Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 5

— 2.5 —

Ananias entered the room.

Subtle said loudly, “Where is my drudge?”

Face entered the room and said, “Sir!”

It was time to baffle Ananias with alchemical bullshit.

Subtle ordered, “Take away the recipient, and rectify your menstrue from the phlegma. Then pour it on the Sol, in the cucurbite, and let them macerate together.”

The recipient is the vessel in which distilled matter collects.

“Yes, sir,” Face said. “Should I save the ground?”

The ground is the residue left over after sublimation. Another name for it is terra damnata, which is Latin for “damned ground.”

“No,” Subtle replied. “Terra damnata must not have entrance in the work.”

Pretending to see Ananias for the first time, Subtle asked him, “Who are you?”

“A faithful brother, if it pleases you,” Ananias replied.

By “faithful brother,” Ananias meant “Anabaptist,” but Subtle deliberately misunderstood him to say that he was a fellow alchemist — the Faithful Brothers were a group of Arabian alchemists in the tenth century C.E.

“What’s that?” Subtle asked. “Are you a Lullianist — a follower of the alchemist Raymond Lully! Are you a follower of the alchemist George Ripley? Are you a filius artis?”

Filius artis is Latin for “son of the art,” aka alchemist.

Subtle asked, “Can you sublime and dulcify? Can you calcine? Do you know the sapor pontic? Sapor stiptic? Or what is homogene, or heterogene?”

Sapor is Latin for “savor,” or “taste.” Some people at this time believed that there were nine tastes; five were caused by heat, and four were caused by cold.

“I understand no heathen language, truly,” Ananias said.

The Anabaptists believed that Latin was a heathen language. The only non-heathen language was Hebrew because Adam spoke it in the Garden of Eden, Anabaptists believed.

“Heathen!” Subtle said. “You Knipperdolling!”

Bernt Knipperdolling was one of the Anabaptists who had taken over the city of Münster. He was tortured and executed after the city was retaken.

Subtle asked, “Is ars sacra, or chrysopoeia, or spagyrica, or the pamphysic, or panarchic knowledge, a heathen language!”

Ars sacra is Latin for “the sacred art.” Subtle used this Latin phrase to mean alchemy.

“It is heathen Greek, I take it,” Ananias said.

“What!” Subtle said. “Heathen Greek!”

“All languages are heathen except the Hebrew,” Ananias said.

Subtle said to Face, “Sirrah, my varlet, stand forth and speak to him like a philosopher.”

Face was supposed to be Subtle’s assistant. The word “varlet” meant “assistant.”

Subtle was going to question Face as if Subtle were a university professor and Face were a student.

Subtle then said to Face, “Answer my questions in the alchemical language. Name the vexations, and the martyrizations of metals in the work.”

Subtle used alchemical terms, but he used a few alchemical terms that were similar, at least in sound, to religious terms. He wanted Ananias to think that alchemical language was not a heathen language.

Face answered, “Sir, putrefaction, solution, ablution, sublimation, cohobation, calcination, ceration, and fixation.”

Subtle said to Ananias, “This is heathen Greek, to you, is it!”

He then asked Face, “And when does vivification come?”

Face answered, “After mortification.”

Subtle asked, “What’s cohobation?”

Face answered, “It is the pouring on your aqua regis, and then drawing him off, to the trine circle of the seven spheres.”

Alchemists often referred to materials as “him” or “her” and as “masculine” or “feminine.” They also often referred to “your” materials.

Aqua regis is Latin for “King’s water.” It was a mixture of acids that could dissolve gold.

Subtle asked, “What’s the proper passion of metals?”

Face answered, “Malleation.”

Subtle asked, “What’s your ultimum supplicium auri?”

Ultimum supplicium auri is Latin for “the ultimate punishment of gold.”

Face answered, “Antimonium.”

This is a substance that keeps gold from being malleable; to alchemists, not being malleable is the ultimate punishment of gold.

Subtle said to Ananias, “This is heathen Greek to you!”

He then asked Face, “And what’s your mercury?”

Face answered, “A very fugitive, he will be gone, sir.”

Mercury is a liquid at room temperature and is difficult or impossible to pick up using only your fingers.

Subtle asked, “How do you know him?”

“Him” referred to mercury.

Face answered, “By his viscosity, his oleosity, and his suscitability.”

Subtle asked, “How do you sublime him?”

