Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 4, Scene 2

— 4.2 —

Subtle entered the room.

Face asked, “Aren’t you laughing?”

“Yes, I am,” Subtle said. “Are they gone?”

“All’s clear.”

“The widow has come.”

“And your quarrelling disciple, Kastril?”


Face said, “I must put on my Captain’s uniform again then.”

“Wait,” Subtle said. “In the character of Lungs, bring them in first.”

“I meant to,” Face said. “What is she? A bonnibel?”

A “bonnibel” is an attractive woman. The French bonne et belle means “good and beautiful.”

“I don’t know,” Subtle said.

“We’ll draw lots to see who marries her,” Face said. “You’ll agree to that?”

She was rich, so good looks weren’t essential.

Subtle replied, “What else?”

Face said, “Oh, for a Captain’s suit, to fall now like a curtain! Flap! Right into my lap!”

He needed to make a quick costume change.

“Go and answer the door, man,” Subtle said.

Face said, “You’ll be able to kiss her first because I am not ready. She won’t let Lungs kiss her, although she will let Captain Face kiss her.”

Subtle said, “Yes, I will kiss her first, and perhaps hit you through both the nostrils.”

The modern idiom for “hit you through both the nostrils” is “put your nose out of joint,” which means “irritate you.”

Face asked at the door, “Who do you want to speak with?”

Kastril, standing outside, asked, “Where’s Captain Face?”

Face replied, “Gone, sir. He went to see about some business.”


Face said, “He’ll return quickly. But Master Doctor Subtle, his Lieutenant, is here.”

He opened the door, and Kastril, followed by Dame Pliant, came into the room.

Subtle said to Kastril, “Come near, my worshipful boy, my terrae fili — that is, my boy of land — make your approach.”

Terrae fili is Latin (vocative case). Literally, it means “son of the earth.” As an idiom, it means “bastard” — someone without property rights. If Kastril were to achieve his dream and live by his wits, he would have no land and no property rights.

Kastril and Dame Pliant walked over to him.

Subtle continued, “Welcome. I know your lusts, and your desires, and I will serve and satisfy them. Begin, charge me from thence, or thence, or in this line. Here is my center: ground your quarrel.”

His “center” was his stance. “Ground your quarrel” meant “State the reasons for your quarrel.”

Kastril wanted to learn to be an angry boy, and Subtle was starting the tutoring by asking Kastril to quarrel with him.

Kastril responded, “You lie.”

This was a great insult that could result in a duel to the death.

Subtle asked, “What, child of wrath and anger! The loud lie? For what reasons do you make that charge, my impulsive boy?”

Kastril said, “No, you look to the reasons. I am aforehand — I have made the first move.”

The art of quarreling and dueling had rules and protocol that Kastril did not know.

Normally, the accusation of lying was not made so abruptly. Also, the accuser was supposed to give reasons for making the accusation. If the accuser did not, his opponent would have the advantage of making the choice of weapons.

Subtle said, “Oh, this is no true grammar, and it is as ill logic!”

He was comparing the rules of quarreling to the rules of grammar and of logic. Earlier, Face had compared them to the rules of geometry.

Subtle continued, “You must render reasons, child, your first and second intentions, know your canons and your divisions, moods, degrees, and differences, your predicaments, substance, and accident, series extern and intern, with their causes — efficient, material, formal, and final — and have your elements perfect.”

“What is this!” Kastril said. “What is this angry tongue he talks in?”

Subtle said, “That false precept, of being aforehand, has deceived a number of people and made them enter quarrels, often, before they were aware, and afterward, against their wills.”

Many people enjoyed quarreling, but they disliked risking their lives in a duel. These drama queens wanted to make a scene, but they did not want to die. Not knowing the rules of quarreling sometimes meant that they ended up in a duel they did not want to fight.

“How must I do this then, sir?” Kastril asked.

“I ask this lady for mercy and forgiveness,” Subtle said. “I should have greeted her first.”

He kissed her and said, “I call you ‘lady,’ because you are to be one before long, my soft and buxom widow.”

In this society, the word “buxom” meant “pliant.”

