David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s THE DEVIL IS AN ASS: A Retelling — Act 5, Scenes 5-7

— 5.5 —

Ambler entered the scene. Seeing Pug, he dragged him out of hiding, and then he said, “Oh, Master Sledge, are you here? I have been to seek you. You are the constable, they say. Here’s one whom I charge with felony, on account of the suit he is wearing, sir.”

“Who?” Merecraft said. “Master Fitzdottrel’s manservant? Beware what you are doing, Master Ambler.”

“Sir, these clothes that he is wearing, I’ll swear, are mine,” Ambler said, “and he has on the shoes of the gentlewoman I told you of, and I will have him before a justice of the law.”

“My master, sir, will pass his word for me,” Pug said. “He will vouch for me.”

“Oh, can you speak to the purpose now?” Ambler said sarcastically. “Nowyou can talk sense.”

Fitzdottrel did not vouch for Pug; instead, he said to him, “Not I. If you are such a thief, sir, I will leave you to your godfathers-in-law. Let twelve men work.”

The twelve godfathers-in-law were jurists. Fitzdottrel was willing for Pug to be brought to trial. If he were found guilty, he would be sentenced to death.

“Listen to me, sir,” Pug said. “Please, let’s talk in private.”

They moved away from the others and talked quietly.

“Well, what do you say?” Fitzdottrel said. “Be brief, for I have no time to lose.”

Pug replied, “The truth is, sir, I am truly a devil, and I had permission to take this body I am in to serve you, which belonged to a cutpurse who was hanged this morning. And it is likewise true that I stole this suit in order to clothe myself. But, sir, don’t let me go to prison for it. I have hitherto lost time and done nothing; I have shown, indeed, no part of my devil’s nature. Now I will so help your malice against these parties. Now I will so advance the business that you have at hand of witchcraft and your possession, as if I myself were in you. Now I will teach you such tricks as how to make your belly swell and how to make your eyes turn, and how to foam, to stare, to gnash your teeth together, and to beat yourself, to laugh loud, and to feign six voices —”

“Get out, you rogue!” Fitzdottrel said. “You most infernal counterfeit wretch! Get out! Do you think to gull me with your Aesop’s fables?”

He did not believe that Pug was a real devil.

He said to the constable Sledge, “Here, take him into your custody; I want no part of him.”

Pug began, “Sir —”

“Go away!” Fitzdottrel said. “I disclaim you. I will not listen to you.”

Sledge led Pug away to take him to prison.

“What did he say to you, sir?” Merecraft asked.

“Like a lying rascal, he told me he was the devil,” Fitzdottrel said.

“What!” Merecraft said. “A good jest!”

“And he said that he would teach me very fine devils’ tricks for our new resolution,” Fitzdottrel said.

“Oh, pox on him!” Everill said. “It was excellently wisely done, sir, not to trust him.”

“Why, even if he were the devil, we shall not need him, if you’ll be advised,” Merecraft said.

Merecraft and Everill would teach Fitzdottrel very fine devils’ tricks for their new resolution.

Merecraft then laid out the plot:

“Fitzdottrel, go throw yourself on a bed, sir, and feign that you are ill. We’ll not be seen with you until after you have a fit, and that is confirmed within.

“Everill, stay with the two ladies — Lady Tailbush and Lady Eitherside — and persuade them to assist us.

“I’ll go to Justice Eitherside and tell him all about the ‘bewitchment.’ I mean that I will tell him that Fitzdottrel is bewitched.

“Trains shall seek out Engine, and the two of them will fill the town with the news of Fitzdottrel’s ‘bewitchment.’”

Using a nautical metaphor, Merecraft said, “Every cable is to be paid out. We must employ all our emissaries to spread the news now.”

He meant that they must use every means to spread the news of the “bewitchment.”

Merecraft then said to Fitzdottrel, “Sir, I will send you bladders and bellows.”

The bellows would blow up the bladders, which Fitzdottrel would use to make it seem as if his belly were distended by a demon or demons within him.

“Sir, be confident,” Merecraft added. “This is no hard thing to outdo the devil in. A thirteen-year-old boy made him an ass just the other day.”

A boy named John Smith claimed to have been bewitched; this resulted in the executions of nine women in July 1616. King James I then exposed the boy as a faker.

