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

— 5.4 —

Subtle was with Dapper in a room in the house. Dapper was no longer blindfolded.

Subtle said, “What! Have you eaten your gag?”

“Yes, indeed. It crumbled away in my mouth,” Dapper replied.

“You have spoiled everything then.”

“No! I hope my aunt of Fairy will forgive me.”

“Your aunt’s a gracious lady,” Subtle said, “but indeed you are to blame.”

“The fumes overcame me, and I ate the gingerbread gag to calm my stomach,” Dapper said. “Please explain that to her grace.”

Face entered the room. He was wearing his Captain’s uniform and a fake beard.

Dapper said, “Here comes Captain Face.”

Face said to Subtle, “What is this! Is Dapper’s mouth open?”

Subtle replied, “Yes, he has spoken!”

Face said quietly to Subtle, “Damn! I heard him when I was outside, and I heard you, too.”

He said loudly so Dapper could hear him, “He’s ruined then.”

He said quietly to Subtle, “I have been obliged to say that the house is haunted with spirits in order to keep the churl back.”

A “churl” is a country fellow. Face was referring to Lovewit, who had been in the country inspecting his hop yards.

“And have you succeeded in keeping him away?” Subtle asked quietly.

“Yes, for this night,” Face replied.

“Why, then triumph and sing of Face so famous, the precious King of present wits,” Subtle said, praising Face for his success.

Face asked, “Didn’t you hear the disturbance at the door?”

“Yes, I did, and I dwindled with fear because of it,” Subtle said.

“Let’s show Dapper his aunt the Queen of Fairy, and then let’s get rid of him,” Face said. “I’ll send her in to you.”

Face exited.

Subtle said loudly to Dapper, “Well, sir, your aunt her grace will see you quickly, at my request and the Captain’s word that you did not eat your gingerbread gag in any contempt of her highness.”

“I certainly did not do it in any contempt of her highness, sir,” Dapper said.

Doll, dressed like the Queen of Fairy, entered the room.

Subtle said to Dapper, “Here she is. Get down on your knees and grovel. She has a stately presence.”

Dapper knelt, and then he groveled towards her.

Subtle said, “Good! Go nearer, and tell her, ‘God save you’!”

Dapper said, “Madam!”

“And your aunt,” Subtle prompted.

“And my most gracious aunt,” Dapper said. “May God save your grace.”

The disguised Doll said, “Nephew, we thought to have been angry with you, but that sweet face of yours has turned the tide, and made it flow with joy, although it recently ebbed of love.

“Arise, and touch our velvet gown.”

Subtle said, “Kiss her skirts.”

Dapper did.

Subtle said, “Good!”

The disguised Doll said, “Let me now stroke that head. Nephew, much shall you win, and much shall you spend. Much shall you give away, and much shall you lend.”

“Yes, much indeed,” Subtle said.

He then said to Dapper, “Why do you not thank her grace?”

Dapper said, “I cannot speak for joy.”

Subtle said to the disguised Doll, “See, the kind wretch! He is filled with love for his relative — you, his aunt. He is your grace’s true kinsman.”

The disguised Doll said to the air, “Give me the bird.”

She was pretending that the familiar spirit she was giving to Dapper was a bird in the fairy world.

In modern times, this can be a funny line because to “give someone the bird” means to boo them. On the New York opening night of Bitter Sweet, Noël Coward walked into Evelyn Laye’s dressing room and presented her with a silver box. When she opened the box, a mechanical bird emerged, flapped its wings, and sang. Mr. Coward said, “I wanted to be the first to give you the bird.”

The disguised Doll then gave an item to Dapper and said, “Here is your fly in a purse, which you will hang about your neck, nephew.”

The fly was the familiar spirit in the human world. In this society, many people believed that demons assumed the form of flies.

She added, “Wear it, and feed it in about a week from this day on your right wrist.”

Subtle said, “Open a vein with a pin and let it suck blood just once a week; until then, you must not look at it.”

The disguised Doll said, “That is correct, and nephew, be sure to bear yourself worthy of the blood you come from.”

Subtle said, “Her grace would have you eat no more Woolsack pies, nor Dagger frumety.”

“Frumety” was wheat cakes boiled in milk and then seasoned. Woolsack and Dagger were taverns.

The disguised Doll said, “And he should not break his fast in Heaven and Hell.”

Heaven and Hell were also taverns.

Subtle said, “She’s with you everywhere!”

He added, “Nor should you play with costermongers — sellers of fruit — at the game of mum-chance, the game of tray-trip, and the game of God-make-you-rich, which your aunt has done.”

The game of God-make-you-rich was a variant of backgammon.

Subtle added, “Instead, you must keep the gallantest company, and play the best games —           ”

“Yes, sir,” Dapper interrupted.

Subtle continued, “— such as gleek and primero, and be true to us and give us a share of what you win.”

Dapper said, “I swear by this my hand that I will.”

