David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 3, Scenes 1-2

— 3.1 —

Gilthead the goldsmith andPlutarchus talked together. Plutarchus was Gilthead’s son.

“All this is to make you a gentleman,” Gilthead said. “I’ll have you learn, son. Why have I placed you with Sir Paul Eitherside except for the purpose of having you learn enough law that you can keep what is your own? Besides, he is a justice here in the town; and by dwelling, son, with him you shall learn in a single year what shall be worth twenty years of supporting you at Oxford or at Cambridge, or sending you to the Inns of Court or to France.

“I am called for now in haste by Master Merecraft to give credit to Master Fitzdottrel, a (financially) good man — I’ve inquired about him: He has eighteen hundred pounds a year, and his reputation is (financially) good for a diamond ring that costs forty pounds but will not be worth thirty pounds — that’s ten pounds we’ve gained. And this is to make you a gentleman!”

“Oh, but good father, you trust too much!” Plutarchus said. “You give too much credit!”

“Boy, boy, we live by finding fools to be trusted with credit,” Gilthead said. “Our shop-books are our pastures, our corn-grounds. We lay them open for fools to come into, and when we have them there we drive them up into one of our two pounds, the Counters, straightaway. And this is to make you a gentleman!”

The Counters were pounds — prisons — for people who could not pay their debts. Gilthead would get fools to run up debt, bleed them dry with high interest, and send them to prison still owing him money. But the money Gilthead got went for a good cause, he thought: It would make his son a gentleman.

He continued, “We citizens never trust someone with credit but we cheat, for if our debtors pay, we cheat them with our high interest, and if they do not pay, then we cheat ourselves. But that’s a hazard everyone must run who hopes to make his son a gentleman.”

“I do not wish to be a gentleman, truly, father,” Plutarchus said. “In a generation or two, we come to be just in their — the fools’ — state, fit to be cheated like them.

“And I would rather have tarried in your trade, for since the gentry scorn the city so much, I think we should in time, holding together, and marrying in our own tribes, as they say, have gotten an Act of Common Council authorizing us legally to cheat them out of rerum natura.”

Rerum natura” is Latin for “the nature of things”; Plutarchus was using it to mean “everything.”

The Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote a work he titled De Rerum Natura, or Concerning the Nature of Things.

Gilthead said, “Aye, if we had a legislative act first to forbidthe marrying of our wealthy heirs to them, and to forbid daughters from having such lavish portions — that ruins everything.”

Gentry who lacked money could become wealthy again by marrying someone who had much money — for example, rich Jewish daughters.

“And such practices make us a mongrel breed, father,” Plutarchus said. “And when they have your money, then they laugh at you, or kick you down the stairs. I cannot abide them. I would prefer to have them cheated, but not trusted with credit.”

— 3.2 —

Merecraft andFitzdottrel entered the room in which Gilthead and Plutarchus, his son, were talking.

“Oh, has he come?” Merecraft said. “I knew he would not fail me.”

He said quietly, “Welcome, good Gilthead. I must have you do a noble gentleman a courtesy here, in a mere trifle, some pretty ring or jewel,of fifty or threescore pounds — make it a hundred, and hedge in the last forty that I owe you, and your own price for the ring.”

Merecraft wanted the most recent forty pounds he owed Gilthead to be made a part of the loan that Fitzdottrel would get from Gilthead. That way, Fitzdottrel would be the guarantor of the loan. If Merecraft were to default on the loan — have no doubt he would — Fitzdottrel would be legally responsible for paying back the loan.

More loudly, Merecraft continued talking to Gilthead, “He’s a good man, sir, and you may perhaps see him become a great man. He is likely to bestow hundreds and thousands of pounds on you, if you can humor him by giving him credit now. A great prince he will be shortly. What do you say?”

“In truth, sir, I cannot,” Gilthead said. “It has been a long vacation with us —”

The Inns of Court took a long vacation from August 13 to October 23. The vacation cut down on profits for many shopkeepers such as Gilthead.

Fitzdottrel interrupted, “A long vacation from what, I ask thee? From wit and intelligence? Or honesty? Those are your citizens’ long vacations.”

Angry at not immediately being granted credit, he walked away and looked out a window, ignoring the others.

Plutarchus whispered to Gilthead, his father, “Good father, do not trust them. “

“Nay, Tom Gilthead,” Merecraft said. “Fitzdottrel will not buy a courtesy and beg it; he’ll rather pay than beg.”

Fitzdottrel had money; he did not need to beg for it.

Merecraft said, “If you do for him, you must do cheerfully. His credit, sir, is not yet prostitute.”

If Fitzdottrel spent enough time with Merecraft and his fellow con artists, Fitzdottrel’s credit would become prostitute.

Merecraft then asked Gilthead, “Who’s this? Thy son? A handsome youth. What’s his name?”

“Plutarchus, sir,” Plutarchus answered for his father.

“Plutarchus!” Merecraft said. “How did you get that name?”

Gilthead answered for his son, “The year, sir, that I begot him, I bought Plutarch’s Lives, and fell so in love with the book that I called my son by his name, in the hope he would be like Plutarch and write the lives of our great men.”

“In the city?” Merecraft asked. “And are you raising him there?”

“His mind, sir, lies much to that way,” Gilthead replied.

“Why then, he is in the right way,” Merecraft said.

“But now I had rather get him a good wife, and plant him in the country, there to use the blessing I shall leave him,” Gilthead said.

“Not a good idea!” Merecraft said. “If thou do that, thou shall lose the laudable means thou have at home, here, to advance him and make him a young alderman!”

Merecraft guessed that he would get in Plutarchus’ good graces by advocating that Plutarchus be allowed to stay in the city. Also, if Plutarchus were to live in the country after receiving his father’s financial blessing, Merecraft would not be able to borrow money from him.

He continued, “Buy him a military captain’s position in the Artillery Company, for shame; and let him go into the world early, and with his military scarlet ostrich-plumeand military scarfs worn across his chest march through Cheapside, or along Cornhill,and by the virtue of those military decorations draw down a wife there from a window worth ten thousand pounds! Get him the book for learning military drills and get him some soldier men made of lead to set upon a table, in case his mistress should chance to come by, so that he may draw her in and show her Finsbury battles.”

Military training exercises, including mock battles, took place at Finsbury, a London district.

Gilthead said, “I have placed him with Justice Eitherside, to learn as much law —”

“As thou has conscience,” Merecraft said. “Come, come, thou are wronging pretty Plutarchus, who has not received his name for nothing, but was born to train the youth of London in the military truth. That way his genius lies.”

Hearing a noise, he looked up and said, “My cousin Everill!”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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