Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 6

— 2.6 —

Face, who was now wearing his Captain’s uniform, entered the room. Abel Drugger followed him.

Captain Face said to Drugger, “The alchemist is busy with his spirits, but we’ll see him.”

Subtle said, “What is it? What mates and what Bayards have we here?”

“Mates” are “low fellows.” “Bayard” is a common name for a horse. The proverb “as bold as blind Bayard” referred to blundering into places where the blunderer did not belong.

Captain Face said to Drugger, “I told you that he would be furious.”

He then said to Subtle, “Sir, here’s Nab. He has brought you another piece of gold to look on.”

“Nab” is a nickname for Abel.

He said to Drugger, “We must appease him. Give the gold piece to me.”

Drugger gave the gold coin to Face, who gave it to Subtle, saying, “He asks that you would devise for him — what is it, Nab?”

“A sign, sir.”

“Yes,” Face said. “A good lucky one, a thriving sign, doctor.”

“I was devising now,” Subtle said.

He meant that he had been creating Drugger’s horoscope.

Face whispered to him, “By God’s light, do not say so. Drugger will repent he gave you any more gold.”

He then said out loud, “What say you to his constellation — Libra — Doctor? Should the balance be his sign?”

Subtle decided to do something different from that. He did not want Drugger to repent giving more gold.

“No, that way is stale, and common,” Subtle said. “A townsman born in Taurus gives the bull, or the bull’s-head, as his sign. A townsman born in Aries gives the ram as his sign. It’s a poor device!

“No, I will have Drugger’s name formed in some mystic characters whose emanations, striking the senses of the passersby, shall, by a powerful influence, breed inclinations, such as a powerful desire for tobacco, that may benefit the party who owns the sign. Let me think.”

Subtle was going to create a rebus for Abel Drugger. A rebus is a cryptic representation of a name, word, phrase, or sentence, using pictures and letters.

Face said excitedly, “Nab!”

Subtle said, “He shall have a bell, that’s Abel. And by it standing a man whose name is Dee, wearing a rug gown, aka an academic’s coarse wool gown.”

Dee is Dr. John Dee (1527-1608), an English alchemist and astrologer.

Subtle continued, “There’s D, and Rug, that’s drug. And right against him a dog snarling grr. There’s Drugger, Abel Drugger. That’s his sign. And here’s now mystery and hieroglyphic!”

Face said, “Abel, you are made.”

Drugger replied, bowing, “Sir, I do thank his worship.”

Face said, “Six more of your bows will not do it, Nab. They won’t be enough to thank the doctor properly.”

Face said to Subtle, “He has brought you a pipe of tobacco, doctor.”

Perhaps Drugger had been carrying the pipe of tobacco for his own use.

“Yes, sir,” Drugger said.

He gave the tobacco to Face, who gave it to Subtle.

Drugger added, “I have another thing I would like to say —”

“Out with it, Nab,” Face said.

Drugger said, “Sir, there is lodged, very near to me, a rich young widow.”

“Good,” Face said. “A bona roba?”

A bona roba is a fashionably dressed woman; in slang, the phrase means a prostitute.

Drugger said, “She is only nineteen, at the most.”

“Very good, Abel,” Face said.

“She’s not in fashion yet,” Drugger said. “She wears a French hood, but it stands acop.”

French hoods were not in fashion; hats were. But the young widow did wear it on top of her head instead of at the back. “Acop” meant “on top.”

“That doesn’t matter, Abel,” Face said.

Drugger said, “And I do now and then give her a fucus —”

A fucus is a kind of cosmetic.

Face said, “What! Do you deal, Nab?”

He meant deal in products other than tobacco.

Subtle said, “I did tell you, Captain Face.”

He wanted Drugger to believe that he — Subtle — had said that he had told Captain Face that Drugger would be successful. One sign of success is branching out and selling more and different products.

Drugger continued, “— and medicine, too, sometimes, sir, for which she trusts me with all her mind. She’s come up here for the purpose of learning the latest fashions.”

Face said, “Good.”

He whispered to Subtle, “If she goes to Drugger for advice about fashion, she’s as foolish as he is.”

He said out loud, “Go on, Nab.”

Drugger said, “And she very greatly longs to know her fortune.”

“By God’s eyelid, Nab,” Captain Face said, “send her to Doctor Subtle here.”

“Yes, I have spoken to her about his worship already,” Drugger said, “but she’s afraid that gossip about it will be blown abroad, and hurt her prospects for marriage.”

