Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 1, Scene 2

— 1.2 —

Dapper — the young man outside — said, “Captain, I am here.”

Face said loudly so that the young man outside would hear, “Who’s that? He’s come, I think, Doctor.”

He opened the door and allowed Dapper to enter the room.

Face, still dressed in his Captain’s uniform, said, “Truly, sir, I was going away. I was just leaving.”

Dapper said, “Truly, I am very sorry to hear that, Captain Face.”

Face said, “But I thought that for sure I should meet you.”

Dapper said, “Yes, I am very glad. I had a scurvy legal document or two to make, and I had lent my watch last night to one who dines today with the Sheriff, and so I was robbed of my pass-time.”

In this society, watches were rare and expensive. If the person Dapper had lent his watch to was dining in the Sheriff’s jail, Dapper was literally robbed. But if the person really was dining with the Sheriff, Dapper was “robbed” of his watch for only a short time. Possibly, however, Dapper owned no watch but wanted to appear as if he did.

A watch is a “pass-time” because it shows time passing.

Subtle entered the room, wearing a learned man’s velvet cap and gown.

Dapper asked, “Is this the cunning-man?”

A cunning-man is a man who is knowledgeable in such things as astrology and alchemy and other occult matters.

“This is his worship,” Face replied.

“Is he a Doctor?”


“And have you broached with him the matter I wish to talk to him about, Captain Face?”

That matter was a request for a familiar spirit to help him win at gambling. Such requests occurred in this society. In the 1570s, Adam Squire sold gambling flies — spirits supposedly sometimes took the form of flies. This nearly got him expelled as Master of Balliol College, Oxford.


“And how did he respond?”

“He is making a lot of objections to the matter, sir, so I don’t know what to say.”

“Say it isn’t so, Captain Face.”

“I wish that I were fairly rid of this business, believe me.”

“Now you make me grieve, sir. Why should you wish that? I dare to assure you that I’ll not be ungrateful.”

“I cannot think you will be ungrateful, sir,” Face said. “But the law is a thing that demands consideration — and then he points out that Read’s matter has been in the news recently.”

“Read!” Dapper said scornfully. “He was an ass, and he dealt, sir, with a fool.”

In November 1607, Simon Read, a Doctor, had invoked three spirits to help him recover money that had been stolen from one of his clients. Presumably, the client — Toby Matthews — was the “ass” to whom Dapper was referring. In February 1608, Simon Read was pardoned.

“He was a clerk, sir,” Face said.

Dapper, who was a clerk, said, “A clerk!”

Face said, “Listen to me, sir, you know the law better, I think —”

“I should, sir, and the danger, too,” Dapper said. “You know, I showed the statute to you.”

“So you did,” Face said.

“And will I tell then!” Dapper said.

He meant that since he knew the consequences of breaking the law against occult practices that he would not inform on Subtle and Face because he, himself, would also be guilty of breaking that law.

Dapper continued, “By this hand of flesh, I swear that I wish it might never write good court-hand any more if I reveal what the cunning-man does for me. What do you think of me? Do you think that I am a chiaus?”

“What’s that?” Face asked.

“The Turk who was here,” Dapper replied.

In 1607, a Turk arrived in London and falsely said that he was the ambassador of the Turkish Sultan. While in England, he was lavishly entertained and all his expenses were paid. As a result, chiaus — related to the Turkish word for “messenger” — became an English synonym for “cheat.”

Dapper continued, “As one would say, do you think that I am a Turk?”

“I’ll tell the Doctor,” Face said.

He would tell Subtle that Dapper was no Turk — for one thing, Dapper wasn’t intelligent enough to be very successful as a con man.

“Do, good sweet Captain Face.”

Face said to Subtle, “Come, noble Doctor, I request that you will let us prevail and help us. This is the gentleman, and he is no chiaus.”

“Captain Face, I have already told you my answer,” Subtle said.

He then said to Dapper, “I would do much, sir, for your friendship — but this I neither may, nor can, do.”

“Tut, do not say so,” Face said. “You deal now with a noble fellow, Doctor. He is a man who will thank you richly, and he is no chiaus. Let that, sir, persuade you to help him.”

Subtle said, “Please, stop —”

Face said, “He has four angels here.”

Angels are gold coins depicting the archangel Michael combating a dragon.

“You do me wrong, good sir,” Subtle said, declining to take the money.

“Doctor, how do I do you wrong?” Face said. “By tempting you with these spirits?”

