Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt @ the British Museum

Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty (1855 to 1808 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is a major exhibition held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the year 1822 when French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs which had been puzzling scholars for the best part of 1,500 years.

At its heart is the eerily beautiful and hugely important Rosetta Stone, discovered by French troops in Egypt in 1799. The central part of the exhibition summarises the genuinely exciting narrative of the great Race To Decipher hieroglyphics, as it developed into a rivalry between Great Britain – represented by antiquarian Thomas Young (1773 to 1829) – and France – represented by the ambitious young scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 to 1832).

The exhibition brings together a rather staggering 250 artefacts, many (as usual) on loan from foreign museums. As such it provides a unique opportunity to see so much high quality Egyptiana in one place – all presented in a beautifully designed and laid out exhibition space. If the sheer scale sounds daunting, maybe the crucial thing to grasp is that the exhibition is divided into three main areas or parts.

Part One: The end of hieroglyphics, the revival of interest

Part one briefly covers the end of the millennia-long tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs in the years after the Greek conquest of Egypt in 320 BC. The Greek dynasty of the Ptolemy family kept up all the Egyptian traditions, but it was the advent of Roman rule from 30 BC (when the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide) which signalled the slow decline of hieroglyphic writing. It was the imposition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius in 391, and the order to close down all pagan temples, which spelled the end of the tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates from 394. Byzantine rule of the province continued for centuries until swept away by the great Arab Conquest of the 640s AD.

Intellectual energy in the centuries following the Muslim conquest went into elaborating aspects of Islamic religion and philosophy, as well as preserving and commenting on survivals from antiquity, especially Greek texts. There was only scattered interest in the pictorial language carved into the huge stone monuments all across Egypt.

Some Muslim scholars are namechecked, but for us in Europe it was only the revival of learning from the 1400s onwards, the period which came to be called the Renaissance, which saw sustained scholarly activity to decipher the hieroglyphs. A negative key factor was that there had been some scholarly enquiry during ancient times, with Roman scholars writing books about the hieroglyphs – but that these were often seriously wrong and misleading but were considered indisputable evidence throughout the Renaissance.

Interestingly, study of ancient Egyptian artifacts centred on Rome itself for the simple reason that victorious generals from Julius Caesar onwards had a fondness for stealing and shipping back to Rome impressive numbers of obelisks, stelae, statues, inscriptions and so on (a stela is an inscribed stone or wooden slab) – many of which were still standing 1,400 years later when the revival of interest in old texts (be they ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian, Egyptian and so on) gathered pace.

The most significant figure was a German Jesuit and polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602 to 1680). Working with Arabic grammars and dictionaries of Coptic acquired in Egypt by an Italian traveller, Kircher produced flawed but pioneering translations and grammars of the language in the 1640s and 1650s, leading up to his masterwork, the ‘Oedipus Aegyptiacus’ of 1652.

Unfortunately, Kircher brought to his studies a deep belief in mystic practices and magic. As a Jesuit he believed Egyptian religion must have foreshadowed the One True Religion i.e. Christianity, and so all his interpretations were coloured by a wish to find mystical meanings in even brief sets of symbols. In his hands even short texts of only a few hieroglyphic characters were translated into lengthy sentences describing mystical religious ideas.

But Kircher was only one of hundreds of scholars and commentators, including many of the early Muslim scholars, who were convinced the hieroglyphs represented ancient magic or the secrets of ‘alchemy’, and that true knowledge would allow modern practitioners to revive magical spells and incantations.

The Enchanted Basin

This belief that the hieroglyphs contained ancient magic is represented here by ‘the enchanted basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BC, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. Devotees believed that bathing in the basin (accompanied by the appropriate rituals and spells) could offer relief from the torments of love.

‘The Enchanted Basin’ aka the sarcophagus of Hapmen, Egypt, 26th Dynasty (600 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’ – and has been identified as simply a sarcophagus – for Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Exhibition design 1

This first part of the exhibition is presented in the usual glass cases etc but against a backdrop of jet black walls themselves covered in silver hieroglyphic scripts which shimmer and capture the eye as you walk through them – evoking a world of black magic and mystery. Most wall panels relate to specific exhibits but the curators have also had the bright idea of creating standalone panels devoted to specific glyphs, explaining what they are and what they mean. This is one of several aspects designed, I think to appeal to children and school visits, and a charming idea.

One of the panels for schoolchildren in ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’

Part Two: The Rivalry

The second section declares its change of focus with a complete change of design, layout and atmosphere. No longer black, the gallery walls are lighter and the room is dominated by three long wooden benches, with wooden chairs set in front of them (which I think visitors are encouraged to sit at so as to study the artifacts on offer).

The dominance of stained wood reminds me of the British Museum’s extensive Enlightenment Gallery on the ground floor and is, I assume, intended to convey a sense of 18th and 19th century scholarship taking place in the civilised, wood-panelled rooms of Royal Societies and the private collections of rich European travellers across Enlightenment Europe.

This woody, benchy room is the setting for the gripping story of The Race To Decipher Hieroglyphs between the two men who are presented as rivals in scholarship and representatives of their respective nations, Thomas Young of Great Britain and Jean-François Champollion of France.

The Rosetta Stone

In fact the transition from part 1 to part 2 of the exhibition takes you past the famous Rosetta Stone itself, which was the clue to the whole thing and is a story, or several stories, in itself.

The Rosetta Stone, Rasid, Egypt (Ptolemaic, 196 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

History of the discovery

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led an invasion of Egypt with 40,000 troops. By this stage revolutionary France had been at war with Great Britain for five years and the Egyptian strategy was designed to cut off Britain’s lucrative trade with her greatest colony, India. But, being French and priding himself on being a man of the Enlightenment, Napoleon took with him 200 scholars, engineers, antiquarians and so on. Over the next few years these experts made numerous drawings, descriptions and maps of the antiquities of Egypt which were later published in the multi-volume Description de l’Égypte (1809 to 1829).

The following year, in 1799, French forces were rebuilding an old fort in the coastal town of Rashid, when they dug up this large fragment of stone covered in writing. Realising its importance the officer in charge sent it to Napoleon’s headquarters. It was taken into possession of the lead scientist in Napoleon’s force but events were about to take a significant twist. In August 1798 the Royal Navy defeated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile.

