David Bruce: John Webster’s THE WHITE DEVIL: A Retelling — Act 4, Scene 1

— 4.1 —

Francisco de Medici and Cardinal Monticelso talked together in a room in Francisco de Medici’s palace in Rome.

Cardinal Monticelso said, “Come, come, my lord, untie your folded thoughts, and let them dangle loose, as a bride’s hair.”

In this society, virgin brides wore their hair loose.

He then said, “Your sister’s poisoned.”

Francisco de Medici replied, “Far be it from my thoughts to seek revenge.”

Cardinal Monticelso asked, “Are you turned into all marble? Have you no feelings?”

Francisco de Medici replied, “Shall I defy the Duke of Brachiano and impose a war that will be very burdensome on my poor subjects’ necks — a war I don’t have the power to end at my will? You know, for all the murders, rapes, and thefts committed in the horrid lust of war, that man who unjustly caused the war to first proceed, shall find it in his grave, and in his seed.”

A man who starts an unjust war shall be punished for it in the afterlife, and his descendants shall also be punished for his unjust actions.

Cardinal Monticelso said, “That’s not the course of action I’d wish you to take; please pay attention to me. We see that undermining prevails more than do the cannon.”

In warfare soldiers would create tunnels underneath the walls of castles or towns and use explosives to bring down the walls. Cardinal Monticelso was saying that being sneaky was more effective at getting revenge than a frontal attack such as using cannon to bring down a castle’s or town’s walls.

Cardinal Monticelso continued, “Bear your wrongs concealed, and, patient as the tortoise, let this camel stalk over your back without bruising it.”

Camels had a reputation for being angry, while tortoises had a reputation for being subtle and crafty.

Cardinal Monticelso was advising Francisco de Medici to allow him to get Francisco’s revenge against Brachiano.

He said, “Sleep with the lion, and let this brood of secure foolish mice play with your nostrils, until the time shall be ripe for the bloody audit, and the fatal grip.”

Cardinal Monticelso would be the lion, and he would be in league with Francisco de Medici and wait until the appropriate time to get revenge against Brachiano.

Cardinal Monticelso continued, “Aim like a cunning fowler and close one eye, so that you the better may your game spy.”

A fowler hunts fowl, and archers close one eye while aiming at the target. The cardinal’s advice was for Francisco de Medici to close one eye to whatever Cardinal Monticelso would do.

Francisco de Medici said, “Free me, my innocence, from treacherous acts! I know there’s thunder yonder; and I’ll stand, like a safe valley, which low bends the knee to some aspiring mountain —”

If he was using “my innocence” to refer to “my Cardinal Monticelso,” he was using the phrase ironically.

The thunder is the vengeance of God.

Could “some aspiring mountain” be Cardinal Monticelso?

Francisco de Medici continued, “— since I know that treason, like spiders weaving nets for flies, by her foul work is found, and in her foul work treason dies.”

Making war against a powerful man such as a duke could be regarded as a kind of treason.

He continued, “To pass away these thoughts, my honored lord, it is reported you possess a book wherein you have recorded, using secret intelligence gathered by informers and spies, the names of all notorious offenders and criminals lurking about the city.”

“Sir, I do,” Cardinal Monticelso replied. “And some there are who call it my black-book.”

A black-book is a book of black magic.

He continued, “Well may the title hold; for although it doesn’t teach the art of conjuring, yet in it lurk the names of many devils.”

Francisco de Medici said, “Please let me see it.”

“I’ll fetch it to your lordship,” Cardinal Monticelso said.

He exited to get the book.

Francisco de Medici said to himself, “Cardinal Monticelso, I will not trust thee, but in all my plots I’ll rest as suspicious as a besieged town. Thou cannot reach to and comprehend what I intend to act. Your flax soon kindles, and soon it is out again, but gold slowly heats, and long will it remain hot.”

Francisco de Medici had every intention of getting revenge against Brachiano, but he was willing to wait for his revenge.

Cardinal Monticelso returned, carrying the black-book.

He said, “Here it is, my lord.”

Francisco de Medici said, “First, your intelligencers — your spies and informants. Please, let me see their names.”

Cardinal Monticelso turned to a section of the black-book and said, “Their number increases strangely, and some of them you’d take for honest men.”

He turned to other sections of the black-book and said, “Next are panders.

“These are pirates.

“And these following leaves are for base rogues who ruin young gentlemen, by taking up commodities.”

The commodity swindle was a way to get around laws against usury. A young gentleman would need a loan, and an unscrupulous lender would sell commodities — goods — to the young gentleman to sell. The young gentleman would sell the commodities for much less than the amount of the loan, but he would be required to pay back the full amount of the loan.

Cardinal Monticelso said, “And these leaves are for politic bankrupts.”

Some people would borrow money, pretend to go bankrupt, and then settle with the lenders for pennies on the dollar.

Cardinal Monticelso said, “And these leaves are for fellows who are bawds to their own wives, only to put off horses, and slight jewels, clocks, defaced plate, and such commodities, at the birth of their first children.”

Some husbands would allow their wives to have an affair, but after the birth of the first bastard would sell commodities at high prices to the man who had cuckolded him. The adulterous man would buy the commodities in order to keep the husband quiet about the affair — in this society, adultery was scandalous and punishable by law.

Francisco de Medici asked, “Are there really such men?”

Cardinal Monticelso nodded and then continued, “These leaves are for impudent bawds who go in men’s apparel.”

Some female prostitutes worn men’s clothing.

Cardinal Monticelso continued, “These leaves are for usurers who share with scriveners for their good reportage.”

Scriveners would recommend a certain usurer for clients who needed to borrow money. In return for their good recommendation that steered borrowers to the usurer, the scriveners received a payment from the usurer.

