David Bruce: John Webster’s THE WHITE DEVIL: A Retelling — Act 5, Scene 4

— 5.4 —

Flamineo and the disguised Gasparo stood together in a room. Young Giovanni, accompanied by some attendants, entered the room.

The disguised Gasparo whispered, “There’s the young duke.”

Now that his father was dead, young Giovanni was duke.

The disguised Gasparo then whispered, “Did you ever see a sweeter prince?”

Flamineo whispered, “I have known a poor woman’s bastard better favored — more handsome. This is something I say behind his back. Now, when it comes to saying something to his face — all comparisons were hateful.”

All comparisons would be hateful because, according to Flamineo, young Giovanni was ugly. Flamineo could bring himself to flatter young Giovanni, but Flamineo would hate doing it.

Flamineo then whispered, “Wise was the courtly peacock that, being a great minion, and being compared for beauty by some dottrels — foolish birds — that stood nearby the kingly eagle, said the eagle was a far fairer bird than herself, not in respect of her feathers, but in respect of her long talons: Young Giovanni’s will grow out in time.”

Young Giovanni might be called handsome, but it would be because of his power. He could order to be killed anyone who displeased him.

Young Giovanni and his attendants walked over to Flamineo and the disguised Gasparo.

Flamineo said, “My gracious lord.”

Young Giovanni said, “I tell you to leave me, sir.”

He meant that he did not want Flamineo in his court, although Flamineo was his step-mother’s brother.

“Your grace must be merry and joking,” Flamineo replied. “It is I who have cause to mourn; for you know what the little boy who rode behind his father on horseback said?”

Young Giovanni asked, “Why, what did he say?”

Flamineo answered, “‘When you are dead, father,’ said he, ‘I hope that I shall ride in the saddle.’

“Oh, it is a brave thing for a man to sit by himself! He may stretch himself in the stirrups, look about, and see the whole compass of the hemisphere. You’re now, my lord, in the saddle.”

Young Giovanni said, “Study your prayers, sir, and be penitent. It would be fitting for you to think about what has formerly been. I have heard grief called the eldest child of sin.”

Flamineo needed to think about his sins and repent. Part of repentance is feeling grief at having sinned.

Young Giovanni and his attendants — and Gasparo— exited. Flamineo was alone.

“Study my prayers!” Flamineo said to himself. “He threatens me divinely! I am falling to pieces already. I don’t care, though, even if like Anacharsis, I were pounded to death in a mortar: and yet that death were fitter for usurers’ gold and themselves to be beaten together, to make a most cordial cullis for the devil.”

Instead of Anacharsis, who was a Thracian prince, Flamineo meant Anaxarchus, who was pounded to death in a mortar with iron pestles because he had insulted the tyrant Nicocreon of Cyprus.

Flamineo believed that usurers and their gold ought to be pounded in a mortar to make a fortifying broth for the devil.

Flamineo added, “Young Giovanni has his uncle’s villainous look already, in decimo-sexto.”

Decimo-sexto is a small-sized book. Its pages are one-sixteenth of a full sheet of paper.

A courtier entered the room.

Flamineo asked, “Now, sir, who are you?”

The courtier said, “It is the pleasure, sir, of the young duke, that you stay away from the presence-room, and all rooms that owe him reverence.”

In other words: Stay away from young Giovanni.

Flamineo replied, “So the wolf and the raven are very pretty fools when they are young.”

When they are older, they become more dangerous.

The wolf is a predator, and the raven is a bird of ill omen.

When young Giovanni became an adult, he would be dangerous.

Flamineo asked, “It is your duty, sir, to keep me out?”

“So the duke wills,” the courtier replied.

Flamineo said, “Verily, Master Courtier, extremity is not to be used in all duties.

“Let’s say that a gentlewoman were taken out of her bed about midnight, and committed to Castle Angelo, to the tower yonder, with nothing about her but her smock. Would it not show a cruel part in the gentleman-porter to lay claim to her upper garment, pull it over her head and ears, and put her in the prison naked?”