A treaty (the Capitulation of Alexandria) was then negotiated (in 1801) between the victorious British and the French by which the victors took possession of most of the artefacts, findings and notes created by the French antiquarians. Discussions were detailed and became heated, but to cut a long story short, the British seized the Rosetta Stone and shipped it back to London, where it was presented to the king who in turn passed it onto the fledgling British Museum. It went on public display in 1802, has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously and is its most visited object.

Almost immediately the British Society of Antiquarians made plaster copies of the stone and printed reproductions of the text and distributed them to other institutions across Europe.

It is called the Rosetta Stone because Rosette was the name Europeans gave to the town Arabs called Rashid and the name stuck.

What I took from all this was that this breakthrough in Egyptology and understanding of the ancient world came about almost entirely because of war between the great powers.

All down the line, from the first officer to see it, through the experts on Napoleon’s staff, through to the British officers in charge of the peace negotiation, through to the king’s advisors and officials at the British Museum, everyone recognised the stone’s immense importance.

Why is the Rosetta Stone important?

Because it was the first artifact found anywhere in Egypt which contained several languages or scripts in parallel. At a glance you can see that the top part of the stone contains rows of hieroglyphics, the next section contains lines of text in another script, and the lower third of the stone contains text in yet another script, which scholars quickly recognised as Greek.

To be precise, from top to bottom, the top two scripts are in Ancient Egyptian, the top one using hieroglyphic and the second one ‘Demotic’ script, while the bottom one is in Ancient Greek.

What is ‘Demotic’? We now know that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs on their official monuments, but on administrative and religious life used a form of cursive script which was easier to write and read. This cursive script changed and evolved over the thousands of years of Egyptian history:

  • the oldest form is called ‘hieratic’ from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC
  • the so-called Demotic form of the language developed and then held sway from about 650 BC to the 5th century AD
  • and was replaced by the third major form, Coptic, the final development of the Egyptian language, spoken by the common people from around the third-century AD through till the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Coptic has no native speakers today, although it is preserved and still recited by priests of the Coptic church

So what the Rosetta stone presents is a text in classical hieroglyphs, a text in ‘Demotic’ i.e. the common form of written Egyptian of the day, and then a text in ancient Greek.

Scholars immediately realised that, if the three sets of script represented the same text in three different languages, then they should be able to use the Greek at the bottom to read the hieroglyphs at the top and, in so doing, identify what words or sounds individual hieroglyphs stand for and so crack the code, decipher the language of hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone as it appears in the exhibition. Note the animated timeline of the Race To Decipher in the right background, and blown-up reproductions of scholarly texts hanging from the ceiling

Unexpected delay

In my ignorance I thought the discovery of the stone meant we had the key to the door, the job was done, and we could start deciphering hieroglyphs immediately.

Not at all. Turns out there was still a lot of work to be done, not least because there was disagreement on fundamental facts. For example, not all scholars agreed the three scripts contained the same text. And the stone at first presented more puzzles than solutions because antiquarians could no more read demotic than hieroglyphs. So at first sight the stone presented double the problem, two challenges – of aligning the ancient Greek (readable) with the demotic and hieroglyphs (unreadable).

It took a surprising amount of scholarly guesswork, trial and error, devising and testing different theories for knowledge to inch forward. This room – the wooden table room- presents a year-by-year account of the 20 or so years between the stone going on public display and Champollion’s breakthrough in 1822. You might think all this is a fairly niche subject, but think again; there’s an impressive number of books on the subject:

Major landmarks in the decoding included recognition that:

  • 1799: the stone shows three versions of the same text
  • 1802: the demotic text uses phonetic characters to spell foreign names
  • 1814: the hieroglyphic text uses phonetic characters as well, and so has numerous similarities to the demotic
  • 1822: phonetic characters were used to spell not just foreign names but native Egyptian words

The breakthrough 1822

Scripts for languages can be either:

  • ideographic – symbols are used for words or concepts
  • syllabic – symbols are used to convey the sounds of syllables which make up words
  • alphabetic – a symbol is assigned to individual elements out of which words are built

The latter two are examples of phonetic languages i.e:

You can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it. Or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

The ancient Romans had queered the pitch and misled centuries of scholars by claiming that all hieroglyphs were symbols, one glyph directly standing for one idea or concept. Hundreds of scholars wasted their lives trying to figure out what each hieroglyph ‘stood for’.

As I understand it, Champollion’s big breakthrough was realising that Demotic and hieroglyphic i.e. ancient Egyptian language as a whole, was a combination of ideographic and phonetic. He realised this after seeing another scholar’s decipherment of foreign names as phonetic sounds in the hieroglyphs. This was the actual key – that the names of foreign (generally Greek) rulers, were spelled phonetically.

Rather than try to explain further, I’ll quote Wikipedia:

In 1822, Champollion saw copies of brief hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions taken from an obelisk found at Philae, on which William John Bankes had tentatively noted the names “Ptolemaios” and “Kleopatra” in both languages. From this, Champollion identified the phonetic characters ‘k l e o p a t r a’. On the basis of this and the foreign names on the Rosetta Stone, he quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, completing his work on 14 September and announcing it publicly on 27 September in a lecture to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. On the same day he wrote the famous “Lettre à M. Dacier” to Bon-Joseph Dacier, secretary of the Académie, detailing his discovery. In the postscript Champollion notes that similar phonetic characters seemed to occur in both Greek and Egyptian names, a hypothesis confirmed in 1823, when he identified the names of pharaohs Ramesses and Thutmose written in cartouches at Abu Simbel.

1824 Champollion published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs.

In 1829, he travelled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

In 1832 Champollion died from illnesses brought on by travel in Egypt.

1838 his Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously. But if you thought that was the end of the affair, you’d be wrong, for Champollion erroneously assumed that the hieroglyphs could be read directly in Coptic script, whereas in fact they represented a much older stage of the language which differs in many ways from Coptic.

It took scholars the rest of the century to work through all the details of ancient Egyptian and work is still ongoing because it turns out to have developed in more forms and variations and dialects than initially thought.

What does the Rosetta Stone actually say?

