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

— 4.3 —

Captain Face entered the room and asked, “Where are you, Doctor Subtle?”

From another room, Subtle said, “I’ll come to you quickly.”

Captain Face said to himself, “I will have this widow, Dame Pliant, now I have seen her, on any terms.”

Subtle entered the room.

“What do you have to say?” Subtle asked.

“Have you disposed of them?” Captain Face asked. “Have you found a way to keep Kastril and his sister the widow busy?”

“I have sent them up to another room,” Subtle said.

Captain Face said, “Subtle, truly I must have this widow.”

“Is that the main thing you want to talk to me about?”

“No, but hear me out.”

“Bah,” Subtle said. “If you rebel once, Doll shall know it all. Therefore be quiet, and see how your future turns out.”

Captain Face said, “You are so violent now. Do but conceive that you are old, and you cannot service —”

A bull services and impregnates a cow; Captain Face was saying that Subtle was incapable of servicing and impregnating Dame Pliant.

“Who cannot? I?” Subtle said. “By God’s light, I will service her along with you, for a —”

Either Subtle was proposing a threesome in which both he and Face would service Dame Pliant, or he was saying that he was potent enough to service both Dame Pliant and Face.

Captain Face interrupted, “Please understand that I mean to give you monetary compensation if you let me have her.”

“I will not bargain with you,” Subtle said. “What! Sell my fortune? It is better than my birthright.”

Dame Pliant had money. Whoever married her would have access to her vagina and her money.

Subtle continued, “Do not murmur and complain. Win her, and carry her. If you grumble, Doll will know about this directly.”

Apparently, Doll was a jealous woman. Or perhaps she wanted all profits to be shared equally, and unfortunately for her, those profits would not include the rich widow’s estate. Or perhaps she simply wanted the three members of the gang — Subtle, Face, and Doll — to work together.

Subtle and Face would continue to compete for Dame Pliant, but if Face could win her consent to marry him, then he could carry her across a threshold.

Captain Face said, “Well, sir, I am silent. Will you go and help to fetch in the Spanish Don ceremoniously?”

He exited.

“I follow you, sir,” Subtle said to himself. “I know what kind of man you are. Doll and I must keep Face in awe, or he will look down on us like a tyrant.”

Captain Face returned with the Spanish Don, who was extravagantly dressed in fancy clothing, including a ruff around his neck. Neither Face nor Subtle thought that the Spanish Don could speak English, but the Spanish Don was actually Surly in disguise. Surly was hoping to get evidence to prove to Sir Epicure Mammon that Face and Subtle were con men.

Subtle, seeing the Spanish Don’s fancy clothing, said, “Brain of a tailor! Who comes here? Don John!”

Don John was the English version of Don Juan; Juan is a common Spanish name. Don Juan was a famous Spanish libertine.

The disguised Surly said, “Senores, beso las manos a vuestras mercedes. [Sirs, I kiss your honors’ hands.]”

Subtle said, “I wish that you had stooped a little and kissed our años.”

Neither Subtle nor Face knew much Spanish. In this encounter with the Spanish Don, they would sometimes speak garbled Spanish and sometimes speak a deliberate parody of Spanish.

Años is Spanish for “years,” but Subtle knew that Face would understand it as “asses.”

“Peace, Subtle,” Face said. “Be calm.”

“Stab me,” Subtle said. “I shall never be able to keep from laughing.”

He looked at the enormous ruff that the Spanish Don was wearing, and then he added, “He looks in that deep ruff like a head on a platter, served in by a short cloak upon two trestles.”

The trestles were legs.

Face joined in on the fun: “Or, what do you say to a collar of brawn, cut down beneath the souse, and wriggled with a knife?”

The head being served could be a pig’s head. A “collar of brawn” is the meat of a pig’s neck. A “souse” is a pig’s ear. “Wriggled with a knife” meant that the knife would be used to carve the lines of a ruff into the pig’s neck.

Subtle said, “By God’s blood, he looks too fat to be a Spaniard.”

Face said, “Perhaps some Fleming or some Hollander begot him during the time of Fernando Alvarez, Duke of Alva.”

During 1567-1573, Fernando Alvarez was the Governor-General of the Netherlands.

Face added, “This Spanish Don could be Count Egmont’s bastard.”

In 1568, Fernando Alvarez executed Netherlands patriot and rebel Count Egmont.

Subtle said, “Don, your scurvy, yellow, Madrid face is welcome.”

Gratias [Thank you],” the disguised Surly said.

