David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 4, Scenes 1-2

— 4.1 —

In her home, Lady Tailbush andMerecraft talked about the project they were working on together.

“A pox upon referring the project to commissioners!” Lady Tailbush said. “I’d rather hear that it were past the seals.”

To get the monopoly, projects were submitted to commissioners who would recommend that some projects be granted a monopoly. If the recommendation were accepted, the monopoly would be granted with a document bearing the privy seal.

To get a project submitted to the commissioners, various courtiers were used. Some courtiers were more effective than others.

“Your courtiers move so snail-like in your business,” Lady Tailbush complained. “I wish I had not begun to do business with you.”

“We must move, madam, in order, by degrees,” Merecraft replied. “We must not jump.”

“Why, there was Sir John Moneyman — he could jump a business quickly,” she replied.

“True, he had great friends,” Merecraft said. “But although some, sweet madam, can leap ditches, we must not all shun going over bridges. The harder parts, I reckon, are done. Now the project has been referred to the commissioners.”

He then flattered her: “You are infinitely bound to the ladies — they have so sung the praises of your new brand of makeup.”

“Do they like it, then? “ Lady Tailbush asked.

“They have sent the Spanish lady to congratulate you.”

“I must send them thanks, and some remembrances,” Lady Tailbush said.

“That you must, and you must visit them,” Merecraft said. “Where’s Ambler?”

“Lost,” Lady Tailbush said. “Today we cannot hear of him.”

“We cannot, madam?” Merecraft asked.

“No, in good faith,” Lady Tailbush said. “They say he did not sleep at home last night. And here has fallen a business between your cousin and Master Manly that has disquieted us all.”

“So I hear, madam,” Merecraft said. “Please tell me, what happened?”

“Truly, it appears completely ill on your kinsman Everill’s part,” Lady Tailbush said. “You may have heard that Manly is a suitor to me, I am sure —”

“I guessed it, madam,” Merecraft said.

“And it seems he entrusted your cousin Everill to let fall some fair reports of him to me,” Lady Tailbush said. “Manly wanted Everill to talk him up to me.”

“Which he did,” Merecraft said.

“Which he did not,” Lady Tailbush said. “So far from it, as Manly learned when he came in and heard Everill saying bad things about him.”

“What!” Merecraft said. “And what did Manly say to him?”

“Enough, I assure you,” Lady Tailbush said, “and with such scorn of him and the injury he did that I wonder how Everill bore it — but that guilt undoes many men’s valors.”

Many behind-the-back slanderers lack courage.

Manly entered the room.

Merecraft said, “Here comes Manly.”

Preparing to leave, Manly said to Lady Tailbush, “Madam, I’ll take my leave —”

“You shall not go, truly,” Lady Tailbush said. “I’ll have you stay and see this Spanish miracle of our English lady.”

The Spanish lady, of course, was supposed to be an English lady who dressed in Spanish clothing.

“Let me ask Your Ladyship to lay your commands on me some other time,” Manly said.

“Now, I protest,” Lady Tailbush said, “and I will have all pieced together, and all made friends again.”

“It will be but ill soldered,” Manly said.

He and Everill could not be friends although possibly they might be civil to each other.

“You are too much affected by it,” Lady Tailbush said.

“I cannot, Madam, but think about it because of the injustice,” Manly said.

“Sir, his kinsman — Merecraft — here is sorry,” Lady Tailbush said.

Merecraft said, “Not I, madam, I am no kin to him — we just call each other cousins.”

He then said to Manly, “And even if we really were cousins, sir, I have no relation to his crimes.”

The word “crime” also meant “sin.”

“You are not charged with his crimes,” Manly said. “I can accuse, sir, none but my own judgment, for although it were his crime so to betray me, I’m sure it was more my own at all to trust him. But he therein used his old manners, and his savor was strongly what he was before.”

“His old tricks” consisted of unethical behaviors, and his savor was that of a stink.

“Come, he will change!” Lady Tailbush said.

“Indeed, I must never think that he will change,” Manly said. “Nor would it be reasonable of me to expect that for my sake he should put off a nature he sucked in with his milk.”

Everill had been bad since he was a baby, according to Manly. It was his nature. He had sucked evil into him while sucking his mother’s milk.

Of course, Manly was also criticizing Everill’s mother.

Manly continued, “It may be, madam, deceiving trust is all he has to trust to. If so, I shall be loath that any hope of mine should take away his means of making a living.”

Yes, Everill’s sole means of making a living was by deceiving those who trusted him: He was a con man.

“You’re sharp, sir,” Lady Tailbush said.

Manly was sharp in his criticism of Everill. Although Lady Tailbush did not mean to say it, he was also intelligent in his criticism of Everill.

Yet Manly was tolerant of bad behavior in others. He did not attempt to get his friend Wittipol to not try to seduce another man’s wife, and he said openly now that he did not want to take away Everill’s way of making a living, even if that way were unethical. He was a forgiving — perhaps, or definitely, too forgiving — man.

Lady Tailbush added, “This act may make him honest.”

The act was being reconciled with Manly.

Manly replied, “If he were to be made honest by an act of Parliament, I would not alter in my lack of faith in him.”

Seeing Lady Eitherside enter the room, Lady Tailbush said, “Eitherside! Welcome, dear Eitherside! How are you, good wench? Thou have been a stranger! I have not seen thee all this week.”

Manly and Merecraft began to talk together quietly.

— 4.2 —

“I am always your servant, madam,” Lady Eitherside said.

“Where have thou been?” Lady Tailbush said. “I did so long to see thee.”

