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

— 4.4 —

In another room of the house, Face, Kastril, and Dame Pliant talked. Face wanted to convince Dame Pliant to sleep with the Spanish Don. One way to do that was to convince her — and her brother — that she would marry the Spanish Don. Face, however, still intended to marry the widow.

Captain Face said, “Come, lady. I knew that Doctor Subtle would not leave off until he had found the exact turning point of her fortune.”

Kastril said, “She will be a Countess, you say, a Spanish Countess, sir?”

Dame Pliant asked, “Is that better than an English Countess?”

“Better!” Face said. “By God’s light, how can you ask that question, lady?”

“She is a fool, Captain Face, you must pardon her,” Kastril said.

Captain Face said, “Ask anyone from your courtier, to your inns-of-court man, aka lawyer, to your mere milliner, and they all will tell you that your Spanish horse is the best horse, your Spanish bow is the best style of bow, your Spanish beard is the best cut of beard, your Spanish ruffs are the best ruffs to wear, your Spanish pavin is the best dance, your Spanish titillating perfume in a glove is the best perfume, and as for your Spanish pike and Spanish blade, let your poor Captain speak —”

Spanish pikes and Spanish sword blades from Toledo were of very high quality.

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

Subtle, carrying a paper, entered the room.

Subtle said to Dame Pliant, “My most honored lady, for so I am now to style you, having found by this horoscope I made for you that you are to undergo an honorable fortune, very shortly.”

A now obsolete meaning of the word “undergo” is to “submit.” Face and Subtle wanted Dame Pliant to submit to the Spanish Don and have sex with him.

Subtle continued, “What will you say now, if some —”

Face interrupted, “I have told her all, sir, and I have told her right worshipful brother here that she shall be a Countess; do not delay them, sir. A Spanish Countess. Do not postpone that happiness for them.”

Subtle said, “Always, my scarcely worshipful Captain Face, you can’t keep a secret!”

He then said to Dame Pliant, “Well, since he has told you, madam, forgive him, and I will do the same.”

“She shall do that, sir,” Kastril said. “I’ll look to it; it is my charge. I tell my suster what to do.”

Subtle said, “Well, then. Nothing remains except to fit her love now to her fortune.”

Dame Pliant said, “Truly I shall never endure a Spaniard.”

“No!” Subtle said.

“Never since eighty-eight could I abide them,” Dame Pliant said, “and that was some three years before I was born, in truth.”

In 1588, the English Navy defeated the attacking Spanish Armada. Because of the attempted invasion of England, many English people hated Spanish people. King James I, however, wanted better international relations with Spain. Because of his efforts, Spanish things were growing fashionable at court.

Dame Pliant was born in 1591, and so she was nineteen years old.

Subtle said, “Come, you must love him, or be miserable. Choose which you will.”

Captain Face picked up a rush and said, “By this good rush, persuade her, or she will cry ‘strawberries’ and become a seller of fruit before twelve months have passed.”

In this culture, green rushes, a plant, were used as floor coverings instead of carpets.

A rush is an onslaught as well as a plant. Captain Face and Subtle would do their best to get Dame Pliant to sleep with the Spanish Don. Her brother unwittingly would help.

Face was saying that if Dame Pliant did not accept the Spanish Don, she would end up a poor fruit seller within a year.

Subtle said, “No, she will cry ‘herring and mackerel,’ which is worse. She will sell fish in the marketplace.”

“Indeed, sir!” Captain Face said.

Kastril said to his sister, “By God’s eyelid, you shall love him, or I’ll kick you.”

Dame Pliant replied, “Why, I’ll do what you want me to do, brother.”

Kastril said, “You better, or with this hand I’ll maul you.”

Face said, “Good sir, don’t be so fierce.”

“There is no need for you to be fierce, my enraged child,” Subtle said. “She will do what you tell her to do. Why, when she comes to taste the pleasures of a Countess! To be courted —”

Face interrupted, “And kissed, and ruffled!”

To be “ruffled” is to be “fondled,” but Face was also thinking of the Spanish Don’s ruff.

Subtle said, “Yes, behind the wall hangings.”

Wall hangings in inns often hid an alcove in which sex could take place.

Face said, “And then come forth in pomp!”

Subtle said, “And know her state!”

Her state is her social rank, which would be higher than it is now if she were to marry a Spanish Count.

Face said, “She would keep all the idolaters of the chamber — the courtiers — barer to her than they are at their prayers!”

The chamber could be a reception chamber or a bedchamber. People wore hats inside, but took them off to show respect. To Dame Pliant, they would bare their head — and perhaps more.

Subtle said, “She would be serviced upon the knee!”

In other words, her servants would bend their knee to her, Or, perhaps, she would get on her knees and her servants would service her from behind the way a bull services a cow.

Face said, “And she would have her pages, ushers, footmen, and coaches —”

Subtle interrupted, “Her six mares —”

Face interrupted, “No, eight!”