The courtier said, “Very good. You are merry. You make jokes.”

He exited.

Flamineo said to himself, “Does he make a court-ejectment of me? Does he banish me from the court? A flaming firebrand casts more smoke outside a chimney than within it. I’ll smother some of them.”

He was punning on his name and threatening to be more dangerous outside the court than within it.

The disguisedFrancisco de Medici entered the room.

“What is the news now?” Flamineo asked, “Thou are sad.”

The disguisedFrancisco de Medici replied, “I just now saw the most piteous sight.”

Flamineo said, “Thou see another pitiful sight here: a pitiful degraded courtier.”

He was referring to himself.

The disguisedFrancisco de Medici said, “Your reverend mother has become a very old woman in the past two hours.

“I found them putting the shroud on Marcello’s corpse, and there is such a solemn melody of doleful songs, tears, and sad elegies, such as old granddames, watching by the dead, were accustomed to outwear the nights with, that, believe me, I had no eyes to guide me from the room — my eyes were blinded by tears.”

Flamineo said, “I will see them.”

The disguisedFrancisco de Medici said, “It would not be charitable for you to see them; for their seeing you will add to their tears.”

By this time, everyone knew that Flamineo had murdered his brother, Marcello.

“I will see them,” Flamineo said. “They are behind the traverse; I’ll reveal their superstitious howling.”

They were in a nearby room, behind a partition.

Flamineo moved the partition, revealing Cornelia, Zanche the Moor, and three other ladies preparing Marcello’s corpse while singing a sad song.

Cornelia, the mother of Marcello, Flamineo, and Vittoria, was aged by grief.

After the song was sung, Cornelia said, “This rosemary is withered; please, get fresh rosemary.”

Rosemary symbolizes love, death, and remembrance.

Cornelia continued, “I would have these herbs grow upon his grave, when I am dead and rotten.

“Hand me the bay leaves. I’ll tie a garland here about his head.”

A garland or wreath made of bay leaves — also known as laurel leaves — symbolizes triumph and victory. In Christianity, bay leaves symbolize the resurrection of Christ.

She continued, “I have kept this shroud for the past twenty years, and every day I have hallowed it with my prayers; I did not think he would have wore it.”

The shroud had been intended for her own use.

Zanche said, “Look, who are yonder?”

Cornelia said, “Oh, hand me the flowers!”

Zanche said, “Her ladyship’s foolish. She’s out of her mind with grief.”

One of the women said, “Alas, her grief has turned her into a child again!”

Cornelia said, “You’re very welcome.”

She then said to Flamineo, “There’s rosemary for you, and rue for you, and heart’s-ease for you. Please make much use of it; I have more left for myself.”

Rue symbolizes sorrow and regret.

Heart’s-ease are wild pansies.

The disguised Francisco de Medici pointed to Flamineo and asked Cornelia, “Lady, who is this?”

Cornelia looked at Flamineo, her son, and said, “You are, I take it, the grave-maker.”

A grave-maker is a grave-digger. In a way, Flamineo was a grave-maker because he was a murderer.

Recognizing that his mother was mentally disturbed, Flamineo said, “So.”

Zanche said, “It is Flamineo.”

Cornelia held and looked at Flamineo’s hand and replied, “Will you make me such a fool? Here’s a white hand. Can blood so soon be washed out?”

Anyone looking at and listening to Cornelia could tell that she was mentally disturbed.

She continued, “Let me see. When screech-owls croak upon the chimney-tops, and the eerie cricket in the oven sings and hops, when yellow spots on your hands appear, be certain then you shall hear about a corpse.”

The screech-owl, cricket, and yellow spots were omens of a soon-to-occur death.

Looking at Flamineo’s hand, Cornelia said, “Damn, look how speckled it is! He has surely handled a toad.”

Toads, which this culture thought were poisonous, had speckled bellies.

