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


Lovewit, wearing Spanish clothing, stood talking with the parson.

Loud knocking sounded at the door.

At the door, Lovewit asked, “What do you want, my masters?”

Sir Epicure Mammon replied, “Open your door, cheaters, bawds, conjurers.”

A police officer with him threatened, “Or we will break it open.”

“What warrant do you have?” Lovewit asked.

“Warrant enough, sir,” the police officer replied. “Don’t doubt that, if you’ll not open it.”

“Is there an officer out there?” Lovewit asked.

The police officer replied, “Yes, two or three in case they are needed.”

Lovewit said, “Have a little patience, and I will open it in a moment.”

Face entered the room; he was beardless and dressed as a butler.

Face asked Lovewit, “Sir, have you finished the ceremony? Is it a marriage? Is it duly and legally performed?”

“Yes, my brain,” Lovewit said, complimenting Face, aka Jeremy the butler.

“Then take off your ruff and cloak,” Face said. “Be yourself, sir.”

Lovewit removed the Spanish clothing.

Surly shouted from outside, “Knock down the door!”

Kastril shouted, “By God’s light, beat it open.”

Opening the door, Lovewit said, “Wait, wait, gentlemen, what is the meaning of this violence?”

Sir Epicure Mammon, Surly, Kastril, Ananias, Tribulation Wholesome, and the police officers rushed in.

“Where is this collier?” Sir Epicure Mammon shouted.

A collier is a man who deals in coal. Sir Epicure Mammon was referring to Subtle, who used much coal in his trade of alchemy.

Surly shouted, “And where is Captain Face?”

Sir Epicure Mammon began, “These day owls —”

“— that are birding in men’s wallets,” Surly finished.

Owls hunt at night, but Subtle and Face went birding — hunting — by day in other men’s wallets. Subtle and Face were thieves.

Sir Epicure Mammon mentioned another person who had conned him and whose whereabouts he wanted to know: “Madam Suppository.”

A suppository is a plug used to give medicine vaginally or rectally. Doll had pretended to Sir Epicure Mammon that she was studying medicine. Unknown to but possibly suspected by Sir Epicure Mammon, Doll was a prostitute who very well might be called Madame Suppository. She was also a supposed lady who was not really a lady.

Kastril mentioned someone he wanted to see: “Doxy, my suster.”

A doxy is a whore.

“Locusts of the foul pit,” Ananias said.

“Profane as Bel and the dragon,” Tribulation Wholesome said.

“Bel and the Dragon” is a section of the extended Book of Daniel. These stories are part of the biblical apocrypha. Bel (a statue) and the dragon were both falsely worshipped; Daniel convinced the people not to worship them.

The people who worshipped Bel and the dragon were worshipping idols. Such things occurred in Ben Jonson’s day and in our day, but modern idols tend to be money and the bad things that money can buy.

“Worse than the grasshoppers, or the lice of Egypt,” Ananias said.

Lovewit said, “Good gentlemen, listen to me.”

The commotion continued.

He asked, “Are you police officers, and you cannot stop this violence?”

The first police officer ordered, “Keep the peace.”

“Gentlemen, what is the matter?” Lovewit asked. “Who do you seek?”

“The chemical cozener,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

“And the Captain pander,” Surly said.

“The nun who is my suster,” Kastril said.

“Nun” was an ironic way of saying “whore.”

“Madam Rabbi,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

Doll had pretended to have religious knowledge while she was deceiving him.

“Scorpions and caterpillars,” Ananias said.

Lovewit said, “Fewer speak at once, please.”

The second police officer ordered, “Speak one person at a time, gentlemen. Take turns speaking. So I order you, by virtue of my staff.”

His staff was a symbol of his authority as a police officer.

Ananias said, “They are the vessels of pride, lust, and the cart.”

The cart was used in punishing criminals. A criminal could be placed on the cart and driven to the place of punishment, or the criminal could be bound and walk behind the cart while being whipped.

Lovewit said to Ananias, “Good zeal, lie still for a little while.”

“Peace, Deacon Ananias,” Tribulation Wholesome said. “Be quiet.”

Lovewit said, “The house here is mine, and the doors are open. If there are any such persons as you seek, use your authority and search the house in God’s name.”

He was hinting that perhaps the people they were seeking did not really exist.

