Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 4, Scene 1

— 4.1 —

Face, now dressed as Lungs, opened the door, let in Sir Epicure Mammon, and said, “Sir, you have come here at the absolute best time.”

“Where’s your master?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

“He is now preparing for projection, sir,” Face said. “Your metal stuff will all be changed into precious metals shortly.”

“Into gold?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

“Into gold and silver, sir.”

“I don’t care for silver.”

“Yes, sir,” Face said, “but there will be a little silver that you can give to beggars.”

“Where’s the lady?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

“She is at hand here,” Face said. “I have told her such brave and splendid things about you, especially about your generosity and your noble spirit.”

“Have you?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

“Yes, so much that she is almost in her fit because she is so eager to see you. But, good sir, speak about no theology in your conference with her for fear of putting her in a rage — a mad fit.”

“I promise you I won’t,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

Face said, “If you do, six men will not hold her down, and then, if the old man — Doctor Subtle — should hear or see you —”

“Don’t worry about that,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

Face continued, “— the whole house, sir, would run mad. You know it. You know how scrupulous he is, and violent, against the least act of sin.

“Medicine, or mathematics, poetry, affairs of state, or bawdry, as I told you, she will endure, and never be startled at hearing about them, but say to her no word of religious controversy.”

“You have schooled me well, good Ulen.”

“And you must praise her family, remember that,” Face said, “and her nobility.”

“Leave it to me,” Sir Epicure Mammon said. “No genealogist at the College of Heralds, no, nor antiquary, aka student of history, Lungs, shall do it better. Go.”

Face thought, Why, this is yet a kind of modern happiness, to have Doll Common thought to be a great lady.

In this society, “happiness” meant both “good fortune” and “fitness,” and “modern” meant “common,” “trivial,” and “current.”

In other words, this is one of the things that Face was thinking: In our modern society, how fitting it is that a prostitute such as Doll Common should be thought to be a great lady.

Face exited to get Doll.

Alone, Sir Epicure Mammon said to himself, “Now, Epicure, heighten yourself.”

By “heighten yourself,” he meant, “Raise your level of discourse, and talk like a courtier.” Readers may be forgiven if they thought he meant, “Heighten and raise a certain part of my body.”

He continued, “Talk to her all in gold. Rain on her as many showers as Jove did drops on his Danaë.”

Jupiter, the Roman King of the gods, had appeared to Danaë after taking the form of a shower of gold. He made her pregnant, and she gave birth to the hero Perseus.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “Show that the god is a miser, compared with me, Mammon. What! The philosopher’s stone will do it. She shall feel gold, taste gold, hear gold, sleep gold; indeed, we will concumbere gold.”

Concumbere is Latin for “to have sex.”

He continued, “I will be puissant and mighty in my talk to her.”

He heard a noise and said, “Here she comes.”

Face and Doll entered the room. Doll was richly dressed.

Face whispered to Doll, “Up and at him, Doll. Suckle him and nurse him along as if he were a baby.”

He then said out loud, “This is the noble Knight, I told your ladyship —”

Sir Epicure Mammon interrupted, “Madam, with your pardon, I kiss your vesture.”

“Vesture” is elevated language for “clothing” or “dress.”

Doll replied, “Sir, I would be uncivil if I were to endure that. My lip to you, sir.”

To kiss a lady’s dress is often not acceptable. When Doll replied, “My lip to you, sir,” she had her choice of two responses: 1) Doll could curl her lip at Sir Epicure Mammon to show that she was rejecting his uncivilized behavior, or 2) Doll could kiss him. Doll had to decide whether to play hard to get.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I hope my lord your brother is in health, lady.”

Doll replied, “My lord, my brother is, although I am no lady, sir.”

One meaning of “lady” is “the female equivalent of a lord.” It has another meaning that also did not pertain to Doll.

Face thought, Well said, my Guinea bird.

“Guinea bird” is slang for “prostitute.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Right noble madam —”

Face thought, Oh, we shall have most fierce idolatry — make it iDOLLatry.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “— it is your prerogative; it is your right to be called ‘lady.’”

