Wittipol’s message is what he himself would say to her. Wittipol wanted her to commit adultery with him, and Pug was saying the same thing but about himself. Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel believed that this was a trap that her husband had set for her.

Pug continued, “— my precious mistress —”

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel thought, It creaks his engine — his trickery creaks. This servant would never dare otherwise to be so saucy if my husband had not put him up to this.

Pug continued, “— if it were not clearly his worshipful ambition, and the top of it, the very forked top, too” — readers should be thinking of the horned top of a cuckold — “why should he keep you thus walled up in a back room, mistress, never allow you a window opening to the street due to his fear of your becoming pregnant by the eyes with gallants? Why should he forbid you paper, pen, and ink, as if they were rat poison? Why should he search your half pint of muscatel lest a letter be sunk in the pot? And why would he hold your newly laid egg against the fire, lest any charm be written in invisible ink there?”

Lemon juice makes a good invisible ink. When heated, the dried juice turns brown and what is written becomes visible.

Pug continued, “Will you make yourself a benefit from knowing the truth, dear mistress, if I tell the truth to you? I don’t do it often!

“I am set over you, employed, indeed, to watch your steps, your looks, even your breaths, and report them to him.

“Now, if you will be a true, right, delicate, sweet mistress, why, we will make a cokes — a fool — of this ‘wise’ master. We will, my mistress, make of him an absolute fine cokes — and we will openly mock all the deep diligences of such a solemn and effectual ass, an ass to so good purpose as we’ll use him.

“I will contrive it so that you shall go to plays, to masques, to meetings, and to feasts.

“For why have all this rigging and fine tackle, mistress — all this fine clothing — if you neat handsome vessels of good sail do not ever and often put forth with your netsabroad into the world? It is your fishing.

“There you shall choose your friends, your servants, lady, your squires of honor.”

These friends, servants, and squires of honor would be her lovers.

Pug continued, “I’ll convey your letters, fetch answers, do you all the offices that can belong to your blood and beauty.

“And for the variety, when I am inclined, although I am not in due symmetry the man of that proportion, or in rule of medical science of the just complexion, or of that truth of fine fashion in clothes to boast a sovereignty over ladies, yet I know how to do my turns as a lover, sweet mistress.”

Pug was offering himself as a lover — for variety — to Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel. In doing so, he was engaging in false modesty, calling himself a man without a fine body, a fine face, or fine clothes. Actually, the hanged cutpurse whose body Pug had possessed had a fine body and a fine face, and Pug had gotten fine clothes elsewhere.

Pug continued, “Come, kiss —”

“What is this!” Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said.

Pug said, “Dear delicate mistress, I am your slave, your little worm that loves you, your fine monkey, your dog, your servant, your pug, that longs to be styled one of your pleasures!”

Thinking that this was a trap and that her husband was watching, Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said loudly, “Did you hear all this? Sir, please come out from your hiding place so you can applaud your servant who so well follows your instructions!”

— 2.3 —

Fitzdottrel entered the room and asked, “What is it, sweetheart? What’s the matter?”

“Good man!” his wife said, sarcastically, “You are a stranger to the plot! You did not set your saucy Devil here to tempt your wife with all the insolent uncivil language or action he could vent and express?”

She still believed that he had used Pug to set a trap for her.

Fitzdottrel asked Pug, “Did you do that, Devil?”

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said, “Not you? Weren’t you planted in your hole upon the stairs so you could hear him? Or weren’t you here, behind the wallhangings? Don’t I know your personal character? Did he dare to do it without you giving him directions? That is not possible!”

“You shall see, wife,” Fitzdottrel said, “whether he dared to do it on his own, or not, and what it was I directed him to do.”

He left, but immediately returned, carrying a cudgel.

“Sweet mistress, are you mad?” Pug asked.

He could guess who the cudgel was for, and he would like to get out of a beating by lying and blaming his mistress for giving false information to her husband.

“You most absolute rogue!” Fitzdottrel saidto Pug. “You open and clearly revealed villain! You fiend apparent, you! You declared Hell-hound!”

He began to beat Pug with the cudgel.

“Good sir!” Pug said.

“Good knave, good rascal, and good traitor!” Fitzdottrel said. “Now I find you to be part-devil indeed. Upon the point of trust? In your first charge? The very day of your probation? To tempt your mistress?”

Pug’s job had been to keep Fitzdottrel’s wife from committing adultery, yet he was attempting to persuade her to commit adultery.

Fitzdottrel saidto his wife, “You see, good wedlock — good wife — how I directed him.”

“Why, where, sir, were you?” Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel asked.

If he hadn’t been spying on her, then where had he been?

Fitzdottrel paused and then hit Pug again with the cudgel.

He said to Pug, “There is one more blow, for exercise; I told you I would do it.”

He had said that he would beat Pug if Pug displeased him. He also had said that he beat his servant for exercise.

Pug replied, “I wish that you were done beating me!”

Fitzdottrel said, “Oh, wife, the rarest, most splendid man!”

He struck Pug again and said, “Yet there’s another blow to help you remember the last one.”

He said to his wife, “Such a splendid man, wife, is inside! He has his projects, and he vents them. They are the gallantest projects!”

He said to Pug, “Were you tentiginous — horny? Ha? Would you be acting like an incubus, an evil spirit that sleeps with women at night? Did her silks’ rustling excite you?”

“Gentle sir!” Pug said.

“Get out of my sight!” Fitzdottrel shouted. “If thy name were not Devil, thou would not stay a minute with me. Go in! Yet stay. Yet go, too. I have decided what I will do; and you shall know it beforehand — as soon as the gentleman has gone, do you hear? I’ll help your lisping.”

Pug, who had been sputtering, exited.

“Wife, such a man, wife!” Fitzdottrel said. “He has such plots! He will make me a duke! No less, by heaven. You will have six mares to your coach, wife! That’s your share. And your coachman will be bald because he shall be bare enough!”

It was the fashion for the coachmen of rich ladies to be bareheaded.

“Don’t you laugh,” Fitzdottrel added. “We are looking for a place all over the map for me to be duke of. Have faith, and don’t be an infidel when it comes to me. You know I am not easily gulled and made a fool of.

“I swear, when I have my millions, I’ll make another woman a duchess, if you don’t have faith in me.”

“You’ll have too much, I fear, in these false spirits,” Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel said.

She believed that he would invest too much money in conjurors: Her husband had not yet identified the man he had been talking to.

“Spirits? Oh, no such thing, wife!” Fitzdottrel said. “Wit, mere wit! I’m talking about intelligence and skill. This man defies the devil and all his works! He does his work by the use of ingenuity and devices, he does! He has his winged plows that go with sails and plow forty acres at once! And he has mills that will spout out water from ten miles away!

“All Crowland is ours, wife; and the fens, from us in Norfolk to the utmost bound of Lincolnshire!”

Crowland was a town in marshy territory in the north of England. Fitzdottrel was hoping to drain the marshes, aka fens, and make a huge profit from the recovered land.

Fitzdottrel continued, “We have viewed it, and measured it within all, by the scale! It is the richest tract of land, love, in the kingdom! There will be made seventeen or eighteen millions, or more, depending on how well it is handled! Therefore think, sweetheart: If thou have a fancy to one place more than another to be duchess of, name it now. I will have it, whatever it costs, if it will be had for money, either here, or in France, or in Italy.”

“You have strange fantasies!” his wife replied.

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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