“Making the devil an ass” means “doing more evil than the devil.” Today, we might call such a person “the devil’s asshole.”

Fitzdottrel said, “Well, I’ll begin to practice, and escape the imputation of being made a cuckold by my own act.”

“You’re right,” Merecraft said. “You will.”

Fitzdottrel exited.

Now that Everill and Merecraft were alone, they could talk openly.

“Come,” Everill said, “admit that you have put yourself and your friends into a complete mess here, by dealing with new agents in new plots. Your complications have muddled everything up.”

“Speak no more about that, sweet cousin,” Merecraft said. He was embarrassed.

“What had you to do with this Wittipol and his pretending to be a lady?” Everill asked.

“Don’t ask about that,” Merecraft said. “It is over and done.”

“You had some strain above E-la?” Everill asked.

“E-la” is a high note in music.

Merecraft admitted, “I had indeed.”

“And now you crack because of it,” Everill said.

To crack on a note means to attempt — but fail — to sing it. Merecraft had attempted to get all rather than part of Fitzdottrel’s wealth, and now he was in danger of getting none of it unless this new plot worked.

“Don’t upbraid me,” Merecraft said. “Don’t criticize me.”

“Come, you must be criticized about it,” Everill said. “You are so greedy always to grab more than you are able to get that you lose everything.”

“That is right,” Merecraft admitted. “What more do you want me to do than to admit that I am guilty? Now, give me your aid.”

They exited.

— 5.6 —

Shackles, the jail keeper of Newgate Prison, brought Pug into a cell.

He said, “Here you are lodged, sir; you must send your garnish, if you’ll be private.”

The garnish was a bribe to the jail keeper for private accommodations.

Pug gave him some money and said, “There it is, sir. Leave me.”

Shackles exited.

“To Newgate brought?” Pug said. “How the name of ‘devil’ is discredited in me! What a lost fiend shall I be on my return to Hell! My chief will roar in triumph, now that I have been on earth for a day and have done no notable deed except bring back here the body that was hanged this morning.

“Well! I wish that it were midnight so that I knew my fate.”

At midnight, Pug was supposed to return to Hell and make his report to Satan, who would sentence him for accomplishing no notable evil while he was in the Land of the Living.

Pug continued, “I think that Time is drunk and sleeps. He is so still, and he doesn’t move! I glory now in my torment. Neither can I expect it; I have it with my fact.”

He was already being tormented even before returning to Hell. He was tormented by his lack of success among the living, and he was tormented by the fact that he had ended up in Newgate Prison although he was a devil. He also was tormented by the knowledge that Satan would punish him when he returned to Hell. What’s worse, Time was moving so slowly that it dragged out his torment.

Iniquity the Vice entered the scene and said to Pug, “Child of Hell, be merry! Put a look on as round, boy, and as red as a cherry. Cast care behind thee and dance in thy fetters; They are ornaments, baby, that have graced thy betters.

“Look at me, and listen,” Iniquity the Vice said. “Our chief salutes thee, and, lest the cold iron of your fetters should chance to confute thee, he has sent thee grant-parole by me to stay a month longer here on earth, so you can learn to welcome cold and hunger, child —”

“What?” Pug said. “Shall I stay here a month longer?”

“Yes, boy, until the legal Session, so that thou may be found guilty and have a triumphal egression,” Iniquity the Vice said.

“A triumphal egression in a cart, to be hanged!” Pug said.

Theft was a capital crime, and those found guilty were taken in a cart to the place of execution, where they were hanged.

Iniquity the Vice said, “No, child, in a car — the chariot of triumph, which most of them are.”

“Car” and “chariot” were fancy words for “cart.”

Iniquity the Vice continued, “And in the meantime, you will be greasy and boozy and drunken, and nasty and filthy, and ragged and louse-y, with ‘damn me,’ ‘renounce me,’ and all the fine phrases that bring to Tyburn the plentiful gazes.”

Thieves were taken in a cart from Newgate Prison to Tyburn to be hung. Often, many people lined the route to see the condemned prisoner.

“He is a devil!” Pug said. “And he may well be our chief devil! The great superior devil! On account of his malice, he may well be Arch-devil! I acknowledge him. He knew what I would suffer when he tied me up thus in a rogue’s body, and he has — I thank him — his tyrannous pleasure on me, to confine me to the unlucky carcass of a cutpurse, wherein I could do nothing.”