At the end of all that, what does the Rosetta Stone text actually say? Each of the 3 languages records a priestly decree of 196 BC issued by a council of Egyptian priests from the city of Memphis during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (i.e. ironically, it’s a text about a Greek ruler and not one of the classic ancient Egyptian pharaohs). The text praises the righteous acts of the king and lists the honours bestowed on him by the priests.

So no magic spells or alchemical procedures, much more banal than that. Interestingly, this kind of decree wasn’t even an Egyptian tradition, but hailed from Greece, a type of inscription imported along with the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

Part Three: Modern Egyptology

Design 3: Airy design and huge videos

Struggling to process the complexities of this story, the visitor walks from wood-lined part two of the exhibition through an Egyptian archway into a completely different space.

Here the walls are white and the ceiling is high, creating a sense of light and clarity. On the wall on the right is a video projection of part of an ancient wall with birds flying by – but this is dwarfed by the end wall onto which is projected a huge landscape video of the River Nile itself, a long band of rippling blue water, above which sits the fabulously fertile green riverbank – all reeds, grasses and palm trees – and then the deep blue of the Egyptian sky.

So, in terms of design, the visitor has progressed from pitch black walls at the start, though the gentlemen’s-club brown wood panelling of the second part, and now arrives in the kind of bright light space typical of modern art galleries. I guess this is also symbolic of passing from ignorance, through purblind scholarship and study, into the modern age of research and understanding.

Egyptian social history

This final part of the exhibition could almost be staged in its own right, for it is a fascinating overview of Egyptian social history, social life, in all its many aspects.

If you want the history of ancient Egypt – the political history of all those pharaohs, their wars, their dynasties, maps of their territory etc – that is already available in the vast series of rooms which, as it happens, you exit into after the exhibition space, the long gallery called Room 4. This isn’t that.

Instead this third part of the exhibition presents a careful selection of objects which illustrate the modern understanding of all aspects of Egyptian society, which Champollion’s discovery (much elaborated and built on by later scholars) allowed. It is a collection of choice artifacts which shed unparalleled insight into the lives, not of kings and pharaohs, but of ordinary people – their lives, loves, marriages, divorces, financial affairs, loans and mortgages, the stories they told each other, the poems and hymns they recited, their religious beliefs and practices, maths textbooks, guides to the interpretation of dreams, their calendar and how they structured the year, the months, the weeks, the days, even shopping lists and tax returns.

For example, a papyrus from about 1200 BC explains that the Egyptian year was divided into 12 months of 30 days. Their week lasted 10 days, and the year had three seasons – Akhet (flooding), Peret (growing) and Shemu (harvest).

Or take the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word and includes ritual spells. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet (papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs.

A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

Royal cubit rod of Amenemope (18th Dynasty) Torino, Museo Egizio

The cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25 to 30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

Cartonnage of the lady Baketenhor (late 22nd Dynasty, between 945 and 715 BC) Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Image © Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums

Prayers to Hathor, the goddess of love and music, were often accompanied by the sistrum, a musical instrument used in dances and religious ceremonies. When shaken, the sistrum produced a soft clink or a loud jangle which had power to appease the gods. Note the face at the top of the handle.

Ancient Egyptian sistrum (747 to 332 BC)

(There are references to a sistrum – ‘the sacred rattle… the jingling bronze of the sistrum…’ – being used in worship of Isis, book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and it’s also referred to in the thirteenth satire of Juvenal.)

On a much more humble level, a papyrus from 1100 BC records the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener and tells us that he supported her for three years after the divorce. The reasons for the divorce aren’t stated but we know from other sources that the wife probably kept the possessions she brought to the marriage.

Papyrus from 1100 BC recording the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener

We now know the ancient Egyptians had over 90 recipes for the treatment of eye problems. Black and green kohl had antibacterial properties and could be carried around in pots to be used as eye liner.

There’s a book helping with the interpretation of dreams, a perennial topic in the ancient world. This one belonged to a certain Qenherkhepshef and contains the following useful advice:

If a man sees himself in a dream looking after monkeys: bad – a change awaits him!

And hundreds more.

I also noticed the way a number of wall labels featured quotes all attributed to ‘Voices from Rashid’. What is this? The British Museum interviewed schoolchildren from the town of Rashid (modern day Rosetta) about the stone and ancient Egyptian life and these quotes are the opinions of the schoolchildren on aspects of Egyptian history, the hieroglyphics, the stone and so on, sprinkled on panels throughout the exhibition.

Statue of a scribe (6th Dynasty) Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

This exhibition is fascinating, inspiring, beautifully designed and laid out. In the section about the Race To Decipher, it is surprisingly gripping. And the wide-ranging final section brings you closer to the concerns of ordinary ancient Egyptian men and women than you would have thought possible.


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The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)

The Alchemist is a plague play. Not only was it written in 1610, when the London theatres were closed (yet again) for (yet another) outbreak of plague, but the plot itself derives from that fact. The master of the house, Lovewit, has (like everyone else who can afford it) fled London and is waiting at his country seat for the plague to abate (his retreat appears to be in Kent; he is said to be waiting in his ‘hop-yards’). In the meantime his housekeeper, Face, has invited a conman, Subtle, and a prostitute, Doll Common, to come and stay in the house in a kind of joint criminal enterprise, persuading a series of gullible victims that Subtle is a renowned alchemist who will supply each of them the Philosopher’s Stone and make their dreams come true… for a price.

The cast

The three crooks

SUBTLE, the alchemist
FACE, the Housekeeper
DOL COMMON, their Colleague

The gulls or dupes

DAPPER, a Lawyer’s Clerk
DRUGGER, a Tobacco Man
SIR EPICURE MAMMON, a Knight
PERTINAX SURLY, a Gamester
TRIBULATION WHOLESOME, a Pastor of Amsterdam
ANANIAS, a Deacon there
KASTRIL, the angry Boy
DAME PLIANT, his Sister, a Widow.

The absent master

LOVEWIT, Master of the House

The plot

Act 1

Scene 1 The play opens in media res, with typically Jonsonian energy, as the three crooks stumble onstage in the middle of a flaring row, Face and Subtle throwing insults at each other, Face claiming to have rescued Subtle from absolute desperation, having found him on the streets in rags looking like ‘the father of hunger’, Subtle claiming to have set up the successful con scheme and made Face a fortune – both of them being told by a frustrated Doll to calm down and that by arguing they risk provoking the neighbours to call the constables.

