Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 3, Scene 2

— 3.2 —

Subtle said to Tribulation Wholesome, “Oh, have you come?”

He pointed to an hourglass and said, “It was time. Your threescore minutes were at the last thread, you see, and down had gone furnus acediae, turris circulatorius: Alembec, bolt’s-head, retort, and pelican had all been cinders.”

The word “thread” referred to the thread of life. A few minutes longer, and Subtle — he said — would have killed the process of making the philosopher’s stone. He would have destroyed everything, including the furnus acediae (Latin for “furnace of sloth, or “lazy Henry) and the turris circulatorius (circulating tower).

Seeing Ananias, Subtle said, “Wicked Ananias! Have you returned? Well, then, I will still destroy the apparatus making the philosopher’s stone.”

Tribulation Wholesome said, “Sir, be appeased. Ananias has come to humble himself in spirit, and to ask your patience if too much religious zeal has carried him aside from the due path.”

“Why, this does qualify!” Subtle said.

“Qualify” is an alchemical term meaning “dilute.” Subtle was saying that his rage was becoming diluted and weaker.

Tribulation Wholesome said, “The brethren had no intention, truly, to give you the least grievance. Instead, they are ready to lend their willing hands to any project the Holy Spirit and you direct them to.”

“This qualifies more!” Subtle said.

Tribulation Wholesome said, “And as for the orphans’ goods, let them be valued. And whatever else is needed for the holy work of making the philosopher’s stone, it shall be paid in ready money. Here, in my person, the saints throw down their purse before you.”

Revelation 4:10 begins, “The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne” (King James Version).

“This qualifies most!” Subtle said, “Why, this is how it should be — now you understand.

“I have talked to you about our philosopher’s stone and about the good that it shall bring your cause.

“I have shown you other benefits in addition to the main point of hiring forces abroad and drawing the Hollanders, your friends, from the Indies, to serve you, with all their fleet.”

With the gold made with the philosopher’s stone, the Anabaptists could hire mercenaries and the Netherlands’ mighty fleet of ships that protected their trade interests in the Indies. Subtle was hinting that the Anabaptists could be traitors to England; they could use the mercenaries to attack and take control of England.

Subtle continued, “I have said that even the medicinal use of the philosopher’s stone — the elixir of life — shall make you a faction and party in the realm. You shall have political power. For example, let’s say that some great man in government has the gout. Why, if you send him three drops of your elixir of life, you will help him immediately, and you will have made him a friend of Anabaptism. Let’s say that another has the palsy, aka tremors, or the dropsy, aka edema; he takes some of your incombustible stuff — your elixir — and he’s young again. Here again you have made a friend of Anabaptism.”

Literally, people with dropsy retain water and their body swells up. Two salt-related symptoms of adrenal fatigue are the swelling of edema and a craving for salt. Subtle’s clients also suffer from cravings — for money and/or power.

“Let’s take a lady who has aged and is no longer able to physically have sex, although she still thinks about it. Her face has aged so much that the use of makeup will no longer help her look beautiful. With the alchemical medicine known as the oil of talc, you restore her youth, her beauty, and her ability to have sex. There you have made a friend — and you have made all her friends your friends.”

By “her friends,” Subtle meant “her lovers.”

Subtle continued, “Take a lord who has leprosy, a Knight who has the bone-ache, or a squire who has both of these medical problems. You make them smooth and sound with a mere rubbing on of your alchemical medicine, and again you increase the number of your friends.”

The bone-ache is syphilis.

Tribulation Wholesome said, “What you say is very pregnant of promise and a convincing argument.”

Subtle said, “And then the turning of this lawyer’s pewter to plate at Christmas —”

Ananias interrupted, “At Christ-tide, please.”

Some Anabaptists did not want to say the syllable “mas” or the word “mass” because of the Catholic Mass.

“Yet, Ananias!” Subtle said. “Do you still bother me?”

“I have finished talking,” Ananias said.

Subtle continued, “— turning of this lawyer’s pewter to plate at Christmas or changing his parcel gilt — partially gilded silver — to massy, aka solid, gold.”

He had deliberately used the word “massy.’

Subtle continued, “You cannot but increase the number of your friends. Indeed, you will have the power to pay an army on the battlefield, to buy the King of France out of his realms, or to buy the Indies from the King of Spain.”

King Henri IV of France had been assassinated on 14 May 1610, a little earlier than the present time. His son who succeeded him was only eight years old. In 1607, King Philip III of Spain had gone bankrupt because of a lack of silver shipments from the Indies.

The Anabaptists were businessmen as well as religious men, and they had a reputation for driving hard bargains. Subtle was saying that they were very capable of taking advantage of a child and of a man down on his luck.

Subtle continued, “What can you not do against lords, whether spiritual or temporal, who shall oppose you?”

“Verily, what you say is true,” Tribulation Wholesome said. “We may be temporal lords ourselves, I take it.”

Temporal lords are not members of the clergy.

Temporal lords need not say prayers or preach sermons or sing in church, which are things Anabaptists presumably want to do.

Subtle replied, “You may be anything you want, and you may leave off to make — stop or take time off from doing something in order to make — long-winded exercises.”