“Hurt her prospects for marriage!” Captain Face said. “Why, it is the way to heal her prospects, if they were hurt. It is the way to make marriage with her more pursued and sought. Nab, you shall tell her this: If she comes here, she’ll be more known, more talked about — and your widows are never of any good price until they are famous. The honor of widows lies in their multitude of suitors. Send her; it may be your good fortune.”

Drugger shook his head no.

Captain Face said, “What! You do not know.”

Drugger said, “No, sir, it won’t be my good fortune. She’ll never marry anyone of less social status than a Knight: Her brother has made a vow.”

“What!” Captain Face said, “and do you despair, my little Nab, knowing what Doctor Subtle has predicted for your future, and seeing so many wealthy tradesmen of the city dubbed a Knight by King James I in return for money?

“One glass of your water, with a madam — a witch — I know will make her fall in love with you, Nab. The witch can turn your urine into a love potion.

“Who is her brother? Is he a Knight?”

“No, sir,” Drugger said. “He is a gentleman newly warm in his land, sir. He has just inherited it. He is scarcely twenty-one years old, and he governs his sister here, and he is a man himself of some three thousand pounds a year, and he has come up to London to learn to quarrel and to live by his wits, and he will go down again and die in the country.”

Like his sister, the gentleman wanted to be fashionable. Some young men of the time were known as roaring boys. They enjoyed picking quarrels, and they followed rules for doing so.

“What?” Face said. “How to quarrel?”

“Yes, sir,” Drugger said, “to carry quarrels, as gallants do; to manage them by line.”

“By line” meant “according to the rules.”

Face said, “By God’s eyelid, Nab, Doctor Subtle is the only man in Christendom for him. He has made a diagram, with mathematical demonstrations, concerning the art of quarrels: He will give the widow’s brother written instructions for quarreling.

“Go, bring them both: him and his sister the widow. And, as for you, the doctor perhaps may persuade her to love you.

“Go on. You shall give his worship a new damask suit on the basis of what I just said.”

Fine clothing was expensive.

Subtle said, “Oh, good Captain Face!”

“He shall,” Face said to Subtle. “He is the honestest fellow, Doctor.”

Face then said to Drugger, “Don’t wait for the proposal of marriage. Bring the damask and the parties here.”

“I’ll try my power, sir,” Drugger said. “I’ll do my best.”

“And try your will, too, Nab,” Face said. The word “will” meant both “inclination to do something” and “sexual desire” for the widow.

Smoking the pipe Drugger had brought, Subtle said, “This is good tobacco! What does it cost per ounce?”

“He’ll send you a pound, Doctor Subtle,” Face said.

“Oh, no,” Subtle said, pretending that he did not want such an expensive gift.

“He will do it,” Face said. “He is the goodest soul!”

He then said, “Abel, go about it. You shall know more soon. Go away, be gone.”

Abel Drugger exited.

Face said to Subtle, “Drugger is a miserable rogue, and lives on cheese, and has the worms. That was the reason, indeed, why he came here just now. He dealt with me in private to get a medicine for the worms.”

“And he shall get it, sir,” Subtle said. “This is working out well.”

“A wife, a wife for one of us, my dear Subtle!” Face said. “We’ll draw lots on equal terms, and he who fails shall have the more in goods because the other will have more in tail.”

Face was punning. “Entail” was a legal term about one kind of inheritance. “In tail” was slang for “in pussy.”

Subtle replied, “Rather the less in goods, for the widow may be so light that she may lack grains.”

In addition to meaning “light in weight,” “light” was slang for “promiscuous.” A light woman’s heels were light and were easily raised in the air with her knees apart. If the widow were light (and promiscuity would lower her value because no man wants to be a cuckold), her husband would need more in goods (a grain = a unit of weight) in order to have a share equal with that of the con man who did not marry her.

Face said, “Yes, or she may be such a burden that a man would scarcely endure her for the whole.”

“Whole” was another pun. If the widow were a bad wife, her husband might scarcely endure her for the whole take of the cons. Face’s use of “whole” also meant “hole,” and so if the widow were a bad wife, her husband might scarcely endure her although she has a vagina.

Subtle said, “Indeed, it’s best we see her first, and then determine what to do.”

“That’s fine by me,” Face said, “but Doll must hear no words about this.”

“I will be mum,” Subtle said. “Go now, and meet your Surly yonder; catch him.”

Face said, “I pray to God that I have not stayed too long.”

“I fear that you may have,” Subtle said.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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