He added, “I have only recently come to town, and to tell you truly, finding this tumult about my doors somewhat bewildered me until my butler here, fearing my greater displeasure, told me he had done something somewhat insolent — he had rented my house (probably he was presuming on my known aversion to any air of the town while there was present the sickness of plague) to a Doctor and a Captain. Who they are, what they are, and where they may be, he doesn’t know.”

Sir Epicure Mammon asked, “Are they gone?”

“You may go in and search, sir,” Lovewit invited.

Sir Epicure Mammon, Ananias and Tribulation went into the interior rooms of the house.

Lovewit said, “Here, I find the empty walls worse than I left them; they are smoked, with a few cracked pots and glasses and a furnace, and the ceiling filled with graffiti made from the candle smoke and a drawing of ‘Madam with a Dildo’ written on the walls. I have met only one gentlewoman here. She is within, and she said that she was a widow —”

Kastril said, “Yes, that’s my suster. I’ll go thump her. Where is she?”

He went inside.

Lovewit continued, “— and she should have married a Spanish Count, but he, when he came to it, neglected her so grossly, that I, a widower, am gone through with her.”

He had gone through the wedding ceremony with her.

Surly said, “What! Have I lost her then!”

“Were you the Spanish Don, sir?” Lovewit asked. “Truly, now, she does blame you extremely, and she says that you swore and told her you had taken the pains to dye your beard and darken your face with umber and had borrowed a suit of Spanish clothing and a ruff, all for her love — and then you did nothing. What an oversight and lack of putting forward an effort, sir, was this!

“An old musketeer can still fare well; he could prime his powder, and give fire, and hit, all in the twinkling of an eye!”

Lovewit, an older man, was hinting that he had consummated the marriage.

Sir Epicure Mammon returned and said, “The whole nest has fled!”

“What sort of birds were they?” Lovewit asked.

“A kind of choughs, or thievish daws, sir, who have picked my purse of eight score and ten pounds within these five weeks.”

Choughs are a kind of crow, and daws are jackdaws. These are birds that sometimes steal shiny items.

He continued, “In addition, I paid for the first materials — coals and chemicals — and my goods are lying in the cellar, which I am glad they have been left because I may still take them home.”

“Do you think so, sir?” Lovewit said.


“You may have them by order of law, sir, but not otherwise,” Lovewit said. “A court must rule that these are your goods.”

“I can’t have my own goods!” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

“Sir, I can have no knowledge that they are yours, except by public laws,” Lovewit said. “If you can bring a legal certificate that you were gulled of them, or out of a court law any formal writ that you did cheat yourself, I will not hold them.”

Lovewit knew what had happened. Sir Epicure Mammon had cheated himself by trusting con men. And, of course, he had been cheated. As a later con man, W.C. Fields, would say, “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

“I’d rather lose them,” Sir Epicure Mammon said.

If he were to testify in a court of law, everyone would know what a fool he had been.

Lovewit said, “You shall not lose your goods because of me, sir. Upon these terms I have given, they are yours. Were they all to have been, sir, turned into gold?”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “No, I cannot tell — it may be they would have been — what then?”

He was unwilling to admit that an alchemist had cheated him.

Lovewit said, “What a great loss in hope you have sustained!”

“Not I,” Sir Epicure Mammon said. “The commonwealth has.”

He was thinking of all the good he could have done with the alchemical gold, and he was not mentioning the decadent lifestyle he would have lived.

Face said, “Yes, he would have built the city anew and made around it a silver ditch, which would have run with cream from Hogsden so that, every Sunday, in Moorfields, the younkers and tits and tomboys would have drunk the cream, gratis.”

Younkers are young men, tits are young women, and tomboys are boisterous girls. “Gratis” means “free of charge.”

Sir Epicure Mammon said, “I will go and mount a turnip cart, and preach the end of the world, within these two months.”

Itinerant preachers often stood on a farm cart to preach.

He looked at Surly and said, “Surly, wake up! Are you in a dream?”

Surly had been thinking about his own losses: Dame Pliant and her fortune. If he had married her without revealing that he was not a Spanish Don, she would be his. Instead, he had been honest and had revealed to her who he really was. Also, he had left her to reveal to his friend Sir Epicure Mammon that Sir Epicure was being cheated.