Subtle said, “He speaks out of a fortification. Pray God he have no squibs in those deep sets.”

“Squibs” are explosives. “Deep sets” were the deep folds of the ruff, which Subtle was likening to the crenels of a castle’s fortifications.

The disguised Surly said, “Por dios, senores, muy linda casa! [By God, sirs, a very nice house!]”

Subtle asked, “What is he saying?”

“He is praising the house, I think,” Face replied. “I know no more than what he communicates with his gestures.”

Subtle said, “Yes, the casa [house], my precious Diego, will prove fair enough to cheat you in. Are you paying attention? You shall be cheated, Diego.”

Like Juan, Diego is a common Spanish name. From it, we get the derogatory word “dago” that is used to refer to native speakers of Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese.

Face said, “Cheated, do you see, my worthy Donzel, cheated.”

“Donzel” was a word Face made up: a diminutive of “Don.”

The disguised Surly said, “Entiendo. [I understand.]”

He did.

Not knowing what “entiendo” meant, Subtle said, “Do you intend it! So do we, dear Don. Have you brought the coins called pistolets or portagues, my solemn Don?”

He asked Face, “Do you feel any?”

Face felt the disguised Surly’s pockets and said, “Full.”

Subtle said, “You shall be emptied, Don, pumped and drawn dry, as they say.”

They intended for him to be emptied financially and sexually. Doll would have sex with him for money.

“You will be milked, truly, sweet Don,” Face said.

Subtle said, “You will see all the monsters; you will see the great lion of all, Don.”

Metaphorically, this meant that he would see all the sights. Lions were kept at the Tower of London. Monsters were people with disabilities: sideshow attractions. Literally, the Spanish Don would see Doll — and Subtle and Face.

The disguised Surly said, “Con licencia, se puede ver a esta senora? [With your permission, may I see the lady?]”

“What is he saying now?” Subtle asked.

“He is talking about the senora [lady].” Face replied.

Subtle said, “Oh, Don, that is the lioness, which you shall see also, my Don.”

Face said, “By God’s eyelid, Subtle, what shall we do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, Doll’s employed, you know. She’s with Sir Epicure Mammon.”

“That’s true,” Subtle said. “Before heaven, I don’t know what to do. He must wait, that’s all.”

“Wait!” Face said. “By no means must he be made to wait.”

“No!” Subtle said. “Why not?”

“He can’t wait unless you want to ruin everything,” Face said. “By God’s light, he will suspect that he is getting sloppy seconds, and then he will not pay, not half as well. This is a travelled punk-master, and he knows all the delays. He is a notorious hot-and-horny rascal, and he looks already rampant.”

A rampant lion is a lion that is standing on its hind legs. Face meant that the Spanish Don was horny and ready to have sex — now.

Subtle swore, “God’s death!”

He added, “And Mammon must not be troubled. He can’t be interrupted.”

“No way can he be interrupted!” Face said.

“What shall we do then?” Subtle asked.

“Think,” Face said. “You must be quick.”

The disguised Surly said, “Entiendo que la senora es tan hermosa, pue codicio tan verla, coma la bien aventuranza de mi vida. [I understand that the lady is so beautiful that I desire to see her as greatly as the greatest good fortune of my life.]”

Face said, “Mi vida! [My life!]”

In his mouth, the words sounded similar to “my widda,” aka “my widow.”

He added, “By God’s eyelid, Subtle, he puts me in mind of the widow. What do you say to persuading her to do it? Ha! What do you say to convincing her to sleep with the Spanish Don, and telling her it is her fortune? All our venture now lies on this. It is only one more man she will sleep with, and that need not concern either you or me, whichever of us ends up with her. After all, she’s a widow, and no longer a virgin. There’s no maidenhood to be feared or lost. What do you think about it, Subtle?”

“Who, I? Why —”

“The reputation of our house, too, is engaged,” Face said. “We have a reputation as a bawdy house to live up to.”

“You made me an offer for my share in the widow a short while ago,” Subtle said. “What will you give me, in faith?”

“Oh, by the light of these new circumstances,” Face said. “I’ll not buy your share of the widow now. You can have her. You know what you said to me. Just take your lot, and take your chances, sir. I say to you, Win her, and wear her out, as for me.”

“Win her and wear her” was a phrase about courting and marrying a woman. “Wear her” meant “consummate the marriage.” Face was saying to Subtle, You can win her and wear her out in the marriage bed, as far as I’m concerned.

