Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 1, Scene 3

— 1.3 —

Subtle opened the door and said to the man waiting there, “Come in!”

To the women waiting outside to consult him, he said, “Good wives, I ask that you wait. Truly, I can do nothing for you until the afternoon.”

He shut the door, and said to the man, “What is your name? Are you Abel Drugger?”

Face gathered information about the suckers and gave the information to Subtle.

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you a seller of tobacco?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Umph,” Subtle said. “Are you a Freeman of the Grocers’ Company?”

The Grocers’ Company was a guild that regulated trade in tobacco.

“Yes, if it pleases you, sir,” Abel Drugger said. He was a Freeman of the guild — a junior member who was said to have the freedom of the company.

“Well,” Subtle said, “what is your business with me, Abel?”

“This, if it pleases your worship,” Drugger said. “I am a young beginner, and I am building a business, a new shop, if it pleases your worship, just at a corner of a street.”

He showed Subtle a diagram and said, “Here is the building layout.”

He continued, “I would like to learn from your magical art, sir, from your worship, where I should put my door, from your magical necromancy, and where I should put my shelves, and which shelves should be for boxes, and which should be for pots. I would be glad to thrive, sir, and I was recommended to your worship by a gentleman, one Captain Face, who says you know astrology and men’s planets, and men’s good angels, and their bad.”

Today, we might say that Subtle claimed to have a knowledge of feng shui, which <> defines as “(in Chinese thought) a system of laws considered to govern spatial arrangement and orientation in relation to the flow of energy (qi), and whose favorable or unfavorable effects are taken into account when siting and designing buildings.”

Subtle said, “I do know men’s good and bad angels, if I see them —”

Face returned and said, “What! My honest Abel! You are well met here.”

“Truly, sir, I was speaking, just as your worship came here, about your worship. I ask you to speak for me and give me a good recommendation to Master Doctor.”

Face said to Subtle, “He shall do anything. — Doctor, do you hear me? — This is my friend, Abel. He is an honest fellow. He lets me have good tobacco, and he does not adulterate it with sack-lees or oil, nor washes it in muscadel and grains, nor buries it in gravel, underground.”

Tobacco was imported, and this society had not yet discovered how to cure — preserve — it, and so the tobacco often arrived either dried out or moldy. Dried-out tobacco could be moistened with sack-lees (wine dregs) or oil or muscadel wine or grains of cardamom spice. It could also be buried it in gravel, underground, so that ground water could moisten it.

Face continued, “He keeps his tobacco in fine ornamental lily pots, that, opened, smell like the perfume made from roses, or like the sweet-smelling flowers of French — broad — beans.”

Dapper’s tobacco store was a place where people could smoke, as well as buy tobacco, and so he had the necessary equipment for doing that.

Face continued, “He has his maple block, his silver tongs, Winchester pipes, and fire of juniper.”

Tobacco was shredded on a maple block, silver tongs were used to hold a burning juniper-wood coal that would light the fine pipes that came from Winchester. Juniper wood was used because it burned slowly.

Face continued, “Drugger is a neat, spruce, honest fellow, and he is no goldsmith.”

Goldsmiths engaged in banking and were usurers. Face was saying that Drugger did not overcharge for his tobacco.

By the way, saying that Drugger was no goldsmith was an in-joke. Robert Armin, who first played the role on stage, was a goldsmith’s apprentice before he became an actor.

Subtle said, “He is a fortunate fellow, that I am sure of.”

Face said, “Sir, have you found his future already? Listen, Abel!”

Subtle said, “And he is headed in the right way toward riches —”

“Sir!” Face said.

Subtle said, “This summer he will be wearing the livery of the Grocers’ Company; he will be a Liveryman, a higher rank than his current rank of Freeman.”

A Liveryman is a full member of the guild or company, and he wears special clothing to indicate that.

Subtle continued, “And next spring he will be called to wear the scarlet clothing of a Sheriff. My advice to him is this: Spend what he can.”

“Spend” can refer to spending money or time or effort. An old-fashioned definition of “spend” is to leap or spring. Subtle’s advice seems to be for Drugger to be ambitious and to expend what money and time and effort he can to leap to higher positions — positions that will lead him to his fortune. He will have to spend money and time and effort to be successful. Of course, Subtle wanted Drugger to spend much money — all he can — in tips to Subtle.

Face said, “What, and he has so little beard! He is so young!”

Subtle said, “Sir, you must be aware that he may have a recipe to make hair grow on his face, but he’ll be wise, preserve his youth, and be fine for it. He’ll also pay a fine to get out of being Sheriff. His fortune looks for him another way.”

People who were chosen to be Sheriff could get out of filling the position by paying a fine.

“Doctor, how can you know his future so quickly? I am astonished by that!”

Subtle replied, “By a rule, Captain Face, in metoposcopy — the art of reading character by looking at the forehead — which I do work by.

“Drugger has a certain star on the forehead, which you don’t see. A chestnut or olive-colored face, which Drugger has, never fails, and his long ears show he has promise.”

Star on the forehead, chestnut or olive-colored face, long ears — this sounds like a description of an ass. Some donkeys have marks resembling a star on their forehead.

Subtle continued, “I knew his future, by certain spots, too, in his teeth, and on the nail of his mercurial finger.”

“Which finger is that?” Face asked.

