Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 3, Scene 4

— 3.4 —

Dapper entered the room.

Face, who was dressed like a Captain, said to him, “Oh, sir, you are welcome. The Doctor is inside working for you. I have had to take many pains to persuade him to do it!

“He swears you’ll be the darling of the dice. He says that he never heard her highness the Queen of Fairy dote until now. Your aunt has spoken about you the most gracious words that can be thought on.”

“Shall I see her grace?” Dapper asked.

“You shall see her, and kiss her, too,” Face replied.

Abel Drugger entered the room, followed by Kastril.

Face said, “What, honest Nab! Have you brought the damask?”

“No, sir,” Drugger said. “Here’s the tobacco.”

Face said, “That is well done, Nab. Will you bring the damask, too?”

“Yes,” Drugger said. “Captain Face, here’s the gentleman, Master Kastril, whom I have brought to see the Doctor.”

“Where’s the widow?” Captain Face asked.

Drugger replied, “Sir, if Kastril likes what happens here, his sister, he says, shall come.”

“Is that so?” Captain Face said. “All in good time.”

He then asked, “Is your name Kastril, sir?”

Kastril replied, “Yes, and I’m the best of the Kastrils. I’d be sorry otherwise by fifteen hundred pounds a year.”

He was the oldest male son and so had inherited the bulk of his late father’s estate.

He asked, “Where is the Doctor? My mad tobacco-boy, here, tells me that the Doctor is a man who can do things. Has the Doctor any skill?”

“In what, sir?” Captain Face asked.

“To carry out the business of dueling — that is, to manage a quarrel fairly, upon fit terms and according to the rules,” Kastril said.

“It seems, sir, you are new to London,” Face said, “since you wonder about his ability to do that.”

Kastril, who was from the country, said, “Sir, I am not so young, but I have heard some speech of the angry boys, and seen them take tobacco in Drugger’s shop, and I can take tobacco, too, and I would like to be one of the angry boys, and go down and practice being angry in the country.”

The angry boys, aka roaring boys, were upper-class hooligans who smoked tobacco and who insulted and fought people. Dueling was illegal in England, but many people died in duels in France. The angry boys wanted to learn the rules for insulting and fighting people because the rules would let them know to what extent they could insult other people without having to fight a duel.

Face said, “Sir, as for the duello, the Doctor, I assure you, shall inform and educate you to the least shadow of a hair; and he will show you a document he has written. When you report to him a quarrel you are involved in, he can tell you how serious the quarrel is, and how safe or dangerous it is, and whether or not a duel to the death must be fought.

“He will let you know how the quarrel may be borne, whether in a right line, or a half circle, or else may be cast into an angle that is blunt, if not acute. All this he will demonstrate. And then, he will teach you rules for giving and receiving insults about being a liar.”

“What?” Kastril said. “To take the insult of being a liar?”

Face replied, “Yes, in oblique he’ll show you how to take the insult, or in a circle he’ll show you how to take the insult, but never in diameter.”

To be directly accused of being a liar — for example, “You lie in your throat” — was an insult that required a duel to settle. Being accused indirectly of lying, however, need not result in a duel. There were other ways to handle the issue.

Face continued, “The whole town of London studies his theorems about quarreling, and disputes and discusses them ordinarily at the eating academies.”

The “eating academies” were ordinaries — places for eating and drinking and gambling. Face was playing with language.

Kastril asked, “Does he teach living by the wits, too?”

A person who lives by his wits is able to survive and advance himself with his intelligence. A person who lives by his wits lacks a regular source of income and often is forced to cheat others. Possibly, Kastril thought that living by one’s wits meant being witty and making puns.

Face replied, “He teaches anything whatsoever. You cannot think of any subtle subject but he reads and understands it.

“Can he teach living by one’s wits? Look at me. He made me a Captain. I was a stark pimp previously and was a novice to gambling like you, before I met with him. That was not even two months ago. I’ll tell you his method: First, he will introduce you at some ordinary eating and drinking place. He will enter you there as if you were a student.”

Apparently, Face wanted Kastril to think that Face had become a Captain as a result of winning at gambling — something he had learned from Doctor Subtle.

“No,” Kastril said. “I’ll not go there. You shall pardon me.”

“Why not, sir?” Captain Face asked.

“There’s gambling there, and tricks, and cheating.”

“What!” Face said. “Do you want to be a gallant and not gamble?”

“Yes, gambling will financially ruin a man. It will spend a man.”

“Spend a man” meant “waste a man’s wealth.”

“Spend you!” Face said. “It will repair you when you are spent. How do they live by their wits there, who have spent six times your fortunes?”

Kastril said, “What? Three thousand pounds a year!”

Apparently, this was his annual income. If he had been a younger son, he would have been poorer by fifteen hundred pounds per year. But possibly his real annual income was five hundred pounds a year, and he had been exaggerating his annual income earlier.

