Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 3, Scene 5

— 3.5 —

Subtle, disguised as and wearing the costume of a Priest of Fairy, entered the room. He was carrying a strip of cloth.      

Using a feigned voice, Subtle asked, “Has her grace’s cousin come yet?”

Captain Face said, “He has come.”

“And is he fasting?” Subtle asked.


“And has he cried ‘hum’?”

Face said to Dapper, “Thrice, you must answer.”

Dapper said, “Thrice.”

Subtle asked, “And as often has he said ‘buzz’?”

Face said to Dapper, “If you have, say so.”

Dapper said, “I have.”

Subtle said, “Then, to her cuz, aka nephew, hoping that he has vinegared his senses as he was bid, the Fairy Queen dispenses by me this robe, the petticoat of Lady Fortune. This petticoat he immediately must put on, she importunes. And though to Lady Fortune near be her petticoat, yet nearer is her smock, the Queen does note.”

A smock is a ladies’ undergarment. Subtle was identifying Lady Fortune and the Queen of Fairy as the same person.

Subtle, disguised as a Priest of Fairy, continued, “And therefore, a piece of her smock the Queen of Fairy has sent. When Dapper was a child, a piece of her smock was rent to wrap him in, and she requests that for a scarf he now will wear it with as much love as then her grace did tear it, around his eyes to show he is fortunate.”

They used the piece of ladies’ underwear to blindfold Dapper’s eyes.

Subtle continued, still using a feigned voice, “And, trusting to her to make his fortune and estate, the Queen of Fairy wants him to throw away all worldly pelf — all money and valuables — that are on him. Once he has performed that, she will not doubt him.”

“She need not doubt him, sir,” Face said to the disguised Subtle. “Alas, he has nothing, except what he will part with as willingly, upon her grace’s word —”

He said to Dapper, “Throw away your wallet.”

He said to Subtle, “— as she would ask it.”

He said to Dapper, “Throw away handkerchiefs and all.”

He said to Subtle, “Whatever she orders, he’ll obey.”

Dapper threw away his wallet and handkerchiefs. In this society, handkerchiefs were expensive.

Face said to Dapper, “If you have a ring on you, cast it away, or if you have a silver seal at your wrist, throw it away, too. Her grace will send her fairies here to search you; therefore, deal directly with her highness. If they find that you conceal a mite, you are ruined.”

A mite is a small coin of little monetary value.

In Luke 20:45-47 and 21:1-4 we read:

45 Then in the audience of all the people he said unto his disciples,

46 Beware of the scribes, which desire to walk in long robes, and love greetings in the markets, and the highest seats in the synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts;

47 Which devour widows’ houses, and for a shew make long prayers: the same shall receive greater damnation.

1 And he looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury.

2 And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites.

3 And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all:

4 For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had. (King James Version)

The same story is told in Mark 12:38-44.

Face and Subtle are much more like the scribes who devour widows’ houses than they are like the widow.

Dapper said, “Truly, that’s all.”

“All what?” Face asked.

“All my money,” Dapper said. “I am telling the truth.”

Face said, “Keep nothing that is transitory about you.”

“Transitory” means “belonging to this transitory world.” That includes money and other wealth.

Face whispered to Subtle, “Tell Doll to play music.”

He then said to the blindfolded Dapper, “Look, the elves have come—”

Doll played on a cittern in the next room.

Face continued, “— to pinch you, if you are not telling the truth. You have been warned.”

Face and Subtle pinched the blindfolded Dapper, who said, “Ow! I have a paper with a spur-royal in it.”

A spur-royal is a coin — a royal that has the design of a Sun and Sunbeams on it. The Sun and Sunbeams look like the rowel of a spur. A rowel is a small wheel with radiating spokes.

Face and Subtle began to speak in “Fairy,” using feigned voices. When Face translated the Fairy language, he used his normal voice. Subtle used two disguised voices: one for the Priest of Fairy, and one for the fairy.

Face said, “Ti, ti.

“They knew it, they say.”

Subtle said, “Ti, ti, ti, ta.

“He has more yet.”

Face said, “Ti, ti-ti-ti.

“In the other pocket?”

Subtle said, “Titi, titi, titi, titi, titi.

“The fairies must pinch him or he will never confess, they say.”

Face and Subtle pinched Dapper again.

Dapper said, “Ow! Ow!”

Face said, “No, please hold back — he is her grace’s nephew.

Ti, ti, ti?

“The fairies say this: What do you care? In good faith, you shall care.”

Face then said to Dapper, “Deal plainly, sir, and shame the fairies. Show that you are an innocent.”

