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 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 1607-8 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

The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cutpurse by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1611)

‘Perhaps for my mad going some reprove me:
I please myself and care not else who loves me.’
(Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl)

According to Elizabeth Cook, editor of the New Mermaid edition of The Roaring Girl, Middleton was for centuries dismissed as just another member of the flock of playwrights who swarmed in London between about 1590 and 1630 and who collectively produced over 600 plays of all styles, shapes and sizes.

It was T.S. Eliot’s 1927 essay about Middleton which made a solid claim for him being second only to Shakespeare among the playwrights of the era, not least because he wrote enduring plays in both the major genres, of tragedy (The Changeling and Women Beware Women) and comedy (The Roaring Girl and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside), and which began the 20th century rise of his reputation.

The Roaring Girl stands slightly to one side of Middleton’s comedies, firstly because it was a collaboration (with Thomas Dekker). (It is fascinating to learn that the majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were collaborations, because of the furious demand of theatres which often only staged new plays for a week or two before requiring yet more audience fodder.)

It is also slightly unusual because it is based on contemporary fact, namely the life of Mary Frith, a notorious character of the time, widely known as ‘Moll Cutpurse’, who had gained a reputation for wearing men’s clothes and behaving like a young tough. Contemporary accounts describe her as ‘wearing men’s clothes, appearing on the stage, drinking, swearing, making “immodest and lascivious speeches,” prostitution, pick-pocketing, forgery, and highway robbery’. Frith inspired numerous contemporary accounts, including a chapbook written by John Day titled The Mad Pranks of Merry Moll of the Bankside (1610) and appearing in Nathaniel Field’s Amends for Ladies (1611).

Cast

Moll, the Roaring Girl

The posh men

Sir Alexander Wengrave
Young Sebastian Wengrave, his son – the ‘hero’
Neatfoot, his servant
Gull, his page
Ralph Trapdoor, his spy
Sir Adam Appleton
Sir Davy Dapper
Jack Dapper, spendthrift son to Sir Davy
Sir Guy Fitzallard
(Mary Fitzallard, his daughter, in love with Sebastian Wengrave – the ‘heroine’)
Sir Beauteous Ganymede
Goshawk, a deceiving gallant
Laxton, another deceiving gallant
Greenwit, assistant to Laxton in some scams

Curtilax, a Sergeant
Hanger, his Yeoman (both commissioned by Sir Davy Dapper to arrest his spendthrift son, Jack)

City merchants and their wives

Tiltyard, a Feather-seller
Mistress Tiltyard
Openwork, a Sempster
Mistress Rosamond Openwork – Goshawk tries to seduce her
Hippocrates Gallipot, an Apothecary
Mistress Prudence Gallipot – Laxton tries to seduce her

Act I

Oddly, Moll, the start of the play, doesn’t appear for the entire first act. Maybe one aim was to make her eventual arrival onstage that much more ‘dramatic’. Instead both scenes of act one are set in Sir Alexander Wengrave’s grand house where he is grandly entertaining guests.

Scene 1 is set in the chambers of his son, Sebastian, into which is shown a young woman dressed as a disguise. This is quickly revealed to be Mary Fitzallard who Sebastian is in love with. Why, she asks, has he been ignoring her? Because, he explains, his father is grand and ambitious and is demanding a huge dowry from her parents. But Sebastian has a plan which he now explains: he has not seen Mary for a while because he is pretending to be in love with the notorious man-dressing, roaring girl, Moll Cutpurse. His father will be so worried about that match that he will see marriage to Mary as the preferable alternative.

Scene 2 introduces us to Sebastian’s father, Sir Alexander, who is grandly hosting a party of posh friends who he proceeds to share his sadness that his son is driving him to an early grave by being in love with a ‘man-woman’, Moll Cutpurse. Father and son have a flaring row in front of everything and Sebastian stomps out and the guests leave. At which point a new servant presents himself, one Ralph Trapdoor who has been recommended to Sir Alexander. This is handy. Sir Alexander orders Trapdoor, and to find Moll, inveigle himself into her good books and find some way to destroy her.

Act II

Scene 1: The three shops The gallants who had been Sir Alexander Wengrave’s guests in act 1, are now seen drifting between three London shops, chatting to the shopkeepers, flirting with their wives and ribbing each other. We see  Laxton flirting with Mistress Gallipot of the tobacco shop, borrowing money from her and telling the audience, aside, that he doesn’t like her much but strings her along with promises of a sexual dalliance, meanwhile borrowing money from her to spend on other women.

Finally, enter Moll Cutpurse, chatting and joshing with the shopwomen. Laxton – who has emerged as the randiest and most cynical of the gallants – pesters her to make a date with him and eventually she gives in and agrees to meet him at Gray’s Inn Fields at 3 that afternoon.

Trapdoor then enters, spots Moll, and quickly offers to be her servant, flirts and fawns over her. She’s suspicious but agrees to meet him, also, in Gray’s Inn Fields between 3 and 4. The gallants go off to chase a duck with spaniels on Parlous Pond!

Scene 2: A street Sebastian makes a soliloquy about love during which his father enters, unseen, and spies on him. Sebastian notices this (‘art thou so near?’) and steers his speech round to indicating he is in love with Moll Cutpurse, to his father’s predictable dismay. Moll herself enters, accompanied by a porter carrying a large viol on his back (?) and Sebastian woos her. She is polite but rebuffs him – “I have no humour to marry: I love to lie a’ both sides a’ th’ bed myself” – saying she is chaste and will never marry.

Enter a tailor and there’s some crude joking about him taking her measurements for a pair of breeches, an item of clothing normally worn only by men, which Sir Alexander watches with predictable horror.

Sir Alexander comes forward and rebukes his son, saying that Moll will disgrace him because she is a whore and a thief, throwing in the fact that all the worst women in London are called Moll. Sebastian defends her against these general slurs – ‘Would all Molls were no worse’ and exits.