Surly said, “Must I necessarily cheat myself with that same foolish vice of honesty! Come, let us go and search for the rogues. That Face I’ll mark for mine, if ever I meet him.”

He meant that he would single Face out for punishment and that he would mark Face’s face with his fists.

Face said, “If I ever hear of him, sir, I’ll bring word to your lodging, for indeed they were strangers to me. I thought they were as honest as myself, sir.”

Lovewit appreciated the wit.

Sir Epicure Mammon and Surly exited. So did the police officers.

Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome returned.

Tribulation Wholesome said to Ananias, “It is well; the saints shall not lose all yet. Go, and get some carts —”

“For what, my zealous friends?” Lovewit asked.

Ananias said, “To bear away the portion of the righteous out of this den of thieves.”

“What is that portion?” Lovewit asked.

“The goods that used to be the orphans’, that the brethren bought with their silver pence,” Ananias replied.

“What, those in the cellar that the Knight Sir Epicure Mammon claims?” Lovewit asked.

Ananias said, “I do defy the wicked Mammon, as do all the brethren, you profane man! I ask you with what conscience you can advance that idol against us, who have the seal of God?”

He was referring to Revelation 9:4: “And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads” (King James Version).

Ananias continued, “Were not the shillings numbered that made the pounds? Were not the pounds counted out, upon the second day of the fourth week, in the eighth month, upon the table, the year of the last patience of the saints, six hundred and ten?”

By “the second day of the fourth week, in the eighth month,” he meant 23 October. In the calendar Anabaptists used, the first month was March.

By the “last patience of the saints,” he meant the thousand years before the Second Coming.

By “six hundred and ten,” he meant the year 1610. According to Ananias, the Second Coming would occur in the year 2000 C.E.

Lovewit said to Ananias, “My earnest vehement botcher and deacon also, I cannot dispute religion with you verbally, but unless you get yourselves away from here very soon, I shall confute you with a cudgel.”

A botcher can be 1) someone who performs a task poorly, and/or 2) a tailor who repairs clothing rather than making new items of clothing.

“Sir!” Ananias said.

“Be calm, Ananias,” Tribulation Wholesome said.

“I am strong, and I will stand up, well girt, against a host of enemies who threaten Gad in exile,” Ananias said.

Genesis 49:19 predicted eventual victory for Gad: “Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last” (King James Version).

Lovewit said, “I shall send you to Amsterdam, to your cellar.”

“I will pray there against your house,” Ananias said. “May dogs defile and pee on your walls, and wasps and hornets breed beneath your roof, this seat of falsehood, and this cave of cheating!”

Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome exited.

Drugger arrived.

Lovewit asked, “Another one, too?”

Drugger replied, “Not I, sir, I am no brother.”

He meant that he was not a Puritan brother.

Lovewit beat him and said, “Go away, you Harry Nicholas! Dare you talk?”

By “Harry Nicholas,” Lovewit meant Harry Niclaes, an Anabaptist mystic whose sect Queen Elizabeth I suppressed and banned in 1580.

Drugger exited.

Face said to Lovewit, “No, he was no Anabaptist. This man was Abel Drugger.”

He then said to the parson, “Good sir, go and give him information. Tell him all is over: The widow has been married. He stayed at home too long, washing his face. He shall hear of the Doctor Subtle at Chester and of Captain Face at Yarmouth or some other good port town, waiting for a good wind so he can sail away.”

Drugger would either go on a wild goose chase or simply not try to find the Doctor and the Captain and instead stay at home.

The parson exited.

Face said to Lovewit, “If you can get rid of the angry child, now, sir —”

Kastril entered the room, dragging in his sister.

Kastril said to her, “Come on, you ewe, you have matched most sweetly, haven’t you? Didn’t I say that I would never have you tupped except by a dubbed boy so that you would be made a lady-tom?”

When a ram has sex with an ewe, the ram is said to have tupped the ewe, according to Kastril’s country language. “A dubbed boy” is a Knight, and Kastril had wanted his sister to marry a Knight so that she could be a lady. “Tom” is short for “tomboy,” but Dame Pliant was hardly a boisterous girl.

Kastril added, “By God’s light, you are a mammet! Oh, I could touse you, now.”

A mammet is a doll or puppet. By “touse,” Kastril meant “beat.”

