Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: A Retelling — Act 4, Scene 7

— 4.7 —

Face had gone to get help. He now returned with Kastril.

Face said to Kastril, “Why, now’s the time, if you will ever quarrel well, as they say, and be a true-born child. Both the doctor and your sister are being abused.”

“Where is the abuser?” Kastril asked. “Which is he? He is a slave, whatever he is, and the son of a whore.”

He asked Surly, “Are you the man, sir, I would know?”

Surly replied, “I am loath, sir, to confess so much.”

No one wants to confess to being an abuser, a slave, and the son of a whore.

Kastril replied, “Then you lie in your throat!”

In this culture, this insult was worse than the previous insults.

“What!” Surly said.

Face said to Kastril, “He is a very arrant rogue, sir, and a cheater. He was employed to come here by another conjurer who does not love Doctor Subtle, and would cross and thwart him, if he knew how.”

Surly said to Kastril, “Sir, you are being abused and treated badly. You are being lied to.”

Kastril replied, “You lie. And it is no matter.”

Kastril was still bad at quarreling. He had made the strong insult of “Then you lie in your throat!” without providing evidence. And he ought not to have meant it when he said, “And it is no matter.” It was an important matter indeed. People dueled to the death over insults such as being directly accused of lying. No one should say, “You lie in your throat,” and then say, “And it is no matter.”

“Well said, sir!” Face said. “He is the most impudent rascal —”

Surly said to Face, “You are the most impudent rascal indeed.”

Then he said to Kastril, “Will you hear me out, sir?”

Face said to Kastril, “By no means. Tell him to be gone.”

Kastril said to Surly, “Be gone, sir, and quickly.”

Surly said, “This is strange!”

He then said to Dame Pliant, “Lady, tell your brother what is going on.”

Face said to Kastril, “There is not such a cheater as this man in all the town. The doctor knew immediately that this man is a cheater, and finds still that the real Spanish Count will come here.”

Face whispered, “Bear up, Subtle. Go along with this.”

Subtle said to Kastril, “Yes, sir, the real Spanish Count will appear within this hour.”

Face said, “And yet this rogue would come in a disguise, after being tempted by another spirit, to trouble our art, although he could not hurt it!”

Kastril said, “Yes, I know.”

His sister whispered in his ear, and Kastril said, “Go away, you talk like a foolish mauther.”

“Mauther” was country dialect for “girl or young woman.”

Dame Pliant exited.

Surly said to Kastril, “Sir, everything she says is the truth.”

Face said to Kastril, “Do not believe him, sir. He is the lyingest swabber! Keep on the path you are traveling, sir.”

A swabber is a low-ranking sailor who swabs (mops) the deck.

Surly said, “You are valiant when you are in the midst of people backing you up!”

“Yes, and so what, sir?” Kastril asked.

Carrying a roll of damask cloth, Drugger entered the room.

Face said, “Here’s an honest fellow, too, who knows Surly, and all his tricks.”

He whispered to Abel Drugger, “Make good what I say, Abel. Back me up. This cheater — Surly — would have cheated you out of the widow.”

Face then said out loud, “Surly owes this honest Drugger here seven pounds — a debt that he has acquired by buying from him many, many two-penny worths of tobacco.”

At the time, a pound was worth 240 old pence. Therefore, Face was accusing Surly of charging and never paying for 840 purchases of two-penny worths of tobacco.

“Yes, sir,” Drugger said, “And he has damned himself by swearing falsely for three terms to pay me.”

The terms were periods of times in which the law courts were in session.

Face asked Drugger, “And what does he owe for lotium?”

Lotium is stale urine; it was used as a hair tonic.

Drugger replied, “Thirty shillings, sir. And he owes for six syringes.”

Surly said, “Hydra of villainy!”

The Hydra was a mythological multi-headed monster that Hercules had killed. Each time he cut off one of its heads, two more grew in its place. Hercules killed the Hydra by cutting off a head and then immediately cauterizing it.

Surly’s naming of the Hydra was fitting; his enemies were multiplying.

Face said to Kastril, “Sir, you must quarrel him out of the house.”

“I will,” Kastril replied.

He said to Surly, “Sir, if you get not out of doors, you lie and you are a pimp.”

“Why, this is madness, sir,” Surly said. “It is not valor in you; I must laugh at this.”

Kastril said, “It is my disposition. You are a pimp and a trig, and an Amadis de Gaul or a Don Quixote.”

A “trig” is a “dandy.” Surly was dressed in fancy Spanish clothing. Amadis de Gaul is a hero in a Spanish romance; Don Quixote is the protagonist of a satire of Spanish romances.

Drugger said, “Or a Knight of the curious cockscomb, do you see?”

Surly was wearing a fancy Spanish hat.

Ananias the Anabaptist entered the room and said, “Peace to the household!”