Sir Alexander is genuinely upset and, on this reading, I began to feel sorry for him. But he resolves to pursue and shame Moll. In a final soliloquy, Sebastian decides that he must share his plan with Moll in hope that she will help him and Mary.

Act III

Scene 1 – Gray’s Inn Fields Laxton is hanging round waiting impatiently for Moll to keep her appointment. When she arrives, dressed as a man, he doesn’t at first recognise her. But when he does, she delivers a brilliantly impassioned speech in defence of women and attacking all lecherous men like Laxton who think that just because she smiles and jests and drinks a toast a woman is hot for sex, whereas she is just being human, and Moll draws her sword and forces him to fight, ferociously wishing Laxton was all men who think like him, so she could punish the entire sex.

LAXTON: Draw upon a woman? Why, what dost mean, Moll?
MOLL: To teach thy base thoughts manners: th’ art one of those
That thinks each woman thy fond, flexible whore
If she but cast a liberal eye upon thee;
Turn back her head, she’s thine, or amongst company,
By chance drink first to thee. Then she’s quite gone;
There’s no means to help her, nay, for a need,
Wilt swear unto thy credulous fellow lechers
That th’ art more in favour with a lady
At first sight than her monkey all her lifetime.
How many of our sex by such as thou
Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name
That never deserved loosely, or did trip
In path of whoredom beyond cup and lip?

‘Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name?’ It’s a rousing speech that rings down the ages and is still true. Moll cuts Laxton, he refers to the blood running and needing a surgeon and runs off shocked. — He has demonstrated his lack of manliness, his lack. He lacks stones i.e. testicles.

Enter Trapdoor enters. Moll, still dressed as a man, bumps rudely into him, flicks his face and taunts him to attack her. It’s only when he refuses, that she reveals her identity and he immediately fawns and asks to be her man. She calculatingly agrees, promises to pass on to him her hand-me-downs and they exit off to St Thomas Apostle’s, east of St Paul’s. — Trapdoor also shows himself to be all mouth and no trousers, when he refuses to fight with Moll-as-man.

Scene 2 – Master Gallipot’s house And now to another unmanly man, the nagged ‘apron husband’ Gallipot, whose wife despises him for being weak and feeble. This, we realise, is why she wishes an affair with Laxton (although in act 2 we saw how Laxton, in reality, despises her and only strings her along to extract loans from her).

Laxton has smuggled her a letter in which he blethers her with sweet words before coming to the point that he needs £30. She is just agonising over how to get this for him (and her anxiety about money, pawning some belongings but maybe being found out – in a flash reminded me of Madam Bovary and the horrible mess of debts she gets into 250 years later) when her husband comes in, wondering why she’s left the dinner party they’re hosting for friends.

Gallipot spies his wife reading but as he calls to her (‘Pru’) she tears up the letter and invents a sob story on the spot, saying that she and Laxton were engaged to be married, but he went off to the wars, she heard he was dead, and so she married Gallipot, but now Laxton is back and wants to claim her as his wife. Gallipot is horrified as he loves his wife and has had children by her which us why, when she cunningly suggests buying Laxton off with thirty pounds, he readily agrees.

The dinner party guests come out and comment on Mistress Gallipot’s unhappy appearance with much bawdy and obscene double entendres, some of them guessing that Master Gallipot is having an affair, that’s why she looks so upset. They say their goodbyes.

Whereupon Laxton himself enters, complaining about apothecaries (remember we last saw him being cut and slashed by Moll). In what is presumably a comic scene, Mistress Gallipot quickly conveys the lies she’s told her husband (that she and Laxton were engaged), Laxton picks it up quickly, and they both smile as Master Gallipot begs him to accept £30 to make all right between them. Gallipot goes into his house to organise the money and Laxton genuinely praises her for her quick-witted deceitfulness.

Scene 3 – Holborn Street Sir Alexander with some of his grand friends. Enter Trapdoor who silkily tells him that Sebastian and Moll plan to meet at 3 o’clock in his (Sir Alexander’s) chamber to have sex. So. They will trap the pair. To give a cover to their meetings, he instructs Trapdoor to behave as an angry debtor, and so the spy leaves.

His friends, Sir Adam Appleton and Sir Davy Dapper come over to talk to Sir Alexander and the latter reveals that his own son, Jack, is far worse than young Sebastian, he spends a fortune whoring, drinking, and gambling. Sir Davy explains he has decided to teach young Jack a lesson: he will arrange to have Jack arrested, hoping a few days in the Counter (the debtor’s prison) will make him realise the value of money and hard work.

Alexander and Appleton exit, and two officers enter, namely Sergeant Curtilax and Yeoman Hanger. Sir Davy gives them their commission to arrest young Jack and indicates the pub he’s drinking in, just over there, and leaves the pair to capture him.

Just at this moment Moll and Trapdoor stroll up and, spying Curtilax and Hanger in hiding, realise they’re about to arrest someone, Moll decides to save whoever it is. And so when Jack Dapper and his servant Gull emerge from the pub, and just as Curtilax and Hanger move in, Moll and Trapdoor run forward, holding the officers off and telling Jack and Gull to leg it, which they promptly do. Moll’s thoughts: ‘A pox on ’em! Trapdoor, let’s away.’

Act IV

Scene 1 – Sir Alexander’s chamber Sir Alexander and Trapdoor await Moll and Sebastian. Sir Alexander gets Trapdoor to place various valuables around the room, confident that Moll will steal them and, when they bring constables to catch her with them later, it will guarantee she’s thrown into prison, if not executed. They hide.

But instead, Sebastian enters not only with Moll, but with his true love, Mary Fitzallard, dressed as a pageboy. Moll comments wryly as Sebastian kisses Mary, in a boy’s outfit, and then expresses her gratitude to Moll for helping them. Moll observes the valuables laid out as if on purpose to tempt a thief but says that, since she is no thief, they do not tempt her. Instead Sebastian invites her to play on the viola de gamba which she turns out to be skillful on, and accompanies herself singing a couple of songs.