He added, “Death, must you marry a pox!”

Lovewit said, “You lie, boy. I am as sound — as healthy and as free of the pox, aka syphilis — as you, and I’m aforehand with you.”

Lovewit knew the rules of arguing. He drew his sword.

Kastril asked, “Do you want to duel at once?”

“Come, will you quarrel?” Lovewit said. “I will frighten you away, Sirrah. Why don’t you draw your weapon?”

Kastril was ok with beating his sister; he was not ok with being killed by Lovewit. Therefore, Kastril said, “By God’s light, this is as fine an old boy as ever I saw!”

“Do you change your tune now?” Lovewit said. “Proceed.”

He waved his sword and said, “Here stands my dove. Swoop at her, if you dare.”

Kastril said, “By God’s light, I must love and respect him! I cannot choose not to, indeed, even if I should be hanged for it!”

He then said, “Suster, I protest that I honor you for this wedding match.”

“Oh, you do, do you, sir?” Lovewit said.

“Yes,” Kastril said, “and if you can take tobacco and drink, old boy, I’ll give her five hundred pounds in dowry for her marriage — five hundred pounds in addition to her own estate.”

“Fill a pipe full, Jeremy,” Lovewit ordered.

“Yes, but go in and smoke it there, sir,” Face, aka Jeremy, replied.

“We will,” Lovewit said. “I will be ruled by you in anything, Jeremy.”

Lovewit really did love wit — intelligence and quick thinking.

Kastril said, “By God’s light, you are not hidebound — you are a jovy boy!” Come, let us go in, please, and take our whiffs of tobacco.”

A “jovy” boy is a jovial boy.

Lovewit replied, “Whiff in with your sister, brother boy.”

Kastril and his sister went inside.

Lovewit now said directly to you, the audience, “Any master who has received such happiness by means of a servant, in being provided with such a widow and so much wealth, would be very ungrateful if he would not be a little indulgent to that servant’s wit and help that servant’s fortune, though with some small strain of his own honor and reputation.”

Lovewit had kept property that he knew belonged to other people.

He continued, “Therefore, gentlemen and kind spectators, if I have outstripped an old man’s gravity or strict standard of conduct for an actor playing an old man, think what a young wife and a good brain may do.”

The brain belonged to Face, aka Jeremy.

Lovewit added, “They may stretch age’s truth sometimes, and crack it, too. I have behaved perhaps more vigorously than you would think an old man could, but so what?”

Lovewit then said to Face, aka Jeremy, “Speak for yourself, knave.”

“So I will, sir,” Face, aka Jeremy, replied.

Lovewit exited.

Face, aka Jeremy, then said directly to you, the audience, “Gentlemen, my part a little fell in this last scene, yet it was within the limits of what a character like mine can plausibly do. I started out doing good for myself only, but then I did good for my master. Please note that I did good only so that I could get out of trouble. I am as much of a scoundrel now as I was at the beginning. And although I have cleanly got away from Subtle, Surly, Sir Epicure Mammon, Doll, hot-tempered Ananias, Dapper, Drugger, and all with whom I traded and conned, yet I wish to avoid being punished by you. Therefore, I put my fate to you, who are my jury. Please know that if you acquit me, then this loot that I have gotten remains here, and I will feast you often, and I will invite new guests.”

Face, aka Jeremy, may have thought this: You don’t think I’m going to let Lovewit have the loot, do you? No, I have promised these readers that I will use the loot to feast them if they find me innocent. (There’s a name for that. What is it? Oh, yeah, a bribe.) And, of course, I will then treat the members of the audience the way I treat everyone else: I will cheat them, and I will find new people to cheat.

But the actor playing Face, aka Jeremy, may have thought this: Yes, the character I was playing cleanly got away from Subtle, Surly, Sir Epicure Mammon, Doll, hot-tempered Ananias, Dapper, Drugger, and all with whom my character traded and conned, yet I the actor playing him wish to avoid being punished by you, the audience. Therefore, I put my fate to you, who are my jury. Please know that if you acquit me, then this loot — the cause of your laughter that I have gotten — remains here, and I will feast you often, and I will invite new guests. You can either see this play in the theater, or re-read this retelling in this book. Either way, the cause of much laughter still remains here, and I hope that new audience members and new readers will enjoy it.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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