“His little finger,” Subtle said. “Look.”

He asked Drugger, “You were born on a Wednesday?”

“Yes, indeed, sir.”

“The thumb, in chiromancy, aka palm reading, we give to Venus,” Subtle said. “The forefinger, to Jove; the middle finger, to Saturn; the ring finger, to Sol; the little finger, to Mercury, who was the lord, sir, of his horoscope, his house of life being Libra. This foreshowed that Drugger should be a merchant, and should trade with balance.”

In astrology, the first house is the house of life. The sign of the zodiac ascending the horizon when one is born governs the first house. Whatever planet rules the sign of the zodiac is the lord of the horoscope. Drugger was a Libra, whose symbol is a pair of scales. According to Subtle, this showed that Drugger would be a businessman, since merchants weigh some things that are for sale.

Subtle said that the planet Mercury is the lord of Drugger’s horoscope; actually, the planet Venus is the lord of Drugger’s horoscope. Subtle had made the change because Mercury is the Roman god of business. (Fittingly in this case, Mercury is also the Roman god of thieves.)

“Why, this is exceptional!” Face said. “Isn’t it, honest Nab?”

“Nab” is a nickname for Abel.

Subtle said, “There is a ship now, coming from Hormus, an island in the Persian Gulf, that shall yield him such a commodity of drugs!”

He looked at the layout of Drugger’s shop. Pointing, Subtle asked him, “This is the west, and this the south?”

“Yes, sir,” Drugger replied.

“And those are your two sides?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Make your door, then, in the south; make your broad side, west. On the east side of your shop, aloft, write the names of these spirits: Mathlai, Tarmiel, and Baraborat. Upon the north side, write the names of these spirits: Rael, Velel, and Thiel. They are the names of those Mercurial spirits that will frighten away flies and keep them from getting into your boxes of tobacco.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And beneath your threshold, bury a magnet to draw in gallants who wear metal spurs. The rest of your customers will be seen to follow them.”

“Keep that a secret, Nab!” Face said. “This is your special way of gaining customers.”

Subtle said, “And, on your stall — the display-table in front of your shop — have a mechanical puppet that can be made to move by wires or levers. Also, have some makeup that is worn by the ladies at the royal court. That will draw in the city ladies; they will want to imitate the court ladies. You shall deal much with minerals.”

Drugger said, “Sir, I have at home, already —”

Subtle interrupted, “Yes, I know you have arsenic, vitriol (aka sulphuric acid), sal-tartar (aka carbonite of potash), argol (aka tartar), alkali (aka caustic soda), and cinnabar (aka red mercuric sulphide). I know all.”

He said to Face, “This fellow, Captain, will come, in time, to be a great distiller, and he will attempt to make — I will not say he will definitely succeed, but he has a fair chance of succeeding — the philosopher’s stone.”

“Why, what you do you think about that, Abel?” Face said.

Face then asked Subtle, “Is this true?”

Subtle nodded yes.

Drugger asked, “Good Captain Face, what must I give to the cunning-man?”

“No, I’ll not advise you,” Face said. “You have heard what wealth — he advises you to spend what you can — you are likely to come to.”

Drugger said, “I would give him a crown.”

Face said, “Only a crown! And toward such a fortune? My friend, you should rather give him your shop than just a crown. Haven’t you any gold on you?”

“Yes, I have a portague, a Portuguese gold coin, that I have kept this half year,” Drugger said.

“Out with it, Nab. That’s a proper gratuity. You shall keep it no longer — I’ll give it to him for you.”

He took the coin from Drugger and said, “Doctor, Nab asks your worship to take this and buy drinks with it, and he swears that he will demonstrate more gratitude as your skill raises him in the world.”

“I would entreat another favor of his worship,” Drugger said.

“What is it, Nab?” Face asked.

“Only to look over, sir, my almanac, and cross out my unlucky days, so that I may neither bargain nor give credit on those days.”

“That he shall, Nab,” Face said. “Leave your almanac; it shall be done by this afternoon.”

Subtle said, “And I will write instructions for how to organize and stock his shelves.”

“Now, Nab,” Face said. “Are you well pleased, Nab?”

“Sir, I thank both your worships,” Drugger said.

“You may leave now,” Face said.

Drugger exited.

Face said to Subtle, “Why, now, you smoky persecutor of nature!”

As an alchemist, Subtle made a lot of fires. Alchemists are persecutors of nature because they torture base metals with fire and chemicals in their attempts to turn the base metals into silver and gold.

Face continued, “Now do you see that something’s to be done, beside your beech-coal, and your corrosive waters, your crosslets, crucibles, and cucurbites!”

All of these things were used in alchemy. Charcoal made of beech wood was very good charcoal. Corrosive waters are acids. Crosslets and crucibles are melting pots. Cucurbites are retorts, which are containers with a long downward-curving neck and a bulb at the end.

Face continued, “You must have stuff brought home to you, to work on.”

Here the “stuff” was suckers, whom it was Face’s job to find and bring to Subtle.

Face continued, “And yet you think that I am at no expense in searching out these veins, then following them, and then trying them out. Before God, I swear that my intelligence — the information I find out about suckers — costs me more money than my share of our profits often comes to in these rare works.”

Subtle said, “You are pleasant, sir.”

This meant, I’m sure you are exaggerating.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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