Sir Alexander steps forward and interrupts the playing but it has no great dramatic effect at all. None of the three seem surprised or worried to see him. The conversation carries on, whereby Sebastian appears to have been securing the money – forty shillings – to pay her (I think; I didn’t understand this passage). His father quizzes Moll who claims to be a music teacher and Sir Alex asks her to play the ballad about the witch.

Then Sir Alexander gives his son four ‘angel’s’, being gold coins worth ten shillings each. He has marked them somehow, maybe pierced them. His Cunning Plan is Sebastian will give the marked coins to Moll and, later, Sir Alex will get the constables to arrest her saying they were stolen.

This is act 4 and, for me, absolutely none of this love plot intrigue is working in the slightest. The Roaring Girl feels less engaging than any of the Restoration comedies I read.

Scene 2 – Openwork’s house Two of the merchants’ wives we’ve meant moan about how pathetic their menfolk are. Mistress Openwork laments that Goshawk told her a pack of lies about her husband being in Brentford with a whore, and told her he’d take her there to prove it. It was all lies, as Openwork discovered when she confronted her husband who is now standing in the shop waiting for Goshawk to arrive so he can give him a beating.

For her part, Mistress Gallipot laments that Laxton turned out to be a lying, unmanly deceiver, ‘a lame gelding’. Men get it in the neck in this play. It’s like a feminist manifesto.

This morphs into a long and really unfunny scene. Goshawk now arrives and wants to hurry Mistress Openwork into the boat he’s got waiting but first she insists on bringing Mistress Gallipot with them, which he reluctantly agrees to, then Master Openwork comes up and she furiously accuses him to his face of having an affair with a whore at Brentford. Master Openwork is vehement that this is a lie and then starts demanding who told her this lie and – to cut a really long story short – she admits it was the (now terrified) Goshawk. Enraged, Master Openwork draws his sword and Goshawk piteously begs for forgiveness.

Now, I suppose this is intended as one more proof that sweet-talking gallants are full of ****, but it took pages to get there and I found none of it either funny, or particularly well written. Master Openwork has a little soliloquy opining that the world is a rotten place full of cheats and liars. Well spotted, mate.

In part two of this scene, a young man dressed as a summoner enters and delivers a summons to Master Gallipot. It claims to be a legal document summonsing the Gallipots to court for breach of contract. This has been arranged by Laxton. We learn that after the thirty pounds he was given a few scenes ago, he asked for a further £15. Now Master and Mistress Gallipot threaten the summoner with violence who quickly takes off his wig and reveals himself to be one of the gallants’ associates, Greenwit.

Mistress Gallipot had gone along with the deceit earlier, but now snaps at the size of the sum being extorted. She turns to her husband and confesses everything – that Laxton led her on, but this was all a lie, she was never betrothed to Laxton. Furious, Gallipot now turns to Laxton who is trembling with fear.

With surprising chivalry, Laxton quickly makes up a version of a ‘confession’ which completely exonerates Mistress Gallipot, claiming he set out to seduce her as a challenge, when she claimed to him and his friends that women were virtuous, but she stood solid and unflinchingly loyal to her husband etc etc, and thus Gallipot is mollified and calmed down.

In fact so calmed down that he promptly forgives Laxton and invites him in for a celebration feast (!?).

So, by the end of Act 4, two merchants’ wives – citizens’ wives – have had their virtue assailed by two upper-class ‘gallants’ – Laxton and Goshawk – who both turn out to be lily-livered eunuchs. The women are smarter than the men and their husbands are made of finer stuff, loving and forgiving. And, it feels like half the play is over, as the forgiving merchants invite the foolish gallants in for a feast – something which generally only happens at the very end of a play.

Act V

Scene 1 – A street Enter Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede and Thomas Long. Moll tells Jack how it was she who saved him from the sergeants and he thanks her. As a sidenote she explains she spotted Trapdoor was a spy and has disposed of him as a player shoves a halfpenny across the board. They are joined by Lord Noland.

At which point Trapdoor enters, like a poor soldier with a patch over one eye, accompanied by a sidekick, Tearcat, all in tatters. They approach Moll and her friends and, at first, pretend to be poor, maimed soldiers from the wars and beg for money. But the account they give of their foreign fighting and travels is so obviously garbled that Moll and her friends realise they are fakes.

Moll tears to eyepatch off Trapdoor’s face – the kind of stylised gesture which is taken to transform someone’s appearance in these plays and suddenly render someone in disguise, recognisable. Then, in a peculiar passage, Trapdoor shows off his skill at using canting terms, and Moll interprets his stream of canting for the benefit of her educated friends (Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede, Thomas Long, Lord Noland) so much so that they egg the couple on to a canting duel, telling Trapdoor they’ll give him some alms if he performs for them, and this eventually leads into Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat singing a song entirely in canting language.

Paradoxically, this was one of the few parts of the play I really understood, because the situation – educated, well-off people patronise beggars – is easily graspable, and because the posh people’s dialogue is remarkably and unusually lucid. Thus after Trapdoor uses the term ‘niggling’, Jack says: ‘Nay, teach me what niggling is; I’d fain be niggling’ and a moment later Sir Beauteous comments: ‘This is excellent.’

Trapdoor is paid off and departs. I rather liked him, he was an honest rogue.

Now enters a gallant cutpurse and four or five followers, who threaten to attack our chaps, but brave Moll a) interprets all the cutpurses are saying in their slang and b) outfaces them i.e. intimidates them into abandoning their plan to rob our chaps. They are scared of her and her swaggering reputation. In fact, they truckle to her. Moll declares a particular purse was recently stolen from a man attending the Swan theatre and demands it be returned. The leader of the cutpurses meekly says he’ll see what he can do and they all exit.