Doll replied, “Rather, it is your courtesy that makes you call me ‘lady.’”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Even if there were nothing else to make known your virtues to me, your answers reveal your breeding and your blood.”

Doll said, “Blood we boast none, sir. I am a poor Baron’s daughter.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Poor! And he begat you? Don’t be profane. Had your father slept all the happy remnant of his life after that act of procreation, just lying there still and panting, he would have done enough to make himself, his issue, and his posterity noble.”

Doll said, “Sir, although we may be said to lack the gilt and trappings, the dress of honor, yet we strive to keep the seeds and the materials.”

She was using the language of alchemy. “The seeds and the materials” meant “the essential elements.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I see that the old ingredient, virtue, was not lost, nor was lost the drug money used to make your compound.”

He also was using the language of alchemy.

He continued, “There is a strange — foreign — nobility in your eye, this lip, that chin! I think you resemble one of the Austrian Princes.”

The Austrian Princes were Hapsburgs; the Hapsburg lip was a prominent lower lip. Look up images of the Habsburg lip, and you will see that his attempt to flatter Doll was an abject failure. Being of royal blood does not necessarily mean that one is good looking. Chances are, Sir Epicure Mammon knew little about what the Austrian Princes looked like.

Face thought, Very likely! Her father was an Irish costermonger. He sold fruit from a cart.

A “coster” is an apple, but costermongers sold other kinds of fruit, too.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “The house of Valois had just such a nose, and such a forehead the Medici of Florence still boast.”

Doll said, “Truly, I have been likened to all these Princes.”

Face thought, I’ll be sworn that it is true because I heard it.

Some guys, such as Sir Epicure Mammon, will say anything to get laid. In Doll’s case, “How much?” and “OK” are usually all that need to be said.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I don’t see how! You don’t resemble any one Prince; rather, you have the very best of all their features.”

Face thought, I’ll go into another room and laugh.

He exited.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “You have a certain touch, or air, that sparkles a divinity, beyond an earthly beauty!”

Doll said, “Oh, you are playing the role of a courtier.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Good lady, give me leave —”

Doll interrupted, “Truly, I may not give you leave to mock me, sir.”

Sir Epicure Mammon finished, “— to burn in this sweet flame of love. The phoenix never knew a nobler death.”

The phoenix was a mythological Arabian bird that lived for five hundred years, burned itself up, and rose reborn from the ashes.

Doll said, “Now you court the courtier.”

She meant that he was out-doing the courtier — speaking more extravagant praise than even a courtier would speak.

She continued, “You destroy what you would build. This art, sir, that you put in your words calls your whole faith into question. By speaking such extravagant praise, you make me question your praise.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “By my soul —”

Doll interrupted, “Oaths are made of the same air, sir. You can swear exaggerated oaths just like you say exaggerated praise.”

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “— Nature never bestowed upon mortality a more unblemished, a more harmonious physical appearance. She played the stepdame in all other faces.”

Stepmothers were thought to be less generous and caring than mothers.

He said, “Sweet madam, let me be particular —”

This society used “particular” to mean “familiar, intimate, close, friendly,” but Doll deliberately interpreted “particular” to mean sexually “familiar, intimate, close, friendly.”

She interrupted, “‘Particular,’ sir! I hope you know your distance!”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I don’t mean ‘particular’ in any ill sense, sweet lady, but merely to be friendly enough to you to ask how your fair graces pass the hours? I see you are lodged here in the house of a rare and splendid man, an excellent artist, but what’s that to you? Why are you here?”

Doll said, “Yes, he is a rare and splendid man, sir. I study mathematics and astrology, as well as distillation and alchemy, here.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Oh, I see! I beg your pardon. He’s a divine instructor! He can extract the souls of all things by his art. He can call all the virtues and the miracles of the Sun into a temperate furnace. He can teach dull Nature what her own forces are. He is a man whom the Emperor has courted above Kelley and has sent him medals and chains — necklaces — to invite him to come to his court.”

