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

— 2.1 —

Sir Epicure Mammon and Pertinax Surly were talking together in a room in Lovewit’s house.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Come on, sir. Now, you set your foot on shore in Novo Orbe, the rich New World. This room is the rich Peru. And there within, sir, are the golden mines, Great Solomon’s Ophir! He was sailing to it, three years, but we have reached it in ten months.”

To Sir Epicure Mammon, Lovewit’s house was the New World, source of riches. He believed that he would soon have the philosopher’s stone and he would be very rich. He believed, along with many others, that Solomon, son of King David, got his vast wealth from possession of the philosopher’s stone. The gold was made in Ophir, and every three years a fleet of ships brought gold to him.

1 Kings 10:22 states, “For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks” (King James Bible).

Apparently, for ten months, Sir Epicure Mammon had been giving money to Subtle the alchemist to create a philosopher’s stone for him.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “This is the day, wherein, to all my friends, I will pronounce these happy words: BE RICH; THIS DAY YOU SHALL BE SPECTATISSIMI.”

The Latin word “SPECTATISSIMI” means “regarded as very special, very much looked up to.”

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, as if he were speaking to all his friends, “You shall no more deal with the hollow die, or the frail card.”

A hollow die is a loaded die; “die” is the singular of dice. The die would be hollowed out and then filled with lead so that a certain number would be more likely to come up. A frail card is a card that is easily broken. Here it is a playing card that can be easily marked. Sir Epicure Mammon was saying that his friends would no longer have to cheat at gambling in order to make money.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “You shall no more be in charge of keeping the livery-punk for the young heir, who must sign and seal a contract, at all hours, in his shirt. No more, if he denies having signed and sealed the contract, will you have to have him beaten until he admits having signed and sealed the contract — just as the young heir shall be sure to beat the person who brings him the commodity.”

This was another unethical way to make money. A livery-punk is a prostitute kept under contract. The prostitute would find a young heir to sleep with, the couple would be interrupted in their lovemaking, and the young heir would be induced to sign a contract before he could go back to his lovemaking. The contract could be a form of blackmail so that his indiscretion would not be revealed. The contract would be for a loan, but only part of the loan was given to the young heir in cash money. The rest was given to the young heir in much-overvalued commodities. For example, the contract might be for a loan of one hundred pounds: thirty pounds in money and seventy pounds in a commodity such as lute-strings, but the lute-springs would be worth much less than seventy pounds. Such a scam was highly profitable.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “No more shall the thirst for satin or the covetous hunger for a velvet lining for a rude-spun cloak, which would be displayed at Madam Augusta’s brothel, either make the sons of sword and hazard fall before the golden calf, and on their knees, whole nights, commit idolatry with wine and trumpets, or go a-feasting after drum and ensign.”

In other words, no more shall greed for fancy clothing and visits to brothels make gambling soldiers (“the sons of sword and hazard”) worship the golden calf, aka commit the idolatry of worshipping money. They won’t be tempted to drink and carouse and gamble — perhaps by playing craps while kneeling — in gambling places all night, and they won’t have to get their feasts by following the drum and battle flag. Instead, they will already have the money for prostitutes and feasts.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “There shall be no more of this. You shall beget young viceroys, and have your punks, and punketees, my Surly.”

A viceroy rules a province on behalf of a King. Punks are prostitutes, and punketees are young prostitutes.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “And unto you I speak it first, BE RICH.”

He then said, “Where is my Subtle, there! Within, ho!”

Face, from inside the door, said, “Sir, he’ll come to you soon.”

Recognizing Face’s voice, Sir Epicure Mammon said, “That is Subtle’s fire-drake, his Lungs, his Zephyrus, his servant who puffs his coals until he firk nature up, in her own center.”

A fire-drake is literally a fiery dragon, which was thought to be able to live in fire; metaphorically, it is the alchemist’s assistant who uses bellows to make fires burn. “Lungs” is a nickname for an alchemist’s assistant. Zephyrus is the west wind. To “firk” is to stir up.

Sir Epicure Mammon said to Surly, “You have no belief in alchemy, sir. But tonight, I’ll change all that is metal in my house to gold, and early in the morning, I will send people to all the plumbers and the pewterers and buy up their tin and lead, and I will send people to Lothbury to buy up all the copper there.”

Surly said, “What, and turn that into gold, too?”