The real-life Mary Frith was, apparently, known for righting wrongs and returning stolen purses (sounds a bit too Robin Hood to me) and this encounter prompts the other characters to say how she has been unfairly criticised by society. Now she gives a long speech declaring her innocence of all crimes, saying she merely is acquainted with criminals and knows their cant and tricks solely to help innocent victims. It is a speech in support of all people calumniated by society, not just her but all the women called whores and men called cuckolds who are entirely innocent. People call her Moll Curpurse and blacken her name because she dresses, does and says what she likes – the implication being that people resent and are jealous of her freedom.

MOLL: Good my lord, let not my name condemn me to you or to the world.

If Mary Frith had commissioned this play it could hardly give a more favourable portrait of her!

And so after this long scene of canting and cutpurses leading up to Moll’s second Great Speech, they all head off to the pub.

Scene 2: Sir Alexander’s house The love plot of the play is resolved, namely Sebastian and Mary’s Cunning Plan works. Sir Alexander is still under the misapprehension that Sebastian is madly in love with and planning to marry Moll Cutpurse. He is at home with some of his friends and advisers when a servant comes in to tell them Sebastian and Moll have been seen landing at the Sluice on the Lambeth side of the Thames. But just as they’re planning to go and intercept them, Trapdoor (so we get a bit more Trapdoor) arrives to say the couple have been seen alighting at the Tower i.e. in the opposite direction. Sir Alexander is stung with indecision.

At this moment enters Sir Guy Fitzallard, mother of Mary Fitzallard that Sebastian is in love with. From the start he is aggressively angry towards Sir Alexander, telling him his (Guy’s) daughter wasn’t good enough for him, he blocked his son and Mary’s romance, well much good it’s done him and he hopes he’s happy that his son is now marrying one of the most disreputable women in London, ‘that bold masculine ramp’, Moll Cutpurse. He mocks him, saying he will soon be grandfather to a ‘fine crew of roaring sons and daughters’ who will stock the suburbs with crime.

Well, Sir Guy says – what would tortured Sir Alexander give if he – Sir Guy – could intervene and prevent it happening? He goes on to say, in front of the other nobles present as witnesses, that bets his entire wealth that he can prevent this marriage and, caught up in his enthusiasm, Sir Alexander, accepts the bet, saying he will immediately give Sebastian all those lands he had planned to, if he simply doesn’t marry Moll.

The authors really drag these final scenes out. Enter Moll (dressed as a man) for just a minute or so, just enough time for Alexander to berate her and her to mock him for his greed and short-sightedness, then exits.

So I wasn’t amused but irritated when the authors drag out Alexander’s and our agony even further by having Sebastian enter, accompanied by Sir Guy as if this is the final version of the wedding, and hand in hand with… Moll… wearing a mask. Sir Alexander is delighted his son has married anyone but Moll… but then she takes off her mask and he collapses prostrate that all his plans lie in ashes. God, get on with it!

Moll delivers a comic speech, telling him how lucky he is to have a roaring girl as a daughter in law, men will fear him, crooks will avoid him, and so on. Sir Guy asks Sir Alexander if he will hold to his bet (all Sir Guy’s estate against half Sir Alexander’s) but Sir Alexander insists – now he’s won the bet (the bet that Guy would be able to prevent the marriage of Sebastian and Moll, and it looks like he’s failed), at which point….

Moll steps aside and Sir Guy introduces the real bride who is, God be praised, Mary Fitzallard after all, ceremonially accompanied by Lord Noland and Sir Beauteous Ganymede, and followed by all the London merchants and their wives, so that all the characters are on stage for the happy finale.

Sir Alexander is in flights of ecstasy and in heroic verse praises his son and gives him half his wealth and lands – as promised – and then his beautiful new daughter-in-law, and they graciously accept. Moll points out that she has done everyone a favour organising this happy outcome and Sebastian says she will be rewarded. Sir Alexander apologises for misjudging her.

Enter Trapdoor (hooray, the only character I really like) who kneels before Moll and abjectly apologises for scheming against her, explaining that he laid out the valuables in Sir Alexander’s chamber, hoping to snare Moll, and that he also gave Moll the four marked gold coins (angels) as part of a scam to have her arrested. Moll is surprised, the onlookers are shocked, Sir Alexander abjectly humiliated, and apologises.

I found Sir Alexander’s explicit and clear statement that he has learned from his experiences not to judge people by their reputations and not to listen to rumour, more effective than the savage punishments which conclude Ben Jonson plays:

Forgive me; now I cast the world’s eyes from me
And look upon thee freely with mine own:
I see the most of many wrongs before thee,
Cast from the jaws of envy and her people,
And nothing foul but that. I’ll never more
Condemn by common voice, for that’s the whore
That deceives man’s opinion, mocks his trust,
Cozens his love, and makes his heart unjust.

Sir Alexander ends the play by saying this happy day will be celebrated every year, and he hopes all who have watched it will go away as pleased as he is.

Thoughts

Not funny

Maybe I read it on an off day, but I didn’t find The Roaring Girl at all funny. It contains scenes which are theoretically humorous, but failed to raise any smile to my lips. It lacks the delightful whimsy of The Shoemaker’s Holiday or, at the other end of the spectrum, the savage farcicality of Ben Jonson and his scheming grotesques.

It inhabits an odd no-man’s-land, in which everyone is a gull or crook of one kind or another but none of them really inspire entertainment. Moll’s speeches about how easily women are calumniated were the only things which really woke me up, that and the character of Trapdoor who I warmed to as the nearest thing to a Jonsonian imp, like Mosca in Volpone.

Overall I felt there was something clever, calculating and rather mechanical about it, and kept returning to T.S. Eliot’s words:

The comedies are long-winded; the fathers are heavy fathers, and rant as heavy fathers should; the sons are wild and wanton sons, and perform all the pranks to be expected of them; the machinery is the usual Elizabethan machinery; Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. (Thomas Middleton by T.S. Eliot)

Gender etc

Clearly ‘gender’ is a major theme of the play insofar as Moll is a woman behaving as men are supposed to, and not just men generally, but roistering, swaggering, canting, drinking, fighting men. And the play goes to some lengths to demonstrate how feebly unmasculine just about every other man in the play is, compared to her.