Edward Kelley was an associate of John Dee; he was also an alchemist who claimed to have the philosopher’s stone. Because of this claim, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Germany invited him to his court. When Edward Kelley failed to make gold, Rudolph II had him imprisoned. In this society, chains can be necklaces, but Edward Kelley wore a different kind of chains in prison.

Doll said, “Yes, and for his medical art, sir —”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “His medical art is above the medical art of Aesculapius, who drew the envy of the Thunderer! I know all this, and more.”

Aesculapius was an ancient Greek doctor who could revive the dead. Out of fear that Aesculapius would make humans immortal, Zeus — known as the Thunderer because of the thunderbolts he threw as weapons — killed him.

Doll said, “Indeed I am wholly taken, sir, with these studies that contemplate Nature.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “That is a noble quality to have, but this form of yours was not intended to so dark a use. Had you been crooked, foul, of some coarse mold, a cloister would have done well as a place for you, but for such a physical appearance as yours, which might stand up the glory of a Kingdom, to live as a recluse is a complete solecism, even if it were in a nunnery.”

A solecism is an error; Sir Epicure Mammon believed it would be an “error” for Doll to sleep alone. A woman like her ought not to be “sole” — alone.

He continued, “It must not be. I wonder that my lord your brother would permit it. You should spend half my land first, if I were he. Doesn’t this diamond look better on my finger than in the quarry?”

“Yes,” Doll said.

“Why, you are like this diamond,” Sir Epicure Mammon said. “You were created, lady, for the light. Here, you shall wear it; take it, this is the first pledge of what I will say now. This will bind you to believe me.”

Taking the diamond, Doll asked, “To bind me in chains of adamant?”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Yes, the strongest bands. And hear a secret, too: Here, by your side, stands at this time the happiest man in Europe.”

“Happiest” meant “most fortunate” and “with the most fortune.”

Doll asked, “You are contented, sir?”

“Yes, in truth I am the envy of Princes and the fear of states.”

Princes would envy him because of his large amount of gold, and states — governments — would fear him because such a surplus of gold could wreck the economy.

“Do you say so, Sir Epicure?”

“Yes, and you shall be the proof of it, daughter of honor. I have cast my eye upon your beautiful form, and I will raise this beauty above all titles of rank.”

“You mean no treason, sir?” Doll asked.

“No, I will take away that suspicion from you,” Sir Epicure Mammon said. “I am the lord of the philosopher’s stone, and you are the lady of it.”

“What, sir!” Doll said. “Do you really have that?”

“I am the master of the mastery,” he said.

He meant that he was the master of the alchemist who had mastered the art of making the philosopher’s stone.

He continued, “This day the good old wretch of the house here has made the philosopher’s stone for us. Now he’s busy at projection. Think therefore what is your first wish now. Let me hear it, and it shall rain into your lap. It will be no shower of gold, but instead it will be floods of gold, whole cataracts, a deluge, that will beget a nation’s inhabitants with you.”

Zeus had used one shower of gold to be able to sleep with Danaë, and they had had one son. Sir Epicure Mammon intended to use whole floods of gold to sleep many times with Doll and to have many children with her.

Doll said, “You are pleased, sir, to work on the ambition of our sex.”

Apparently, according to Doll the ambition of women is to be very rich and to have many children.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I am pleased the glory of her sex should know that this nook, here, of the Blackfriars area is no climate for her to live obscurely in. Here in Blackfriars she would learn medicine and surgery that would be fit for the constable’s wife living in part of a county in Essex.”

The constable’s wife could learn medicine and surgery that she could use to help other people, or someone such as Doll could learn medicine and surgery in order to help people such as the constable’s wife. Either way, people would be helping people — constables certainly also help other people by keeping law and order. This is in contrast to the life that Sir Epicure Mammon wanted Doll and himself to lead — life that is purely selfish.