The verbal energy in the abuse is invigorating and reminds us that formal contests of abuse were a recognised genre in medieval and renaissance literature, called flyting. They argue until Doll eventually grabs Face’s sword and ‘breaks Subtle’s glass’, calling them an ‘abominable pair of stinkards’, and reminding them they are all equal partners in the ‘venture tripartite’ and when Subtle, once again claims he plays the lead role, as the fake alchemist, Doll is so infuriated she flies at him and starts to strangle her till he cries quits and

They eventually argue themselves to a standstill and listen to Doll telling them they have to work together when there’s a knock at the door!

Scene 2 Enter Dapper, a ‘quodling’ i.e. innocent young man who has got into conversation in a pub with Face who says he knows a man can conjure a spirit to help him (Dapper) at his gambling. (I thought the name Dapper rang a bell and it is the name of Sir Davy Dapper and his son Jack Dapper, in Middleton’s play The Roaring Girl). Face makes a great pretense of claiming Subtle is a learned man who is almost to particular in his alchemical practice and then introduces Dapper (with sly humour) as:

FACE:Good deeds, sir… ‘Slight, I bring you
No cheating Clim o’ the Cloughs or Claribels,
That look as big as five-and-fifty, and flush;
And spit out secrets like hot custard,
Nor any melancholic under-scribe,
Shall tell the vicar; but a special gentle,
That is the heir to forty marks a year,
Consorts with the small poets of the time,
Is the sole hope of his old grandmother;
That knows the law, and writes you six fair hands,
Is a fine clerk, and has his cyphering perfect.
Will take his oath o’ the Greek Testament,
If need be, in his pocket; and can court
His mistress out of Ovid.

The verbal vigour of the play, the exuberance of its characters, is infectious and compelling. Face and Subtle make a wonderful double act, persuading the gullible Dapper that he was born under a lucky star, that he is related to the Queen of Fairy no less. They extort four angels from him (Jacobean coins), making pretense that Face is having to force them on Subtle, who makes a big show of warning Face that, if they give Dapper this power, he will ruin every gambler in the city and win all his bets – before telling him to return at 1 to carry out the full and elaborate ceremony which will raise him a familiar or lucky spirit.

Scene 3 Next to arrive is Abel Drugger, the not-too-bright pharmacist who is about to set up a new shop and has come to ask advice from the alchemist on how to arrange it, where to put the doors and windows and shelves. Subtle invokes contemporary learning about faces and hands (each one with its own tutelary spirit) to bamboozle the simple man.

(This is all played for laughs but as Subtle quoted obscure terms from contemporary books of alchemy etc in order to tell Drugger how to arrange his shop, I realised we still do exactly this today – it is called feng shui and, once again, requires a supposedly special mystical knowledge, dressed up in a foreign language).

Subtle promises Drugger that if he follows his instructions it will become the most popular apothecary’s in London, and they then extract a gold coin (a ‘portague’) as a down-payment. He also asks if Subtle can look over his almanac to tell him which days he should and should not trade on.

When Drugger leaves, Face repeats the accusations the play opened with, namely that Subtle thinks of himself as the supremo of these scams and yet it takes a lot of time, effort and money to seek out and latch onto such stupid gulls and bring them to him, and therefore he (Face) deserves a larger share of the loot. This is the basis of the argument between them.

Scene 4 A short one in which Doll runs to tell Subtle that she’s spied Sir Epicure Mammon waddling towards them from the end of the lane, and gives Subtle the opportunity to explain that today is the day when Subtle is due to hand over The Philosopher’s Stone to Mammon, who is already fantasising about wandering round London offering miracle cures to lepers and beggars and infertile women.

Act 2

Scene 1 Sir Epicure Mammon rolls up in front of the house and delivers a wonderful monologue to his sceptical follower, Surly, about all the wonders he will perform once he has the Philosopher’s Stone and can turn any metal into gold and can restore men to their youth and then a fantastical tour of the ancient world proving how every legend from Jason to Pandora, are but refractions of the wonder of the stone. Surly doesn’t believe a word.

Scene 2 Enter Face, from the house, dressed as a man who pumps bellows to keep a fire alight, and pretending to be working hard to maintain the heat required to produce the stone. Mammon calls him ‘Puff’ and ‘Lungs’ and says he will set him free from his master in order to come and supervise his harem, for Mammon intends to establish a vast harem, and to give himself magical powers of stamina, and a strong back, so he can make love to 50 women a night! He will, of course, have to geld Face. Face nods wisely at all this. Mammon’s speech swells into a cornucopia of sensual pleasures.

We will be brave, Puffe, now we have the med’cine.
My meat shall all come in, in Indian shells,
Dishes of agat set in gold, and studded
With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies.
The tongues of carps, dormice, and camels’ heels,
Boil’d in the spirit of sol, and dissolv’d pearl,
Apicius’ diet, ‘gainst the epilepsy:
And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber,
Headed with diamond and carbuncle.
My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calver’d salmons,
Knots, godwits, lampreys: I myself will have
The beards of barbels served, instead of sallads;
Oil’d mushrooms; and the swelling unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
Drest with an exquisite, and poignant sauce;
For which, I’ll say unto my cook, “There’s gold,
Go forth, and be a knight.”

Surly points out that he who creates the Philosopher’s Stone must be pure and virginal. Yes, says Mammon cutting across the difficulty – but I’m not going to make it, I’m going to buy it. As the introduction points out, this is a play about money and greed and people’s readiness to do anything, and believe anything, to be rich.

Scene 3 Enter Subtle. The comedy in this scene is that Subtle pretends to be fantastically pure and high-minded and pretends to spot slips and hints in Mammon’s speech that the latter is covetous and greedy – at which Mammon furiously backtracks and emphasises he will use the stone purely to do good works.

MAMMON: No, I assure you,
I shall employ it all in pious uses,
Founding of colleges and grammar schools,
Marrying young virgins, building hospitals,
And now and then a church.

Surly looks on with profound scepticism which is exacerbated as he listens to Face and Subtle have an extended and jargon-ridden exchange about the umpteen pipes and retorts and alembics and burners (later they are listed as ‘Retorts, receivers, pelicans, bolt-heads,’) which are bubbling away in their laboratory from which it slowly emerges that something is not going right and they require more money.