“You tempt my art and love, sir, to my peril,” Subtle said. “Before Heaven, I scarcely can think you are my friend, not when you would draw me to manifest danger by tempting me to disobey the law.”

Raising spirits was a crime with severe penalties.

“I draw you!” Face said. “May a horse draw you, and to a halter. You, and your familiar spirits together —”

He was pretending to be angry and to wish that Subtle would be drawn by a horse and cart to the gallows.

Dapper said, “No, good Captain Face.”

Face said to Subtle, “You are unable to distinguish between men — men who blab, and men who can keep a secret.”

“Use good words, sir,” Subtle said. “Don’t say angry words.”

“Good deeds, sir, Doctor Dogs’ Meat,” Face said, still pretending to be angry. “By God’s light, I bring you no cheating Clim o’ the Cloughs, or Claribells, who look as big as five-and-fifty and flush, and who spit out secrets like hot custard —”

Clim o’ the Clough was an outlaw in a ballad, and Claribell was a Knight who constantly loved excessively in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen. “Claribell” may be related to Latin clarus bellum — “famous [in] war.” Or Edmund Spenser may have used the name to suggest that Claribell is so fond of the ladies that he has a lady’s name. However, Face may have meant that Claribell was a deceiver because he bore a deceiving name. He was a male Knight with a lady’s name.

Five-and-fifty and flush is an unbeatable hand in the card game primero.

Mark Twain once put a spoonful of soup in his mouth, but it was so hot that he spit it out, shocking his fellow diners. But he was unperturbed and said, “Some darn fools would have swallowed that!”

“Captain Face!” Dagger said.

Face continued, “I did not bring him any melancholic under-scribe who would tell the vicar-general about our secret doings; instead, I brought him a special gentleman who is the heir to forty marks a year, who consorts with the small poets of the time, who is the sole hope of his old grandmother, who knows the law, and who can write for you six fair hands, who is a fine clerk and has his bookkeeping perfect, who will take his oath on the Greek Xenophon, if need be, in his pocket, and who can court his girl out of his reading of Ovid.”

Consorting with small poets is the best society that Dapper can muster.

Dapper does have skills: He can write six kinds of handwriting: court-hand, secretary (both English and French), Italic, Roman, and chancery.

If Dapper needs to, he can take his oath on the Greek Xenophon he keeps in his pocket. Xenophon was an ancient Greek historian. People of the time swore on Greek Bibles, and at times Dapper might try to fool an uneducated person by swearing on a Greek Xenophon in order to avoid making a religious oath. Similarly and for the same reason, according to malicious gossip, Irish men of the time would kiss their thumbnail rather than the Bible when swearing oaths they did not want to keep.

Ovid wrote a manual of love poetry, or seduction poetry: Ars AmatoriaThe Art of Love. This is the first line: “Siquis in hoc artem populo non novit amandi, / Hoc legat et lecto carmine doctus amet.” J. Lewis May translated it in 1930: “If there be anyone among you who is ignorant of the art of loving, let him read this poem and, having read it and acquired the knowledge it contains, let him address himself to Love.”

Dapper said, “No, dear Captain Face —”

“Did you not tell me so?” Face asked.

“Yes, but I want you to treat the Master Doctor with some more respect.”

“Hang him, the proud stag, with his broad velvet head!” Face said.

He was punning on “velvet,” which referred both to the Doctor’s velvet cap and to the velvet of a stag’s antlers.

Face said to Dapper, “But for your sake, I’d choke before I would exchange an article of breath with such a puck-fist.”

“Puck-fist” is the puffball fungus; it does not have an open cap like many mushrooms, and its spores are produced inside the closed cap. Face was referring to Subtle’s fist, which was empty of everything except air because he refused to accept Dapper’s money.

Face said to Dapper, “Come on, let’s go.”

He pretended to be leaving.

Subtle said, “Please let me speak with you.”

Dapper called after Face, “His worship is calling you, Captain Face.”

Face complained, “I am sorry that I ever embarked in such a business.”

Dapper said, “Good sir, he did call you.”

Face asked, “Will he take then?”

“Take” referred to “take on this business” and “take your money.”

Subtle said, “First, hear me —”

“Not a syllable, unless you take,” Face interrupted.

“Please, sir,” Subtle said.

Face said, “Upon no terms, but an assumpsit.”

An assumpsit is a verbal legal agreement. In practice, it is made binding by the payment of money.

“Your preference must be law,” Subtle said.

He took the four angels from Dapper.

