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

— 5.1 —

Outside Lady Tailbush’s house, Ambler and Pitfall talked together. Ambler, Lady Tailbush’s manservant, had been missing all day, and he was worried about losing his job.

“But has my lady missed me?” Ambler asked.

“Beyond telling!” Pitfall said. “Here has been that infinity of strangers! And then she would have had you to have used you as a good model compared with one inside whom they are now teaching,and who is ambitious to be of your rank.”

“Good fellow-servant Pitfall, tell Master Merecraft that I entreat a word with him.”

Pitfall exited.

Alone, Ambler said to himself, “This most unlucky accident will go near to be the loss of my job, I fear!”

Merecraft entered the scene.

“A word with me?” Merecraft said. “What do you want to say to me, Master Ambler?”

“Sir, I would beseech Your Worship to protect me from my Lady Tailbush’s displeasure at my absence,” Ambler said.

“Oh, is that all?” Merecraft said. “I promise you that I will.”

“I want to tell you, sir, just how it happened,” Ambler said.

“Be brief, good Master Ambler, put yourself to your rack and exert yourself to be brief, for I have work of more importance to attend to.”

“Sir, you’ll laugh at me,” Ambler said. “But — it is the truth — a true friend of mine, finding by conversation with me that I lived too chastely for my health, and indeed too honest for my place, sir, advised me that if I loved myself — as I do, I must confess —”

“Spare me your parenthetical remarks,” Merecraft said. “Get to the point.”

“That I should give my body a little evacuation —”

Occasionally, seminal vesicles ought to be emptied of the components of semen.

“Well, and you went to a whore?” Merecraft asked.

“No, sir,” Ambler said. “I dared not, for fear gossip might arrive at somebody’s ear. I would not entrust myself to a common whorehouse.”

He then spoke this rapidly:

“But I got the gentlewoman to go with me and carry her bedding to a conduit-head close by the place toward Tyburn that they call my Lord Mayor’s Banqueting House.

“Now, sir, this morning there was a public execution at Tyburn, and I never dreamt of it until I heard the noise of the people and the horses, and neither I nor the poor gentlewoman dared to stir until all was done and past, so that in the interim we fell asleep again.”

The conduit brought drinking water to London. The conduit-head had places where a couple could hide and have sex.

Out of breath, he stopped speaking.

“Nay, if you fall from your gallop, I am gone, sir,” Merecraft said.

Ambler rapidly continued, “But when I waked to put on my clothes — a suit I had had made for the occasion — it was gone, and so was all my money, with my purse, my seals, my notebooks, my studies, and a fine new device I had to carry my pen and ink, my civet perfume, and my toothpicks, all in one case. But that which grieved me most was the thefts of the gentlewoman’s shoes, with a pair of roses and garters I had given her for the business.”

Ambler continued, “So that made us stay until it was dark, for I was obliged to lend her my shoes, and walk in a rug by her, barefoot to Saint Giles’ church.”

“A kind of Irish penance!” Merecraft said.

Some impoverished Irish wore clothing made out of rug cloth.

Merecraft then asked, “Is this all, sir?”

“I want you to satisfy Lady Tailbush that I deserve to keep my job,” Ambler replied.

“I promise you that I will, sir,” Merecraft said.

“I have told you my true disaster,” Ambler said.

“I cannot stay with you, sir, to console you, but I rejoice in your return,” Merecraft said.

He went inside.

“He is an honest gentleman!” Ambler said. “But he’s never at leisure to relax and be himself because he has such tides of business.”

He went inside.

— 5.2 —

Alone, Pug said to himself, “Oh, call me home again, dear chief, and put me to work yoking foxes, milking he-goats, pounding water in a mortar, emptying the sea dry with a nutshell, gathering all the leaves that have fallen this autumn, drawing farts out of dead bodies, making ropes out of sand, catching the winds together in a net, mustering ants, and numbering atoms — all that Hell and you thought exquisite torments, rather than keep me here for the length of time it takes to think a thought! I would sooner keep fleas within a circle and keep track for athousand years which of them out-leaped the other and by how far, than endure a minute more of such torment as I have suffered within this house. There is no Hell compared to a lady of fashion — all your tortures in Hell are enjoyable pastimes compared to spending time with a lady of fashion! It would be refreshing for me to be in hellfire again and away from here!”

Ambler entered the scene, looked at him, and said to himself, “This man is wearing my suit, and those are the gentlewoman’s shoes and roses!”

Apparently, Pug had small feet, and so he had stolen the gentlewoman’s shoes rather than Ambler’s shoes. Small feet may be a cause of the myth saying the devils have cloven hooves rather than feet.

 “They have such impertinent vexations that a general council of devils could not hit on,” Pug continued.

He noticed Ambler and said to himself, “Ha! This is the man I took asleep with his wench and borrowed his clothes. What might I do to frustrate him?”

“Do you hear me, sir?” Ambler asked.