“Visiting, and I am so tired!” Lady Eitherside said. “I protest, madam, visiting is a monstrous trouble.”

Engaging in social activities such as visiting others can be exhausting, but many people who actually enjoy visiting complain about visiting.

“And so it is,” Lady Tailbush said. “I swear I must begin my visits tomorrow — I wish that they were over — at court. It tortures me to think about them.”

“I hear you have a reason for your visits, madam,” Lady Eitherside said. “Your suit goes on.”

The suit was to get a monopoly for the production of the new makeup.

“Who told thee?” Lady Tailbush asked.

“One who can tell: Master Eitherside.”

“Oh, thy husband,” Lady Tailbush said, “Yes, indeed, there’s life in it now; the suit has been referred to the commissioners. If we once see it receive the Privy Seal and the monopoly, wench, then we can compete with the rich set. We’ll have the great coach, six horses, and the two coachmen, with my Ambler bareheaded, and my three women-servants; we will live, truly, as the examples of the town, and govern it. I’ll lead the fashion always.”

“You do that now, sweet madam,” Lady Eitherside said.

“Oh, but then I’ll every day bring up some new project,” Lady Tailbush said. “Thou and I, Eitherside, will first be in it; I will give it thee, and they shall follow us. Thou shall, I swear, wear every month a new gown out of it.”

“Thank you, good madam.”

“I ask thee to call me Tailbush, as I call thee Eitherside,” Lady Tailbush said. “I don’t love this ‘madam.’”

Lady Tailbush had greater social status than Lady Eitherside, who used the respectful “you” when talking to her. Lady Tailbush used “thou” and “thee” when talking to Lady Eitherside.

“Then I protest to you, Tailbush, that I am glad your business so succeeds,” Lady Eitherside said.

“I thank thee, good Eitherside,” Lady Tailbush said.

“But Master Eitherside tells me that he likes your other business better.”

“Which business is that?” Lady Tailbush asked.

“The business of the toothpicks,” Lady Eitherside said.

“I have never heard about it,” Lady Tailbush said.

“Ask Master Merecraft about it,” Lady Eitherside said.

Merecraft, who was still talking quietly with Manly, overheard and said, “Madam?”

He then said to Manly about Everill, “He’s one — in a word, I’ll trust his malice with any man’s credit I would have abused.”

Merecraft was saying that he could count on Everill to undermine another man’s reputation — Everill could be counted on to slander another man.

“Sir, if you think you please me in this, you are deceived,” Manly said.

“No,” Merecraft said, “but because my lady named him as my kinsman, I want to let you know what I think about him, and I ask you to judge me by my opinion of him!”

“So I do,” Manly said. “Ill men’s friends are as unfaithful as themselves.”

Ill men speak ill about others, and Manly was saying that judging by Merecraft’s words, the friends of ill men also spoke ill about others.

“Do you hear me?” Lady Tailbush asked Merecraft. “Do you have a business about toothpicks?”

“Yes, madam,” Merecraft said. “Didn’t I ever tell you about it? I meant to have offered it to Your Ladyship once the patent was perfected.”

“What is it?” Lady Tailbush asked.

“The business is for serving the whole state with toothpicks,” Merecraft said. “It’s somewhat an intricate business to discourse, but I show how much the subject is abused, first, in that one commodity: The toothpicks are badly made. Then I show what diseases and putrefactions in the gums those toothpicks that are made of adulterated and false wood breed!

“My plot for reformation of these abuses is as follows:

“To have all toothpicks brought to an office, there to receive a seal of approval.

“Such people who counterfeit the toothpicks and make bad ones, however, shall be fined.

“And last, for selling them, to have a book printed to teach their proper use, which every child who can read shall have throughout the kingdom. By reading the book, they will learn how to properly pick their teeth.

“Beginning early to practice the proper procedure of picking, and practicing some other rules, such as never sleeping with the mouth open, and chewing some gum, will preserve the breath and make it pure, and so free from taint —”

Seeing Trains arrive, Merecraft stopped and asked him, “What do you have to tell me?”

Trains whispered to him.

“In good faith, it sounds like a very pretty business!” Lady Tailbush said.

“So Master Eitherside says, madam,” Lady Eitherside said.

Merecraft said, “The Spanish lady has come.”

“Has she?” Lady Tailbush said. “Good, show her in.”

Merecraft exited.

“My Ambler was never so unfortunately absent,” Lady Tailbush said. “Eitherside, how do I look today? Am I not dressed smartly?”

She looked in her mirror.

“Yes, you are, truly, madam,” Lady Eitherside said.

“A pox on the word ‘madam’!” Lady Tailbush said. “Won’t you stop saying that?”

“Yes, good Tailbush,” Lady Eitherside said.

“So? Doesn’t that sound better?” Lady Tailbush asked.

She then asked, “What vile fucus — makeup — is this thou have got on?”

“It is pearl,” Lady Eitherside said.

“Pearl?” Lady Tailbush said. “Oyster shells! As I breathe, Eitherside, I know it.

“Here comes, they say, a wonder, sirrah, who has been in Spain, and who will teach us all. She’s been sent to me from court to congratulate me. Please, let’s observe her and see what faults she has, so that we may laugh at them when she has gone.”

“That we will heartily, Tailbush,” Lady Eitherside said.

“Oh, me!” Lady Tailbush said, seeing Wittipol dressed as the Spanish lady. “She is the very infanta of the giants!”

An “infanta” is a daughter of a Spanish noble family, but the word was also used to describe a woman, particularly one of pompous display.

Wittipol was tall to begin with, but he was also wearing cioppinos.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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