Satan entered the sceneand upbraided Pug with his day’s work:

“Impudent fiend, stop thy lewd mouth.

“Don’t thou shame and tremble to lay thine own dull damned defects upon an innocent carcass there? Why, thou miserable slave, the spirit that possessed that flesh before you took it over put more true life in a finger and a thumb than thou have in the whole mass! Yet thou rebel and complain?

“What one attempt have thou made that is wicked enough, this day, that might be called worthy of thine own name, much less worthy the name of Satan, who sent thee?

“First, thou did help thyself get a beating from Fitzdottrel promptly, and with it thou also endangered thy tongue. You were afraid that you would have your tongue cut out. You are a devil, and yet you could not keep a body unbeaten for even one day! So much for that being for our credit.

“And to get revenge for it, you stopped, for anything thou know, a deed of darkness, which was an act of that egregious folly as no one sympathetic toward the devil could have thought of.”

Pug had informed Fitzdottrel about the meeting at the windows of his wife and Wittipol. By doing that, he had possibly stopped an act of adultery.

Satan continued, “So much for your acting! But now for your suffering! Why, a man wearing a false beard and a reversible cloak cheated thee. Indeed, would your predecessor the cutpurse, do you think, have been taken advantage of like that? Damn thee! Thou have done much harm: Thou have let men know their strength and that they’re able to out-do a devil that has been put in a body — this will forever beascar upon our name!

“Whom have thou dealt with, woman or man, this day, but they have outdone thee in some way, and most have proved to be the better fiends?

“Yet you would be employed? Yes, Hell shall make you the spiritual leader of the cheaters with false dice!

“Or Hell shall make you the bawd-ledger — the resident ambassador for the pimps and whores — for this side of the town!

“No doubt you’ll render a splendid account of things. Bane of your itch, and scratching for employment! I’ll have brimstone — sulphur — to relieve it, to be sure, and I’ll have fire to singe your fingernails off.”

Devils prefer to keep their fingernails long.

Satan continued, “Except that I would not have such a damned dishonor stick on our state — the dishonor that a devil were hanged and could not save a body that he tookfrom Tyburn, but that body must go there again — you would ride the cart to the gallows.”

Satan then said to The Vice named Iniquity, “But up, away with him —”

Iniquity the Vice put Pug upon his back so he could carry him away, saying to him, “Mount, darling of darkness. My shoulders are broad; he that carries the fiend is sure of his load. The Devil was accustomed to carry away the Evil, but now the Evil carries away the Devil.”

In the morality plays of the Middle Ages, the Devil carried away on his back the Vice or Evil.

They exited.

— 5.7 —

A great noise was heard in Newgate Prison. Frightened,Shackles the jail keeper and some other jail keepers came into Pug’s jail cell. The body that Pug had occupied was lying on the floor.

“Oh, me!” Shackles said.

“What’s this?” the first jail keeper asked.

“A piece of Justice Hall has broken down,” the second jail keeper said.

“Phew!” the third jail keeper said. “What a steam of brimstone is here!”

“The prisoner who came in just now is dead!” the fourth jail keeper said.

“Ha?” Shackles said. “Where?”

“Look here,” the fourth jail keeper said, pointing.

“By God’s eyelid, I should know his face!” the first jail keeper said. “It is Gill Cutpurse, the thief who was hanged this morning!”

“It is him!” Shackles said.

“The devil surely has a hand in this!” the second jail keeper said.

“What shall we do?” the third jail keeper said.

“Carry the news of it to the sheriffs,” Shackles said.

“And to the Justices,” the first jail keeper said.

“This is strange!” the fourth jail keeper said.

“And smells strongly of the devil!” the third jail keeper said.

“I have the sulphur of Hell-coal in my nose,” the second jail keeper said.

“Phew!” the first jail keeper said.

“Carry him in,” Shackles said.

“Let’s go,” the first jail keeper said.

“How rank it is!” the second jail keeper said.

They exited, carrying the body.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


Buy the Paperback


Buy in Other Formats, Including PDF


Buy Kobo


Buy Kindle

This entry was posted in Ben Jonson, Retelling and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s