Ralph Roister Doister

by Nicholas Udall

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960

Matthew Merrygreeke, a happy young rascal who likens himself to the grasshopper of the fable, often has fun and money at the expense of Ralph Roister Doister, a well-to-do, doltish young man who brags long and loud of his bravery but fails to act anything but the coward when called to action. In addition, Ralph Roister Doister imagines himself in love with every woman he meets, and he swears each time he falls in love that he cannot live without the woman who most lately catches his eye. One day, meeting Merrygreeke on the street, he asserts that he is now madly in love with Dame Christian Custance, a widow reported to be wealthy. She captivates Roister Doister when he sees her at supper. Merrygreeke, anxious to please the man he constantly gulls, agrees to help Roister Doister pursue his suit. He assures the foolish braggart that the widow is certain to accept him and that Roister Doister ought really to try to marry someone of higher station and greater fortune.

Merrygreeke goes for musicians to serenade Dame Custance, while Roister Doister waits in front of the widow’s home. As he waits, three of the widow’s servant women come from the house and talk and sing. When they notice Roister Doister, he comes up, talks to them, and tries to kiss them. After talking with them for a time, Roister Doister gives them a love letter to deliver to their mistress. He boasts that he wrote it himself.

Given the letter by her serving-woman, Dame Custance is furious. She reminds her servants that she is an honorable woman, affianced to Gawin Goodluck, who is for some months on a sea voyage. Dame Custance refuses to break the seal of the letter, much less read it. Meanwhile, to further his suit, Roister Doister sends his servant to the widow’s house with some love gifts, a ring and a token in a cloth. The young servant, after some trouble, convinces the widow’s serving-women to take the gifts to their mistress, even though she was angry at receiving the letter.

Handed the gifts, the widow becomes even angrier, lectures her servants on their conduct, and finally sends a boy to find the man who delivered the gifts to her house. Merrygreeke, after many a laugh over what happened during Roister Doister’s suit, finally goes to Dame Custance and reveals his scheme for gulling Roister Doister. The widow says she would never marry such a doltish man, but she agrees to join in the fun at the braggart’s expense. She goes so far as to read the letter he wrote her and says she will make a reply.

Rejoining Roister Doister, Merrygreeke listens to the suitor’s woeful tale and then tells him in outrageous terms that the widow refused his suit, calls him vile names, and accuses him of cowardice. Roister Doister immediately vows that he will assault the widow’s house with intent to kill her in combat, along with all her servants. Over Merrygreeke’s protests, Roister Doister sets out to get his men together. Merrygreeke laughs and waits, knowing that the cowardly braggart will never carry out his vow.

When they arrive at the widow’s house, Merrygreeke offers Roister Doister an excuse for not leading the assault. Instead, the braggart begins once more to woo the widow with music and song. He sends Merrygreeke to call the widow from her house. Dame Custance goes out to Roister Doister and repeats her refusal of his foolish proposal. Then she reads his letter aloud, and by rephrasing it and repunctuating it she makes the letter...

(This entire section contains 960 words.)

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as insulting as Roister Doister meant it to be loving. The result thoroughly confuses the suitor, who vows it is not the letter he sent to her. After she leaves, Roister Doister sends for the scrivener who actually wrote the letter for him. The scrivener takes the letter, reads it correctly, and convinces Roister Doister that someone tricked him.

In the meantime Sym Suresby, friend of the widow’s fiancé, arrives to tell Dame Custance that her affianced suitor, Gawin Goodluck, returned from his voyage and will be with her shortly. Suresby sees and hears enough of the conversation between the widow and Roister Doister to think that the widow is unfaithful to Goodluck. He goes off, leaving the widow furious at the tomfoolery of Roister Doister. When she chases Roister Doister off, he again vows to have revenge on the widow and her servants. Gathering his men, he approaches her house a second time.

The widow, meanwhile, goes to a trusted friend to enlist his support in getting rid of the troublesome Roister Doister, who threatens to ruin her approaching marriage to Goodluck. The friend consents to aid her. They also enlist Merrygreeke, who agrees to help them and at the same time pull more tricks at the expense of Roister Doister.

The foolish suitor and his men are routed by the widow with household utensils used as weapons. Having proved himself a coward as well as a fool, Roister Doister renounces his suit for the widow’s hand. When Goodluck appears soon afterward, Dame Custance is able to assure him that the reports he had from Sym Suresby are muddled and that she never broke her vows to him. She did, however, berate Suresby for not making certain of the truth before repeating what he heard.

Merrygreeke returns on behalf of Roister Doister and asks forgiveness of the widow and Goodluck. When he promises them that they would have much fun at Roister Doister’s expense if they will but agree, they assent heartily and invite Merrygreeke and Roister Doister to have dinner with them that very day.