The Anabaptists had reputations for making very long sermons and prayers.

Subtle continued, “Or you may suck up your ha! and hum! in a tune.”

They could also make singing ha! and hum! a part of the church service.

The ha! and hum! referred to an Anabaptist practice of making these sounds during prayers and sermons.

Subtle continued, “I do not deny that people who are powerless in a state, may, for their own ends, be adverse and contrary to the state in their religion, and get a tune to call the flock together. You can gain followers in your religion and use them to gain political power; one way to gain religious followers is through religious music. For, to say the truth, a tune does much with women and other phlegmatic — unemotional and calm — people; it is your bell. Like a church bell, tunes will call people to worship.”

Ananias objected, “Bells are profane; a tune may be religious.”

Subtle said to Ananias, “You don’t listen to warnings! So then I say ‘farewell’ to my patience. By God’s light, I shall destroy the apparatus for making the philosopher’s stone. I will not be thus tortured.”

“Please, sir—” Tribulation Wholesome began.

Subtle interrupted, “Everything shall perish. I have spoken it.”

“Let me find grace and mercy, sir, in your eyes,” Tribulation Wholesome said. “The man Ananias stands corrected. His religious zeal did not allow a tune somewhere except as you yourself had said a tune could be used. You agreed on that point. But now, since the philosopher’s stone is nearly completed, we shall not need tunes.”

Since the Anabaptists would have gold to make friends, they wouldn’t need to have tunes to make friends, and so there was no need to worry about whether or not tunes are comparable to church bells.

Subtle replied, “No, you shall not need tunes, nor your holy vizard, aka holy mask, to win widows to give you legacies or make zealous wives rob their husbands for the common cause, nor shall you need to take advantage of bonds whose terms have been broken only one day and say that their collateral is forfeited by providence. Nor shall you need all night to eat huge meals so that you can better celebrate your next day’s fast while the brethren and the sisters, humbled, abate the stiffness of the flesh.”

“Abate” means “cause to become smaller.” “Stiffness” has two meanings. It means “pride”; however, “the stiffness of the flesh” also means “erection.”

Subtle continued, “Nor shall you need to cast before your hungry hearers scrupulous bones.”

If the Anabaptists became temporal lords, they need not concern themselves with much that they concerned themselves with.

“Scrupulous bones” are petty points of religious contention. Here the points of contention are about the proper behavior of an Anabaptist.

Subtle continued, “For example, whether a Christian may hawk or hunt, or whether matrons of the holy assembly may lay their hair out to create fashionable and elaborate hairstyles, or wear doublets, which are properly worn by men only, or have that idol starch about their linen.”

The Anabaptists opposed hunting with hawks and hunting in general. They also opposed elaborate hairstyles for women, women wearing men’s clothing, and the use of starch on clothing. The Anabaptists opposed many things on the grounds that they were worldly and/or vain and/or opposed to Biblical strictures.

Deuteronomy 22:5 states, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God” (King James Version).

Ananias said about starch, “It is indeed an idol.”

Tribulation Wholesome said to Subtle, “Don’t mind him, sir.”

He then said to the spirit that he believed — or pretended to believe — was within Ananias, “I do command you, spirit of religious zeal, but also trouble, to be silent and calm within him!”

He said to Subtle, “Please, sir, go on.”

Subtle said, “Nor shall you need to libel the prelates, and shorten your ears in preparation for the hearing of the next wire-drawn grace.”

The Puritans sometimes severely criticized the officials of the Church of England. Punishment for doing this could include being placed in a pillory and having one’s ears cut off. This was the punishment for seditious libel.

People created wire by drawing or pulling and stretching metal. Puritan prayers before a meal — grace — were long and drawn out, and Subtle was saying that having one’s ears cut off was good preparation for experiencing a Puritan grace.

Subtle continued, “Nor shall you of necessity rail against plays, to please the alderman whose daily custard you devour.”

Many aldermen were hostile to the theater because they felt that play-going spread the plague. Since all actors at this time were male, boys or young men playing women would wear women’s clothing, which violated the stricture against wearing women’s clothing found in Deuteronomy 22:5. Also, many aldermen felt that going to plays encouraged workers to waste time.

Subtle continued, “Nor shall you lie with zealous rage until you are hoarse. Not one of these so singular arts will you need to perform. Nor shall you need to call yourselves by names such as Tribulation, Persecution, Restraint, Long-patience, and so on, which are affected by the whole family or collection of you only for glory and to catch the ear of the disciple.”

With the wealth created by the philosopher’s stone, Anabaptists would no longer need to act like Anabaptists. Great wealth does things like that.

Tribulation Wholesome said, “Truly, sir, they are ways that the godly brethren have invented for propagation of the glorious cause as very notable means, and whereby also the godly brethren themselves grow quickly and profitably famous.”

Subtle replied, “Oh, but all’s idle to the philosopher’s stone! Nothing compares to it! It is the art of angels, nature’s miracle, the divine secret that flies in clouds from east to west, and whose tradition is not from men, but spirits.”

The Catholic Church followed and respected religious traditions. The Anabaptists rejected religious tradition and followed only what they found in the Bible.

