David Bruce: John Webster’s THE WHITE DEVIL: A Retelling — Act 3, Scene 3

— 3.3 —

Flamineo was at one end of an antechamber to the courtroom. Marcello and Lodovico were at the other end.

Flamineo had started to pretend to be mentally disturbed because of the disgrace of his sister, Vittoria.

He said, “We endure the strokes like anvils or hard steel, until pain itself makes us no pain to feel.

“Who shall do me right and justice now?

“Is this the end — the purpose — of service?

“I’d rather go weed garlic, work my way through France, and be my own hostler.

“I’d rather wear sheepskin underwear or shoes that stink of blacking — polish — and be entered into the list of the forty thousand peddlers in Poland.”

The Savoy ambassador entered the antechamber.

Flamineo continued, “I wish that I had rotted in some surgeon’s house at Venice, built upon the pox as well as upon piles, before I had served Brachiano!’

The surgeon had made the money to build the house by treating the pox (syphilis) and piles (hemorrhoids).

The word “piles” was a pun; the word also meant the foundation that was especially necessary in a city such as Venice.

The Savoy ambassador said, “You must have comfort.”

Flamineo replied, “Your comfortable words are like honey: They relish well in your mouth that’s whole, but in my mouth that’s wounded, they go down as if the sting of the bee were in them.”

To a man who is ill, honey can taste bitter.

Flamineo continued, “Oh, they have wrought their purpose cunningly, as if they would not seem to do it out of malice! In this a politician imitates the devil, as the devil imitates a cannon: Wherever he comes to do mischief, he comes with his backside towards you.”

Politicians (people who act craftily and deviously) and devils can do damage indirectly rather than through frontal assault.

Witches were believed to kiss the devil’s bare buttocks as a sign of obedience.

The French ambassador entered the antechamber and said, “The proofs of Vittoria’s guilt are evident.”

Flamineo said, “Proof! It was corruption, not proof. Oh, gold, what a god are thou! And oh, man, what a devil are thou to be tempted by that cursed mineral! Your diversivolent lawyer, watch him closely!”

He was using the same word that the lawyer had used against Vittoria before being dismissed from the courtroom.

Flamineo continued, “Knaves turn informers, as maggots turn into flies — you may catch gudgeons with either.”

Literally, “gudgeons” are small, easily caught fish. Figuratively, they are gullible simpletons.

Flamineo continued, “A cardinal! I wish he could hear me! There’s nothing so holy but money will corrupt and putrify it, like food in the heat under the line of the equator.”

The English ambassador entered the antechamber.

Flamineo said to him, “You are happy in England, my lord; here they sell justice with those weights they press men to death with. Oh, horrible reward!”

Men who refused to plead either innocent or guilty in trials had heavy weights placed on top of them until they either pleaded or died. Some people chose to die this way because they believed that they would be found guilty, and their estate would be forfeited, thereby leaving their family members destitute.

This law was followed in what became the United States. On 19 September 1692, Giles Corey died from being pressed after declining to plead in the Salem Witch Trials. Whenever he was asked to plead, he replied, “More weight.”

The English Ambassador said, “Come on, Flamineo. Bah.”

Flamineo replied, “Bells never ring well until they are at their full pitch, and I hope yonder cardinal shall never have the grace to pray well until he comes to the scaffold.”

A full pitch comes from a full swing, and Flamineo was saying he wanted Cardinal Monticelso to swing at the end of a noose.

Pitch is the height that a falcon will climb before steeply stooping down — swooping down with wings folded back.

The ambassadors exited.

Flamineo said, “If they — Cardinal Monticelso and Francisco de Medici — would be racked now to know the conspiracy! But your noblemen are privileged from being tortured on the rack — and it’s a good thing — because a little thing would pull some of them to pieces before they came to their arraignment.”

Some noblemen are already so metaphorically rotten that being stretched on the rack even a little would tear them to pieces.

Flamineo continued, “Religion, oh, how it is commeddled and commingled with policy! The first blood shed in the world happened about religion. I wish I were a Jew!”

The first murder occurred when Cain slew Abel. See Genesis 4.1-16.

Referring to Jews, Marcello said, “Oh, there are too many!”

Flamineo replied, “You are deceived; there are not Jews enough, priests enough, nor gentlemen enough.”

Marcello asked, “What do you mean?”

Flamineo said, “I’ll prove it. If there were Jews enough, so many Christians would not turn usurers.”