“Yes, and I’ll purchase the tin and copper mines in Devonshire and Cornwall and make them perfect Indies! I will make them gold mines!”

The Indies were thought to be rich in gold.

Sir Epicure Mammon asked Surly, “Do you marvel now?”

“No, truly I do not.”

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “But when you see the effects of the great medicine, aka philosopher’s stone, of which one part projected on a hundred parts of Mercury (aka quicksilver), or Venus (aka copper), or the Moon (aka silver), shall turn them to as many of the Sun (aka gold). Nay, to a thousand, and so on ad infinitum (aka to infinity), then you will believe me.”

A small amount of the philosopher’s stone was believed to change much base metal into gold.

Surly said, “Yes, when I see it, I will believe it. But if my eyes con me into seeing that without me giving them a good reason to do so — such as drinking way too much — I will be sure to have a whore piss on them the following day and put them out.”

Urine is acidic and can damage the eyes. By the way, piss is one kind of golden shower.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Do you think I am telling fables to you? I assure you that a man who has once the flower of the Sun, the perfect ruby, which we call elixir — all of these are synonyms for the philosopher’s stone — not only can do that, but by the stone’s virtue and strength, can confer honor, love, respect, and long life and can give safety, valor, yes, and victory, to whomever he will. In just twenty-eight days, I’ll make an old man of eighty a child again.”

“No doubt; he’s that already,” Surly said. “A man of that age is in his second childhood.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “No, I don’t mean senility. I mean that I will restore his years and renew him, like an eagle, to the fifth age.”

This is part of Psalms 103:5: “thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (King James Version).

Some people believed that eagles renewed their youth by flying high up into the fiery region, plunging into the ocean, and then molting their feathers.

The fifth age is mature manhood.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “Drinking the elixir of life will make the once-old man beget sons and daughters — young giants — as our philosophers the ancient patriarchs have done before the great flood.”

Many of the patriarchs were long-lived, according to the Bible. This is Genesis 5:1-8 (King James Bible)

1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him;

Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.

And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, and after his image; and called his name Seth:

And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters:

And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.

And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos:

And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters:

And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died.

According to the alchemists, Adam and the other patriarchs had possession of the philosopher’s stone.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “Just by taking, once a week, on a knife’s point, the quantity of a grain of mustard of the philosopher’s stone, they became as magnificent as Mars, god of war, and like Mars, they begot young Cupids.”

Cupid was the result of an adulterous affair between Mars and Venus.

Surly said, “The decayed vestals of Pict Hatch would thank you. They keep the fire alive, there.”

Pict Hatch was a neighborhood of thieves and prostitutes. In classical antiquity, vestal virgins would tend the fire of a temple. The “decayed vestals of Pict Hatch” are shagged-out prostitutes who tend the fire of syphilis and keep it alive. Syphilis causes a burning sensation during urination.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “The elixir of life is the secret of nature naturized against all infections. It cures all diseases that come from all causes. It can cure a month’s suffering in a day, a year’s suffering in twelve days, and an even longer suffering, no matter how much longer, in a month. It surpasses all the medicinal doses of your drugging doctors. Once I have possession of the philosopher’s stone, I’ll undertake, moreover, to frighten the plague out of the Kingdom of England in three months.”

Surly said, “And I’ll be bound that the players shall sing your praises, then, without their poets.”

The players are theatrical actors. Whenever deaths from the plague exceeded forty per week, the theaters were forced to shut down. The actors would praise Sir Epicure Mammon for making it possible for them to keep the theaters open, and they would do it ex tempore without the need for playwrights to write the words for them.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Sir, I’ll do it. In the meantime, I’ll give so much preservative to my servant that it shall serve the whole city. Each week, each house shall receive a dose, and at the rate —”

Surly interrupted, “As he who built the waterworks does with water!”

In 1582, Peter Moris built a pump-house to deliver, for a fee, water from the Thames River to private houses, and in 1594, Bevis Bulmer built a second pump-house for the same purpose. In 1610, a new aqueduct was under construction.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “You are incredulous. You don’t believe me.”

Surly said, “Indeed, my character is such that I would not willingly be gulled, aka cheated. Your stone cannot transmute me. It cannot change my character.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Pertinax Surly, will you believe antiquity? Will you believe records? I’ll show you a book where Moses and his sister and Solomon have written of the alchemical art. Yes, and I will show you a treatise penned by Adam.”