Cardinal Monticelso continued, “These leaves are for lawyers who will antedate their writs.”

A writ might command someone to do something within a certain time. If the writ were antedated, they would have less time to do it and so might end up violating the law.

Cardinal Monticelso continued, “And some divines you might find enfolded there in these leaves, except that I skip over them for conscience’s sake.

“Here in these leaves is a general catalogue of knaves: A man might study all the prisons over, yet never attain this knowledge.”

Francisco de Medici said, “Murderers? Fold down the leaf that lists murderers, please.

“My good lord, let me borrow this strange doctrine.”

Cardinal Monticelso handed him the book and said, “Please use it, my lord.”

Francisco de Medici replied, “I do assure your lordship, you are a worthy member of the state, and have done infinite good in your discovery of these offenders.”

Cardinal Monticelso said, “Somewhat, sir.”

He meant: Some, but not infinite, good.

Francisco de Medici said, “Oh, God! Better than tribute of wolves paid in England — it will hang their skins on the hedge.”

In order to control the wolf population in Wales, King Edgar of England imposed a tribute of 300 wolves per year on the Welsh.

The skins of animals could be hung on hedges and dried in the sun. The tribute of wolves would be paid in 300 wolf-skins.

The black-book that listed so many criminals could assist in punishing them. The criminals’ skin would figuratively be hung on the hedge.

Cardinal Monticelso said, “I must make bold to leave your lordship.”

Francisco de Medici said, “Dearly, sir, I thank you. If anyone asks for me at court, report that you have left me in the company of knaves.”

The knaves were listed in the book, but soon he would make use of at least one of those knaves.

Cardinal Monticelso exited.

Now alone, Francisco de Medici said to himself, “I gather now by this, some cunning fellow who is my lord’s — Cardinal Monticelso’s — officer, and who lately skipped from a clerk’s desk up to a justice’s chair, has made this knavish summons, and intends, as the Irish rebels were accustomed to sell heads, likewise to make a profit from these.”

Heads can be sold when someone puts a bounty on the heads of those people they want killed.

Francisco de Medici continued, “And thus it — making a profit from this black-book of names — happens: Your poor rogues pay for it, poor rogues who haven’t the means to present a bribe in their fist; the rest of the band are razed out of the knaves’ record or else my lord the cardinal winks at them with easy will. His man grows rich, and the knaves are the knaves still.

“But as for the use I’ll make of it, it shall serve to point me out a list of murderers, agents for my villainy.

“If I wanted ten leash — ten sets of three — of courtesans, this black-book would furnish me. Indeed, I could equip three armies with laundresses of easy virtue.

“I marvel that in so little paper should lie the undoing of so many men! It is not as big as twenty official proclamations.

“See the corrupted use that some people make of books. Books of divinity — when in interpretations by some bloodthirsty faction they are wrested away from advocating peace — draw swords, swell battles, and overthrow all good.

“To fashion my revenge more seriously, let me remember my dear sister’s face. Call for her picture? No, I’ll close my eyes, and in a melancholic thought I’ll frame her image before me.”

Melancholic people were thought to have strong imaginations.

Francisco de Medici closed his eyes, and Isabella’s ghost entered the room.

He said, “Now I have her image fixed in my mind.”

He opened his eyes, saw his sister’s ghost, and cursed, “By God’s foot!”

Recovering from his shock, he said, “How strongly imagination works! How imagination can frame images of things that are not! I think she stands before me, and by the quick idea of my mind, if my artistic skill was creative and fertile, I could draw her picture.

“Thought, like a subtle conjuror, makes us deem things to be supernatural that actually have a cause as common as sickness. It is my melancholy, the result of an excess of black bile, that causes me to see this ghost.”

He asked Isabella’s ghost, “How came thou by thy death?”

But immediately he said to himself, “How foolish I am to question my own foolishness! Did a man ever dream while awake until now?

“Remove this object! Out of my brain with it! What have I to do with tombs, or death-beds, funerals, or tears — I who have to meditate upon revenge?”

Isabella’s ghost exited.

Alone again, Francisco de Medici said to himself, “So, now it is ended, like an old wife’s tale. Statesmen think often they see stranger sights than madmen.

“Come, let me return to this serious and weighty business. My tragedy must have some idle mirth in it, or else it will never be accepted by an audience.”

He thought of the idle mirth he would use in the tragedy: “I am in ‘love,’ in ‘love’ with Vittoria Corombona; and my lovesuit thus halts to her in verse.”

He wrote a love poem to her. The lines of the love poem were bad; they were written in halting verse.

Having finished writing the poem, Francisco de Medici began to seal it and said, “I have done it splendidly. Oh, the fate of princes! I am so used to frequent flattery, that, being alone, I now flatter myself. But it will serve. It is now sealed.”

A servant entered the room and Francisco de Medici said, “Bear this letter to the House of Convertites, and watch for an opportunity to give it to the hands of Vittoria Corombona, or to the Matron, when some followers of Brachiano are nearby. Leave!”

Carrying the sealed letter, the servant exited.

Francisco de Medici said, “He who deals only by the use of strength, his wit is shallow. When a man’s head goes through, each limb will follow.”

A proverb stated, “When a fox’ head goes through, each limb will follow.”

He continued, “The instrument for my business will be bold Count Lodovico.

“It is gold that must such an instrument procure.

“With an empty fist no man does falcons lure.

“Brachiano, I am now fit for thy encounter:

“Like the wild Irish, I’ll never think thee dead

“Till I can play at football with thy head,

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.”

The first soccer (British football) ball was a severed human head.

The Latin words mean, “If I cannot prevail upon the gods above, I will move hell.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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