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

— 2.2 —

Face, wearing the clothing of an alchemist’s assistant, entered the room. His face was bearded and sooty.

“What is it?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked. “Do we succeed? Has our day come? How is it going?”

Face said, “The evening will set red upon you, sir. You have color for it: crimson. The red ferment has done its work. Three hours from now you will see projection — the final part of the process. You will see the philosopher’s stone.”

People believed that the philosopher’s stone was red.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Pertinax, my Surly, again I say to you, out loud, BE RICH. This day, you shall have ingots of precious metal, and, tomorrow, you shall insult proud lords by looking them directly in the face rather than being obsequious to them.”

He said to Face, “Is it, my Zephyrus, right? Does the bolt’s-head flask blush red?”

Zephyrus is the west wind; Sir Epicure Mammon used the word as a new nickname for Face, aka Lungs, who used bellows to keep the fire at the right temperature.

Face replied, “It blushes like a wench, sir, whose pregnancy was just now revealed to her master.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Excellent, witty Lungs!”

He added, “My only care is where to get enough base metal now to project on and turn to gold. This town will not half serve me.”

“It won’t, sir?” Face said. “Then buy the covering off of churches. Their roofs are made of lead.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “That’s true.”

“Yes,” Face said. “Let the churches stand bare-headed, as do their congregations, or cap them — give them a new roof — with wooden shingles.”

“No, good thatch,” Sir Epicure Mammon said. “Thatch will lie light upon the rafters, Lungs.”

With all his wealth, he wanted to re-roof the church with inexpensive thatch — a fire hazard. In 1613, the Globe Theater burned down after its thatch roof caught on fire.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Lungs, I will free you from the furnace, I will restore your complexion to you, Puff — your complexion that you lost in the embers — and I will repair this brain of yours that has been hurt by the fumes of the metals.”

Alchemists’ assistants tended to have wan complexions.

Face said, “I have blown the bellows, sir, hard for your worship. I have thrown to the side many a coal when it was not beech wood, which is needed to create a steady temperature. I have exactly weighed those I put in, in order to keep the heat of the fire always even.

“These bleared eyes of mine have waked to read the several colors, sir, of the creation of the philosopher’s stone.

“These bleared eyes of mine have seen the pale citron: yellow.

“These bleared eyes of mine have seen the green lion: green.

“These bleared eyes of mine have seen the crow: black.

“These bleared eyes of mine have seen the peacock’s tail: multi-colored.

“These bleared eyes of mine have seen the plumed swan: white.”

Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “And, finally, you have descried the flower, the sanguis agni: red?”

Sanguis agni” is Latin for “blood of the lamb.” Red is the color seen in the last stage of creating the philosopher’s stone.

“Yes, sir,” Face said.

“Where’s your master?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

“He’s at his prayers, sir,” Face replied. “Good man that he is, he’s doing his devotions for the success of this project.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Lungs, I will set an end to all your current labors. You shall be the master of my seraglio — my harem.”

“Good, sir,” Face said.

“But do you hear? I’ll geld you, Lungs,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

In order to prevent Face, aka Lungs, from having sex with any of the women in Sir Epicure Mammon’s harem, Sir Epicure Mammon would castrate him.

He added, “For I intend to have a list of wives and concubines equal with those of Solomon, who had the philosopher’s stone as will I.”

1 Kings 11:1-3 states this:

1 But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites:

2 Of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love.

3 And he had seven hundred wives, Princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “And with the use of the elixir of life, I will make my back as tough as the back of Hercules, in order to sleep with fifty women a night.”

According to mythology, Hercules had sex with and impregnated the fifty daughters of King Thespius in a single night. (Some sources say only forty-nine of the fifty daughters.)

Sir Epicure Mammon then asked, “You are sure you saw the color of blood?”

“Both blood and spirit, sir,” Face said. “I saw both the correct color and the correct quality.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I will have all my beds blown up with air, not stuffed. Down is too hard. And I will then have my room filled with such pictures as Tiberius took from Elephantis, and dull Aretine only coldly imitated.”

The Roman Emperor Tiberius had paintings illustrating passages from Elephantis’ pornographic books, and Aretine wrote erotic poems imitating such passages and pictures. Sir Epicure Mammon believed that Aretine’s erotic poetry was dull; it could not compete with his own erotic daydreams.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “Then I will have my mirrors cut in more subtle angles to disperse and multiply the figures, as I walk naked between my succubae.”