The phrase “an innocent” means both “a not-guilty person” and “a fool.”

Dapper said, “I swear by this good light, I have nothing.”

Subtle said, “Ti, ti, ti, ti, to, ta.

“He does equivocate, she says.”

“To equivocate” means “to conceal the truth by using deceptive language.”

Subtle continued, “Ti, ti do ti, ti ti do, ti da.

“And he swears by the light when he is blinded.”

Dapper said, “I swear by this good dark, I have nothing but a half-crown of gold about my wrist, that my love gave me, and I have a leaden heart I have worn since she forsook me.”

Face said, “I thought it was something. And would you incur your aunt’s displeasure for these trifles? Come, I had rather you had thrown away twenty half-crowns.”

Indeed, he would. Twenty half-crowns are worth twenty times one half-crown.

Dapper took off the half-crown that he was wearing as a bracelet.

Face told him, “You may wear your leaden heart still.”

Lead is not a precious metal.

Doll entered the room hastily.

Face and Subtle went to Doll and talked to her quietly so that Dapper would not overhear them.

Face asked, “What is it?”

Subtle asked, “What is your news, Doll?”

Doll replied, “Yonder’s your Knight, Sir Mammon.”

Face said, “By God’s eyelid, we never thought of him until now! Where is he?”

Doll replied, “Here next to this room; he is at the door.”

Subtle said to Face, “And you are not ready to meet him! You are dressed as Captain Face, not as Lungs!”

He then ordered, “Doll, get Lungs’ suit of clothing.”

Doll exited.

Subtle said to Face, “He must not be sent back.”

Face said, “You are correct. We must keep him here. What shall we do with this puffin we have here, now he’s on the spit?”

The puffin was Dapper. Puffins were seabirds whose young puffed up their feathers and looked plump and were considered a delicacy. (By the way, in this culture, proud people were called puffins.)

Dapper was metaphorically on the spit, ready to be roasted. Face and Subtle were getting everything of value that they could get from him.

Subtle said, “Why, we’ll lay him back awhile, with some excuse. Let’s put him on the back burner. Sir Epicure Mammon is the big prize — the one we can get the most money from.”

Doll came back with the clothes Face wore when he was Lungs, the alchemist’s assistant.

Subtle said loudly, “Ti, ti, ti, ti, ti, ti.

“Would her grace speak with me? I am coming.”

He then said quietly, “Help me dress Face quickly, Doll!”

They began to dress him.

Knocking sounded on the door.

Face asked, “Who’s there?”

Hearing the answer, he said, “Sir Epicure, my master’s in the way of my coming to you — he can’t know you’re here. Please walk three or four turns around the room, just until Subtle’s back is turned, and I’ll be able to serve you.”

He then whispered, “Quickly, Doll!”

Subtle went to Dapper and said out loud, “Her grace the Queen of Fairy commends her kindly to you, master Dapper.”

“I long to see her grace,” Dapper replied.

Subtle said, “She now is eating dinner in her bed, and she has sent you from her own private plate a dead mouse and a piece of gingerbread to be merry with and appease your hunger, lest you faint with fasting. Yet if you could hold out until she sees you, she says, it would be better for you.”

Face said, “Sir, he shall hold out, even if it were for two hours, for her highness, I can assure you of that. We will not lose all we have done.”

Subtle said, “He must neither see nor speak to anybody until then.”

Face said, “For that reason we’ll put, sir, a gag in his mouth.”

“A gag of what?” Subtle asked.

“Of gingerbread,” Face said. “You put it in. He who has pleased her grace thus far shall not now shrink back because of a little inconvenience.”

He said to Dapper, “Open your mouth, sir, and let him put the gag in.”

Subtle put the gingerbread in Dapper’s mouth.

Subtle and Doll spoke quietly together so that Dapper could not hear them.

Subtle asked, “Where shall we put him now?”

Doll replied, “In the privy.”

A privy is a latrine.

Subtle said to Dapper, “Come along, sir, I now must show you Lady Fortune’s privy lodgings.”

“Privy lodgings” are “private rooms.”

Face asked, “Are they perfumed, and is his bath ready?”

“All is ready,” Subtle said. “Only the fumigation’s somewhat strong.

One meaning of “fumigating” is “perfuming with aromatic plants.” Another meaning is “generating odorous fumes.”

Yes, the fumigation of a privy can be somewhat strong.

Subtle led Dapper away, and Doll Common carried away Face’s Captain’s uniform.

Face said, “Sir Epicure, I am yours, sir, by and by.”

He finished dressing as Lungs while Subtle, Doll, and Dapper exited.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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