The English knight Sir Politic Would-Be and Peregrine, another Englishman, enter St Mark’s Place, a public square outside of Corvino’s house. Sir Politic says that to a wise man the whole world is a native land; he will not be bound to any single country (or to Europe) if fate calls him to travel. He claims that he doesn’t have an excessive desire to see different countries and different religions, and he says that his desire to travel isn’t from any dislike of his native country. Instead, he travels because he has the desire to learn about different people, just as did Ulysses, the archetypical wise traveler. Sir Politic explains that it was his wife who wanted to go to Venice to learn Italian and see the culture. He then asks Peregrine if he is carrying a passport.
Sir Politic and Peregrine make up the play’s side plot, for which Jonson faced criticism; some critics said that this secondary plot was not interwoven well enough into the main plot. The two Englishmen are travelers, who at the time were thought to be susceptible to corruption, especially from visiting places like Venice. Travel guides and travel literature were very popular at the time, most of which would have urged Englishmen to be careful in Italy. Sir Politic shows that his wife has some say in the marriage, as it was her desire to visit Venice.
Peregrine says that he does have a passport, and Politic asks him how long he has been away from England. Peregrine has been gone seven weeks, and Sir Politic says that he has heard strange news about the homeland and wants Peregrine to confirm (or deny) it. Sir Politic says he heard that a raven built a royal ship for the King. In an aside, Peregrine says he can’t tell if Sir Politic is playing a trick or if Sir Politic has been tricked.
Sir Politic shows early on in the interaction that he is extremely gullible, willing to believe anything as fact even if it appears preposterous. Peregrine’s aside about tricks lays the groundwork for his interactions with Sir Politic to follow; the two men several times misunderstand one another and believe a trick has been played.
Peregrine asks Sir Politic his name and jokes, in an aside, that it’s fitting. Sir Politic tells Peregrine that he’s a “poor knight,” and Peregrine is a little confused that the “fine Lady Would-be” wanted to go to Venice for information on fashion and behavior, since Venice is well known for having elegant prostitutes. Sir Politic says proverbially, “the spider and the bee oftimes suck from one flower.”
Sir Politic Would-be’s name is fitting, because Politic means worldly-wise, and Sir Politic wishes so badly that he were worldly or wise. A “poor knight” is someone who bought a knighthood at a time that the English throne sold off knighthoods to raise money. The proverb seems to suggest that one thing (or place) can serve multiple purposes at once.
Peregrine then tells Sir Politic that what he heard about the raven is true. Peregrine also says that the lioness kept in the Tower of London gave birth to another cub. Sir Politic is astounded by these strange events, as well as the reports of an aurora, of a new star, and of meteors. Sir Politic considers them all omens. He asks if it’s true that three porpoises were seen upstream of the London bridge, and Peregrine says that, in fact, six were found, as well as a sturgeon. Sir Politic is continually astounded, and he wonders what all of these strange occurrences might signal.
Peregrine informs Sir Politic of false news in order to make fun of him, though some of his remarkable claims are true: the story about lions giving birth is true, as is the reference to a new star, which was a supernova discovered by Kepler. All of this news (true and false) seems to Sir Politic an omen that something terrible is going to happen. He’s apparently gullible and superstitious. It’s also notable that Peregrine’s suspicion that Sir Politic was tricking him led him to trick Sir Politic—deception begets deception here, as we have been seeing with Volpone and Mosca.
Peregrine tells Sir Politic that the day he left England a whale was discovered in Woolwich. Sir Politic first wonders whether it’s truly possible, but he then says he believes it, and that he thinks the whale was sent by Spain to interfere with English ships. In other news, Peregrine reports that Stone the fool has died. In response to this news, Sir Politic accidentally makes a pun on the phrase ‘stone dead.’ Peregrine then says, in an aside, that if Sir Politic were well known, he’d become a common character on the English stage. Peregrine also says that whoever wrote a character like Sir Politic would probably be accused of being absurd.
Sir Politic completely misses the pun he has inadvertently made, showing he lacks the language skills that are so valued in this play. Peregrine, meanwhile, meta-theatrically notes that Sir Politic seems like someone that belongs in a play. Sir Politic is an absurd character, which the play itself recognizes here.
Sir Politic continues reacting in shock to the news of Stone’s death, claiming that he knew Stone to be one of the most dangerous people in England, since he was only a fool to cover up his secret activities as a spy. According to Sir Politic, Stone received weekly intelligence reports in cabbages, then dispensed the information out in other fruits and produce. Sir Politic claims to have seen Stone taking information from a traveler in a tavern by exchanging notes through a plate of meat and a toothpick (the meat, he explains, was cut into the shapes of letters in a code). Peregrine responds that he heard Stone could not read, but Sir Politic says this was just a rumor spread to preserve Stone’s cover.
Sir Politic’s ideas about Stone’s espionage are absurd, since Stone was illiterate, and since the means of communication he outlines are ridiculous. The accusation Sir Politic makes about Stone is one of the play’s only explorations of political corruption, which Venice was known for alongside moral corruption. The idea that Stone only used being a fool as a cover for his espionage contrasts with Nano, Castrone, and Androgyno, who all love being fools.
Peregrine says that he heard that baboons from China were also used as spies, and Sir Politic instantly agrees, recognizing these baboon spies as what he calls Mamaluchi. The baboons, according to Sir Politic, were involved in some French plots but were eventually discovered. Sir Politic notes that he has learned from one of these baboons that the situation has been rectified and that the baboon spies are now ready for more employment. Peregrine jokes that Sir Politic will not admit to being ignorant of anything.
Peregrine increases the absurdity of his claims to see how far Sir Politic will go, which is amusing to Peregrine and to the audience. Like Volpone pretending to be deaf (which allows the suitors to reveal their cruelty), Peregrine drawing out Sir Politic’s ignorance is akin to dramatic irony; the audience knows what’s going on but Sir Politic (and the suitors) don’t.
Sir Politic claims not to know everything, but he says that he has general knowledge and loves to note and observe. He marks trends for his own use and he knows information about government affairs. Peregrine responds that he believes himself very lucky to have met Sir Politic, since Sir Politic is so knowledgeable. Peregrine then asks Sir Politic to help him learn how to behave in Venice. Sir Politic asks if Peregrine has left England without knowing the proper rules for travel, and Peregrine responds that he got common tips from his Italian language book. Sir Politic says that Peregrine shouldn’t trust the book, and he begins bragging about his involvement with noble families, when Peregrine cuts him off to say that someone else is entering the square.
Sir Politic’s claim of being knowledgeable is amusing to Peregrine and to the audience because Peregrine has spent so much time drawing out just how little Sir Politic actually knows. Peregrine’s comment that he’s lucky to have met Sir Politic and his request that Sir Politic instruct him on proper behavior have the same sense of dramatic irony, since audiences know Peregrine only feels lucky because Sir Politic is so amusing and easy to make fun of. In bragging about noble families, Sir Politic continues revealing his sense of self-importance, since Peregrine and audiences know that Sir Politic is a “poor knight” (he’s barely a noble).