He continued, “Instead, you should come forth, and taste the air of palaces. You should eat and drink the toils of empirical physicians, and their boasted practice. Their remedies include tincture of pearl, and coral, gold, and amber.”

Tincture of pearl was supposed to help the heart. Coralline was a sea-moss that was supposed to increase strength. Aurum potabile, Latin for “drinkable gold,” was an alchemical medicine. People wore amber bracelets in an attempt to find love.

He continued, “You should be seen at feasts and triumphs. You should have people ask about you, ‘What miracle is she?’ You should set all the eyes of people at court on fire, like a magnifying glass that is used to start fires, and you should burn their eyes to cinders because the jewels of twenty states adorn you, and the light emanating from the jewels and you strikes out the stars with the result that, when your name is mentioned, Queens look pale. You and I, just by showing our love, can cause Nero’s Poppaea to be lost in story! Thus will we have it.”

Poppaea was first the Roman Emperor Nero’s mistress and then his second wife. Odd stories were told about her and Nero, such as that Nero murdered his mother and divorced and later murdered his first wife so he could marry Poppaea. Supposedly, she bathed in the milk of asses. Nero is said to have killed her by kicking her in the abdomen while she was pregnant.

Sir Epicure Mammon, by saying that the romance of Doll and himself would make the romance of Nero and Poppaea become only a story when contrasted to their real romance, showed a lack of knowledge of ancient history.

Doll said, “I could well consent to living this kind of life, sir. But, in a monarchy, how will this be? The Prince will soon take notice, and seize both you and your philosopher’s stone, it being a wealth unfit for any private subject.”

Sir Epicure Mammon could very well end up in prison if word got out that he had a philosopher’s stone because flooding the economy with excessive amounts of gold could cause economic and political upheaval. Kings would prefer to have and control that gold themselves. Alchemists tried to work in secret because of the danger of imprisonment.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Yes, that could happen if the Prince knew of it.”

Doll said, “You yourself boast of having the philosopher’s stone, sir.”

If Sir Epicure Mammon boasted about having it, the Prince would sooner or later learn about it.

“I boast about it to you, my life,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

Doll said, “Oh, but beware, sir! You may come to end the remnant of your days in a loathed prison if you speak about the philosopher’s stone.”

“That is no idle fear,” he replied. “We’ll therefore go with what we have, my girl, and live in a free state.”

A free state is a republic.

He continued, “There we will eat our mullets, soaked in high-country wines, sup on pheasants’ eggs, and have our cockles boiled in silver shells.”

Mullets are fish that were Roman delicacies. Cockles are mollusks. Sir Epicure Mammon greatly desired fancy foods.

He continued, “Our shrimps will swim again, as they did when they lived, but this time they will swim in a rare butter made of dolphins’ milk, whose cream looks like opals, and with these delicate meats we will set ourselves high for pleasure, and take us down again, and then renew our youth and strength with drinking the elixir of life, and so enjoy a perpetuity of life and lust!”

A certain part of his body would certainly rise high and then lower again.

Sir Epicure Mammon continued, “And you shall have a wardrobe that is richer than Nature’s, and will be able always to change your clothing, and vary it oftener, for your pride, than Nature, or than Art, her wise and almost-equal servant.”

Face entered the room and said, “Sir, you are too loud. I heard your every word in the laboratory. Go to some fitter place: the garden or the great chamber upstairs.”

He paused and then asked quietly, “How do you like her?”

Sir Epicure Mammon replied, “Excellent! Lungs, here’s something for you.”

He gave Face some money.

Face said quietly, “But listen to me. Good sir, beware, make no mention of the rabbis to her.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “We don’t even think about them.”

Face said, “Oh, that is well, sir.”

Sir Epicure Mammon and Doll exited.

Face’s complaint about the noise they were making was simply an excuse to have Sir Epicure Mammon and Doll move to a place where they could have sex. Having sex with Sir Epicure Mammon was part of Doll’s contribution to the con game.

Face called, “Subtle!”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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