Succubae are demons who take the form of women and have sex with men. The word is also used for sluts and prostitutes, but Sir Epicure Mammon may very well have wanted to have sex with female demons.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “I’ll have built a mechanism that will spray perfume into the air of the room so that we can lose ourselves in it, and my baths will be big like pits to fall into. From these my succubae and I will come forth and roll ourselves dry in gossamer and roses.”

He asked Face, “Is it arrived at ruby-red?”

Without waiting for a reply, he continued, “Where I spy a wealthy citizen, or a rich lawyer who has a sublime, pure wife, to that fellow I’ll send a thousand pounds for him to be my cuckold.”

Face, who was interested in money, asked, “And shall I carry it to him?”

Sir Epicure Mammon replied, “No. I’ll have no bawds except fathers and mothers. They will do it best, better than all others.”

He wanted fathers and mothers to be bawds and sell their daughters to satisfy his lust.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “And my flatterers shall be the purest and gravest of divines that I can get for money. My mere Fools shall be eloquent Members of Parliament, and then my poets will be the same who wrote so subtly of the fart — I will employ them to write about that subject.”

In 1607, Sir Henry Ludlow, Member of Parliament, loudly and famously farted during a session of the House of Commons: It was his commentary on a message from the House of Lords.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “There are a few men who would give out themselves to be studs at court and in town and everywhere. These men tell lies about ladies who are known to be very innocent of any sexual contact with these braggarts. These men I will hire and I will make them eunuchs. And they shall fan me with ten ostrich tails apiece — tails gathered in a plume to create wind when waved.”

Using another nickname for Face, he continued, “We will be brave, Puff, once we have the medicine, the Philosopher’s Stone.

“My food shall all come in, in Indian shells, dishes of agate set in gold, and studded with emeralds, sapphires, the precious stones known as hyacinths, and rubies.

“I will eat the tongues of carps, dormice, and camels’ heels, boiled in a distillate of gold, and dissolved pearl — Apicius’ diet, against the epilepsy.”

Apicius was a Roman glutton who spent his fortune on food and then committed suicide. As protection against the plague (not epilepsy, as Sir Epicure Mammon had stated), he ate such foods as camels’ heels.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber that are decorated with diamond and carbuncle.

“My footboy shall eat pheasants, calvered salmons, knots, godwits, and lamprey eels.”

Calvered salmons are salmon that have been sliced up while still alive. Sir Epicure Mammon was willing for this to happen if it would make a good dish for him to eat.

Knots and godwits are species of birds.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “I myself will eat the beards of barbels served, instead of salads.”

The “beards of barbels” are fleshy filiaments of a species of fish. They hang from the fish’s mouth and look like beards.

He continued, “I will eat oiled mushrooms, and I will eat the swelling unctuous paps of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off and dressed with an exquisite and poignant sauce.”

According to the Roman historian Pliny, a sow’s paps tasted best when cooked after the sow had given birth but before it had suckled its piglets. Sir Epicure Mammon was willing for this to happen if it would make a good dish for him to eat.

He continued, “For which, I’ll say to my cook, ‘There’s gold for you; go forth, and be a Knight.’”

In the reign of King James I, people could purchase Knighthoods.

Face said, “Sir, I’ll go look a little, and see how the alchemical process is going and how the color heightens.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Do.”

Face exited.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “My shirts I’ll have made of the fine silk cloth known as taffeta-sarsnet, which is as soft and light as cobwebs, and as for all my other raiment, it shall be such as might provoke the Persian, if he were to teach the world about riotous and dissipated behavior again.”

The Persian is Sardanapalus, a King of Ninevah who was renowned for luxurious living.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “My gloves will be made of fishes’ and birds’ skins, perfumed with gums of paradise, and eastern air —”

“Gums of paradise” are perfumes from the Middle East, where people believed the Garden of Eden was located.

Surly asked, “And do you think to have the philosopher’s stone with all this?”

Sir Epicure Mammon replied, “No, but I do think to have all this with the philosopher’s stone.”

Surly said, “Why, I have heard, the man who gets the philosopher’s stone must be homo frugi — a frugal man, an honest and temperate man, a pious and holy and religious man, a man free from mortal sin, and a man who is a complete virgin.”

Sir Epicure Mammon replied, “The man who makes the philosopher’s stone must be such a man, sir, but I am buying, not making, it. My investment brings it to me. Subtle the alchemist is an honest wretch; he is a notable, superstitious-in-the-sense-of-believing-religion, good soul. He has worn his knees bare and his slippers bald by praying and fasting for the philosopher’s stone, and, sir, let him do it alone, for me, always.”

Seeing Subtle entering the room, Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Here he comes. Don’t say a profane word in front of him; it is poison.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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