Feminist art and literary critics long ago developed a rhetoric about neglected women artists or authors and female characters who rebel, buck the trend and subvert the patriarchy, which make them all sound the same. They make ‘the patriarchy’ sound as if it was the same thing in 1603 or 2003, and rebel women all sound as if they had the same ‘smash the patriarchy’ mindset as contemporary gender studies professors. In other words, they make the past boring by being so predictably and narrowly ideological about it.

Obviously the figure of Moll is striking but what’s a bit more interesting is the way she was not suppressed by The Patriarchy for wearing men’s clothes and swearing etc. What is hiding in plain sight in the simple existence of this play, is the fact that, far from being in any way suppressed or silenced – as feminists love their heroines from the past to have been – Mary Frith was in fact lionised, widely written about and – in this play at any rate – praised to the heavens, depicted as a moral exemplar, teaching true Christian morality (judge people by their deeds not their reputations).

Feminist critics like to write about Moll ‘subverting gender norms’ and ‘transgressing gender-based rules of clothing and behaviour’ as if it was a thrilling conspiracy which only you and I, paid-up members of the feminist gang, can understand. And yet here she was up on stage in a play written to unstintingly praise her, to the applause of a fee-paying audience, in a play which was widely reprinted through the ages.

In other words, if she was ‘subverting’ anything, that ‘subversion’ was very comfortably accommodated in a best-selling play performed to approving audiences.

In other words, Moll entirely conforms to the deeply entrenched stereotype of the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure which dates from at least Robin Hood through to any number of 20th century ‘rebels’, and which Hollywood has made billions of dollars carefully crafting and presenting to audiences who, for a happy couple of hours, can thrill to the ‘subversive’ exploits of James Dean or Bruce Willis or whoever the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure of the hour happens to be, before going back to their suburban homes and their workaday world.

Yes, the figure of Moll may well ‘transgress’ half a dozen easy-to-list rules of Jacobean England – dresses like a man, swaggers like a man, drinks like a man, familiar with the criminal underworld like a man and this ooh-so-daring audacity gives timid feminist critics multiple orgasms – but at a meta-level I’d have thought it’s pretty obvious that Moll entirely conforms to the enduring stereotype of the naughty boy or naughty girl whose exploits we love sharing for a couple of hours at the theatre or cinema, before the entertainment ends.

In a really deep sense, maybe that’s what entertainment – of all types – actually consists of: whether at the circus or a funfair or the cinema or a theatre – it’s entering into a world of excitement and thrills and kings and queens or cops and robbers or thrilling rides – all of which we pay for because, by definition, they are outwith the reality of our boring everyday lives, shopping, cooking, eating sleeping, and commuting to boring jobs in shops and factories and offices.

So when feminists rhapsodise that Moll ‘subverts’ the social norms of her day, all they’re really saying is that she’s in a play. Macbeth subverts the values of the time by being a king killer. Othello subverts the values of the day by murdering his wife. Volpone subverts the values of the time by being an outrageous crook. All the tricksters in hundreds of these city comedies ‘subvert’ the values of the time by virtue of being crooks and criminals. Is there a play from the period where the lead characters do not subvert one or other ‘social norm’ of the time?

Feminists just valorise and prioritise one among the many, many types of ‘subversion’ which occur in almost all these plays, because it is the one dearest to their heart, the only issue which counts for them, the issue of gender, the ‘issue’ which justifies their existence.

But, not being feminists, we are not constrained and blinded by their ideology, and so can read everything they have to say, assimilate it, take it on board, add it to our perspective, but still see that the play contains many other non-gender ideas and themes and images, as did the society of its day.

One of the most obvious is the language of crime…

Canting

Canting was one of the contemporary words used to describe the prolific growth of slang and argot used by thieves and cozeners. There was a very rich literature describing these, even at the time. Indeed, whenever there was a periodic outbreak of plague, such as in 1603 and the theatres went into lockdown, writers like Dekker and Middleton switched to writing satirical or descriptive pamphlets about London life, mostly concentrating on lowlife and criminals.

Dekker wrote a number of pamphlets about contemporary events, but his ones focusing on criminals or ‘cony-catchers’ include The Belman of London (1608), Lanthorne and Candle-light, Villainies Discovered by Candlelight, and English Villainies and he gives an often-quoted definition of ‘canting’:

‘It was necessary that a people, so fast increasing and so daily practicing new and strange villainies, should borrow to themselves a speech which, so near as thy could, none but themselves could understand; and for that cause was this language, which some call pedlar’s French, invented…. This word canting seems to be derived from the Latin verb canto, which signifies in English to sing, or to make a sound with words, that’s to say, speak. And very aptly may canting take his derivation a cantando, from singing, because amongst these beggarly consorts that can play upon no better instruments, the language of canting is a kind of music, and he that in such assemblies can cant best is counted the best musician…’
(Lanthorn and Candlelight by Thomas Dekker)

Anyway, the point is that this play is stuffed with canting terms and street argot, so much so that not only does the Mermaid edition feature notes at the bottom of each page explaining key words, but also (and unusually) a seven-page appendix devoted to canting terms. Highlights include:

  • darkmans = the night
  • lightmans = the day
  • shells = money
  • stamps = legs
  • curbers = thieves who hook goods out of open windows using a long stick with a hook at the end
  • cheats = the gallows
  • bing = to go
  • nip a bung = steal a purse
  • Rom-ville = London

And Act 5 scene 1 is a festival of canting – it contains the canting exchanges between Moll and Trapdoor-as-beggar, who drops entirely into canting terms to impress and/or confuse his educated interlocutors.

TRAPDOOR: My doxy? I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with all whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben, and eat a fat gruntling cheat, a cackling cheat, and a quacking cheat.

