Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Devil Is An Ass

Okay, okay, okay, sometimes I like Ben Jonson. THIS PLAY is awesome. And really really weird.

Remember the way Marlowe's Dido begins on Mt. Olympus, among the gods? This play begins in hell. Pug, a junior devil, is asking Satan if he can be allowed to come to London to tempt people and cause mischief (classic Screwtape Letters scenario; if Wikipedia wasn't blacked out, I'd look it up to see if Lewis was inspired at all by this play). Satan says that Pug isn't ready for the kind of evil that London needs, but he eventually gives in and sends Pug to wait on Fitzdottrell, a squire of Norfolk.

So the first question is, what does the title mean? Is Pug an ass (an idiot) for thinking that he can do anything to London that London hasn't already done to itself and worse? Is Satan an ass (an idiot) for agreeing to Pug's proposition? Or is Satan an ass(hole) for allowing Pug to make a fool of himself?

Fitzdottrell's desire to see a devil is pretty funny. He's sort of obsessed with it and doesn't really tell us why, just tells us that he's been "run[ning] wild and call[ing] upon him thus in vain . . . these twelvemonth." Hilarious. What does that even mean? I imagine him out on the moors, naked, doing some sort of devil dances. And of course, he's so obsessed that he has to see the play The Devil is an Ass, which is mentioned in the play. So meta. (Also, Dick Robinson, an actor in the play, is mentioned as an actor who might do very well at playing a woman, one of the tricks that goes on in the play.)

Fitzdottrell is very gullible, though, and sells 15 minutes of conversation with his wife for a nice cloak. The wife is, understandably, outraged at this. She does not intend to cuckold him but she is dismayed by his lack of care for her and for their properties, which he is willing to sign away for any cockamamie plot to make money. As such, he is a gull, a target for "projectors" who try to sell him on such ideas. And, selling time but not bed-time, with his wife, he is a sort of wittol, too. When he sees (or suspects) signs of love for the young gentleman in his wife, he shuts her up.

This situation is a weird amalgam of testing and taming that I can't quite figure out yet. He trusts her enough to withstand being wooed, but not enough to talk back. And when she fails the test by having affection for her lover, she is punished and kept inside. Naturally, she seeks help but not by trading in her body; she persuades her lover, Wittipol, to give up his suit of her which dishonors them both, but to help her save her husband's money.

He does the right thing, and the con-men are conned, Fitzdottrell gets his wish to see a devil and realizes it is more terrifying than he thought, and the married couple are reconciled to each other, with a slight hope that Fitzdottrell will die early so that Wittipol and the wife might be married, a better match.

This play has a slight preoccupation with clothing, as some of Jonson's others have. Fitzdottrell makes sure to dress his wife in the height of finery. For himself, he is partial to fine clothing but cannot resist buying them secondhand, thinking he is getting quite a deal that way. The bit with the cloak is interesting; this cloak seems to be irresistible to Fitzdottrell, much to the amazement of everyone else. And Pug, the devil who has taken on the hanged-man's body, has stolen clothing; as a result of this theft, he is put back into the jail where the hanged-man was earlier executed. And at the end, the stolen clothes (and stolen body, clothing for Pug's spirit) is left behind.

There is also the preoccupation with women's makeup. Tailbush, Eitherside (extremely suggestive names for women), Lady Fitzdottrell, and the "Spanish woman" discuss "fucuses" for quite a while, in dizzying and disgusting detail. The Spanish woman uses a mish-mash of Spanish, French, Italian, and Latin to discuss these face-paints, interesting in light of today's lists of ingredients which might be equally obfuscated to the reader. As in Epicoene, one of the women is not a woman, but a man dressed as a woman, listening to feminine secrets.

And, at the end, Fitzdottrell has his own disguise, a madman who his wife has enchanted by devilry, by using soap to foam at the mouth.

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