To this common greeting, Kastril, the wanna-be angry boy, said, “I’ll keep my peace for no man.”

Ananias said to Subtle, “The casting of dollars is concluded to be lawful.”

Kastril asked, “Is he the constable?” He did not want to get in trouble for quarreling.

Subtle said, “Peace, Ananias. Be quiet.”

The casting of dollars is NOT lawful, and Subtle did not want too many people to associate him with the casting of dollars.

Face said to Kastril, “No, sir. He is not the constable.”

Kastril said to Surly, “Then you are an otter, and a shad, a whit. A very tim.”

Otters are difficult to classify. Are they fish or flesh? Kastril may have been saying that he found Surly’s sexual preference difficult to ascertain.

A “shad” is a herring. A “shotten herring” was an insult meaning “worthless.” Literally, a “shotten herring” is a herring that has spawned.

A “whit” is something small. As an insult for a man, it means the man has a small penis.

A “tim” is perhaps a timid man.

Surly asked, “You’ll listen to me, sir?”

“I will not,” Kastril said.

In this culture, the two quarreling men were supposed to talk to ascertain facts and to see if any extenuating circumstances existed.

Ananias asked Subtle, “What is the motive? Why are they quarreling?”

The word “motive” has a Puritan meaning: “supernatural prompting.”

Subtle replied, “Zeal in the young gentleman, against the other man’s Spanish breeches.”

Ananias said, “The Spanish breeches are profane, lewd, superstitious, and idolatrous.”

Spain was and is largely a Catholic country; Ananias, as an Anabaptist, hated Catholics.

Surly said, “Here are new rascals!”

Kastril said to Surly, “Will you be gone, sir?”

Ananias said, “Leave, Satan! You are not of the light! That ruff of pride about your neck betrays you; it is the same with that which the unclean birds, in the year fifteen seventy-seven, were seen to swagger on diverse coasts.”

Catholic priests were persecuted for a time in England, and so priests coming to England would wear disguises rather than clerical clothing. Some priests coming from Spain would wear Spanish ruffs. In 1577, large Spanish ruffs of the kind that Surly was wearing came into fashion. Around 1577, priests began wearing Spanish ruffs. In June 1577, some priests were arrested in Cornwall, and the English authorities began a crackdown on priests.

Puritans such as Ananias called Catholic priests “unclean birds” in part because of Revelation 18:2:

And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. (King James Version)

In addition, they called priests “unclean birds” because of reaction to a book. In 1580, Robert Persons, a Jesuit in England, anonymously published a book titled A Brief Discours contayninge certayne Reasons Why Catholiques refuse to goe to Church that defended Catholics and argued that Catholics refused to go to the Anglican Church on religious grounds, not on treasonous grounds. He used the pseudonym “I. Howlet”: a howlet is an owl. People responding to and criticizing the book seized on “Howlet” and referred to Catholic priests as “unclean birds.”

Ananias added, “You look like the Antichrist, in that lewd hat.”

Surly’s Spanish hat reminded Ananias of the Pope’s hat; Ananias regarded the Catholic Pope as the Antichrist.

Surly said, “I must give way to my enemies.”

Kastril said, “Be gone, sir.”

Surly began, “But I’ll be revenged on you —”

Ananias said, “Depart, proud Spanish fiend!”

Surly ended, “— Captain Face and Doctor Subtle.”

Ananias said, “Child of perdition!”

Kastril said, “Go away from here, sir!”

Surly exited.

Kastril asked, “Didn’t I quarrel bravely and splendidly?”

“Yes, indeed, you did, sir,” Face said.

“Indeed, if I give my mind to it and try hard, I shall quarrel properly,” Kastril said.

“Oh, you must follow him, sir,” Face said, “and threaten him until he is tame; otherwise, he’ll turn and come back here.”

Kastril said, “I’ll re-turn him then and have him face the exiting direction.”

He exited.

Subtle took Ananias aside and talked to him quietly.

Face said, “Drugger, this rogue forestalled us from helping you. We had determined that you would have come here wearing a Spanish suit of clothing and courted the widow, but he — a pimping slave! — put the Spanish suit of clothing on himself.”

He then asked, “Have you brought the damask?”

“Yes, sir,” Drugger replied.

Face said, “You must borrow a Spanish suit of clothing. Do you have any credit with actors?”

Actors would have items of Spanish clothing in their collection of costumes.

Drugger said, “Yes, sir; didn’t you ever see me play the Fool?”

This was an in-joke. Acting troupes would have a lead comic actor to play the major comic roles such as professional Fools — and fools such as Drugger. Robert Armin, the comic actor who originated the part of Drugger, had played the Fool in William Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Face replied, “I don’t know if I have, Nab.”

He thought, But you shall play the fool, if I have anything to do with it.

