David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 2, Scenes 4-5

— 2.4 —

“Where are you, sir?” Merecraft called.

Merecraft andEngine entered the room.

Fitzdottrel said to his wife, “I see thou have no talent in this area of expertise, wife. Go up to thy gallery; go, chuck.Leave us who understand it alone to talk about it.”

“Chuck” was a term of endearment, but it need not necessarily be said endearingly.

Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel exited.

“I think we have found a place to fit you now, sir: Gloucester,” Merecraft said.

“Oh no, I’ll have nothing to do with Gloucester!” Fitzdottrel said.

“Why not, sir?” Merecraft said.

“It is fatal,” Fitzdottrel said.

Many dignitaries of Gloucester had died violently or under suspicious circumstances.

“You are right,” Merecraft said. “Spenser, I think, the younger,had his last honor from Gloucester. But he was only an earl.”

Hugh le Despenser’s father-in-law had been the Earl of Gloucester. When his father-in-law died, Hugh le Despenser was sometimes called the Earl of Gloucester.

“I did not know that, sir,” Fitzdottrel said. “But Thomas of Woodstock, I’m sure, was Duke of Gloucester, and he was made away with at Calais, as Duke Humphrey was at Bury. And King Richard III — you know what end he came to.”

Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, was murdered in 1397.

Duke Humphrey of Gloucester was the Lord Protector of King Henry VI; he died under suspicious circumstances in 1447.

King Richard III died in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth.

“By my faith, you are knowledgeable in the contents of the historical chronicle, sir,” Merecraft said.

“No, I confess I have my history from the playbooks, and I think they’re more authentic than the historical chronicle,” Fitzdottrel said.

Plays such as William Shakespeare’s histories were popular on the stage, but Shakespeare and other playwrights of the time did such things as compress time: Events that took years in real life could seem to take only a few days when presented on the stage. Playwrights also invented characters and ignored facts when convenient for their purposes.

“That’s surely true, sir,” Engine said.

“What do you say to being duke of this, then?” Fitzdottrel asked.

He said quietly the name of a place.

“No, a noble house lays claim to that,” Fitzdottrel said. “I will do no man wrong.”

“Then listen to one more proposition,” Merecraft said, “and hear it as past exception.”

“What’s that?” Fitzdottrel asked.

“To be duke of those lands you shall recover. Take your title from there, sir: Duke of the Drowned-lands, or Duke of the Drowned-land.”

“Ha! That last has a good sound! I like it well,” Fitzdottrel said. “The Duke of Drowned-land!”

“Yes,” Engine said. “It’s a name like Green-land, sir, if you notice.”

“Aye, and drawing thus your honor from the work, you make the reputation of that work greater, and that reputation will stay the longer in your name,” Merecraft said.

Every time people heard “the Duke of Drowned-land,” they would remember the great task of draining the swampland. Since Fitzdottrel would be the Duke of Drowned-land, the glory of draining the swampland would for a long time be attached to his name.

“That’strue,” Fitzdottrel said. “Drowned-lands will live in Drowned-land! The memory of Drowned-lands will live in the title of Duke of Drowned-land!”

Merecraft said, “Yes, it will live on in the title when you have no foot of land left, as that must be, sir, one day.

“And, even though it tarry in your heirs some forty, fifty descents, yet the longer liver must at last thrust them out of it, if no quirk or quibble in law or odd vice of their own doesn’t do it first.”

He was saying that eventually the recovered land would pass out of the possession of Fitzdottrel’s descendants: Someone else would own it. Perhaps the land would be left to the longer-lived of two people: one of Fitzdottrel’s descendants and perhaps the descendant’s creditor. If the creditor lived longer, the creditor would possess the recovered land. If the creditor happened to be a lawyer, the lawyer would possess the land.

Merecraft continued, “We see those changes daily. The fair lands that were the client’s are the lawyer’s now, and those rich manors there of goodman tailor’s had once more wood upon them than the yard by which they were measured out for the last purchase.”

One of Fitzdottrel’s descendants could overspend so much on extravagant clothing that the tailor would end up possessing the land.

“Nature has these vicissitudes. She makesno man a state of perpetuity, sir.”

“You’re in the right,” Fitzdottrel said. “Let’s go in, then, and conclude our business.”

Pug entered the room.

Seeing Pug, Fitzdottrel said, “Are you in my sight again? I’ll talk with you soon.”

Fitzdottrel, Merecraft, and Engine exited.

— 2.5 —

Alone, Pug said to himself, “Surely, he will geld — castrate — me if I stay. Or worse, he will pluck out my tongue. He will do one of the two.

“This fool, there is no trusting him. And to quit him would be a show ofcontempt against my chief past pardon.

“It was a shrewd disheartening this, at first! Who would have thought a woman so well harnessed, or rather well-caparisoned, indeed, who wears such petticoats and lace to her smocks, broad laces to cover the seams in her stockings (as I see them hang there), and garters that are lost, if she can show them, could have done this? Hell!”

Pug was wondering how Mrs. Frances Fitzdottrel could dress so well and yet be so resistant to committing adultery. Why would a woman dress so well if not to attract someone who would beg a garter as a gift to treasure?

He continued, “Why is she dressed so splendidly? It cannot be to please Duke Dottrel, surely, nor the dull pictures of ancestors that hang in her gallery, nor to please her own dear reflection in her mirror.”

A dottrel is a stupid bird.

Pug continued, “Yet that last one may be true: I have known many women to begin their pleasure, but none to end it, there — that last one I consider to be right, as I think about it. Women may, for lack of better company, or lack of company that they think the better, spend an hour, or two, or three, or four, discoursing with their shadow, aka reflection. But surely they have a farther speculation. No woman dressed with so much care and study dresses herself in vain.”

According to Pug, any woman who dressed so well and had such a husband must be looking for a lover.

“I’ll consider this problem a little more before I leave it, surely.”

He exited.

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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