Ananias said, “I hate traditions; I do not trust them.”

Tribulation Wholesome said, “Peace! Silence!”

“Traditions are all Popish,” Ananias said. “I will not be silent! I will not!”

Tribulation Wholesome warned, “Ananias!”

Ananias responded, “To please the profane, and to grieve the godly — I may not.”

Subtle said, “Well, Ananias, you shall overcome.”

Tribulation Wholesome said to Subtle, “It is an ignorant zeal that haunts him, sir. But truly, other than that, he is a very faithful brother, a tailor who repairs garments and so is an example of frugality, and a man who has by revelation a competent knowledge of the truth.”

Subtle asked, “Has he a competent sum there in his money bag to buy the goods inside? I have been made the guardian of these orphans and must for the sake of charity, and conscience, now see the most is made for my poor orphans although I also want the brethren to be gainers: In this situation, I am trying to make a win-win bargain. The orphans’ goods are inside. When you have viewed and bought them and taken the inventory of what they are, they will be ready for projection. There will be nothing more to do than cast on the alchemical medicine and transmute the metal. As much silver as there is tin inside, and as much gold as there is brass inside, I will give to you. I will transmute it for you, weight for weight. The weight of tin now will be the weight of silver later, and the weight of brass now will be the weight of gold later.”

Tribulation Wholesome asked, “But how long a time, sir, must the saints wait yet?”

Subtle replied, “Let me see, how’s the Moon now? Eight, nine, ten days hence, he will be silver potate, then three days must pass before he citronise. In some fifteen days, the magisterium — the philosopher’s stone — will be perfected.”

Ananias said, “About the second day of the third week, in the ninth month!”

He avoided the names of days and months because so many were based on the names of pagan gods or pagans. For example, August is named after Caesar Augustus, and Thursday is “Thor’s day.” Thor is a Nordic god.

Ananias was using an old-fashioned calendar that began with March — Anabaptists believed that God created the world in March. Today was November 1, and the philosopher’s stone would be ready on November 16.

“Yes, my good Ananias,” Subtle said.

Tribulation Wholesome asked Subtle, “What will the price of the orphans’ goods come to, do you think?”

Subtle said, “Approximately a hundred marks; the metal goods are as much as three filled carts, which are unladed now. You’ll make six millions from them — but I must have more coals purchased and brought in.”

“What!” Tribulation Wholesome said.

“Another load,” Subtle said, “and then we have finished. We must now increase our fire to ignis ardens, we are past fimus equinus, balnei, cineris, and all those lesser heats.”

Ignis ardens is the hottest fire; fimus equinus is the fire of horse dung, the least hot fire. In “creating” the philosopher’s stone, alchemists went from the least hot fire to the hottest fire.

Subtle said, “If the holy purse should with this draught fall low and the saints need a ready sum of money, I have a trick to melt the pewter you shall buy now, immediately, and with a tincture to color the pewter you shall make as good Dutch dollars as any are in Holland.”

Subtle was advising the Anabaptists to counterfeit Dutch currency. Dutch dollars were silver coins.

“Can you do that?” Tribulation Wholesome asked.

“Yes, and they shall pass the third examination,” Subtle replied.

The counterfeit coins would be so good that they could pass repeated close inspections.

Ananias said, “This will be joyful tidings to the brethren.”

“But you must keep this secret,” Subtle said.

One punishment for counterfeiters in the Middle Ages was being boiled alive; another was being pilloried and having their ears cut off.

Tribulation Wholesome said, “Yes, but wait. This act of coining, is it lawful?”

Ananias was eager to be a counterfeiter: “Lawful? We know no magistrate, or if we did, this is foreign coin.”

Anabaptists believed in no civil magistrate when it came to religious matters. When it came to religious matters, the only lawgiver was God.

Contrary to what Ananias thought, whether the money being counterfeited was foreign or not didn’t matter; in England, it was illegal to counterfeit foreign money as well as domestic money.

Subtle said, “It is no coining, sir. It is only casting metal.”

“Ha! You distinguish the two well,” Tribulation Wholesome said. “Casting of money may be lawful.”

Coining money and casting money in this case were the same action; both were counterfeiting money. If a government casts money, it is lawful. If alchemists or Anabaptists cast money, it is NOT lawful. Subtle was parodying Anabaptist casuistry.

“It is, sir,” Ananias said.

“Truly, I take it to be so,” Tribulation Wholesome said.

“There is no scruple, sir, to be made about it,” Subtle said. “Believe Ananias: This case of conscience he is studied in. He knows the right thing for an Anabaptist to do.”

Tribulation Wholesome said, “I’ll bring this matter to the attention of the brethren.”

“The brethren shall approve it as lawful,” Ananias said. “Don’t doubt that. Where shall it be done?”

Knocking sounded at the door.

“We’ll talk about that soon,” Subtle said. “There’s someone who has come to speak with me. Go inside, please, and view the portions of metal. Inside is the whole inventory. I’ll come to you soon.”

Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias went inside.

Subtle asked, “Who is it?”

He opened the door and said, “Face! Come inside.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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