Archive for August, 2009

The set-up for the jewelry plot

The final element to the plot, though a relatively minor one, is that of Annabel (the bride abandoned on her wedding night by Bonvile) and Rochfield. Fairly early on, Annabel enters solely for the purpose of asking Bonvile where the key to unlock her jewelry is. (According to the story, she cannot remove her jewelry without Bonvile’s key; I haven’t been able to – admittedly, in a relatively quick search – locate other early modern references to jewelry being locked onto a woman; usually, references to locking jewelry are to locking it up in a cabinet.)

Here’s the first reference (though I think I must’ve left the edition I was using at my office, so I don’t have act, scene, and line numbers right now):

Did you not see the key that’s to unlock my carcanet and bracelets? Now, in troth, I am afraid ’tis lost.

No, sweet, I ha’t: I found it lie at random in your chamber and, knowing you would miss it, laid it by; ’tis safe, I warrant you.

The highwayman

The second occurs when Annabel is out trying to catch Bonvile on his way to Calais for the duel to say goodbye, and she runs into Rochfield, a destitute younger son, who is trying his luck as a highwayman for the first time. After learning of Annabel’s predicament as both wife and virgin, Rochfield says,

This, then, it seems should be your wedding day, and these the hours of interim to keep you in that double state. Come, then, I’ll be brief, for I’ll not hinder your desired Hymen. You have about you some superfluous toys, which my lank, hungry pockets would contrive with much more profit, and more privacy: you have an idle chain which keeps your neck a prisoner — a manacle, I take it, about your wrist, too. If these prove emblems of the combined hemp to halter mine, the Fates take their pleasure; these are set down to be your ransom, and there the thief is proved.

Sweetly, Annabel tries to keep Rochfield from turning to a life of crime by offering to give him her jewelry so that he can’t be accused of stealing it, only to run into one small logistical problem: 

I will confess both, and the last forget; you shall be only honest in this deed. Pray you, take it, I intreat you to it, and then you steal ’em not.

You may deliver ’em.

Indeed, I cannot: if you observe, sir, they are both locked about me, and the key I have not; haply you are furnished with some instrument that may unloose ’em.

Unfortunately, he has not yet studied lockpicking (the “book” he shows her that she says is too frightful to look upon may be a weapon that he considers using to try to pick the locks), so she suggests that he use his hands to try to pull them off of her, as long as he is careful not to hurt her too much:

No, in troth, lady, I am but a freshman;
I never read further than this book you see,
And this very day is my beginning too:
These picking laws I am to study yet.

Oh, do not show me that, sir; ’tis too frightful.
Good, hurt me not, for I do yield ’em freely.
Use but your hands; perhaps their strength will serve
To tear ’em from me without much detriment;
Somewhat I will endure.

 Rochfield appreciates her courtesy and responds as any gentleman would, by being gentle:

 Well, sweet lady, y’are the best patient for a young physician that I think e’er was practised on. I’ll use you as gently as I can, as I’m an honest thief. No? Wilt not do? Do I hurt you, lady?

                                         Not much, sir.

I’d be loath at all; I cannot do’t.

The highwaywoman? (kind of a tongue-twister)

Sometimes, it seems like being a nice guy will get you every time, though:

 She draws his sword

Nay, then you shall not, sir. You a thief,
And guard yourself no better? No further read?
Yet out in your own book? A bad clerk, are you not?

Ay, by Saint Nicholas, lady, sweet lady. 

Sir, I have now a masculine vigor and will redeem myself with purchase, too. What money have you?

This beautiful reversal by a clever and brave woman offers us one of those tantalizing glimpses of potential female power, though Annabel immediately surrenders her advantage, like the good girl she is.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say that her female power is only potential, though, just because the power she chooses to wield is an indirect kind that we tend to value less than the swashbuckling kind we see in her for one moment.

Investing in piracy

She talks Rochfield into returning with her to her house, where she promises that she will just give him money instead of jewelry, which sounds like a good deal to him, aside from the fear of being caught; once again in this play, we see Webster emphasizing that lots of the time, you really can trust people, even, you know, female people.

In brief, Annabel returns to her house, arm-in-arm with Rochfield, whom she introduces as a kinsman of Bonvile’s, and there’s a cute scene where he continually thinks she’s about to betray him. She does finally trick him a bit by first giving him the promised money and then publicly placing him in a position where he is compelled to invest it all with her father, who is accepting investors in a ship that both carries a valuable cargo and is a privateer ship, thus, as Rochfield notes, once again preventing him from being a thief because he has given back the money.

Rochfield not only invests his money but becomes a hero in a sea fight wherein the captain is killed and he assumes command and captures another ship — a scene which happens offstage, alas, even if for obvious reasons — and returns not only richer but with permanent employment as a captain.

Temporary lunacy

There’s a final bit of conflict in Act 5, which I alluded to before here, where Lessingham attempts to convince Annabel’s father that there’s something unsavory going on between her and Rochfield, but Woodroff refuses to believe it. After that, everything goes temporarily haywire where, for a brief period, almost everybody behaves as irrationally as you would normally expect characters to in an early modern comedy, but everything soon resolves as easily as it started.