“Is she going to be a lady, indeed?” Kastril said.

One way to be a lady — the female equivalent of a lord — is to be married to a wealthy and distinguished man who is a lord. The wife of a Knight or a Baron or a Count is a lady.

“Yes, or my art is an egregious liar,” Subtle replied.

“How do you know?”

“By inspection of her forehead, and subtlety of her lip, which must be tasted often in order to make a judgment.”

He kissed her again.

One meaning of the word “subtlety” is “a confection chiefly made of sugar.”

Subtle said, “By God’s light, she melts like a myrobolane — a plum-like fruit.”

Looking at her forehead, he said, “Here is yet a line, in rivo frontis, that tells me the man she will marry is no Knight.”

This could mean she will marry “no mere Knight.” If so, Dame Pliant’s new husband would have a higher rank. Or it could mean that Dame Pliant would marry someone of lower rank than a Knight.

In rivo frontis” is Latin for “the vein of the forehead.”

Again, Subtle was baffling the mark — the intended victim — with bullshit. However, it should be pointed out that the terms he used, whether of alchemy or of the art of quarreling or of astrology or of phrenology or of the art of palm reading were real terms, used correctly. Subtle was a learned man when it came to bullshit.

Dame Pliant asked, “What is he then, sir?”

Subtle said, “Let me see your hand. Oh, your linea fortunae, aka line of fortune, makes it plain. So does the stella, aka star, here in monte Veneris, aka the hill of Venus at the bottom of your thumb. But, most of all, the junctura annularis, aka joint of the ring finger, makes it clear.”

Subtle continued, “The man you will marry is a soldier, or a man of art, lady, but he shall have some great honor shortly.”

The soldier was Captain Face; the man of art was Subtle. The great honor to come was marriage to Dame Pliant, and possibly, lots of money from successful cons.

Dame Pliant said to her brother about Subtle, “Brother, he’s a rare and splendid man, believe me!”

Face, wearing his Captain’s uniform, entered the room.

Kastril said to his sister, “Hold your peace. Be quiet. Here comes the other rare and splendid man.”

He then said, “May God save you, Captain Face.”

“Good master Kastril!” Captain Face said. “Is this your sister?”

“Yes, sir. Will it please you to kuss her, and be proud to know her?”

“Kuss” was his country way of saying “kiss.”

“I shall be proud to know you, lady,” Face said, and then he kissed her.

Dame Pliant said, “Brother, he calls me ‘lady,’ too.”

“Yes, be quiet,” Kastril replied. “I heard it.”

He took her aside and talked to her quietly.

Face said to Subtle, “The Spanish Count has come.”

“Where is he?”

“At the door.”

“Why, you must entertain him.”

“What will you do with Kastril and Dame Subtle in the meantime?”

“Why, have them up in another room, and show them some fustian book, or the dark glass.”

“Fustian” means “worthless” and “bogus.” Originally, fustian was a cloth that was worth much less than silk but was often substituted for silk.

A dark glass is a fortune-teller’s crystal ball.

Captain Face said, “Before God, I say that Dame Pliant is a delicate dabchick! I must have her.”

A dabchick is a small waterfowl. Of course, Face was using it to mean “cute woman.”

Captain Face exited to see to the Spanish Count.

“You must, must you!” Subtle said. “Yes, if your fortune will, you must.”

He then said to Kastril, “Come, sir, Captain Face will come to us soon. I’ll take you to my chamber of demonstrations, where I will show you both the grammar and logic of quarrelling and the rhetoric of quarrelling. I will show you my whole method drawn out in tables, and I will show you my written instructions that have the several scales and degrees of quarreling drawn upon it. These instructions shall make you able to quarrel about the breadth of a straw when seen by moonlight.”

In other words, he would teach him how to quarrel about inconsequential things, things that other people would not even notice.

He added, “And, lady, I’ll have you look in a crystal ball some half an hour so you can clear your eyesight in preparation for the time you see your fortune, which is greater than I may judge in so short a time, trust me.”

Subtle exited, followed by Kastril and Dame Pliant.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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