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The True Disaster

 The Devil Wants to Wear My Razed Shoes

The Lord Mayor’s banqueting House, Oxford Road, 1750.


The action in The Devil is an Ass occurs over the course of a single day. Ambler, Lady Tailbush’s gentleman usher does not make his appearance until late in the play. Rambler has noted a tendency for Vere characters to be mentioned but missing in various plays until later in the action. But Ambler’s activities earlier in that day, (and the prior evening) are revealed in due course. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll consider these various plot elements in the order in which they occurred, not the order the Jonson presents them.

In the evening prior to the play’s events, Ambler has an assignation with a prostitute. He buys her shoes, the shoes with roses that Rambler has brilliantly connected to Hamlet’s shoes, suitable for acting. He also gets a new suit for the occasion. The lady brings the bedding. They have their tryst near The Lord Mayor’s Banqueting House. Ambler’s misfortune out by the Banqueting house leads to his inability to get back to serve the Lady Tailbush. When he does return late in the play, he describes what happened to Merecraft and Pitfall. The scene is worth reading.






Ambler’s assignation near the Banqueting House was on the road to Tyburn, where criminals were executed, and close the Conduit-Head.  The Lord Mayor and Alderman traditionally once a year ventured to the conduit head near Tyburn to inspect the conduits, which were the oldest that supplied water to London. They then retired to the Lord Mayor’s Banqueting House for a banquet and entertainments. In the play, Satan sends Pug to London from Hell, and gives him the body of a just-executed cutpurse. But Pug needs clothes. Ambler and his lady friend wake that morning to see the crowds going up the road to witness the execution, so they do not stir, but rather fall back asleep. Pug, now in the body of the executed cut-purse steals Ambler’s new suit, which he wears, and the lady’s shoes, which he wears, and Ambler’s things, including his “Money, with my Purse, me Seals, My Hard-wax, and my Table-books, my Studies, and a fine dew Device I had to carry My Pen and Ink, My Civet and my Tooth-picks.. But that which griev’d me most was The Gentlewomans Shoes (with a pair of Roses, and Garters) I had given her for the Business.”

Here’s the passage from Hamlet where Rambler drawn the brilliant connection.


razed – OED – trans. To incise or carve (a mark or line); to inscribe, to engrave (a surface, an object, etc.).
Think of a modern wing-tipped shoe as ‘razed’ incised in the leather.

The Arte of English Poesie devotes a section to the shoes ancient tragedians wore, and states that they were made from goats as the origin of the word tragedy. Dr Richard Waugamnan has argued that Arte was authored by Vere.

Arte of English Poesie Chap XV

The loss of the shoes prevents Ambler from making it back that day, hence he is ‘missing’ through most of the play. When he does return, he fears ‘the loss o’ my place.’  Merecraft tells Ambler they are “With one within, that they are now a teaching, And does pretend to your Rank.Lady Tailbush has  given Ambler’s position as gentleman usher to Pug in Ambler’s absence. Pug pretends to Ambler’s rank.  Jonson is spelling out the authorship story quite explicitly in this play just months after Shaksper’s passing.

As I read it, prostitution represents the theater here. The loss of the theatrical shoes is what grieves Ambler most , not the loss of pen, ink, and books. The shoes were the True Disaster. The loss of shoes and suit meant he had to wait for darkness before returning to the city, and hence he lost his place to in the household to the Devil, now renamed De-vile.

Notice when Merecraft asks Ambler if he went to a whore house, Ambler replies, “No Sir, I durst not (For fear it might arrive at some bodies Ear It should not) trust my self to a Common House.”  I think we have an answer to a long-standing question here. Did Vere act in public theaters?  No, it was too dangerous, he might be found out. He limited his theater to private venues, Jonson seems to be telling us.

Once again we find the action about a banquet or Banqueting House.

  • Robert Greene met his fate from too much pickle herring at a banquet. Rambler has shown pickle herring to be a theatrical character.
  • Ovid got in trouble for using theatrical props, a crown and scepter, at  banquet in Poetaster. He was banished.
  • Ambler’s “Hamlet” shoes were stolen while trysting near the Banqueting House. He lost his place.

We hear the same story, told and retold.  That’s telling, no?

I’ll continue with Devil in the next posting.

more anon.

November 13, 2014   No Comments