"Have A Care Of The Main Chance"

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Last Updated on May 23, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

Context: Much of the Second Part of Hudibras deals with a whipping. In his attempt to ridicule the Dissenters, Presbyterians, and others who fought against the Royalists in the civil war between Cromwell and Charles I, Butler wrote a satirical poem about two representative Puritans, the knight Sir Hudibras, and his squire Ralpho. As they are obnoxious, hypocritical, and absurd, the author implies, so were the enemies of royalty. If he expected to be rewarded by Charles II, who had been restored to the throne four years before the poem was published, apparently he was disappointed, for Butler complained several times about how poorly he had been rewarded for his services to the crown. In one of the few bits of action in this loquacious composition, the knight is captured by an enraged populace, angered by his crusade against what he considers sin, and is put into the stocks. A wealthy Widow, whom Hudibras would like to marry, hears of his plight and in a visit convinces him that whipping should be part of courtship. She will get him freed if he will swear an oath to accept a lashing. Because of approaching night, the beating will be postponed till the next day. Then come nearly five hundred lines of argument between the knight and his squire about whether he must keep his oath. Ralpho thinks the idea of a beating is heathenish, and insists that oaths are taken only to be broken. "Quoth Ralpho, Honor's but a word/ To swear by only in a Lord;/ In other men 'tis but a huff/ To vapor with, instead of proof." The followers of Cromwell often broke their oaths, even the leader himself, when he kept Charles I in close confinement, and explained, "The Spirit would not let me keep my word." Later, when his followers broke faith and murdered the king, they protested that "they could not resist the motions of the Spirit." Besides, the knight and his squire decide that if three Jews, according to Scripture, can free another Jew from his obligations, surely two Christians can. With many proverbs, like those of his Spanish counterpart, Sancho Panza, Ralpho tells Hudibras to seize his opportunity. "The main chance" was a common phrase for a long time as something to keep one's eyes on. However, Hudibras suggests that perhaps he ought to beat Ralpho, to avoid the need for a lie. His servant, with his eye on the main chance, insists that the spirit of their oath requires that he beat his master. But no one beats anybody. The servant hurries to the Widow to warn her that Hudibras is going to lie to her about his beating.

Y'had best (quoth Ralpho), as the Ancients
Say wisely, Have a care o' th' main chance,
And Look before you ere you leap;
For As you sow, y'are like to reap;
And were y'as good as George-a-Green,
I should make bold to turn agen;
Nor am I doubtful of the issue
In a just quarrel, and mine is so.

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