Before Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat then deliver a canting song! The footnotes again say that one of the best explanations of the profession or trade of cutpurse is again given by Dekker, who provided a neat explanation of key roles and terms, in this clip from The Bellman of London:

He that cuts the purse is called the nip.
He that is half with him is the snap, or the cloyer.
The knife is called a cuttle-bung.
He that picks the pocket is called a foist.
He that faceth the man is the stale.
The taking of the purse is called drawing.
The spying of this villain is called smoking or boiling.
The purse is the bung.
The money the shells.
The act doing is called striking.

You can look up these and numerous other obscure terms in the online version of the play, linked to below.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

Captain James Cook: A Biography by Richard Hough (1994)

A grave, steady man (Boswell, quoted page 342)

I’ve covered a lot of the detail of the three epic voyages of discovery carried out by Captain James Cook in my review of the current exhibition about them being held at the British Library in London.

That review includes detail of the routes, the places ‘discovered’ and first mapped by Europeans (Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii, among many others) and the baleful impact which First Contact with white men had on the native peoples of those places.

Having put all that factual information, and discussion of the attendant cultural controversy, down in another place, this in a sense frees me up to enjoy Hough’s rather old-fashioned biography as a straightforward narrative of derring-do and adventure.

Space and detail

Hough (pronounced How) takes us deep into the day-to-day experience of being an officer or ordinary sailor or one of the scientific passengers, on these extraordinarily bold and dangerous voyages – cooped up in a ship 100 foot long by 28 feet wide for months on end in often terrible weather, with food and water which, after about a month, had become inedible and foul. It is no surprise to learn that drunkenness and fighting among the crew were a permanent problem, with some of the crew being drunk from morning to night, and one man on the first voyage drinking himself to death.

During his career Hough wrote a variety of historical books, but was mostly a specialist in maritime history. He was born in 1922, which means this biography of Cook was published when he was 72 years old. No surprise, then, that it is rather old-fashioned in tone and approach.

Hough gives space at the appropriate points to the scientific motives of the voyages, to the behind-the-scenes politicking at the Royal Society and the Royal Navy which provide the context for the voyages, to the way Cook’s discoveries were appropriated by others (the self-promoting naturalist Joseph Banks being the glaring example), were frequently sensationalised and misreported in the press, and so on.

He deals extensively with Cook’s encounters with the native peoples of the places he ‘discovered’, and gives a better sense of their interactions than the exhibition does. The exhibition is at pains to emphasise the baleful consequences of Cook opening up these places and peoples to colonial exploitation, whereas Hough has the space in his 450-page-long book to go into great detail about the complex mutuality of many of these encounters and their diversity: some natives were friendly and welcoming, some were fierce and antagonistic; some lived in sophisticated cultures with complex religions, others lived stark naked to the elements, with no clothes, or homes or tools of any kind; some, like Queen Obadia and King Tiarreboo of Tahiti, become good friends of Cook and his officers through repeated visits.

But at its core – and what makes his book, I think, so enjoyable – is Hough’s own deep feeling for the perils and pleasures of sailing the seven seas. Although he nowhere explicitly states it, it is quite clear that Hough was an experienced sailor himself, and had visited at least some of the exotic and distant locations he is writing about, by boat.

Anyone who has sailed these waters off present-day Christchurch will appreciate how easy it was for Cook to misidentify Banks Peninsula for an island. (p.158)

This writer, arriving at Easter Island by sea and at early dawn, can attest to the discouragement to landing the fierce visages and giant size of these statues engender. (p.289)

Thus his book contains numerous moments of insight into the precise mechanical workings of an 18th century sailing ship, of the weather and sea conditions to be found on the seas which Cook sailed, and goes into fascinating detail about the great range of jobs and tasks required to keep a ship afloat and sailing.

Hough places you right there, hearing the creak of the rigging, feeling the salt spray in your face, sharing the excitement of the crew when land is sighted after weeks of being cooped up in the stinking, bickering environment of the ship.

It is, for example, typical that before each of the three voyages, Hough not only takes you through the extensive repairs and refurbishments made to each of the ships Cook sailed in, but goes to great pains to name and describe every member of the crew – their names, where they were from, their sailing experience and personalities, with indications of how they bore up during their three-year-long ordeals, right down to the 12-year-old cabin boy.

Map of James Cook's three voyages

Map of James Cook’s three voyages

Mingled in among the narrative events are moments of pure lyricism with which Hough explains the lure of the sea, and the excitement of discovery.

On the ill-fated third voyage Cook took along two junior officers, William Bligh, a young arrogant but competent map-maker whose harshness, 12 years later, was to cause the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty‘ – and young George Vancouver, who joined Cook’s second expedition at the age of 15.  At the moments when they hove into view of new islands, or set out to explore new coastlines, discovering new sounds, bays and inlets, we share with them the raw thrill of discovery which drove Europeans all around the world, on the most cockamamie expeditions.

The audience of political correctness

I’ve watched and read over the past 40 or so years as history writing has become more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’. In practice this hasn’t meant many more black or non-white people writing history, it has meant that the same type of white, upper middle class, private-school-educated academics, writing on the pretty much the same old subjects, but now going out of their way to comment on 1. the presence or absence of women, and 2. the oppression of non-white peoples.

Fine. Some of this approach sheds drastically new light on old subjects, like Alan Taylor’s mind-expanding history of the colonisation of America, American Colonies, which begins 30,000 years ago with the arrival of the first humans in Alaska, and goes on to explain the staggeringly diverse range of ‘races’, nations and cultures which, right from the beginning, made up America’s multi-racial societies. A book like that completely changes your view of the subject.

But in other writers’ hands – and especially in (by necessity) the restricted space of exhibition guides and wall labels – it can sound like tokenism and box-ticking.

An aspect of the rise of identity politics and political correctness in history writing is that it can result in text which is surprisingly simple-minded, almost childish. In the several exhibitions about queer art which I’ve visited over the past few years, the curators take it upon themselves to explain that ‘same sex desire’ was once forbidden and even punished by western societies. Golly.