He continued, “Hieronimo’s old cloak, ruff, and hat will serve. I’ll tell you more when you bring me those items of clothing.”

Hieronimo was the protagonist of Thomas Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy.

Drugger exited.

Ananias said to Subtle, “Sir, I know the Spaniards hate the Puritan brethren and have spies to watch their actions, and I have no doubt that this Spanish Don was one of those spies.

“But the holy Synod — the ecclesiastical assembly — have been in prayer and meditation about the matter of coining, and it is revealed no less to them than to me that the casting of money is most lawful.”

“That is true,” Subtle said, “but I cannot do it here. If the house should happen to be suspected, all that Face and I are doing, including making the philosopher’s stone, would be revealed and we would be locked up in the Tower of London forever, to make gold there for the state. We would never come out of the Tower of London, and then you would be defeated in your purpose of getting much money for your cause.”

Ananias said, “I will tell this to the elders and the weaker brethren so that the whole company of the separation may join in humble prayer again.”

“And so they may join in fasting,” Subtle said.

“Yes, for some fitter place in which to cast money,” Ananias said. “May peace of mind rest within these walls!”

“Thanks, courteous Ananias,” Subtle said.

Ananias exited.

Face and Subtle were alone.

“What did Ananias come here about?” Face asked.

“He came about the casting of dollars,” Subtle replied. “He wanted to start doing it immediately and without taking any more thought about it. And so I told him that a Spanish minister came here to spy against the faithful —”

“I understand,” Face said. “Come, Subtle, you are so downcast when you suffer the least disaster! What would you have done if I had not helped you out?”

“I thank you, Face, for the angry boy, indeed,” Subtle replied.

Face said, “Who would have expected that Surly would have been the Spanish Don? He had dyed his beard and done everything else needed to impersonate a Spaniard.”

He pointed to the cloth that Drugger had brought and said, “Well, sir, here’s damask to make you a suit of clothing.”

“Where’s Drugger?” Subtle asked.

“He has gone to borrow for me a Spanish suit of clothing,” Face said. “I’ll be the Spanish Count, now, and marry the widow.”

“But where’s the widow?” Subtle asked.

“Inside, with my lord’s sister,” Face said. “Madam Doll is entertaining her.”

Subtle said, “Pardon me, Face, but now that I know the widow is still honest and chaste, I will stand again.”

He meant that he would compete again with Face for the widow’s hand in marriage. The word “stand” also had the meaning of “erection.”

“You will not attempt to compete for her hand in marriage!” Face said.

“Why not?”

“You must stand to your word,” Face said. “You said that you would not marry her. Or — here comes Doll. I will tell —”

“You are tyrannous still,” Subtle said.

“I am strict when it comes to my rights,” Face said.

Doll entered the room hastily.

Face said, “Hello, Doll! Have you told her that the Spanish Count will come?”

“Yes, but another person has come, a person you little looked for!”

“Who is that?”

“Your master,” Doll answered. “The master of the house.”

People in this society called the boss “master.”

Subtle said, “What, Doll!”

Face said, “She lies. This is some trick. Come, put your tricks aside, Dorothy.”

“Look out the window, and see for yourself,” Doll said.

Face went to the window.

“Are you telling the truth?” Subtle asked.

“By God’s light, forty of the neighbors are about him, talking,” Doll said.

“It really is my master,” Face said. “I swear it by this good day.”

Doll said, “It will prove to be an ill day for some of us.”

Face said, “We are undone, we are ruined, and we will be caught in the act.”

“We are lost, I’m afraid,” Doll said.

Subtle complained to Face, “You said he would not come as long as one person died each week within the liberties.”

The liberties were the suburbs outside the city walls.

Face said, “No. I said within the city walls.”

That area was much smaller, but actually Face had not specified this.

“Is that so?” Subtle said. “Then I beg your pardon. I thought it was in the liberties. What shall we do now, Face?”

“Be silent,” Face said. “Don’t say a word if my master calls or knocks. I’ll shave my beard and put on my old clothes again and meet him as the person he thinks I am: Jeremy the butler.

“In the meantime, you two pack up all the goods and profits that we can carry in the two trunks. I’ll keep my master away from the house at least for today, if not longer, and then at night, I’ll ship you both away down the Thames River to Ratcliff, where we will meet tomorrow, and there we’ll share the goods and profits.

“Let Sir Epicure Mammon’s brass and pewter stay in the cellar. We’ll have another time to deal with that. But, Doll, please go and quickly heat a little water. Subtle must shave me: All my Captain’s beard must come off to make me appear again as smooth-faced and smooth-talking Jeremy the butler.”

He asked Subtle, “Will you do it? Will you shave me?”

“Yes, I’ll shave you as well as I can.”

“And not cut my throat, but trim me?”

“You shall see, sir.”

The words “shave” and “trim” also mean “cheat.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved



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