Face said, “Yes, forty thousand.”

Forty thousand pounds would produce a good annual income.

Face may have been stating that Kastril would definitely lose all his money gambling. Kastril wanted to learn how to live by his wits, and people with steady sources of income do not need to live by their wits.

Kastril asked, “Are there such men?”

“Yes, sir,” Captain Face replied. “And they are still gallants and dress well.”

He pointed to Dapper and said, “Here’s a young gentleman who was born to nothing. He has forty marks a year, which I count as nothing. He is to be initiated into the world of gallantry and receive a familiar spirit from the Doctor to help him win at gambling. Dapper will win, by irresistible luck, within this fortnight, enough to buy a Barony for himself. His Barony and the money he wins will cause people to treat him with great respect. They will set him at the head of the table, the position of honor, at the groom-porter’s all the Christmas season.”

A groom-porter was a court officer of the English Royal Household. He managed gambling and resolved disputes related to gambling.

Captain Face continued, “And for the whole year through, at every place, where there is gambling, they will present him with the chair of honor, the best service, the best drink and sometimes will present him with two glasses of Canary wine and pay nothing.”

Captain Face may have wanted Kastril to think that Dapper would pay nothing, but actually he had said that whoever presented Dapper with two glasses of Canary wine would pay nothing — and would possibly drink one of the glasses of wine.

Captain Face continued, “They will present him with the purest linen and the sharpest knife. The partridge will be next to his plate, and somewhere he will be presented with a dainty bed, in private, with the dainty.”

The dainty is a dainty woman — a prostitute.

All of this would be the result of the money that Dapper expected to win at gambling.

Captain Face continued, “You shall have your ordinaries bid for him, as playhouses bid for a poet.”

Poets such as William Shakespeare wrote plays. A good poet was highly valued, and Shakespeare did well financially.

Captain Face continued, “The master of the ordinary will ask him to say aloud what dish he wants, which must be buttered shrimps, and those who drink to no mouth else, will drink to his, as being the splendid president mouth of all the board. Yes, those who drink toasts to no one else will drink toasts to him.”

Kastril asked, “Do you not gull one? Are you deceiving me?”

“As God is my life, do you think that?” Captain Face said. “A cast-off commander — an unemployed military commander — who has little credit and can get only two pairs of gloves or two pairs of spurs without paying in advance, will, as swiftly as post-horses, by dealing with Doctor Subtle, arrive at competent means and money to keep himself, a woman for heterosexual sex, and a naked boy for homosexual sex in excellent fashion and be admired for it.”

Apparently, if you have enough money, you can be admired for unethical behavior. This is as true now as it was then. Quite a few highly respected rock stars have allegedly slept with underage girls. A rich USAmerican President has boasted about grabbing women “by the pussy.”

Kastril asked, “Will the Doctor teach this?”

Captain Face said, “He will do more, sir, when your land is gone, as men of spirit hate to keep earth long —”

He was saying clearly that Kastril would lose his land and so lose his income. Kastril would probably do this through gambling — Kastril had neglected to ask for a familiar spirit as Dapper had done to help him win at gambling. (Not that a familiar spirit would help him win at gambling.)

Kastril no doubt thought that being a man of spirit was a good thing.

Captain Face continued, “— in a vacation, when small money is stirring, and ordinaries are suspended until the term —”

London was much quieter during vacations between law terms.

Captain Face continued, “— he’ll show you a perspective, where on one side you shall see the faces and the persons of all sufficient young heirs in town, whose bonds are current for commodity. On the other side, you shall see the merchants’ forms, and others, who without the help of any second broker who would expect a share, will trust such parcels. In the third square, you shall see the exact street and sign where the commodity is, and does but wait to be delivered, be it pepper, soap, hops, or tobacco, oatmeal, woad (a plant used to make blue dye), or cheeses. All of these things you may so handle, to enjoy to your own use, and never stand obliged to pay for them.”

As a man who had lost his money and land and the rest of his inheritance through gambling, Kastril would have to live by his wits. The “perspective” — possibly a magic mirror — that Doctor Subtle would supposedly show him would let him know who are the young men who are being cheated in the commodities swindle — taking out a loan and getting part of the loan in much overvalued commodities. It would also show him the merchants and others who would profit from supplying the commodities. Finally, it would show him where the commodities were stored. The heirs would get the commodities, have little use for them, and store them. Kastril, who was living by his wits, would break in and steal the commodities.

“Really!” Kastril said. “Is he such a fellow?”

He thought that getting the commodities without paying for them would be wonderful.

Face replied, “Why, Nab here knows him. And then for making wedding matches for rich widows, young gentlewomen, heirs, he’s the most fortunate man who can deliver the greatest amount of fortune when arranging a match. Doctor Subtle’s sent to, from far and near, from all over England, by people who want to have his counsel, and to know their fortunes.”