Pug said to himself, “Answer him, but not to the purpose.”

“What is your name, I ask you, sir?” Ambler asked.

“Is it so late, sir?” Pug said, deliberately not answering the question.

“I ask you not for the time, but for your name, sir,” Ambler said.

“I thank you, sir,” Pug said. “Yes, it does hold, sir, certainly.”

“Hold, sir?” Ambler said. “What holds? I must both hold and talk to you about these clothes you are wearing.”

“A very pretty lace!” Pug said. “But the tailor cheated me.”

“No, I am cheated by you!” Ambler said. “Robbed!”

“Why, when you please, sir, I am ready for the game of threepenny gleek,” Pug said. “I am your man for that.”

“A pox on your gleek and threepence!” Ambler said. “Give me an answer.”

“Sir, my master is the best at it,” Pug said.

“Your master!” Ambler said. “Who is your master?”

“Let it be Friday night,” Pug said.

“What should be then?” Ambler asked.

“Your best song’s ‘Tom o’ Bedlam,’” Pug said.

A Tom o’ Bedlam was a lunatic who had been released from Bethlem Royal Hospital and licensed so he could beg.

“I think you are he,” Ambler said to Pug.

He then asked himself, “Does he mock me on purpose, I wonder? Or am I not speaking to him what I mean?”

He then said to Pug, “Good sir, what is your name?”

“Only a couple of cocks, sir,” Pug said. “If we can get a widgeon, it is in season.”

Widgeons were a species of bird that was in season in England during autumn.

Ambler said to himself, “He hopes to make one of these Sciptics of me — I think I got their name right — and he does not flee from me. I wonder at that! It is a strange confidence!”

By “Sciptics” he meant Skeptics — philosophers who did not think that knowledge was objective.

Ambler continued saying to himself, “I’ll try another way to draw a real answer from him.”

Ambler exited.

— 5.3 —

Merecraft, Fitzdottrel, and Everill entered the scene. Pug withdrew to a space where he could hear but was unlikely to be seen. He listened to everything the newcomers said.

Merecraft was trying to convince Fitzdottrel to say that his wife was a witch who had caused him to become possessed by a demon. If his wife was brought to trial and convicted as a witch, she would be unable to control her husband’s property.

Who would then control Fitzdottrel’s property? If Fitzdottrel were thought to be bewitched, he would not be able to. Both Merecraft and Everill, of course, were eager to control Fitzdottrel’s property. At this time, Fitzdottrel still did not know that Merecraft and Everill were con men.

“It is the easiest thing, sir, to be done,” Merecraft said to Fitzdottrel. “It is as simple as farting silently.”

This is not always easy to do. So the author has heard.

Merecraft continued, “Roll your eyes, and foam at the mouth. A little Castile soap will do for foam — rub it on your lips. And then get a nutshell with inflammable fibers and tinder in it so you can spit fire.”

Presumably, the “possessed” person would be able to secretly get the finely ground fibers and tinder from the nutshell to his lips, and then spray them into a fireplace or over the flame of a candle, creating a fireball and conveying the impression to bystanders that he had spit fire.

Merecraft continued, “Did you never read, sir, about little Darrel’s tricks, the boy of Burton, the seven in Lancashire, and Sommers at Nottingham? All these people’s histories teach these tricks. And we’ll say, sir, that your wife has bewitched you —”

These people had faked or convinced others to fake being bewitched.

John Darrel had performed exorcisms on people and had caused a man to be executed. In 1599 he was accused of being an imposter and was imprisoned.

The boy of Burton was Thomas Darling, who had pretended to be bewitched and had claimed that a mouse had come out of his mouth.

Seven children in Lancashire were supposedly bewitched when a man named Edward (or perhaps Edmund) Hartley kissed them and breathed evil spirits in them.

William Sommers of Nottingham was also supposed to have been bewitched. John Darrel exorcized him.

Everill said, “And we’ll say that your wife conspired with those two, as sorcerers.”

“Those two” were Wittipol and Manly.

Merecraft said, “And we’ll say that they gave you potions, by which means you were not compos mentis — of sound mind — when you made your feoffment. There’s no recovery of your estate unless you do this. This, sir, will sting; it will be fatal.”

The punishment for being found guilty of witchcraft was death.

Everill added, “And it will move in a court of equity.”

Such a court could overrule both common law and statute law — as well as common sense.

“For it is more than manifest that this was a plot of your wife’s to get your land,” Merecraft said.

“I think that is true,” Fitzdottrel said.

“Sir, so it appears,” Everill said.

Merecraft said, “Indeed, and my cousin has known these gallants in these shapes —”

Everill finished the sentence: “— to have done strange things, sir. One as the lady, the other as the squire.”

They were referring to Wittipol and Manly. They were saying that Wittipol would dress as a lady, and Manly would be her squire.

The squire could be a personal servant or a lover.