Subtle said, “You may bring us a thousand pounds before tomorrow night, even if only three thousand pounds are being gambled over — if you are willing.”

“I swear I will,” Dapper said.

“Your fly will teach you all games,” Subtle said.

Face whispered to Subtle from another room, “Have you done there?”

Subtle asked the disguised Doll, “Does your grace have any other duties to command him to do?”

“No,” the disguised Doll said, “except to come and see me often. I may chance to leave him three or four hundred chests of treasure and some twelve thousand acres of fairy land, if he gambles well and decorously with good gamesters.”

Fairies are thought to be long-lived, so even if fairies existed, Dapper would be unlikely to inherit these things.

Subtle said to Dapper, “There’s a kind aunt! Kiss her departing part.”

Dapper kissed the train of her gown — although her “departing part” could have been interpreted as her butt.

Subtle added, “But you must now sell your assets that earn you forty marks a year.”

“Yes, sir, I mean to,” Dapper said.

“Or, give those assets away,” Subtle said. “A pox on them!”

“I’ll give them to my aunt,” Dapper said. “I’ll go and fetch the legal papers.”

“That’s a good idea,” Subtle said. “Go now.”

Subtle knew, because Face had told him, that Dapper was “the sole hope of his old grandmother,” but Subtle was willing to con Dapper out of his inheritance.

Dapper exited.

Face entered the room and asked Doll, “Where’s Subtle?”

“Here I am,” Subtle said. “What’s the news?”

Face said, “Drugger is at the door. Go take from him his Spanish suit of clothing, and tell him to fetch a parson immediately. Tell him that he shall marry the widow. You shall earn and then spend a hundred pounds by doing this service!”

Subtle exited.

Face said, “Now, Queen Doll, have you packed up everything?”


“And how do you like the Lady Pliant?”

“She is a good dull innocent.”

An “innocent” is a fool, someone innocent of the evil in the world.

Subtle returned, carrying a bundle, and said, “Here’s your Hieronimo’s Spanish cloak and hat.”

Face said, “Give them to me.”

“And the ruff, too?” Subtle asked.

“Yes,” Face said. “I’ll come back to you quickly.”

He took the clothing and exited.

Subtle said, “Doll, now he is gone about his project, the one I told you about, for the widow.”

Doll said, “It is directly against our agreement. We are supposed to share everything equally, and no one is supposed to have precedence.”

By marrying Dame Pliant, Face would gain Dame Pliant’s fortune.

Subtle said, “Well, we will fix him, wench.”

The word “wench” was often used affectionately.

He asked, “Have you gotten Dame Pliant’s jewels or bracelets from her?”

“No, but I will do it,” Doll replied.

Subtle said, “Soon at night, my Dolly, when we are shipped, and all our goods are aboard, eastward for Ratcliff, we will turn our course and instead go westward to Brainford, if you say the word, and take our leaves of this overweening, conceited, cocksure rascal — this peremptory Face.”

“Good idea. I’m weary of him,” Doll said.

Subtle said, “You have reason to be since the slave will run and get a wife, Doll, against the agreement that was drawn among us three.”

Doll said, “I’ll pluck his bird — Dame Pliant — as bare as I can.”

Subtle said, “Yes, tell her that she must by any means address and give some present to the cunning-man — me — to make him amends for wronging his art with her suspicion; she must send him a ring or a pearl necklace. If she does not, tell her that she will be tortured extremely in her sleep and have strange things — nightmares — come to her. Will you do this?”


Subtle said, “My fine flitter-mouse, my bat, my bird of the night!”

A bird is a young woman. As a prostitute, Doll was a lady of the night.

Subtle added, “We’ll tickle it at the Pigeons, when we have everything and may unlock the trunks, and say that this is mine, and this is thine; and this is thine, and this is mine.”

They kissed.

“Tickle” meant “celebrate,” including “celebrate sexually.” They would tickle their throats with alcohol, and they would tickle other things. Subtle might be impotent, but there are multiple ways to have fun in bed.

Face returned and said, “What now! Busy a-billing?”

When doves caress each other, they are billing.

“Billing” also means “making a list,” something that Subtle and Doll had been doing with the profits before they kissed.

Subtle said, “Yes, we are a little high-spirited with the good passage of our work here.”

Face said, “Nab Drugger has brought his parson; take the parson inside, Subtle, and send Nab back again to wash his face.”

“I will,” Subtle said, “and shall I have him shave himself?”

“If you can get him to do it,” Face said.

“You are hot upon something, Face, whatever it is!” Doll said. “You are up to something!”

Face said, “I am up to a trick that shall allow Doll to spend ten pounds a month.”

He was lying.

Subtle returned.

Face asked, “Is Drugger gone?”

Subtle said, “The chaplain is waiting for you in the hall, sir.”

“I’ll go and take him where he needs to be,” Face said.

He exited.

Doll said, “He’ll now marry her, immediately.”