‘You don’t say’, comments Surly, smelling a rat, whereas Mammon is desperately keen to hand over another nine or ten pounds of gold, and Subtle launches into a really massive theoretical justification of alchemy including an explanation of how gold comes about, naturally, in the bowels of the earth, but he knows the way to hasten this natural process, followed by a lengthy explanation of why the art requires such arcane terms, in order to protect it from the vulgar multitude.

They tell Mammon to bring everything iron in his house, his andirons and spit jacks, everything, so it can be turned to gold. Presumably the crooks intend to pawn it for cash.

In a further elaboration of their plotting against the gullible and self-deceiving Mammon, the pair cause Doll to briefly appear onstage before Subtle angrily tells Face to take her away. Mammon, the sensualist, is aroused at the sight of a nubile lady, even for only a minute and asks about her, whereupon Face spins an elaborate yarn that Doll is a noblewoman, a most rare scholar driven mad by studying the works of a famous alchemist, Hugh Broughton.

Hooked, Mammon gives Face money if he will mention him (Mammon) to her and praise him. (There is a deliberate disjuntion between Mammon’s verbal fantasies of being a second Solomon walking naked amid his harem, and the sordid reality of him paying Face to meet up with a prostitute.) This Doll episode convinces Surly that Subtle is a fake and this is a bawdy house.

In order to complexify the plot, Face takes Surly aside and asks him to meet Captain Face at a pub later that day (at which point we realise that Face is really meant to be utterly disguised as the bellows-man, ‘Lungs’).

Scene 4 Face explains to the others that his intention is to win the sceptical Surly round. They tell Doll she must play the part of a grand lady for Mammon, and she tells them not to worry, she knows all the tricks.

Scene 5 Enter another gull or mark or victim, a Puritan named Ananias in fact, to be precise, he is an Anabaptist, a heretical Protestant sect which arose in Germany in the 1530s but whose members were forced into exile. In a historical note, the area of Blackfriars (between St Paul’s cathedral and the river) a) was famous for its Puritans, b) it’s where Jonson himself lived for a while, and c) it was the location of the theatre where we think this play was first performed – so it was super-relevant to its first audience.

Subtle adopts a different, more religiose tone with him and, when Ananias recoils from his ‘heathenish’ use of alchemical terms, Subtle gets Face to trot through an impressive exposition of alchemical terms and concepts. Ananias is:

Please you, a servant of the exiled brethren,
That deal with widows’ and with orphans’ goods,
And make a just account unto the saints:
A deacon.

sent from the amusingly named Tribulation Wholesome. His congregation are hoping Subtle will make a philosopher’s stone for them, too, but when Subtle asks for more funds, complains that they’ve already given him thirty pounds of materials. Looking for a way to turn the situation, Subtle discovers the man’s name is Ananias and fakes outrage that the Elders have sent him a man named after the high priest who condemned Jesus in the gospel story.

Scene 6 Enter Drugger the pharmacist. Subtle concocts a sign for his new shop which plays on his name, and for which they extract more money. Drugger confesses he is in love with a young woman in his neighbourhood, a widow. He goes on to explain she has a brother, newly 21 and just inherited property worth 3,000 a year. Subtle and Face spy an opening and tell Drugger they’ll work to win him her favour. He gives them more money and leaves, at which they instantly insult him and say they will win the woman and her inheritance for one of them.

Act 3

Scene 1 A dialogue between Ananias and his superior in the Anabaptists, Tribulation Wholesome in which the latter explains that 1) Subtle may not be the heathen Ananias thinks him, maybe has has been soiled by his trade i.e. working with fire (later on Face refers to him as ‘black boy’ – presumably he has a sooty face), 2) explains their motivation, namely that many non-conforming ministers were excommunicated and forbidden from preaching by the Hampton Court Conference called soon after James’s accession, in 1604. The point being, they want to use the philosopher’s stone to produce gold to bribe secular magistrates into permitting their ‘silenced’ brethren to preach again.

Scene 2 Subtle joins them. He listens to Wholesome and makes him extravagant promises about what the philosopher’s stone will enable him to do, namely cure and heal people and so gain temporal power and influence (whenever Ananias chips in, Subtle turns on him and scolds him)

Subtle gives a long list of the odd and affected behaviours and secret hypocrisies which public opinion attributed to the Puritans, saying possession of the philosopher’s stone will mean they no longer have to practice them, with Wholesome and Ananias nodding in agreement and the audience laughing their heads off at the Puritans’ naked hypocrisy. Subtle manages to persuade them to contribute another 100 marks to buy alchemical equipment.

Scene 3 Face enters (in his disguise as a captain) to tell Subtle he’s irritated because Surly never showed up at their rendezvous at the Temple church. The good news is that ‘a noble Count, a Don of Spain’, laden with treasure, is on his way to court ‘our Dol’. How does he know? Someone handed him a message when he was waiting for Surly… Mmm.. I wonder if it’s Surly in disguise, planning to expose them as con-men.

Scene 4 Dapper arrives. He is expecting the Fairy Queen. Doll has to run off and get changed before Face opens the door to Dapper. Face is promising him the Fairy Queen will make him the most successful gambler in London when Drugger arrives, with Kastril, the brother of the widow he mentioned earlier.

Kastril is a recognisable type – a brash, crude young man, he’s come to town to learn how to swear and quarrel and smoke like the other roaring boys, and yet is touchingly naive and innocent – he won’t go to a pub because he has heard there is gambling there!

Anyway, Face bamboozles him with wild stories of how Subtle has made the poorest young men rich beyond their dreams and winds Kastril up to such a wild pitch he runs off to fetch his widowed sister. Then Face dispatched Drugger to get the length of damask cloth he’d promised them.

This leaves Face alone with Dapper. They told Dapper to wash with vinegar in preparation for his audience with the Fairy Queen, and he has, and has bought ‘six score Edward shillings’ and an old Harry’s sovereign and three James shillings and an Elizabeth groat. Would that our current money was so interesting!

Scene 5 Enter Subtle dressed as a priest of fairy who ensures Dapper has made the necessary preliminaries, they blindfold him and make him throw off all his valuables (purse, rings) then dance around him pretending to be fairies and insisting he throw off absolutely all his valuables.

