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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: February ::
Re: Devil's Horn
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0515  Thursday, 21 February 2002

From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Wednesday, 20 Feb 2002 15:59:57 -0500
Subject: 13.0497 Re: Devil's Horn
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0497 Re: Devil's Horn

Martin Steward quotes this passage:

 >                           my gravity,
>Wherein (let no man hear me) I take pride,
>Could I, with boot, change for an idle plume,
>Which the air beats for vain. O place, O form,
>How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit,
>Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
>To thy false seeming! Blood, thou art blood.
>Let's write "good angel" on the devil's horn,
>'Tis not the devil's crest.

and then comments:

>Angelo sees that people are duped by deceit, but he himself is baffled
>by it - "Blood, thou art blood", he says, regardless of appearance. So,
>I infer the following to mean, "Say we write 'good angel' on the devil's
>horn, / That does not make 'good angel' the devil's crest".

In this case Martin sees "'Tis" referring -- not to "the devil's horn"
-- but to "good angel." He's in good company here. Bevington, Lever, and
no doubt others do the same. Certainly this reading emphasizes the
reality of the case. Nothing is essentially changed by writing "good
angel" on it.

>I suppose we
>could read it as an ironic comment on people's gullibility - "Say we
>write 'good angel' on the devil's horn, / It is no longer the devil's
>crest" - if we imagine Angelo putting it into quote-unquote marks, for
>example. This would be interesting, as it would involve him playing a
>role in order to criticize the idea of playing roles. One needn't change
>the text as it stands for this effect, but I remain sceptical that this
>is what is meant by the lines.

Unlike Martin, I think this is a basic meaning of the line. Words,
language, change the way we humans perceive reality. In this case "'Tis"
refers to "the devil's horn."

Angelo in this speech is considering the rape or seduction of Isabella
("the strong and swelling evil/Of my conception"), and he's wondering if
he can get away with it. Peope are gullible, he says, and he's going to
cover up his rape/seduction using his reputation as "good angel," a
reputation summarized by Lucio (Oxford edition 1.4.56-60). According to
Lucio, Angelo is "one who never feels/The wanton stings and motions of
the sense." The Duke's parallel description of Angelo (1.3.50-4) ends
with the Duke suggesting that Angelo is merely a seemer.

But why doesn't Angelo refer to the "devil's horns" in the plural?
Traditionally the devil has two. Perhaps because "devil's horn" is a
common name for Phallus impudicus -- a fungus that looks amazingly like
an erect penis. If you are interested in seeing a photo of the devil's
horn, click below.

http://users.quista.net/sjgall/Phallus.htm

If we take "crest" to mean "head" (OED 5), then this "devil's horn" is
surely not the "devil's crest." This horn would be located somewhat
lower.

So in this case, "Let's write 'good angel' on the devil's horn -- [pause
and a wink] 'Tis not the devil's crest" may be Angelo's little joke.
Good Angelo has his devil's horn -- but don't think it's the devil
crest.

But, of course, "crest" does have an heraldic meaning: a figure or
device placed on a wreath, coronet, or chapeau, and borne above the
shield and helmet on a coat of arms; also used separately as a
cognizance on articles of personal property (OED 3). The devil's horn
might well be the devil's crest in this sense, but by using his
reputation Angelo feels that he will be able to gull the public. Angelo
himself makes this point to Isabella:

        My unsoiled name, th'austereness of my life,
        My vouch against you, and my place i' th' state,
        Will so your accusation overweigh
        That you shall stifle in your own report,
        And smell of calumny. . . .
        . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
        Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true.
(2.4.155-170).

Martin writes: "after finding himself attracted to Isabel, he [Angelo]
recognizes that he will not be able to exercise, let alone feign, his
normal self-control." Yes, Angelo says, "now I give my sensual race the
rein" (2.4.160). But by the last scene of the play, he's very much back
in control -- until Lucio pulls off the friar's hood.

Yours, Bill Godshalk

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