Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 4, Scene 5

— 4.5 —

In another room of the house, Doll was acting as if she were suffering from a fit of madness. Sir Epicure Mammon was with her. Doll’s ravings were based on Hugh Broughton’s book A Concent of Scripture (1590). Some religious people are insane, or at least their writings make them seem to be insane.

Doll said, “For after Alexander the Great’s death —”

Mammon attempted to calm her: “Good lady —”

Doll said, “Perdiccas and Antigonus were slain, and the two who stood, Selucus and Ptolemy —”

These four people were Alexander the Great’s generals. After Alexander the Great died, these four generals divided his Kingdom and then began jousting for additional power.

Sir Epicure Mammon tried again: “Madam —”

Doll continued, “— make up the two legs, and the fourth beast, that was Gog-north, and Egypt-south, which after was called Gog-iron-leg, and South-iron-leg —”

Sir Epicure Mammon tried again: “Lady —”

Doll continued, “— and then Gog-horned. So was Egypt, too. Then Egypt-clay-leg, and Gog-clay-leg —”

Sir Epicure Mammon tried again: “Sweet madam.”

Doll continued, “— and last Gog-dust, and Egypt-dust, which fall in the last link of the fourth chain. And these are stars in story, which none see, or look at —”

Sir Epicure Mammon said to himself, “What shall I do?”

Doll continued, “— for, as he says, unless we call the rabbis, and the heathen Greeks —”

Sir Epicure Mammon tried again: “Dear lady.”

Doll continued, “— to come from Jerusalem, and from Athens, and teach the people of Great Britain —”

Wearing the clothing of the alchemical assistant Lungs, Face entered the room hastily and asked Sir Epicure Mammon, “What’s the matter, sir?”

Doll continued, “— to speak the tongue of Eber, and Javan —”

Sir Epicure Mammon replied to Face, “Oh, she’s having a fit of madness.”

Doll continued, “— we shall know nothing —”

Face said, “Death, sir, we are undone!”

Doll continued, “— where then a learned linguist shall see the ancient used communion of vowels and consonants —”

Face said, “My master, Doctor Subtle, will hear her!”

Doll continued, “— a wisdom, which Pythagoras held most high —”

Sir Epicure Mammon said to her, “Sweet honorable lady!”

Doll said, “— to comprise all sounds of voices, in few marks of letters —”

Face said, “You must never hope to lay her now.”

“Lay her” meant 1) allay, aka calm, her, and 2) take her to bed.

Doll said, “— and so we may arrive by Talmud skill, and profane Greek, to raise the building up of Helen’s house against the Ismaelite, King of Thogarma, and his Habergions brimstony, blue, and fiery, and the force of King Abaddon, and the beast of Cittim, which rabbi David Kimchi, Onkelos, and Aben Ezra do interpret to be Rome.”

As Doll babbled, Face and Sir Epicure Mammon talked.

Face asked, “How did you put her into this fit of madness?”

Sir Epicure Mammon replied, “Unfortunately, by chance I talked about a fifth monarchy I would erect with the philosopher’s stone, and she immediately started blabbing about the other four monarchies.”

Some people who studied the end times believed that a fifth monarchy would destroy the four previous monarchies that were connected in some way to the four monarchies created by the four generals who divided Alexander the Great’s empire after Alexander died. During the thousand years of the fifth monarchy, Satan would be tied up and saints would rule in the name of Jesus. Sir Epicure Mammon’s fifth kingdom was quite different. With the elixir of life, he would live for a thousand years and have sex multiple times a day.

Face recognized the source of Doll’s ideas: “Straight out of Hugh Broughton’s works! I told you so! By God’s eyelid, stop her mouth! Make her be quiet!”

“Is that the best thing to do?”

“She’ll never leave otherwise. If the old man hears her, we are but feces, sediment after alchemical distillation, and ashes.”

From another room, Subtle shouted, “What’s going on in there?”

Face, “Oh, we are lost!”

Doll stopped babbling.

Face said, “Now that she hears him, she is quiet.”

Subtle entered the room, and Doll, Face, and Sir Epicure Mammon ran in different directions, looking for exits.

Doll exited, but Sir Epicure Mammon was slower to escape.

He said, “Where shall I hide myself!”

Subtle said, “What! What sight is here? Secret deeds of darkness, and deeds that shun the light!”

He said to Face about Sir Epicure Mammon, “Bring him back. Who is he? What, my son! Oh, I have lived too long!”

Sir Epicure Mammon lied, “No, good, dear father, there was no unchaste purpose.”

“There wasn’t! Ha! And yet you fled from me, when I came in this room!”

“That was my error.”

“Your error!” Subtle said. “That was your guilt — guilt, my son. Give it the right name. It’s no wonder that I have run into problems with our great work in the laboratory since such affairs as these were happening!”

Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “Have you run into problems?”

Subtle said, “It has stood still this past half hour. And all the rest of our works — the lesser works — have regressed. Where is the instrument of wickedness — Face, my lewd and false drudge?”

Face exited — quickly.

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “No, good sir, don’t blame him. Believe me, it was against his will or knowledge. I saw her by chance.”

Subtle said, “Will you commit more sin by making excuses for a varlet?”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I swear by my hope, it is true, sir.”

He could have been swearing by his hope for an afterlife in Heaven or by his hope for the philosopher’s stone.