They haven’t even got as far as introducing Doll dressed as the Fairy Queen, when she hisses through the window that Sir Epicure Mammon has arrived. Oops, that’s torn it! As he knocks at the door Face has to run over and speak through it saying he needs to get Subtle out of the way so Mammon can talk to Doll, so go for a few turns up & down the street… then he hurriedly changes into his outfit as ‘Lungs’.

Subtle and Face then persuade blindfolded Dapper that the Fairy Queen is eating and will see him presently. They furiously ad lib and decide he can be gagged with some gingerbread and stashed somewhere – where? the privy! They tell him it is all perfumed and ready for him, ‘Only the fumigation’s somewhat strong’. No sooner have they locked Dapper in the toilet, than Face runs over to the front door to let Mammon in.

Act 4

Scene 1 A comic scene in which Mammon, the overblown sensualist, woos Doll, enumerating her virtues and beauties, while Face stands to one side commentating, knowing she is a common whore.  When she points out his power to create wealth will threaten the authorities, Mammon paints a fantastic image of them moving to some free, fantasy country where they will live on unheard-of luxuries, in a bravura speech speech:

We’ll therefore go withal, my girl, and live
In a free state, where we will eat our mullets,
Soused in high-country wines, sup pheasants’ eggs,
And have our cockles boil’d in silver shells;
Our shrimps to swim again, as when they liv’d,
In a rare butter made of dolphins’ milk,
Whose cream does look like opals; and with these
Delicate meats set ourselves high for pleasure,
And take us down again, and then renew
Our youth and strength with drinking the elixir,
And so enjoy a perpetuity
Of life and lust!

Face enters to tell Mammon he is getting very loud, please to be quieter and go within. Doll and Mammon exit.

Scene 2 To make way for Kastril, the country heir who would be a city gallant, and his bashful sister the widow, Dame Pliant. When Kastril begins to make objections, Subtle interrupts him to play the part of teacher and explains to him how to make an argument, and then turns to the widow and flatters her, saying she is made to be kissed, and kissing her. He reads the lines in her hand and tells her she is destined for a military man.

At that moment, enter Face dressed up in his Captain uniform and he praises both Kastril and Dame Pliant, impressing both, but gets to whisper to Subtle that the Spanish Don has arrived! Hastily they fabricate a plan – Subtle will take Kastril and Pliant to his rooms where he will show them the rules of quarrelling and a magic mirror, while Face deals with the Don.

Scene 3 Subtle has taken the pair to his room and returns for an argument with Face. The scene brings out how, amid the frantic juggling of their victims, the pair are jostlingly rivalrous, quick to spot if either is gaining an advantage over the other. The arrival of Dame Pliant adds flames to the mix, because both now want to win her and are jealous of the slightest advantage the other gains… But they agree their plan and jointly greet the Don.

This Spanish Don is, in fact, Mammon’s sceptical friend, Surly, disguised in a comically exaggerate Spanish costume with an enormous ruff: ‘He speaks out of a fortification’, as Face puts it. There is the familiar but still very funny comic device that, once the Don starts speaking Spanish, Face and Subtle, at first timidly, and then with mounting confidence, insult and abuse him to his face in English, confident that he cannot understand. But of course, he can

But then they realise they are facing a pressing problem: the Don has arrived to fulfil the promise of seeing the beautiful senorita (Doll) but Doll is busy inside with Mammon. And the Don is getting impatient. Face has a brainwave. What about the widow, Dame Pliant, who’s just arrived with Kastril? Why not serve up Dame Pliant to the Don, he gets his woman, she gets a glorious knight, both pay our crooks?

This leads to a furious row between Face and Subtle who had both wanted the widow for themselves, but  the Don is getting impatient so they are forced to make a hurried deal, and Face runs off to get the widow.

Scene 4 Enter Kastril and Dame Pliant, who they all set about persuading that she should let herself be wooed by he Don, with Face and Subtle competing to paint the most grandiloquent picture of her wealth and eminence if she marries him – a coach and horses and fine clothes – whereas if she doesn’t, she’ll be a street vendor in a year. Her brother joins in the bullying and so, reluctantly, she acquiesces and goes over to the Don, who continues to address her in Spanish. They exit into the garden, apparently, while Subtle tells Kastril they should now go to his room where he can commence his lessons on how to argue and quarrel like a well-bred Londoner.

Scene 5 Cut to Mammon with Doll. Now you might have thought she would be seducing him for his money but in fact she is playing out the part allotted her of intelligent, educated woman who has been driven mad by learning and Face enters the room (having quickly changed his disguise to ‘Lungs’) to find Doll obsessively monologuing about Egyptian history and the fifth monarchy while Mammon is at his wits end to get her to stop. Face and he talk at the same time as Doll’s monologue and then they hear Subtle coming and all flee.

All except Mammon who Subtle discovers, trying to hide from him. Subtle immediately plays the role of the chaste and spiritual alchemist who is disappointed to find his favourite son engaged in some hole-in-a-corner bawdry. No wonder, Subtle grandly proclaims, the alchemy in the laboratory is going badly, if Mammon has brought spiritual impurity into the house!

THE GREAT EXPLOSION – A loud crack is heard within, and Face comes running in to say everything has exploded – ‘Retorts, receivers, pelicans, bolt-heads’ – all destroyed as if a bolt has come from heaven! Subtle faints and when he comes round, claims the great destruction was due to Mammon’s infidelity and licentiousness and Mammon believes him!

MAMMON: O, my voluptuous mind! I am justly punish’d.
FACE. And so am I, sir.
MAMMON: Cast from all my hopes—
FACE. Nay, certainties, sir.
MAMMON: By mine own base affections.

Face tells him the distressed noblewoman (i.e. Doll)’s brother is arriving, he will be angry if he discovers Mammon is wooing his sister, he’d better leave in a hurry. Is there no recompense Mammon can make? Well, says Face boldly, give a hundred pounds to the charity box at Bedlam Hospital for the insane – Mammon agrees – Face says he’ll send someone round to collect it later that day. Exit Mammon.

Our crooked pair congratulate themselves on having got one problem out of the way. Now to the Spanish Don and his wooing of the widow Pliant.