“By God’s will, my suster shall see him,” Kastril said.

He was a country boy, and he used the country-boy pronunciation of “sister.”

“I’ll tell you, sir, what he told me about Nab,” Captain Face said. “It’s a strange thing!”

He then said to Drugger, “By the way, you must eat no cheese, Nab. It breeds melancholy, and that same melancholy breeds worms, but forget it.”

Captain Face said to Kastril, “He told me that honest Nab here was never in a tavern but once in his life.”

Drugger said, “That’s the truth, and no more than once.”

Captain Face said, “And then he was so sick —”

With a hangover, no doubt.

Drugger said, “Could he tell you that, too?”

“How else would I know it?” Captain Face replied.

Drugger said, “In truth we had been out shooting and had a piece of fat ram-mutton for supper, and it lay so heavy on my stomach —”

Captain Face interrupted, “And he has no head to bear any wine; for what with the noise of the fiddlers, and care of his shop, for he dares to keep no servants —”

Drugger did not trust servants, and so he ran the shop by himself.

Drugger said, “My head did so ache —”

Captain Face said, “And he was eager to be brought home, Doctor Subtle told me, and then a good old woman —”

Drugger interrupted, “— yes, indeed, she dwells in Sea-coal Lane, and she did cure me with boiled ale and the plant known as pellitory of the wall. It cost me only two-pence.”

He hesitated and said, “I had another sickness that was worse than that.”

Captain Face said, “Yes, that was with the grief you suffered for being assessed at eighteen-pence for the water-work.”

Pump houses were being built in London to provide Thames River water to houses.

Drugger said, “That’s the truth, and it was likely to have cost me almost my life.”

“Your hair fell out?” Captain Face asked.

“Yes, sir,” Drugger said.

Baldness can be a sign of syphilis.

Drugger added, “The high assessment was done out of spite.”

Captain Face said, “That’s correct — so says Doctor Subtle.”

Kastril said, “Please, tobacco-boy, go fetch my suster. I’ll see this learned boy before I go, and so shall she.”

Captain Face said, “Sir, he is busy now, but if you have a sister to fetch hither, perhaps your own efforts may bring her here sooner, and he by that time will be free.”

Kastril said, “I am leaving.”

He exited.

Captain Face said, “Drugger, the widow is yours! You shall marry her! The damask!”

Abel Drugger exited.

Captain Face thought, Subtle and I must wrestle to decide who marries the widow.

Subtle was an older man, so Face would almost certainly win the wrestling match.

Face said out loud, “Come on, Master Dapper, you see how I turn clients here away so that we can give your cause swift dispatch. Have you performed the ceremonies we prescribed for you?”

Dapper replied, “Yes, I used the vinegar, and I put on a clean shirt.”

Captain Face said, “That’s good. That clean shirt may do you more good than you think. The Queen of Fairy, your aunt, is on fire, although she will not show it, to have a sight of you. Have you provided for her grace’s servants?”

Dapper was supposed to bring money for the servants of the Queen of Fairy.

Dapper replied, “Yes, here are six score Edward shillings.”

“Good!” Captain Face said.

These were shillings minted during the reign of King Edward VI.

“And an old Harry’s sovereign.”

This was a sovereign minted during the reign of King Henry VIII.

Coins were identified by whose reign they were minted in because the amount of precious metal in the coins varied from sovereign to sovereign.

“Very good!” Captain Face said.

“And three James shillings, and an Elizabeth groat. Altogether, they are exactly twenty nobles.”

The sovereigns were King James I and Queen Elizabeth I.

“Oh, you are too exact,” Captain Face said.

He would have preferred that Dapper bring more than exactly twenty nobles.

He added, “I wish you had had the other noble in Maries.”

Queen Mary I was the sovereign between King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I. After she married, both her portrait and her husband’s portrait appeared on coins.

Dapper said, “I have some Philip and Maries.”

These were coins bearing the faces of Queen Mary of England and her husband, the future King Philip II of Spain. Maries were rare because Bloody Mary reigned only one year before marrying Philip. She began her reign in July 1553 and married Philip of Spain on 25 July 1554. Philip of Spain became King Philip II of Spain on 16 January 1556, and Queen Mary died on 17 November 1558.

Captain Face said, “Yes, those are the best of all.”

Those coins were the best of all because they were in addition to the coins he had already received. Or Face may have been making a joke because those two sovereigns were NOT the best of all. Queen Mary I attempted to make England a Catholic nation again. Some Protestant bishops, including Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were burnt at the stake, and other violence broke out, resulting in her being known as Bloody Mary. As King Philip II of Spain, Philip attempted to invade England with the Spanish Armada in 1588. Fortunately, England decisively defeated the Spanish Armada.

Captain Face asked, “Where are they?”

Dapper handed the coins to Captain Face, who said, “Listen, I hear the Doctor.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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