Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 1, Scene 4

— 1.4 —

Doll Common entered the room.

Subtle asked, “What is it? What says my dainty Dollkin?”

Doll said, “The fishwife outside will not go away. And also waiting is your giantess, the bawd of Lambeth.”

Many criminals and prostitutes lived in Lambeth, which is south of the Thames River.

Subtle said, “Sweetheart, I cannot speak with them.”

Doll said, “Not before night, I have told them in a voice, through the speaking-tube, like one of your familiars.”

One of the tricks they engaged in was to use a speaking-tube to communicate with spirits and familiars. To the suckers, it seemed as if a disembodied voice were speaking.

Doll continued, “But I have spied Sir Epicure Mammon —”

“Where?” Subtle asked.

“Coming along, at the far end of the lane,” Doll said. “His feet were moving slowly, but his tongue was wagging quickly as he talked with a companion.”

Subtle ordered, “Face, go and change your clothes. Get out of the Captain’s uniform.”

Face exited.

Subtle said, “Doll, you must immediately get ready, too.”

“Why, what’s the matter?” Doll asked.

“Oh, I looked for Sir Epicure Mammon to show up here at dawn,” Subtle said. “I marvel that he could sleep. This is the day I am to perfect for him the magisterium, our great work, the philosopher’s stone, and yield it, once it is made, into his hands. About this stone he has, all this month, talked as if he were possessed.”

“Possessed” meant both “in possession of something” and “possessed by spirits, aka insane.”

Subtle continued, “He keeps thinking about what he will do with it once he has it. In his imagination he’s dealing pieces of the philosopher’s stone away.”

Some people believed that powdered philosopher’s stone could be mixed into a drink that would cure diseases and make old people young. This was known as the elixir of life. Some people even thought that drinking it made one immortal.

Of course, the philosopher’s stone doesn’t exist, and so ideas about it varied. Some people thought that the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life were two separate things and that powdered philosopher’s stone was not part of the elixir of life.

Subtle continued, “I think I see him entering inns and dispensing the cure for venereal diseases, and entering houses infected with the plague and handing out his cure, walking Moorfields to find the lepers there, and offering citizens’ wives pomander bracelets.”

Pomander bracelets are bracelets with balls containing aromatic substances, or bracelets made of aromatic paste, and they were thought to ward off the plague. The pomander bracelets would contain some of the elixir — Sir Epicure Mammon believed that smelling it would offer immunity to the plague.

Subtle continued, “He will search the charity houses for the indigent and the diseased in order to make bawds young again, and he will search the highways for beggars to make rich.

“I see no end of his labors. He will make Nature ashamed of her long sleep when Art, who’s only a stepmother, shall do more than Nature, in her best love to Humankind, ever could.”

Art includes alchemy. If alchemy can produce the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, then Art can cure Humankind of diseases that come from Nature.

Stepmothers had the reputation of being less kind to children than mothers are.

Subtle continued, “If his dream lasts, he’ll turn the age to gold. This will be a Golden Age.”

Sir Epicure Mammon had done a lot of talking to Subtle about what he would do with the philosopher’s stone. That talk was all about philanthropy.

We shall see if all his desires are philanthropic.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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