Reading something like this makes me wonder what age group the curators are targeting. Most of the people I see at art galleries and exhibitions are quite clearly retired, educated middle-class people in their 60s and 70s. Do you really need to explain to the average, educated, middle-class exhibition-goer that homosexuality used to be illegal? Do you think they didn’t know that?

Similarly, at the British Library exhibition about Cook’s voyages, I was struck by the naivety of some of the wall labels, like the one which pointed out that:

Violence is part of the story of James Cook’s voyages, as it is of other European expeditions of this era.

What age group would you say that is aimed at? 11 year-olds? 8 year-olds? Surely not the grey-haired old retirees I was surrounded by.

And in case you didn’t know what ‘violence’ means, the display the label refers to contains a musket which, it explains, is a kind of old-fashioned gun. And a ‘gun’ is a ‘weapon’. And ‘weapons’ are often used in ‘violence’. Get it now?

Next to a map which Cook created of Tahiti is another wall label:

Claiming of already populated lands was a common feature of European exploration.

How old do the curators think we are? 11?

This is what I mean when I say that modern, politically correct identity politics/feminism/post-colonial theory can sometimes end up treating its audience like small children, as if they have to explain every aspect of human nature from scratch, as if we’d never heard of same-sex desire, or violence, or colonialism, or slavery before.

Hough assumes we are adults

This is what makes Hough so enjoyable: he treats his readers as adults who know about the world. Thus he takes it for granted that the main entertainment of the tough, illiterate ship’s crew was getting drunk and fighting – which we know about because of the litany of disciplinary measures Cook recorded in his logs.

Prostitutes And Hough expects you to understand that it was standard practice for the 80 or so crew members, whenever they hit land, to go looking women. In Westernised ports like Cape Town or Batavia, this meant prostitutes. In the islands of the Pacific, it meant native women. But this is where the voyages were so memorable for the men because there were well-established traditions of native women happily giving themselves to visiting men – with the full approval of their own menfolk. Which obviously made a big impression on British sailors brought up in our sexually repressed culture.

Tahitian women Thus every landfall in most of the Pacific islands was accompanied by an impressive amount of sexual activity, sometimes in the open, in full view of passersby. Hough, it seems to me, treats us adults who expect rough sailors to behave this way, and so are not as shocked as feminist art curators. Taking the human nature of humans for granted allows Hough to move on to the more interesting aspects and consequences of these cultural encounters, for example the way that many of the English men and native women formed real attachments, which led the women, for example, to follow the ships in canoes when they set sail, and to greet some of the same sailors when they returned three years later, with genuine joy.

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

STDs But it also led to the spread of venereal disease and Hough shows how Cook repeatedly tried to establish the origin of these diseases and tried to enforce bans on his own crew when they arrived at new tropical island (like Hawaii, discovered only on the third voyage) to prevent the natives being infected. The failure of Cook’s strict bans, despite being enforced with flogging the sailors, tells us more about the indefatigableness of human nature than all the exhibition wall labels in the world.

Buggery Hough makes only a passing mention of the fact that ‘buggery’ was rife below decks. He takes it for granted that 70 or 80 rough, physically fit men, cooped up in a very small space for long periods, will indulge in sodomy, even though it was forbidden and punishable by lashes of the whip. A very different world from the ‘same sex desires’ of the kind of Bloomsbury ladies depicted in Tate’s Queer British Art but one any man who went to a boys’ school will know about.

The lash Hough assumes that we understand that maintaining discipline among drunk, potentially violent men, required severe physical punishment, namely tying wrong-doers to a wooden frame and whipping their bare backs till they bled. If the member of crew tasked with doing the whipping refused, he too was whipped. Unbelievably harsh to modern thinking, but Hough expects us to have an adult appreciation that most lives, for most of the past, have been bloody and brutal.

Crossing the line I’d forgotten the tradition that when the ship crossed the equator, every crewman and passenger who hadn’t done it before, was locked inside a kind of wooden cage, suspended by rope from a yardarm, and then dropped several times its own height into the speeding waves, so that the man trapped inside was totally submerged, three times. One of the several officers who kept diaries of the voyage remarks how some of the men revelled in demonstrating their toughness, while others were visibly distressed after just the first drop and wept after the second. The tradition continues to this day, though nowadays is an excuse for a party. bring back the dunking cage, I say 🙂

The purpose of history

For me history has at least three purposes.

1. One is as pure entertainment. I bet most people read history books as they read thrillers or rom-coms, for the entertainment, for the characters, for the amazing things people got up to / endured / achieved and so on. There’s as much sex, intrigue and violence in the Tudors as in a Hollywood blockbuster, which is why books and TV shows about Henry VIII never go out of fashion.

2. A second, more straitlaced motive is to understand how we got here today by reading about our forebears in Britain, Europe, America or wherever, to better understand what happened and why it’s led us to the current situation. The ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ school of thought. Winston Churchill said that, by the way.

3. But for me there’s also a psychological-cum-moral purpose — which is to expand the reader’s mind and broaden his or her sympathies.

Reading about the past not only often amazes us at how people lived then, what they had to endure, what they achieved despite it all – but also transports us into the minds of people with completely different expectations and values from us. The more effort we make to think ourselves into others’ places, hundreds of years ago, thousands of miles away, the more we exercise our minds and extend our sympathies.

Instead of rushing to judge people of the past according to the values of today, I think it is more profitable to make the imaginative effort of really immersing ourselves in their world and values, the better to understand:

  1. what they believed and why they did what they did
  2. the vastly different technological, economic, social and cultural conditions they lived under
  3. and so to better understand at least part of the tortuous, labyrinthine, and often unexpected ways in which the past has led up to the present

This, in a nutshell, is behind all the different ways I’m opposed to what I’ve, rather simplistically, called political correctness, in history and historical exhibitions. Political correctness rushes to judge people in the past. I think we should be patient and try to understand them on their own terms.