In the Middle Ages and beyond, many Jews became usurers because of Biblical laws against lending at interest: Christians would not do that job.

Flamineo continued, “If there were priests enough, one priest would not have six benefices.”

A benefice was an appointment that gave a priest an income. The more benefices, the more money, but the more benefices, the more likelihood that the priest could not do the job that he was supposed to be doing.

Flamineo continued, “And if there were gentlemen enough, then so many early mushrooms, whose best growth sprang from a dunghill, would not aspire to gentility.”

A mushroom was figuratively an upstart: a man who rose rapidly to a good social standing.

Flamineo continued, “Farewell. Let others live by begging. Be thou one of them — practice the art of Wolner in England, to swallow all that is given to thee: and yet let one purgation make thee as hungry again as fellows who work in a sawpit.

“I’ll go hear the screech-owl.”

Wolner was a famous glutton who was thought to be able to eat iron, glass, and oyster shells.

The cry of the screech-owl was regarded as ominous.

Flamineo exited.

Lodovico, who had been listening to Flamineo, said, “This was Brachiano’s pander; and it is strange that in such open and apparent guilt of his adulterous sister, he dares to express so scandalous a passion. I must sniff him out and discover his secrets.”

Flamineo re-entered, saw Lodovico, and said to himself, “How dare this banished count return to Rome with his pardon not yet acquired! I have heard that the deceased duchess gave him a pension, and that he came along from Padua in the train of the young prince. There’s something going on.

“Physicians, who cure poisons, still work with counter-poisons.”

A counter-poison is an antidote, but Flamineo was thinking of one poison being used to counteract another poison. Swallowing a second poison can cause a person to vomit up the first poison (and the second).

Flamineo and Lodovico were both poisons — they were evil men. One kind of counter-poison would be hiring an evil man to do evil in order to punish the doer of an evil deed. Flamineo could guess that Lodovico was a counter-poison to punish him.

Marcello said to himself, “Pay attention to this strange encounter.”

Flamineo and Lodovico began to talk together. Both men were more capable of feeling hostility than of feeling affection.

Flamineo continued to pretend to be mentally disturbed as the two men began to insult each other.

Flamineo said, “May the god of melancholy turn thy gall to poison, and similar to the boisterous waves in a rough tide, let one of the stigmatic — ugly and indicative of criminality — wrinkles in thy face always overtake another.”

Lodovico replied, “I do thank thee, and I wish ingeniously and ingenuously, for thy sake, the dog-days all year long.”

The dog-days were very hot days. They were good days to drink alcohol, which increased lustful desire. At such a time, panders could do well.

Flamineo asked, “How croaks the raven?”

The croak of the raven was regarded as ominous.

He then asked, “Is our good duchess dead?”

Lodovico replied, “Yes, she is dead.”

Flamineo said, “Oh, fate! Misfortune comes like the coroner’s business — huddle upon huddle, heap upon heap, pile upon pile.”

Lodovico asked, “Shall thou and I join housekeeping and live in the same home?”

Flamineo replied, “Yes, I am content to do that.”

If they were to live together, they needed to agree on some “rules.”

What kind of rules would two murderers agree to?

Flamineo said, “Let’s be unsociably sociable.”

Lodovico said, “We shall sit some three days together, and talk.”

Flamineo replied, “Only by making faces.”

He added, “We will lie in our clothes.”

Lodovico said, “With bundles of sticks for our pillows.”

Flamineo said, “And we shall be louse-y.”

Lice were a problem for human beings at this time.

Lodovico said, “In taffeta underwear — that’s genteel melancholy. We will sleep all day.”

Flamineo said, “Yes; and, like your melancholic hare, we will feed after midnight.”

Antonelli and Gasparo, friends of Francisco de Medici,entered the antechamber. They were laughing; they had good news to give to Count Lodovico.

“We are observed,” Flamineo said. “See how yonder couple ‘grieves.’”

“What a strange creature is a laughing fool!” Lodovico said. “As if man were created for no purpose other than to show his teeth.”

Flamineo said, “I’ll tell thee what, it would do well instead of looking-glasses, to set one’s face each morning by a saucer of a witch’s congealed blood.”

A saucer of a witch’s congealed blood would make a poor mirror, but “to set one’s face” meant to put on one’s face a fixed facial expression. In this case, such a facial expression is unlikely to be kindly.

Lodovico said, “Precious girn, rogue!”

A girn is a snarl.

He added, “We’ll never part.”