Next time: a bit o’ analysis.


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The moment you’ve all been waiting for: the Lessingham/Clare/Bonvile plot! And here comes the plot twist, just as advertised! (I think the highwayman and the sea battle are going to have to be a separate post. Sorry for the tease.)

But first, who are these people, and what’s going on with them?

To Kill a Friend

Lessingham is in love with Clare and has been longing for a chance to win her for ages. At the beginning of the play, Clare writes Lessingham a note that says, “Prove all thy friends, find out the best and nearest; Kill for my sake that friend that loves thee* dearest.”

*Or “the,” depending on whom you ask.

Despite the casual misogyny Webster’s characters drop elsewhere, here, Lessingham tries to work through possible different interpretations before assuming Clare is evil simply because she’s female.

Interpretation 1: Maybe there is no longer any such thing as friendship. This construction falls along the lines of “Young punks these days don’t know what friendship is any more!” Lessingham admits that so-called friends aren’t always there for you and speculates that Clare may have discovered this as well. Furthermore, if true friendship used to be rare even in the good ol’ days, then perhaps it is “now with justice banish’d th’earth.”

Indeed, when he then begins to test his friends, it looks as though he might be right. None is at first interested in serving as a second in a duel (he isn’t entirely forthcoming about the fact that he’s really looking for an opposite). Bonvile, who has just married Annabel, turns out to be the only one who loves him enough to do that, even though it means that he abandons Annabel on their wedding night in order to travel to Calais (a popular duelling location since it is not on English soil).

When Lessingham ‘fesses up to Bonvile about the real nature of the service he requires (tossing in plenty of misogyny such as his comment on her letter: “And ’tis a bad hand too: the most of ’em [women] speak fair, write foul, mean worse”), Bonvile also attempts to re-interpret the command in the most favorable way.

Interpretation 2: She wants Lessingham to “kill” some vice he harbors as closely as a best friend such as “self-love or pride.”

After Lessingham shoots that down as a possibility, Bonvile says that he loves Lessingham so much that he will die for his happiness and refuses to defend himself, and Lessingham tries to persuade him to defend himself.

Interpretation 3: Bonvile thinks about it a little more and declares that Lessingham has already succeeded in his goal to kill his best friend because he cannot be Lessingham’s friend any more after this; therefore, Lessingham has killed their friendship.

In fact (and this isn’t the advertised twist yet), Bonvile begins to suspect that Lessingham is secretly in love with Annabel and trumped up the letter as an excuse to lure him away on his wedding night and kill him, and so he challenges Lessingham, thus introducing the topic of sexual jealousy in this plot. Lessingham refuses to fight, and Bonvile won’t kill a defenseless man any more than Lessingham would have, and so that conflict ends (for the moment).

The Twist

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Annabel and Clare discover that the two men have left for Calais, and Clare reveals as an aside that, as both Lessingham and Bonvile suspected, they misread her command:

O fool Lessingham, thou hast mistook my injunction — utterly, utterly mistook it, and I am mad, stark mad with my own thoughts, not knowing what event their going o’er will come to! ‘Tis too late now for my tongue to cry my heart mercy! Would I could be senseless till I hear of their return; I fear me both are lost.

Lessingham returns and announces to Clare that he has slain his best friend and thereby won her:

By your own condition, I have been at Calais, performed your will, drawn my revengeful sword, and slain my nearest and best friend i’th’ world I had, for your sake.

Clare challenges him (not in the duelling way):

Slain your friend for my sake?

Yup, says Lessingham. (I paraphrase.)

And your best friend?

Yup, says Lessingham (paraphrase again).

Then of all men you are most miserable; nor have you aught furthered your suit in this, though I enjoined you to’t, for I had thought that I had been the best esteemed friend you had i’th’ world.

That’s what I see as the twist, and wow! It’s such a poignant comment on the nature of relationships at the time that it shakes me deeply.

All along, Lessingham has been considering his situation as though it’s one of the traditional controversiae that playwrights loved to write about where a man is placed in a no-win situation where he has to choose one loyalty over another. Now he discovers that he was alone in seeing a dichotomy between friend and lover while Clare had believed that there wasn’t one (which makes me think he had called her his best friend in so many words, or, if not, that she had reasonably concluded it from what he had said).

In just a few lines, Webster reverses the situation from being a tragedy for poor Lessingham, who thinks he has to kill his friend, to being a tragedy for Clare, who thought she was a man’s best friend. (Sorry — I know it’s hard not to think that means she’s a dog, but that really isn’t it.)

I would end there, focusing on the moving nature of the revelation, but I feel that in the interests of full disclosure I should probably just mention that Clare was in love with Bonvile and so was hoping that Lessingham would kill her so that she didn’t have to see him married to somebody else. (I know that wrecks the moment somewhat, but it’s important.)

Fortunately, there’s going to be a comic resolution, and I’ll get there soon. And there will (finally) be the highwayman! And the sea battle!

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