Scene 6 Surly is with Dame Pliant. He has thrown off his Spanish disguise and is explaining to her what a pack of crooks Subtle and Face are. Subtle comes in, is complacently rude to the Don (thinking he understands no English) and begins to pick his pockets when Surly throws him to the floor and berates him in English. ‘Help! Murder!’ cries a horrified Subtle. Face enters and is horrified to discover the Spanish Don is in fact Surly, who now gives a long list of the ways Face scams his victims in pubs. Face slips out again but when Subtle tries to, Surly grabs him.

Scene 7 Then Face r-enters accompanied by Kastril, and tells him that Surly is an imposter, come here on false pretences to seduce his sister. Face tells Kastril to practice his new-found quarrelling skills on him. Now Surly finds himself facing a united front of Face, Subtle and Kastril, who all start shouting at him.

With perfect comic timing, this is when the Puritan Ananias enters proclaiming the standard Puritan greeting: ‘Peace to the household!’ Ananias instantly tells from Surley’s preposterous Spanish ruffs and sill hat (!) that he is a Catholic and therefore of the Anti-Christ. Confronted by this wall of opposition, Surly has to retreat and exits. Comically, Kastril asks Face and Subtle if he quarrelled and argued like a professional. They praise him while, in fact, all he did was throw abuse.

Anyway, Kastril exits and now Face turns to sort out Drugger. He tells Drugger that they had intended him to play the part of a Spanish nobleman in order to win Dame Pliant’s heart. Has he a Spanish outfit? They dispatch him to go and find one.

That leaves the crooked duo with Ananias. The joke here is that Ananias reports that the Elders and the Brethren of the Separation (i.e. their congregation) have determined that coining money is not unlawful (to them; it is, of course, illegal according to the laws of the land). In other words, that they have piously and hypocritically decided it is alright to break the law. Subtle is pleased to act for them, but says it can’t be at this house, the Brethren must suggest another location – and so Ananias exists and Face and Subtle are finally alone, well, except for the widow, Dame Pliant, who is inside somewhere being hosted by Doll in the guise of noblewoman.

But at that moment Doll enters to tell them… the master of the house is back! He is outside, surrounded by forty neighbours! Face as usual, is the man with a plan. Subtle shall shave him to restore him to (we now discover) the character of smooth-faced Jeremy, the house servant. Face/Jeremy will put the master off for as long as he can, while Subtle and Doll pack up all their goods into a couple of trunks which they’ll have taken to the river and conveyed downstream to Ratcliffe, where they can all rendezvous in a day or two.

Act 5

Scene 1 A crowd of neighbours buzz round the master of the house, Lovewit, telling him about all the strange comings and goings and how none of them have seen Jeremy the butler for a month or more. Lovewit knocks on his own front door.

Scene 2 To his surprise, Jeremy (Face) opens it and proceeds, straight-faced, to tell his master he has been absent from the house for a month or more, and acts astonished when the neighbours insist they’ve seen so many strange comings and goings. Jeremy/Face pretends to be astonished when Lovewit retails the neighbours’ stories of endless comings and goings, saying it is all news to him. And indeed, in a nice touch of satire, the neighbours themselves begin to doubt their own testimonies and to downplay them, and Lovewit impatiently calls them changelings who are so unreliable.

Scene 3 So things were looking up when suddenly Mammon and Surly appear. Face pushes Lovewit inside just as Mammon and Surly arrive at the front door. Surly has fully explained to Mammon the scale of the imposture played on him and Mammon is furious. They knock at the door and Face/Jeremy opens it bold as brass, claims to know nothing of any Captain or alchemist, suggests they have the wrong house and, as they become angry, produces Lovewit as the true master of the house who, of course, knows nothing about them.

Hardly have they been put off than arrives Kastril, the angry boy, who bangs loudly on the door and insists on seeing his sister. And then Ananias and Tribulation, the Anabaptists, who also knock angrily on the door. When Lovewit appears at the door to appease them, they decide to fetch the officers and exit.

Face is still trying to persuade Lovewit that these visitors must be mad, when they both hear the voice of Dapper crying out from inside the house. Oops, everyone had forgotten him. Remember how they’d promised him he would meet the Fairy Queen and Face and Subtle had blindfolded him and gagged him with gingerbread, while they sorted out all their other visitors. Well, clearly the gingerbread has melted/been eaten and now he’s shouting.

When Subtle starts shouting at Dapper to shut up, Face can’t help hissing at both of them to be quiet and Truewit finally realises something is really up, and demands Face tell him the truth. He emphasises that he is a tolerant and forgiving master, just tell. So Face admits that he has been entertaining guests, but focuses on the fact that there is a widow currently within the house (Dame Pliant), a rich widow, who Lovewit can woo and win if he dresses up as a Spaniard.

Scene 4 Surprisingly, the scene cuts to the room where Dapper is, where Subtle enters and asks what happened to his gag, and where Face joins them. They both promise Dapper he will see the Fairy Queen and lo and behold, enter Doll dressed as the Queen. Subtle bids Dapper kneel and abase himself and kiss her skirts.

Doll performs impressively as the Queen, blessing Dapper and giving him a fly-familiar (?) to wear around his neck. Subtle tells him to prick his wrist to draw blood to feed the fly, once a week, and the magic fly will make him win every game of chance he plays. Subtle suggests that in a week’s time he brings them the first thousand pounds of his winnings, as fee. In fact, why doesn’t he give away his wretched inheritance of forty marks a year? To him, Subtle? ‘I will, I will’ says Dapper, kisses the Queen’s hem as she departs, then himself runs off to get the legal documents to sign over his inheritance.

He has barely left before Drugger is at the door with the Spanish suit they asked him for earlier. Subtle gives it to Face who runs off (I think) to give it to Truewit to woo Dame Pliant in. With Face out the way, Subtle tells Doll of his plan. Once they have packed up all their treasures and shipped by boat, instead of going to Ratcliffe, they’ll head west to Brentford, and escape Face, who they are both sick of. Doll agrees. She’ll go now and tell Dame Pliant to hand over rings and treasures to please the Doctor (i.e. Subtle) then they’ll abandon her and quit the house. They seal the deal with a kiss.