Subtle continued, “— to hurry her through London, to the Exchange, Bedlam, the china-houses —”

These were places of interest in London. The New Exchanges had many dress shops and hat shops. Bedlam was a hospital for the insane; people could pay a fee to look at the patients. China-houses were shops that sold goods from the Orient.

Face said, “Yes, and have the citizens gape at her, and praise her clothing and my lord’s goose-turd bands of attendants who ride with her!”

The attendants would wear livery the color of goose-turds: dark green.

Kastril, who was impressed by social status, said, “Very splendid! By this hand of mine, you are not my suster, if you refuse to marry the Spanish Don.”

“I will not refuse, brother,” Dame Pliant said.

Disguised as the elaborately dressed Spanish Don, Surly entered the room and said, “Que es esto, senores, que no venga? Esta tardanza me mata! [What is this, gentlemen, that she does not come? This delay kills me!”

Face said, “The Spanish Count has come. By his art Doctor Subtle knew he would be here.”

In a poor attempt at Spanish, Subtle said, “En gallanta madama, Don! Gallantissima! [A gallant lady, Don! Very gallant!]”

The disguised Surly said, “Por todos los dioses, la mas acabada hermosura, que he visto en mi vida! [By all the gods, the most beautiful beauty whom I have seen in my life!]”

Face said, “Isn’t it a gallant language that they speak?”

“An admirable language!” Kastril said. “Is it French?”

“No, Spanish, sir,” Face replied.

Kastril said, “It goes like law French, and that, they say, is the courtliest language.”

Law French was a form of French used at the time in English courts of law, and so, yes, law French was a “courtly” language. Law French, however, was a bastard form of French that bore little resemblance to the French spoken in France.

“Listen, sir,” Face said.

The disguised Surly said, “El sol ha perdido su lumbre, con el esplandor que trae esta dama! Valgame dios! [The Sun has lost its light, on account of the splendor this lady brings! Oh, my God!]”

Face said to Kastril, “He admires your sister.”

“Shouldn’t she curtsey to him?” Kastril asked.

Subtle said, “By God’s will, she must go to him, man, and kiss him! It is the Spanish fashion for the women to make the first courting move.”

Face said to Kastril, “He is telling you the truth, sir. His art knows all.”

All, except for Spanish, among other things.

The disguised Surly asked, “Porque no se acude? [Why doesn’t she come to me?]”

Kastril said, “He speaks to her, I think.”

“That he does, sir,” Face replied.

The disguised Surly said, “Por el amor de dios, que es esto que se tarda? [For God’s sake, why is she waiting?]”

Kastril said, “She refuses to understand him!”

He then said to his sister, “Gull! Noddy! Fool!”

Dame Pliant asked him, “What did you say, brother?”

“Ass, my suster,” Kastril replied. “Go kuss him, as the cunning-man would have you. I’ll thrust a pin in your buttocks else.”

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

Face said, “Oh, no, sir.”

The disguised Surly said, “Senora mia, mi persona esta muy indigna de allegar a tanta hermosura. [My lady, my person is very unworthy of attaining such beauty.]”

Dame Pliant kissed the disguised Surly, who returned her kiss.

Face said, “Does he not use her bravely?”

One meaning of “use” is “treat.”

“Bravely, indeed!” Kastril said.

Face said, “He will use her better.”

One meaning of “use” is “fuck.”

“Do you think so?” Kastril said, still thinking of “use” as “treat.”

The disguised Surly said, “Senora, si sera sererida, entremonos. [Lady, if it will please you, let’s go in.]”

Surly and Dame Pliant exited.

Kastril asked, “Where is he taking her?”

“Into the garden, sir,” Face said. “You have nothing to worry about. I must interpret for her.”

He was implying that he would chaperone them, although he had no intention of doing that.

Subtle whispered to Face, “Give Doll the word.”

He would give her the word that it was time for her to put on a mad act — to act as if she were suffering a fit of madness.

Face exited.

Subtle said to Kastril, “Come, my fierce child, come with me. We’ll go to our quarrelling lesson again.”

Subtle wanted to keep Kastril away from his sister and the Spanish Don.

“Agreed,” Kastril said. “I love a Spanish boy with all my heart.”

Subtle said, “Good, and by this means, sir, you shall be brother-in-law to a great Count.”

Kastril said, “Yes, I knew that right away. This match will advance the house, aka family, of the Kastrils.”

Subtle said, “I pray to God that your sister proves to be pliant!”

“Why, her name is ‘Pliant,’ by her other — first — husband,” Kastril said

“What!” Subtle said.

“She is the Widow Pliant,” Kastril said. “Didn’t you know that?”

“No, indeed, sir,” Subtle said. “Yet, by erection of her figure, I guessed it.”

“Erection of her figure” meant “casting of her horoscope.” The phrase could also mean her posture or that her figure caused erections.

Subtle said, “Come, let’s go practice the art of arguing.”

Kastril said, “Yes, but do you think, doctor, I shall ever quarrel well?”

“I promise that you will,” Subtle said.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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