In Dante’s Inferno, various kinds of sinners are grouped together forever: The thieves are with the thieves, the flatterers are with the flatterers, etc.

Flamineo replied, “Never, until the beggary of courtiers, the discontent of churchmen, a lack of soldiers, and all the creatures who hang manacled, worse than strappadoed, on the lowest part of fortune’s wheel, be taught, in our two lives, to scorn that world which deprives life of the means of livelihood.”

Both Lodovico and Flamineo deprived men of life and therefore of the means of livelihood.

A man who is strappadoed is tortured by having his hands bound together behind his back and then being lifted into the air by those hands.

What would it take to make many people scorn a world that deprives life of the means of livelihood? Courtiers would have to become beggars, churchmen would have to become discontented, soldiers would have to be lacking (and so armies could not protect citizens), and many people would have to be tortured by being strappadoed. For people to scorn a world that deprives life of the means of livelihood, they would have to live that kind of life. Some people, of course, already live that kind of life — for example, those at the bottom of the wheel of fortune.

Antonelli came over to Count Lodovico and said, “My lord, I bring good news. The Pope, on his deathbed, at the earnest suit of the great Duke of Florence — Francisco de Medici — has signed your pardon, and restored unto you —”

Lodovico interrupted, “I thank you for your news. Look up again, Flamineo, and see my pardon.”

Flamineo asked Lodovico, “Why do you laugh? There was no such condition in our contract.”

Lodovico asked, “Why do I laugh?”

Flamineo was not making sense.

Flamineo said, “You shall not seem to be a happier man than I am. You know our vow, sir; if you will be merry, do it in the like posture, as if some great man sat while his enemy was being executed. Though it be just like enjoyable lechery to thee, do it with a crabbed politician’s face.”

Some politicians inwardly rejoice when an enemy is executed, but they maintain a dignified, sober expression during the execution.

Lodovico laughed and said, “Your sister is a damnable whore.”

Flamineo said, “Ha!”

Lodovico said, “Notice that I spoke that while laughing.”

Flamineo said, “Do thou think to ever speak again?”

Lodovico said, “Hear what I say now. Will thou sell me forty ounces of her blood so I can water a mandrake?”

If Vittoria were executed, she would bleed. Mandrakes were supposed to feed on blood, and they were supposed to grow near gallows.

Flamineo said, “Poor lord, you did vow to live as a louse-y creature.”

“Yes,” Lodovico said.

Flamineo said, “Like one who had forever forfeited the daylight, by being in debt.”

A bankrupt could live out his life in prison and never again see the Sun. Prisons were infested with lice.

“Ha, ha!” Lodovico laughed.

Flamineo said, “I do not greatly wonder you do break: Your lordship learned how to do it long ago.”

Flamineo was saying that Lodovico was breaking his word, and Flamineo was saying that Lodovico knew about going bankrupt.

“But I’ll tell you,” Flamineo continued.

“Tell me what?” Lodovico asked.

“And it shall stick by you,” Flamineo said.

“I long for it,” Lodovico said.

“This laughter scurvily becomes your face,” Flamineo said. “If you will not be melancholy, be angry.”

He hit Lodovico in the face, laughed, and said, “See, now I laugh, too.”

Marcello said to Flamineo, his brother, “You are to blame, and you are too blameworthy. I’ll force you away from here.”

Lodovico drew his sword and lunged at Flamineo.

Antonelli and Gasparo restrained Lodovico.

Marcello restrained Flamineo.

Lodovico ordered, “Unhand me.”

Marcello and Flamineo exited, and Antonelli and Gasparo released Lodovico.

Very angry, Lodovicosaid, “That I should ever be forced to right myself and vindicate my honor upon a pander!”

Antonelli said, “My lord.”

Ignoring him, Lodovico said, “He had been as good met a thunderbolt with his fist.”

Gasparo said, “How this shows!”

Lodovico’s display of anger showed badly.

This society looked down upon excessive displays of anger. It valued controlling one’s emotions.

Lodovico swore, “By God’s death!”

He added, “How did my sword miss him? These rogues who are most weary of their lives always escape the greatest dangers. A pox upon him; all his reputation, nay, all the goodness of his family, is not worth half this earthquake. I learned from no fencer how to shake like this.”

He was shaking with anger.

Fencers need to stay calm while fencing.

Lodovico said to Antonelli and Gasparo, “Come, I’ll forget him, and go drink some wine.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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