In George Peele's Elizabethan play The Old Wives' Tale, a character called Jack interrogates the 'wandering knight' Eumenides: 'Are you not the man, sir (deny it if you can, sir) that came from a strange place in the land of Catita, where Jackanapes flies with his tail in his mouth, to seek out a lady as white as snow and as red as blood?' Jack is dead. The character who speaks to Eumenides here, and asks to be taken into his service, is the grateful ghost of a poor man for whose burial Eumenides, although a stranger and mere passer-by, had earlier and charitably paid, exhausting his own slender finances in the process. Eumenides takes his name from classical Greece, where it was a euphemism for the Furies, those terrifying Erinyes optimistically renamed 'the kindly ones' at the end of Aeschylus' Oresteia. (John Lyly had also bestowed it on a questing knight in his comedy Endimion a few years before Peele.) Like Shakespeare's notorious sea-coast of Bohemia, Catita cannot be found on any map, nor can a winged Jackanapes improbably flying with its tail in its mouth be made to emerge from even the most fanciful bestiary. Delia, the rather starkly white and red lady abducted by a conjuror in dragon shape, and the object of Eumenides' love-quest, is paralleled in the play by Venelia, driven mad by the same conjuror after he turned her youthful betrothed into a very old man: the keeper of a crossroads obliged to assume the shape of a white bear at night. There is also a ridiculous braggart warrior (Huanebango), and two maidens of different aspect and character, one fair and ill-natured, the other ugly and compassionate, who both visit a magic well in search of a husband. For good measure, Peele throws in a pair of genuinely nasty Furies, a clown, some melodious harvesters, and a strange talking head.
LRB 2 December 2004 | PDF Download