Face said to Subtle, “Why now, sir, talk. Now I dare hear you with my honor. Speak. This gentleman — Dapper — may speak, too.”

“Why, sir —” Subtle said.

He began to whisper to Face, who said, “No whispering.”

This was sure to make Dapper listen carefully.

Subtle said, “Before Heaven, you do not apprehend the loss you do to yourself in this matter.”

“Loss?” Face said. “What loss?”

“By the Virgin Mary, I say that you do yourself loss by demanding that I help this man who, when he has a familiar spirit to help him gamble, will ruin you all. He’ll win all the money in the town.”

“What!” Face said.

“Yes, and he will blow up — bankrupt — gamester after gamester, just as people blow up firecrackers in a puppet-play. If I give him a familiar spirit, you may as well just give him all the money you are gambling for and with; never bet against him for he will win it all.”

“You are mistaken, Doctor,” Face said. “Why, he is asking for a small familiar spirit to help him win only at cups and horses. We aren’t talking about one of your great familiar spirits.”

Dapper said, “Actually, Captain Face, I want a familiar spirit to help me win at all games.”

“I told you so,” Subtle said to Face.

Face said to Dapper, “By God, that is a new business! I understood that you would be a tame bird and fly twice in a term, or so, on Friday nights, after you had left the office, for a nag worth forty or fifty shillings. I thought that we were talking about small stuff.”

“Yes, it is true that we did talk about small stuff, sir,” Dapper said, “but I think now that I shall quit my job and leave the law, and make my living as a gambler, and therefore —”

“Why, this changes everything,” Face said. “Do you think that I dare persuade him to give you a great familiar spirit?”

Great familiar spirits are powerful demons.

“If you please, sir,” Dapper said, “do it. All’s one to him, I see. Great familiar spirit? Small familiar spirit? All’s one to him, I’m sure.”

“What!” Face said. “By my conscience I cannot persuade him for that money, nor should you make the request, I think.”

“No, I won’t, sir,” Dapper said. “I mean to pay more money for a great familiar spirit.”

“Why, then, sir, I’ll try,” Face said.

Face whispered to Subtle, “Let’s say that the familiar spirit were for all games, Doctor. What then?”

Face and Subtle whispered, but they made sure to whisper loud enough for Dapper to overhear them.

Subtle whispered, “I say then that not a mouth shall eat at any inn except on credit because of him winning all the money. He has the mouth of a gambler, believe me.”

“Indeed!” Face whispered.

“He’ll win all the treasure of the realm, if it is staked against him.”

“Do you know this because of your occult knowledge?”

“Yes, sir,” Subtle whispered, “and I know it from my use of reason, too, which is the foundation of knowledge. He is the type of man the Queen of Fairy loves.”

“What!” Face said. “Is he?”

“Shh!” Subtle said. “He’ll overhear you. Sir, should she but see him —”

“What would happen?”

“Don’t you tell him!”

“Will he win at cards, too?” Face asked.

“You’d swear that the spirits of the dead Dutch alchemist John Holland and the living Dutch alchemist John Isaac Holland were in him because he would have such a vigorous luck that it cannot be resisted. Indeed, he’ll win all the expensive clothing of six of your gallants and leave each of them only a cloak to conceal their nakedness.”

Face said, “This is a strange and rare success that some man shall be born to!”

“He overhears you, man —” Subtle said.

Dapper said, “Sir, I’ll not be ingrateful.”

He meant that he would not be an ingrate and he would not be ungrateful.

Face said, “By my faith, I swear that I have confidence in his good nature. You heard him — he says he will not be ingrateful.”

“Why, do as you please,” Subtle said to Face. “I will go along with whatever you decide.”

“Truly, I think you should do it, Doctor. You should give him a great and powerful familiar spirit. Think that he is trustworthy, and make him.”

Dapper thought that Face was saying, Make him (Dapper) rich, but Face was actually saying, Make him (Dapper) a mark — dupe him.

Face continued, “He may make us both happy and rich in an hour. He may win some five thousand pounds, and send us two of it.”

“Believe it, and I will, sir,” Dapper said.

He was promising to send them two thousand — or just two — pounds.

“And you shall, sir,” Face said to Dapper. “Did you overhear everything we said?”

“No, what was it you said?” Dapper lied. “I overheard nothing, not I, sir.”

“Nothing!” Face said.

“I overheard a little, sir.”

“Well, a rare star reigned at your birth,” Face said.

“At mine, sir!” Dapper said. “No.”

