Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 4

— 2.4 —

Subtle and Doll Common entered the room.

Using a fishing metaphor, Subtle asked about Sir Epicure Mammon, “Did he bite? Did he bite?”

Face replied, “Yes, and he has swallowed the bait, too, my Subtle. I have given him line, and now he plays, indeed.”

“And shall we twitch the pole and hook him?” Subtle asked.

“Yes, and through both gills,” Face said. “A wench is a rare bait with which a man no sooner’s taken, but he immediately moves briskly and madly — he firks madly.”

Such movements can be made during sex.

Subtle said, “Doll, you who will be my Lord What’t’s’hum’s sister, you must now bear yourself statelich.”

Statelich is Dutch for “stately and aristocratically.”

“Oh, leave it to me,” Doll said. “I’ll not forget my race, I promise you.”

She meant both that she would not forget her background and that she would not forget who she was going to pretend to be.

She added, “I’ll keep my distance, laugh, and talk aloud, have all the tricks of a proud scurvy lady, and be as rude as her woman servant.”

A proud scurvy lady’s woman servant would be rude to someone such as Doll Common.

Face said, “Well said, Sanguine!”

A sanguine person is thought to be amorous, optimistic, and brave.

Subtle asked, “But will he send his andirons?”

“Yes,” Face replied. “He will send his jack, too, and his iron shoeing-horn. I have spoken to him.”

Referring to Surly, Face added, “Well, I must not lose my wary gamester yonder.”

Subtle said, “He is Monsieur Caution, who will not be gulled.”

Face said, “Yes. If only I can strike a fine hook into him, now! I have cast my hook at the Temple Church. Well, pray for me. I’ll go about it.”

Knocking sounded at the door.

Subtle said, “What, more gudgeons!”

Gudgeons were small fish that were thought to swallow anything.

Subtle said, “Doll, scout, scout!”

Doll Common went to the window to see who was knocking.

Subtle said, “Wait, Face, you must go to the door. I pray to God that the knocker is my Anabaptist.”

Anabaptists were members of what was thought to be an extreme Protestant sect. They believed in adult baptism, common ownership of property, and theocracy. Some Anabaptists wanted to ban all books except the Bible.

Subtle asked, “Who is it, Doll?”

“I don’t know him,” Doll answered. “He looks like a gold-end man.”

A gold-end man would buy bits and pieces of gold and silver.

“Good,” Subtle said. “It is the man the Anabaptist said he would send. He said he would send … what do you call him? Ah, the sanctified elder, who would bargain to buy Sir Epicure Mammon’s jack and andirons.

“Let him in.”

Face exited.

Subtle said to Doll, “Wait, first help me take off my gown.”

A gown is a loose, flowing upper garment.

Doll helped him take it off, and then Subtle said to her, “Go, Madam, to your withdrawing chamber.”

Doll exited, carrying the gown.

Subtle said to himself, “Now, in a new tune, with a new gesture, but using old language. This fellow is sent from one who is negotiating with me about the philosopher’s stone, too. He is negotiating on behalf of the holy brethren of Amsterdam, the exiled saints, who hope to raise their discipline and increase its power and influence by it.”

The holy brethren of Amsterdam and the exiled saints were the Anabaptists.

In 1534, the Anabaptist John of Leiden seized control of Münster, Germany, and called himself King of Münster. The Anabaptists also tried but failed to take control of some Dutch towns, including Amsterdam. After a long siege, the city was taken back and John of Leiden was tortured and executed. This event made people believe that Anabaptists were dangerous radicals. Many Anabaptists left Amsterdam and resided in England.

In 1604, many Anabaptists left England and went into exile in Amsterdam because they refused to accept the 39 Articles that spelled out the beliefs and doctrines of the Church of England.

Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist was first performed in 1610.

Subtle said to himself, “I must treat him in some strange fashion, now, to make him wonder at me.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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