Cornelia continued, “Cowslip water is good for the memory. Please, buy me three ounces of it.”

Flamineo said, “I wish I were away from here.”

“Do you hear, sir?” Cornelia said. “I’ll give you a saying that my grandmother was accustomed, when she heard the bell toll, to sing while accompanied by her lute.”

Flamineo replied, “Do so, if you want to, do it.”

Cornelia sang:

Call for the robin redbreast, and the wren,

Since over shady groves they hover,

And with leaves and flowers do cover

The friendless bodies of unburied men.

Robins and wrens, which this culture considered to be female robins, were thought to cover the faces and bodies of untended dead human beings.

A proverb stated, “The robin and the wren are God’s cock and hen.”

Cornelia sang:

Call unto his funeral dole [rites]

The ant, the field mouse, and the mole,

To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm,

And (when gay tombs are robbed) sustain no harm;

But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men,

For with his nails [claws] he’ll dig them up again.

In this society, wolves were thought to dig up the corpses of murder victims, not to eat the corpse, but to reveal the murder.

Cornelia sang:

They would not bury him ’cause [because] he died in a quarrel;

But I have an answer for them:

Let holy Church receive him duly,

Since he paid the church-tithes truly.

His wealth is summed [counted], and this is all his store,

This poor men get, and great men get no more.

Now the wares are gone, we may shut up shop.

Poor men get a grave, and rich men get no more than a grave when they are dead.

Cornelia then said, “Bless you all, good people.”

She, Zanche, and the three other ladies exited.

Flamineo said, “I have a strange thing in me, to which I cannot give a name, unless that name is compassion.”

He said to the disguised Francisco de Medici, “I ask you to please leave me.”

The disguised Francisco de Medici exited.

Alone, Flamineo said to himself, “This night I’ll know in detail my fate. I’ll be made certain what my rich sister intends to assign me for my service. I have lived riotously ill, like some who live in court, and sometimes when my face was full of smiles, I have felt the maze of conscience in my breast.

“Often gay and honored robes those tortures try.”

What is the subject of the sentence? Robes (great men), or tortures?

The sentence can mean 1) Great men experience tortures, or 2) Tortures test great men.

Flamineo continued, “We think caged birds sing, when indeed they cry.”

Brachiano’s ghost entered the room. He was wearing a leather cassock and breeches, boots, and a cowl, and he was carrying a pot of lily flowers, with a skull in it.

Seeing the ghost, Flamineo said, “Ha! I can stand thee. Come nearer, nearer yet.

“What a mockery has death made thee! Thou look sad.

“In what place are thou? In yonder starry gallery? Or in the cursed dungeon?

“No? Thou will not speak?

“Please, sir, inform me what religion’s best for a man to die in?

“Or is it in your knowledge to tell me how long I have to live? That’s the most necessary question.

“Thou will not answer?

“Are you silent, like some great men who only walk like shadows up and down, and to no purpose?

“Say to me —”

The ghost of Brachiano threw earth upon him and then showed him the skull.

“What’s that?” Flamineo said. “Oh, fatal! He throws earth upon me.

“He shows me a dead man’s skull beneath the roots of flowers!

“I ask you to please speak, sir. Our Italian churchmen make us believe that dead men hold conversations with their familiars, and many times will come to bed with them, and eat with them.”

The word “familiars” can mean 1) friends, or 2) attendant spirits.

The ghost of Brachiano exited.

“He’s gone,” Flamineo said, “and see, the skull and earth have vanished. This is beyond melancholy. This is not a hallucination caused by melancholy; it is something more.

“I dare my fate to do its worst.

“Now I will go to my sister’s lodging, and sum up all those horrors: the disgrace the prince threw on me, next the piteous sight of my dead brother and my mother’s dotage, and last this terrible vision of the ghost of Brachiano.”

He drew his sword and said, “All these shall with Vittoria’s bounty turn to good, or I will drown this weapon in her blood.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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