“How a man’s honesty may be fooled!” Merecraft said. “I thought that he was a real lady.”

“So did I — renounce me and cast me aside if I did not,” Fitzdottrel said.

“But this way, sir, you’ll be revenged in full,” Merecraft said.

“Upon them all,” Everill added.

“Yes, indeed,” Merecraft said, “and since your wife has run the way of woman thus, even give her —”

Fitzdottrel interrupted, “— she is lost, I swear by this hand of mine, to me. She is dead to all the joys of her dear Dottrel! I shall never pity her whocould pity herself. I cannot pity a woman who puts her own interests first because she pities herself.”

“That is princely resolved, sir,” Merecraft said, “and like yourself still, in potentia.”

Fitzdottrel was still not a duke; he was only potentially a duke. According to Merecraft, Fitzdottrel was acting like the duke he would soon be.

Pug, standing hidden, had overheard the plot.

— 5.4 —

Gilthead, Plutarchus (Gilthead’s son), the constable Sledge, and some sergeants of the law arrived on the scene.

Merecraft asked, “Gilthead, what is the news?”

Fitzdottrel, who was in need of money, asked for the hundred pieces Gilthead was supposed to have given him earlier: “Oh, sir, my hundred pieces. Let me have them yet.”

“Yes, sir,” Gilthead replied.

He then said, “Officers of the law, arrest him.”

“Me?” Fitzdottrel asked.

“I arrest you,” a sergeant said.

“Keep the peace, I order you, gentlemen,” the constable Sledge said.

“Arrest me?” Fitzdottrel said. “Why?”

“For better security, sir,” Gilthead said. “My son Plutarchus assures me you’re not worth a groat. Your net worth is not even a small coin of little value.”

“Pardon me, father,” Plutarchus said. “I said His Worship had no foot of land left, and that I’ll justify, for I wrote the deed of feoffment.”

Gilthead had placed Plutarchus, his son, with Sir Paul Eitherside so that he could learn law.

“Do you have these tricks in the city?” Fitzdottrel asked. He was a squire of Norfolk and so was not a citizen of London.

“Yes, and more,” Gilthead said.

Pointing at Merecraft, he then said to the officers of the law, “Arrest this gallant, too, here, at my suit.”

“Aye, and at mine,” Sledge said. “He owes me for his lodging rent two years and a quarter.”

Apparently, being a con man doesn’t pay well, or if it does, it does so only occasionally.

Merecraft said, “Why, Master Gilthead, and landlord … thou are not mad, though thou are constable. Thou are not puffed up with the pride of the place. Isn’t that right? Do you hear me, sirs? Have I deserved this from you two for all my pains at court to get you each a patent — a monopoly?”

Gilthead asked, “A patent for what?”

“A patent concerning my project of the forks,” Merecraft replied.

Forks were not yet widely in use in London and England.

“Forks?” Sledge asked. “What are forks?”

Instead of saying what forks were, Merecraft mentioned some of the advantages of forks: Less food would be spilled, and so less linen and less washing would be needed.

Merecraft said, “The laudable use of forks, brought into custom here, as they are in Italy, to the sparing of napkins. Sledge, this project would have made your bellows go at the forge, as it would have made Gilthead’s go at the furnace. I had procured it, had the signet for it, dealt with the linen-drapers in private because I feared they were the likeliest to ever stir against it and to cross it, for it will be a mighty saver of linen through the kingdom — as that is one of my reasons for promoting the project, and to spare washing — now, on you two I had laid all the profits. Gilthead would have the making of all those forks made of gold and silver for the better personages, and you would have the making of those forks made of steel for the common sort. And both of you would have monopolies by patent. I would have brought you your seals in. But now you have prevented me from doing that, and I ‘thank’ you.”

Sledge was persuaded by Merecraft’s words that Merecraft was trying to help Sledge — and Gilthead — make money.

“Sir, I will provide bail for you at my own risk,” Sledge said.

Merecraft said to Gilthead, “Choose what you will do.”

Plutarchus said to Gilthead, “You do the same thing as Sledge, too, good father.”

“I like the fashion of the project well,” Gilthead said. “The forks! It may be a lucky project! And it is not complicated and intricate, as one would say, but fit for plain heads as ours to deal in.”

He then said, “Listen to me, officers — we discharge you.”

The officers of the law exited. Sledge stayed.

Merecraft said, “Why, this shows a little good nature in you, I confess,but do not tempt your friends thus.”

He then said to Plutarchus, “Little Gilthead, advise your sire, great Gilthead, to avoid such courses of action as this action he almost did, and such courses of action as troubling a great man in reversion — a great man who is about to reclaim all his wealth — over a matter of fifty pounds on a false alarm. Away with such courses of action! They do not show him in a good light. Let him get the hundred pieces and bring them here. You’ll hear more else.”

Plutarchus said, “Father!”

Gilthead and Plutarchus exited.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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