“Pertinax” means “stubborn.

Some people believed that Adam, the first man, was also the first alchemist. Some people mistakenly conflated Miriam, the sister of the Biblical Moses, with Mary the Jewess, an alchemist who lived in the third century C.E. Some people thought that the Song of Solomon was a coded alchemical text.

“What!” Surly said.

“Adam wrote a treatise on the philosopher’s stone, and in High Dutch.”

Today, we call High Dutch High German.

Surly asked, “Did Adam write, sir, in High Dutch?”

“He did, which proves it was the primitive tongue.”

In 1569, Johannes Goropius Becanus wrote Origines Antwerpianae. In it, he stated that Adam and Eve spoke High Dutch in the Garden of Eden.

Surly asked, “What paper did Adam write on?”

“He wrote on cedar board.”

Surly asked, “Oh, that, indeed, they say, will last against worms.”

Cedar is a long-lasting wood that is resistant to rotting.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “It is like your Irish wood is against cobwebs.”

Saint Patrick was said to have blessed Irish wood by giving it protection against spiders.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I have a piece of Jason’s fleece, too, which was no other than a book of alchemy, written on a large sheepskin, a good fat ram-vellum.”

Jason and the Argonauts sailed to acquire the Golden Fleece, which alchemists believed to have a book of alchemy written on the skin side.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Such was Pythagoras’ thigh and Pandora’s tub, or box.”

Some people thought that Pythagoras, best known today for his Pythagorean theorem (the square of the hypotenuse — which is the side opposite the right angle — is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides), had a thigh made of gold.

Some people thought that Pandora’s box, in which were the evils that afflict Humankind, was either made of gold or contained the secret of creating the philosopher’s stone.

The alchemists believed that much ancient history contained references to alchemy. For example, Sir Epicure Mammon will now tell Surly that Jason’s quest for the golden fleece is an allegory for an alchemist’s quest for the philosopher’s stone.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Such was all that fable of Medea’s charms; it explained the manner of our work.”

Jason and the Argonauts sailed to Colchis, which was on the shore of the Black Sea. There, the young witch Medea fell in love with Jason and helped him acquire the golden fleece. Jason first used fire-breathing oxen to plow a field, and then he sowed it with dragon’s teeth. Armed warriors grew from the dragon’s teeth. Medea had told Jason to throw a stone into the midst of the warriors. Not knowing where the stone had come from, the warriors fought and killed each other. Jason then went to the tree on which hung the golden fleece. A dragon guarded the golden fleece, but Medea gave Jason a potion that put the dragon to sleep.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “In the allegorical fable the fire-breathing bulls represent the alchemical furnace, which continually breathes fire.

“The dragon represents the alchemical argent vive, which is quicksilver and which is symbolized by a dragon in alchemical texts.”

Argent vive is Latin for “living silver.”

He continued, “The dragon’s teeth represent mercury sublimate, aka chloride of mercury, that keeps the whiteness, hardness, and the biting.

“And the dragon’s teeth are gathered into Jason’s helm, aka helmet, which represents the alchemical piece of equipment known as the alembic (the upper part of the distilling apparatus), and then sowed in Mars’ field (another piece of alchemical equipment: an iron vessel; Mars was the god of iron) and thence sublimed (refined) so often until they’re fixed (solid and stabilized).

“The story of Jason’s quest for the golden fleece, the Hesperian garden, Cadmus’ story, Jove’s shower, the boon of Midas, Argus’ eyes, Giovanni Boccacio’s Demogorgon, and thousands more stories are all abstract allegories about the philosopher’s stone.”

The Hesperides, who are nymphs of the evening, had a garden in which golden apples, guarded by a dragon, grew. One of Hercules’ famous labors was to get possession of these golden apples.

Cadmus sowed a field with dragon’s teeth. Armed warriors grew from the teeth, and then Cadmus fought them until only five were left alive. Cadmus and those five warriors founded the city of Thebes.

King Midas of Crete asked for and received a gift from the god Bacchus: Anything he touched would turn to gold.

Jove appeared before the mortal Danaë in a shower of gold in order to have sex with her.

Argus was a giant with one hundred eyes.

The Italian writer Giovanni Boccacio wrote in his De Genealogia Deorum (On the Geneology of the Gods) that Demogorgon was the origin of all things.

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