“The Doctor swears that you are —”

“No, Captain Face, you’ll tell all now,” Subtle said.

Face continued, “— related to the Queen of Fairy.”

“To whom? Am I?” Dapper said. “Believe it, there’s no way that —”

“Yes,” Face said, “and the Doctor says that you were born with a caul on your head.”

A caul is the amniotic membrane that encloses a fetus. In this society, being born with the caul or part of the caul on top of the baby’s head was regarded as a sign of good luck for the baby.

“Who says so?” Dapper asked.

“Come on,” Face said. “You know well enough that this is true, although you are pretending not to know it.”

“I’fac, I do not,” Dapper said. “You are mistaken.”

“I’fac” was a weak version of “in faith.” It was a very weak oath, so weak in fact that Dapper would soon say that it is not a real oath.

“What!” Face said. “Swear by your ‘i’fac,’ and in a thing so well known to the Doctor? How shall we, sir, trust you in the other matter — the matter of the great familiar spirit? Can we ever think that when you have won five or six thousand pounds, you’ll send us shares in it, if you won’t tell the truth about this?”

“By Jove, sir, I’ll win ten thousand pounds, and send you half,” Dapper said. “‘I’fac’ is not a real oath.”

Subtle said, “He was only jesting when he said that.”

“Hmm,” Face said. Then he said to Dapper, “Go thank the Doctor. He’s your friend; he must be if he interprets in this way what you said.”

“I thank his worship,” Dapper said.

“So!” Face said. “Pay another angel.”

“Must I?” Dapper asked.

“Must you!” Face said. “By God’s light, what else are thanks! Will you be petty?”

He then said, “Doctor?”

Subtle held out his hand, and Dapper gave him the money.

Face asked Subtle, “When must he come for his familiar?”

“Shall I not take it with me when I leave?” Dapper asked.

“Oh, good sir!” Subtle said. “A world of ceremonies must be performed first. You must be bathed and fumigated first. Besides, the Queen of Fairy does not rise until noon.”

“Definitely not before noon, if she danced last night,” Face said.

“And she must bless the familiar spirit,” Subtle said.

“Have you ever seen her royal grace?” Face asked Dapper.

“Whom?” Dapper asked.

“Your aunt of Fairy,” Face replied.

An aunt is an older female relative; in the slang of the time, an aunt is also a bawd or a prostitute.

Subtle said, “Not since she kissed him in the cradle, Captain Face. I can answer your question.”

Face said to Dapper, “Well, see her grace, whatever it costs you, because of a thing that I know. Seeing her will be somewhat hard to do, but nevertheless see her. You are a made man, believe it, if you can see her. Her grace is an unmarried woman, and very rich; and if she takes a fancy to you, she will do exceptional things.”

The exceptional things could be done for — or to — Dapper. Face, however, wanted Dapper to think that the Queen of Fairy would remember him in her fairy will.

Face continued, “See her, in any case. By God’s eyelid, she may happen to leave you all she has — it is the Doctor’s fear.”

Subtle “feared” that the Queen of Fairy would make Dapper so lucky that he would win and own everything and then inherit even more from the Queen of Fairy.

Of course, fairies, if they existed, are supposed to be very long-lived, so the Queen of Fairy, if she existed, would be likely to long out-live Dapper, but greed often short-circuits anything resembling logical thinking.

“How will it be done, then?” Dapper asked.

“Leave it to me,” Face said. “Don’t you worry about it. Just say to me, ‘Captain Face, I’ll see her grace.’”

Dapper said, “Captain Face, I’ll see her grace.”

“Good enough,” Face said.

Knocking sounded at the door.

Subtle shouted at the door, “Who’s there? I’m coming.”

He said to Face, “Take Dapper out by the back way.”

He then said to Dapper, “Sir, before one o’clock prepare yourself. Until then you must fast. Put three drops of vinegar up your nose, two in your mouth, and one in each ear. Then bathe your fingers’ ends and wash your eyes, to sharpen your five senses, and cry ‘hum’ thrice and ‘buzz’ thrice, and then come here.”

He went to answer the door.

Face asked Dapper, “Can you remember what he said?”

“Yes, I promise you,” Dapper said.

“Well, then, go,” Face said. “All that is left is for you to bestow some twenty nobles among her grace’s servants.”

Twenty nobles was a considerable amount of money.

Face continued, “And put on a clean shirt. You do not know what grace her grace the Queen of Fairy may do for you if you wear clean linen.”

Fairies love cleanliness.

Face and Dapper exited.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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