Face answered, “With the calce of eggshells, white marble, talc.”

Subtle asked, “Your magisterium, now, what’s that?”

The “magisterium” is the “mastery of alchemy.” The person who has mastered alchemy can create the philosopher’s stone. Some people equated the magisterium with the philosopher’s stone.

Face answered, “Shifting, sir, your elements — dry into cold, cold into moist, moist into hot, hot into dry.”

According to alchemy, subjecting a primary material to this sequence of shifting would drive away everything that was not the essence of the primary element. Do this to the primary element gold and you will be left with the essence of gold, aka the philosopher’s stone.

Subtle said to Ananias, “This is heathen Greek to you still!”

Subtle asked Face, “What is your lapis philosophicus?”

Lapis philosophicus is Latin for “philosopher’s stone.”

Face answered, “It is a stone, and not a stone. It is a spirit, a soul, and a body. If you dissolve it, it is dissolved. If you coagulate it, it is coagulated. If you make it fly, it flies.”

Subtle said, “Enough.”

Face exited.

Subtle said to Ananias, “This is heathen Greek to you! Who are you, sir?”

Ananias answered, “If it should please you, I am a servant of the exiled brethren, who deal with widows and with orphans’ goods, and make a just account unto the saints. I am a deacon.”

The saints were Anabaptists; they were not Catholic saints. Anabaptists regarded themselves as the elect — the elect were chosen by God to receive eternal life.

Subtle said, “Oh, were you sent from Master Wholesome, your teacher?”

Ananias said, “Yes, from Tribulation Wholesome, our very zealous pastor.”

Many Puritans had names such as Tribulation Wholesome because they believed that common names such as William or Ben were too worldly. Ananias’ name came from the Bible.

“Good!” Subtle said. “I have some orphans’ goods coming here.”

Ananias asked, “Of what kind, sir?”

Subtle answered, “Pewter and brass, andirons and kitchenware, and metals that we must use our medicine on. The brethren may have these for a good price, as long as it is ready money.”

Ananias asked, “Were the orphans’ parents sincere professors of the Anabaptists’ faith?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because if they were, we are then to deal justly, and pay money, in truth, to the items’ utmost value.”

Subtle said, “By God’s eyelid, if the orphans’ parents were not of the faithful, you’d cheat them! I will not trust you, now I think about it, until I have talked with your pastor. Have you brought money to buy more coals?”

“No, indeed.”

“No! Why not?”

Ananias answered, “The brethren told me to say to you, sir, that indeed they will not venture any more money until they may see projection.”

“What!” Subtle said, pretending to be angry.

Ananias said, “You have had, for the instruments, such as bricks, and loam, and glasses, already thirty pounds. And for materials, they say, some ninety pounds more. And they have heard since that an alchemist at Heidelberg made the philosopher’s stone from an egg and a small paper of pin-dust.”

Heidelberg was a center of alchemy. Pin-dust is metal dust that is left over from the manufacture of metal pins.

Subtle asked, “What’s your name?”

“My name is Ananias.”

In Acts 5:1-10, we read that Ananias cheated his fellow Christians by selling a piece of property and keeping part of the money obtained.

Pretending to be angry, Subtle said, “Get out, you varlet who cheated the apostles! Leave! Go away! Flee, mischief! Didn’t your holy consistory have no name to send me, of another sound, than wicked Ananias? Send your elders here to make atonement for you, quickly, and to give me satisfaction, or out goes the fire; and down go the alembecs, and the furnace Piger Henricus, and what not.”

Piger Henricus is Latin for “Lazy Henry.” It is a type of furnace that has one fire providing the heat for many side chambers.

Subtle continued, “You wretch! Both sericon and bufo shall be lost; tell them that. All hope of rooting out the bishops, or the anti-Christian hierarchy, shall perish, if they stay away threescore minutes: one hour.”

The Anabaptists wanted to establish a theocracy with themselves as rulers. They definitely did not want Catholics to be the heads of the theocracy.

Subtle continued, “The aqueity, terreity, and sulphureity shall run together again, and all shall be annulled, you wicked Ananias!”

In other words, unless Ananias’ superiors came to Subtle within one hour, all the alchemical work he had done so far would be ruined.

Ananias exited.

Subtle said to himself, “This will fetch them, and make them hasten towards their gulling more. A man must deal like a rough nurse, and frighten those who are obstinate and give them an appetite.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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