Face enters at precisely that point, spots them kissing, tells them Drugger is back with the parson they told him to get, runs off to sort it out – Doll and Subtle think he (Face) is planning to marry Dame Pliant in haste, but moments later he is back. The trunks are packed and all three go through the inventory of all the treasure they have extracted from all the victims they have conned, Face locks them up and then – there is A BIG REVEAL:

Face reveals that he invited his master to return, that he has told his master everything, and his master has forgiven him in exchange for possession of the treasure i.e. all the loot which only a few seconds earlier the other two were gleefully counting. All Face can offer them is a hand over the wall as they’ll have to flee the officers of the law who have been summoned.

At which exact point there is a loud knocking on the door from the officers. With mock solicitude, Face offers Doll a reference if she needs a job in a brothel – she tells him to go hang himself – and tells Subtle to set up as a conman in a different setting, and he’ll send him a customer or two for old times sake – to which Subtle replies he will hang himself solely so he can haunt Face for the rest of his life. All three exit.

Scene 5 Leaving the stage to Truewit, master of the house who enters dressed as a Spaniard and the parson, followed by Face who asks him if he’s got married to Pliant? Yes, is the quick answer. At which point the knocking gets louder, as no less a crowd than the police officers, Mammon, Surly, Kastril, Ananias and Tribulation are all banging on the door. Truewit lets them in.

They all clamour to see Face and Subtle, Truewit eventually calms them and explains – his servant here, Jeremy, has told him he let out the house this past month or more to a Doctor and a Captain, who have now quit it and where they have gone, he has no idea! He admits them all and tells them to search the premises which he himself has found the worse for candlesoot and burns, but nothing else.

All except for the widow who, he now declares, was waiting for a Spanish don to return but in whose absence, he has now married. Surly exclaims his disappointment and Truewit is comically surprised that he should have waited and delayed and so lost his bird.

Mammon has been searching the house and now returns to say it’s true, it’s empty, all except for his metal goods which the crooks have stashed in the basement and he’ll have back. ‘Will he, though?’ asks Truewit. Is Mammon prepared to go to court and broadcast to all and sundry how he was richly cozened out of his goods. ‘Oh, in that case you can keep them’, says Mammon.

Bitterly disappointed, Mammon says he will hire a farmer’s turnip cart and go preach the end of the world. Surly says he’ll join him, but if he ever finds that Captain Face… And Face – obviously transformed by having a shave and different clothes – says he will gladly tip him off if ever he sees him.

Ananias and Tribulation step forward and say they will reclaim their goods, but Truewit says no. When they launch into their biblical cant, Truewit says he will refute them with a cudgel and they flee. Drugger enters very briefly and doesn’t even have time to make a claim before Truewit scares him off.

It is clear that Truewit is, in his own gentrified way, just as much of a crook as his man, Jeremy. Editor of the New Mermaid edition, Elizabeth Cook, describes him as ‘amorally magnanimous’.

A vibe which comes over even more in the last moments of the play when Kastril enters, pushing his sister boorishly in front of him. He insults and vilifies her for marrying a poor man and not a knight as he’d planned, but Truewit interjects, says he is a true knight and when Kastril starts to practice his insulting, Truewit easily outdoes him and, in fact, talks him round to being quite friendly. Indeed the pair agree to take a pipe of tobacco together, and Kastril takes Dame Pliant inside (how many words does she get to speak in the entire play? she is just a kind of package passed from hand to hand).

It is The End. Truewit steps forward and addresses the audience, saying what master would not be delighted in a servant who procured him a rich widow as wife and trunks full of treasure, even if it is a little beyond the bounds of decorum. And the last word goes to Face who directly addresses the audience and asks their indulgence.

Thoughts

This is a brilliant play from the very start, driven by Jonson’s phenomenally energetic language, by the extraordinary range and breadth of his vocabulary – especially the specialised jargon of alchemy – and the sheer energy with which the three crooks carry out their scams.

It starts off at a gallop, throwing us into the middle of a violent argument between the crooks, and from that point the pace never lets up, with an endless stream of new victims arriving then returning in an ever-increasing frenzy of comic delusions, scheming and pomposity.

This latter quality is the speciality of the wonderful Sir Epicure Mammon – ‘I will be puissant and mighty in my talk’ – whose speeches are almost worth memorising for their elaborate and eloquent decadence.

More even than Volpone this play makes you realise Jonson was in love with the very crimes he purports to satirise and castigate.

Social history

One of the pleasures of reading older works of literature is the feast of social history they contain. The Alchemist makes reference to the following notable contemporary events:

  • Queen Elizabeth I imprisoned Alexander de Lannoy when he failed to produce the philosopher’s stone for her
  • quintessence simply means ‘fifth’ essence, superior to the four earthly elements, thought to be what heavenly bodies were made of
  • colliers were associated with hell and the devil (because of coal and its fires)
  • the act 33 Henry VIII c.8 forbade the use if magic invocations to find gold or silver
  • ‘laundering’ meant putting coins in acid to dissolve off some of the gold or silver surface; ‘barbing’ meant snipping slips off the edge of coins – both were illegal
  • the Elizabethan magician John Dee’s assistant, Edward Kelley, had both ears cut off as punishment for coining
  • Southwark doctor Simon Read was pardoned, in 1607, for invoking three spirits to discover a thief
  • Chaush – in 1607 a Turk named Mustafa arrived in England declaring himself an ambassador from the Sultan using the title ‘Chiaush’ and was grandly entertained until the fraud was discovered
  • Lambeth was ‘noted for prostitutes and thieves’, which amuses me as I live in Lambeth
  • Peru – synonymous with great wealth because of the Spanish silver mines there
  • The Hampton Court Conference of 1604 banned numerous non-conformist ministers from preaching
  • In the winter of 1607 to 16088 the Thames froze over
  • Lions were kept in the Tower of London as tourist attractions
  • It was a common punishment for prostitutes to be attached by rope to the back of a cart which was slowly pulled through the streets of London while the prostitute was whipped
  • Barbers used stale urine as a ‘lye’ to loosen their customers’ hair
  • One of the talks of the town was the little boy of six with a large penis (mentioned act 5 scene i and in Act 3 of The Knight of the Burning Pestle)
  • In 1609 the case came to court of Thomas Rogers, a Dorset man, who was robbed of £6 by two brothers who promised they would introduce him to the Fairy Queen who would be his bride

Related links

Jacobean comedies

Cavalier poetry

17th century history

Restoration comedies

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