“He cannot yet,” Subtle said. “He is not ready.”

Face was not wearing the Spanish clothing.

Subtle added, “Dear Doll, cheat Dame Pliant of everything you can. To deceive Face is no deceit; instead, it is only justice because Face is willing to break such an inextricable tie as ours was.”

“Leave it to me to fix him,” Doll said.

Face returned and said, “Come, my partners. You have packed up everything? Where are the trunks? Bring them forth.”

“Here they are,” Subtle said, pointing.

“Let’s see them,” Face said. “Where’s the money?”

Subtle pointed to a trunk and said, “Here, in this one.”

Face opened the trunk and said, “Sir Epicure Mammon’s ten pounds. Eight score pounds from previously. Here is the brethren’s money. Here is Drugger’s money, and here is Dapper’s money.”

He pointed and asked, “What paper’s that?”

Doll said, “It contains the jewel of the waiting maid’s, who stole it from her lady, in order to know for certain —”

Face interrupted, “— if she should rise in social status and have precedence over her mistress?”

Doll replied, “Yes.”

Face asked, “What box is that?”

Subtle said, “It contains the fish-wives’ rings, I think, and the ale-wives’ small coins.”

He asked, “Is that right, Doll?”

She replied, “Yes, and it contains the silver boatswain’s whistle that the sailor’s wife brought to you in order to learn whether her husband was with Captain Ward, the famous pirate.”

Face said, “We’ll wet it tomorrow, along with our silver beakers and tavern cups.”

He meant that they would sell the whistle and use the money obtained to buy drinks to wet their whistles.

He then asked, “Where are the French petticoats and girdles and hangers?”

The hangers were ornamental loops that could be put on a belt and used to hold swords.

Subtle said, “Here, in this trunk, and so are the bolts of fine linen.”

Face asked, “Is Drugger’s damask there, and the tobacco?”

Subtle replied, “Yes.”

“Give me the keys,” Face said.

“Why should you have the keys?” Doll asked.

“It doesn’t matter, Doll,” Subtle said, “because we shall not open the trunks before he comes.”

Of course, he intended to open them before Face arrived because he thought that Face would never arrive.

Face said to Subtle, “That is true: You shall not open them, indeed. Nor shall you take them forth, do you see?”

He looked at Doll and said, “Doll, you shall not take them away from here.”

“No!” an angry Doll said.

“No, my smock-rampant,” Face said.

On coats of arms, an animal could be shown rampant — on its rear legs and ready to attack.

As a prostitute, Doll did much of her work in a smock — ladies’ underwear. Right now, she looked very much ready to attack.

Face said, “The truth is, my master knows all, he has pardoned me, and he will keep the trunks. Doctor, this is true — you look dumbfounded — despite all the horoscopes you cast.”

Face then lied, “I sent for my master to come here, indeed.”

He then said, “Therefore, good partners, both of you — both he and she — must be satisfied, for here ends our agreement: the indenture tripartite made among Subtle, Doll, and Face. All I can do for you now is to help you over the wall in the back of the house or lend you a sheet to save your velvet gown, Doll.”

Subtle and Doll could either escape by climbing over the back wall, or stay and be arrested. If they were arrested, Doll could be forced to make a walk of penitence wearing nothing but a sheet.

Face added, “Here will be police officers very quickly, so you need to think of some course of action immediately if you intend to escape the prisoners’ dock, for there you will end up if you don’t escape.”

Loud knocking sounded on the doors.

Face said, “Listen to the sound of thunder.”

Subtle said, “You are a precious and ‘precious’ fiend!”

One meaning of “precious” is expensive. Face had cost Subtle and Doll much wealth, so Subtle’s use of the word with that meaning was not sarcastic. Another meaning is “of great moral and spiritual value.” Face was not of great moral and spiritual value, so Subtle’s use of the word with that meaning was sarcastic.

A police officer shouted, “Open the door!”

Face said, “Doll, I am sorry indeed for you, but listen to me. It shall go hard with me, it shall be unpleasant for me, but I will place you somewhere. You shall have my letter of recommendation to Mistress Amo —”

Doll said, “Go get hanged!”

Face continued, “— or Madam Caesarean.”

Mistress Amo and Madam Caesarean were typical nicknames for women who ran brothels.

Amo is Latin for “I love you.”

Doll said, “A pox upon you, rogue. I wish I had time to beat you!”

Face said, “Subtle, let me know where you set up shop next. I will send you a customer now and then, for old acquaintance’s sake. What new course of action are you considering?”

Subtle replied, “Rogue, I’ll hang myself, so that I may walk as a greater devil than you, and haunt you in the flock-bed and the buttery.”

A flock-bed was stuffed with wool; the buttery was the pantry where food and drink were stored. As a butler, Face was in charge of the pantry.

Subtle was saying that he would kill himself so that he could haunt the places Face spent a lot of time.

Doll Common and Subtle exited.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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