Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 4, Scene 6

— 4.6 —

Surly and Dame Pliant were talking together in another room of the house. Surly was still wearing the costume of the Spanish Don, but he had revealed his true identity to Dame Pliant. Surly was being honorable, and he had not had sex with Dame Pliant.

Surly said, “Lady, you see into what hands you have fallen! You see that you are among such a nest of villains! And you see how near your honor was to have certainly caught a clap, aka a misfortune, through your credulity, if I had only been as punctually forward as place, time, and other circumstances would have made most men. You’re a beautiful woman; I wish that you were wise, too!”

Another meaning of “clap” was the venereal disease “gonorrhea,” and another meaning of “punctually forward” was “point forward.” You can guess what was pointing.

Surly continued, “I am a gentleman who came here disguised only in order to find out the knaveries of this citadel, and because I might have wronged your honor and have not, I claim some interest in your love. You are, they say, a widow who is rich, and I’m a bachelor who is financially worth nothing. Your fortune in money may make me a man, as my fortune in life has preserved your reputation as a respectable woman. Think upon this, and decide whether I have deserved you or not.”

“I will, sir,” Dame Pliant replied.

Surly said, “And as for these household rogues, let me alone to deal with them.”

Subtle entered the room, still thinking that the Spanish Don spoke no English.

He asked, “How does my noble Diego, and my dear madam Countess? Has the Count been courteous, lady? Has he been liberal and open?”

The word “liberal” at this time also meant “licentious.”

Subtle continued, “Donzel, I think you look melancholic, after your coitum [Latin for ‘sex’], and you look scurvy. Truly, I do not like the dullness of your eye. It has a heavy cast, it is upsee Dutch, and it says you are a lumpish whoremaster.”

“Upsee Dutch” meant “in the manner of the Dutch,” who were reputed to be heavy drinkers. In other words, Subtle was accusing the Spanish Don of looking as if he had a hangover.

Subtle said, “Be lighter, just as I will make your pockets lighter.”

He attempted to pick the Spanish Don’s pockets.

Surly said, “Will you, Don Bawd and Pickpocket?”

He hit Subtle hard and said, “What do you think now? Are you reeling! Stand up, sir, you shall find, since I am so heavy, I’ll give you equal weight.”

Subtle shouted, “Help! Murder!”

Surly said, “No, sir, there’s no such thing as murder intended. A good cart and a clean whip shall ease you of that fear.”

The punishment that Surly intended for Subtle was being tied behind a cart and whipped as the cart was driven through public places.

Surly continued, “I am the Spanish Don whom you wanted to cheat, do you see — cheat! Where’s your Captain Face, that part-time dealer in stolen items and that full-time bawd — that wholly rascal?”

Wearing his Captain’s uniform, Face entered the room. Seeing the commotion, he looked closely at the Spanish Don and said, “What! Surly!”

“Oh, make your approach, good Captain,” Surly said. “I have found from whence your copper rings and spoons come, now, with which you cheat abroad in taverns.”

The copper rings and spoons were treated so that they looked like gold and could be sold at high prices.

Surly continued, “It was here that you learned to anoint your boot with brimstone, then rub men’s gold on it for a kind of touchstone, and say the gold was worthless, when you had changed the color of the touch so that you might have the gold for nothing.”

People used touchstones to test the purity of gold. Gold would be rubbed on the touchstone and the color it left revealed the purity of gold. In Face’s con, real gold would appear to be base metal, and Face could pocket it or buy it for much less than it was worth.

Surly continued, “And this Doctor Subtle, your sooty, smoky-bearded peer, will enclose so much gold in a flask, and turn aside and substitute for it another flask containing sublimed mercury that shall burst in the heat and fly out all in fumo — in lots of smoke! The gold appears to be lost, but instead Doctor Subtle has it.”

Surly had probably heard the noise of the recent explosion, and he could guess — more or less — what had happened.

He added, “Then weeps Sir Epicure Mammon. Then faints his worship: Doctor Subtle.”

Face slipped out of the room as Surly looked at Subtle.

Surly continued, “Or, he is the Faustus, who casts horoscopes and can conjure, cures plagues, hemorrhoids, and syphilis by the astrological almanacs, and exchanges information with all the bawds and midwives of three shires, while you — Captain! What! Has he gone? — send in pregnant women, barren wives, or waiting-maidens who suffer from the green sickness.”

Faustus used black magic — he received help from demons rather than from angels. Surly was accusing Subtle of using black magic to medically treat people, especially women suffering from sex-related problems. The green sickness was a form of anemia suffered by some women when they reached puberty, but people in this culture believed that it was caused by unrequited love.

Subtle may have been giving women abortions. One cure for the green sickness was thought to be sex, so he may also have been helping, or using Face to help, young women to need abortions.

Subtle attempted to leave, but Surly grabbed him and said, “No, sir, you must tarry, although Face has escaped, and you must answer by the ears, sir.”

He meant that Subtle would be placed in a pillory and have his ears cut off.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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