Subtle said, “Then since you saw her by accident, I wonder less that you, for whom the blessing was prepared, would so tempt Heaven and lose your fortunes.”

“What do you mean, sir?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

Subtle replied, “This will retard the work for a month at least.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Why, if it does, what is the remedy? But don’t think it will happen, good father.”

He lied about himself and Doll, “Our purposes were honest; they were pure and chaste.”

Subtle said, “As they were, so the reward will prove. If your purposes were pure and chaste, you have nothing to fear. If you had sex with her, you have much to fear — the philosopher’s stone will be ruined.”

A loud explosion sounded.

Subtle said, “What now! Ah, me! God and all saints, be good to us.”

Face entered the room.

Subtle asked him, “What was that explosion?”

Face replied, “Sir, we are defeated! Everything is ruined! All the alchemical works are blown in fumo — up in smoke. Every glass is burst. The furnace, and everything else is torn down! It is as if a thunderbolt had been driven through the house. Retorts, receivers of distilled liquids, pelicans, bolt-heads, and all the rest of our alchemical equipment has been struck into splinters and shards!”

Subtle pretended to faint.

Face said to Sir Epicure Mammon, “Help, good sir! Coldness and death are invading him. Now, Sir Mammon, do the fair offices of a man! You stand, shell-shocked, as if you were readier to depart this life than he.”

Knocking sounded. Doll was knocking hard on the door. She kept knocking.

Face asked, “Who’s there?”

He looked out the window and said, “My lord, the mad lady’s brother has come.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “What, Lungs!”

Face said, “His coach is at the door. Avoid his sight, for he’s as furious and hot-tempered as his sister is mad.”

“I’m in serious trouble!”

Face said, “My brain is quite undone with the fumes from the explosion, sir. I never can hope to fully recover and be myself again.”

“Is all lost, Lungs?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked. “Will nothing be preserved of all our cost?”

“Indeed, very little, sir,” Face said. “A peck of coals or so, which is cold comfort, sir.”

Sir Epicure Mammon mourned, “Oh, my horny mind! I am justly punished.”

“And so am I, sir.”

“I am cast from all my hopes —”

“Not hopes — certainties, sir.”

“— by my own base affections.”

Pretending to recover a little from fainting, Subtle said, “Oh, the curst fruits of vice and lust!”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “Good father, it was my sin. Forgive it.”

Subtle said, “Why is my roof still hanging over us? Why hasn’t it fallen upon us and justly punished us because of this wicked man!”

Subtle hung his head.

Face said to Sir Epicure Mammon, “Look, sir, you grieve him now by staying in his sight. Good sir, the nobleman will come, too, and capture you, and that may breed a tragedy.”

“I’ll go,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

“Yes,” Face said, “and repent at home, sir. It may be that for some good penance you may have it yet — say, a hundred pounds donated in the charity box at Bedlam —”

The box was for money to support the insane.

“Yes,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

Face thought, — for the restoring of such people as … have their wits.

“I’ll do it,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

“I’ll send someone to you to receive it,” Face said.

That someone would collect the hundred pounds but would not put it in the charity box. The money would go to the restoring of Doll, Face, and Subtle, who have their wits.

“Do,” Sir Epicure Mammon said. “Is no projection left?”

“All is blown to bits, or stinks, sir,” Face said.

“Will anything be saved that’s good for medicine, do you think?” Sir Epicure Mammon asked.

He was hoping that even if he could not have enough of the philosopher’s stone to turn base metal to gold, he might have at least a little of the elixir of life.

“I cannot tell, sir,” Face said. “There will be perhaps something gotten from scraping the shards that will cure the itch.”

Scraping the shards on itchy skin will relieve the itch.

Face thought, Though not your itch of mind, sir.

He meant the itch of greed for gold.

He continued, “It shall be saved for you, and sent to your home. Good sir, exit this way for fear the lord should meet you.”

Mammon exited.

Subtle raised his head and said, “Face!”


“Is he gone?”

“Yes, and as heavily as if all the gold he hoped for were in his blood,” Face said. “Let us be lighthearted, though.”

Subtle got up from the floor and said, “Yes, let us be as light as balls and jump and hit our heads against the roof for joy. There’s so much of our care now cast away. Now we don’t need to worry about Sir Epicure Mammon expecting to possess the philosopher’s stone.”

Face said, “Now we need to turn our attention to our Spanish Don.”

Subtle said, “Yes, your young widow by this time has been made a Countess, Face; she has been working hard with the Spanish Don to produce a young heir for you.”

In this case, Subtle believed that the honeymoon had taken place before the wedding. He was happy that Face would marry a whore.

“Good, sir,” Face said.

Sometimes people are excessively polite when they very much dislike each other.

“Take off your alchemist’s assistant’s costume, and go and greet her kindly, as a bridegroom should, after these common hazards we have been through.”

“Very well, sir,” Face said. “Will you go fetch Don Diego away, while I take care of the widow?”

Diego was a common Spanish name that Face was using to refer to the Spanish Don.

“And I will get the better of him, too, if you’ll be pleased, sir,” Subtle said. “I wish that Doll were in the widow’s place so she could pick the Spanish Don’s pockets now!”

Face said, “Why, you can do it as well as she could, if you would set your mind to it. I hope that you will prove your skill at pickpocketing.”

“I will, for your sake, sir,” Subtle said.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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