Subtle said, “By God’s light, I’ll not work her as a prostitute for this Spanish Don then.”

He did not want to marry a whore.

“It is for the common cause; therefore, think about it,” Face said. “Doll otherwise must know about it. As you threatened me then, so I threaten you now.”

Presumably, Doll would be in favor of Dame Pliant sleeping with the Spanish Don if it would increase their — including Doll’s — profits. At least Face thought so.

“I don’t care,” Subtle said to himself but loud enough for Face to hear him.

He meant that he had changed his mind and didn’t care if Dame Pliant slept with the Spanish Don.

The disguised Surly said, “Senores, porque se tarda tanto? [Sirs, why so much delay?]”

Subtle said to himself but loud enough for Face to hear him, “Indeed, I am not fit. I am old.”

Subtle was admitting that he, Subtle, was impotent. Earlier, Face had said that Subtle was impotent, but Subtle had denied it. But even earlier, Face had said that he and Subtle would draw straws to see who would sleep with Doll. Face believed even then that Subtle was impotent, and he was teasing him.

Subtle was admitting to himself that he was impotent and he was trying to convince himself that he did not care if Dame Pliant slept with the Spanish Don. Why should he care who had her if he could not? Still, the idea of marrying a whore bothered him. Even an impotent man does not want to be a cuckold.

Face said, “That’s now no reason, sir.”

He meant that Subtle’s impotence was no reason not to persuade Dame Pliant to sleep with the Spanish Don. It might be a reason not to marry the widow, but that was not relevant now.

The disguised Surly asked, “Puede ser de hazer burla de mi amor? [Can it be that you are making fun of my love?]”

Face said, “You hear the Don, too! I swear by this air, I will call Doll, and I will loosen the hinges of our agreement to work together.”

Doll, Face, and Subtle were supposed to work for the common good of each other and to share equally the profits.

Face called, “Doll!”

Subtle cursed, “A plague of hell —”

“Will you do it, then?” Face asked.

“You are a terrible rogue!” Subtle said. “I’ll remember this.”

What Face was doing was venal. Dame Pliant was a respectable woman who had probably slept with only one man: her late husband. Face was turning her into a whore. He wanted to trick her into sleeping with the Spanish Don by saying that the Don would marry her.

Subtle then asked, “Will you, sir, call the widow here?”

Face said, “Yes, and I’ll take her, too, with all her faults, now I think on it better.”

“You are welcome to her with all my heart, sir,” Subtle said. “Am I discharged of the lot?”

If Face would marry the widow, Subtle was willing to persuade the widow to sleep with the Spanish Don. He did not like Face, and Face’s marrying a prostitute would be a form of revenge on him.

Face replied, “As you please.”

Subtle said, “Shake on it.”

They shook hands.

Face said, “Remember now, that upon any change of events, you will never claim the widow as yours.”

“Much good joy, and health to you, sir,” Subtle said. “Marry a whore! Fate, let me wed a witch first.”

If Dame Pliant could be persuaded to sleep with the Spanish Don, that would make her a whore in Subtle’s eyes.

The disguised Surly said, “Por estas honradas barbas— [By this honorable beard —]”

Subtle translated, “He swears by his beard. Go, and call the brother, too, as well as the widow.”

Face exited.

The disguised Surly said, “Tengo duda, senores, que no me hagan alguna traycion. [I think, sirs, that you are tricking me.]”

Hearing “traycion,” Subtle said, “What? Issue on?”

Using a mixture of mangled “Spanish” and English, he said, “Yes, praesto, sennor [quickly, señor?]. Please you enthratha [enthrall?] the chambratha [bedchamber?], worthy Don, where if you please the Fates, in your bathada [bath?], you shall be soaked, and stroked and tubbed, and rubbed, and scrubbed, and fubbed, dear Don, before you go.”

As part of the Spanish Don’s sexual experience, he would be given a sensual bath — and he would be given a financial bath. The word “fubbed” meant “cheated.”

Subtle added, “You shall truly, my scurvy baboon Don, be curried, clawed and flayed, and tawed, indeed.”

He was using words that described the tanning of leather. “Curried” meant “rubbed and beaten.” “Clawed” meant “scraped.” “Flayed” meant “skinned.” “Tawed” meant “soaked in alum and salt to make it supple” or “beaten to make it flexible.”

Subtle added, “I will with greater heart go about it now, and make the widow a prostitute so much the sooner in order to be revenged on this impetuous Face. The quickly doing of it is the grace.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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