The livestock

I didn’t realise 18th century sailors took so much livestock with them. Many of the sailors had dogs, and Joseph Banks was notorious for his attachment to his two prize greyhounds. But they also took sheep and pigs and goats, partly to butcher and eat, partly to be gifts to native peoples on the other side of the planet, as well as coops of hens to provide fresh eggs. This meant that wherever they stopped to gather wood and water, they also had to cut grass, a lot of grass, solely as provender for the livestock. And imagine clearing up the piles of poo every day!

By the time of the third voyage, King George III, the official sponsor of all of the voyages, had seen and learned about conditions among the native peoples which his expeditions had claimed for the British Crown. Not least because the second voyage brought home Omai, a Pacific Islander Cook had met in Tahiti, and who became the sensation of fashionable London during his two-year stay in Britain (1774-76).

As a result ‘farmer’ George, as he was nicknamed for his interest in improving agriculture in Britain, decided to send the poor benighted Pacific Islanders a suite of farm animals which they could breed up, encouraging them to convert their primitive agriculture into modern, mixed British farming best practice.

Thus Cook found himself lumbered with direct orders from the king to transport a number of sheep, rabbits, a mare, a stallion, a large number of sows and several hogs, two cows with their calves and a bull, to the other side of the world and given as gifts to the king of Tahiti. Plus a peacock and a peahen, special gifts of Baron Ponsonby of Sysonby.

All on a boat little more than 100 foot long!

For the entire three-year duration of the first voyage, the officers’ tea was provided with milk by a goat, who never failed to deliver, day after day, for a thousand days. It survived all the way back to Britain where Joseph Banks bought her a collar to celebrate her achievement, and commissioned a Latin tag to go on the collar from no less a luminary than Dr Johnson, who obliged with:

Perpetua ambita bis terra preamia lactis
Haec habet altrici Capra secunda Jovis

Which roughly translates as:

In fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove
This goat, who twice the world had traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

Death and Captain Cook

Most accounts of Cook’s voyages focus on their scientific achievement, their mapping and charting, their discoveries of ‘new’ lands (new to Europeans), and the first interactions of Westerners with native peoples in a variety of locations, some peaceful, some violent, all of which – in the long run – would disrupt and decimate their societies.

But one way in which a past as remote as 250 years ago is distant from us is in its attitude towards death. The politically correct tend to think that any deaths, indeed any violence carried out by people and regimes from the past, should be judged against the highest standards of modern, peaceable Western society and held to account as in a courtroom.

But it’s not defending the behaviour of anyone in the past to point out that, 250 years ago, death from all sorts of causes was much more common than it is now. The ubiquity of death – the deaths of his own family, of soldiers and sailors he served with, of crewmates and colleagues – all help to explain the sometimes apparently ‘casual’ way Cook and colleagues responded to the deaths of the native peoples they encountered.

So in among the amazing stories, the colourful characters and the breath-taking scenery, I became interested in Hough’s relating of the many deaths which surrounded Cook all his life, and therefore the presence of death as a theme in Captain Cook’s biography.

In fact there are so many deaths sprinkled throughout the book, that I’ve restricted this selection of examples to just the First Voyage.

Death in Cook’s family

  • Cook’s parents, James senior and Grace, had eight children. Four died in childhood, one as he turned 20, leaving only James and two sisters to survive into adult life.
  • Cook had six children with his wife, Elizabeth who lived to the following ages: James 31 (drowned at sea), Nathaniel 16 (lost at sea), Elizabeth 4, Joseph died at 2 weeks, George died at 3 months, Hugh died at 16 of scarlet fever. None of his children lived long enough to have children of their own.

Death in war with France

  • Off Plymouth in 1757 Cook was crew aboard the Eagle which was in a fight with the 50-gun French ship Duc d’Aquitaine, the Eagle‘s cannon killing 50 Frenchmen, their cannon killing 10 of Cook’s shipmates, wounding 80! Imagine the sound and the sights and all the blood and body parts.
  • As warrant officer on the HMS Pembroke Cook observed no fewer than 26 of the crew dying of scurvy with many more ill or permanently incapacitated – as on more or less every European ship sailing any distance during this era.
  • Cook’s ship took part in the siege of Louisbourg, the French fort at the mouth of the St Laurence Waterway in Canada.
  • Cook took part in General Wolfe’s campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada and therefore for the British Empire. During the campaign the Pembroke‘s captain died of an unspecified illness, Cook was involved in trying to repel fireships from the British fleet and, in another incident, was laying buoys from a small boat which was ambushed by canoes manned by French soldiers and native Americans fierce for scalps. Cook’s boat only just made it to land ahead of the canoes, where British soldiers scared the French off. During an abortive amphibian landing Cook’s ship was one of several laying down suppressing fire, but when the landing failed had to receive back on board many wounded and dying soldiers.

Death voyage one (1768-71)

  • ‘Peter Flower seaman fell overboard and before any assistance could be given him was drowned’ in Rio da Janeiro harbour (p.84)
  • 16 January 1769 Banks leads a disastrous expedition into the interior of Tierra del Fuego, setting off in fine weather, but getting lost in a maze of small trees as the temperature plummeted, it started to snow, and the beleaguered troop of ten men struggled to stay alive through the night. Artist Alex Buchan had an epileptic fit, but it was Banks’s two black servants, Richmond and Dorlton, who had filched a bottle of brandy, drunk it all and died of exposure. (p.95)
  • After being caught stealing some sealskin his comrades were going to divide up and make into tobacco pouches, quiet 21-year-old marine, William Greenslade killed himself by throwing himself overboard. (p.102)
  • On 15 April 1769 in Matavai Bay on Tahiti, after a couple of days of happy interaction with the local inhabitants, one of them makes a lunge for one of the marine’s muskets and, as he runs off, is hit and killed by a fusillade from the other soldiers. (p.114)
  • In the same day, back on the Endeavour, the artist Alex Buchan has a severe epileptic fit and dies. (p.114 )
  • On 26 June 1769 Cook and senior officers were welcomed by King Tiarreboo who proudly displayed his collection of human jawbones, and they learned that the previous year the King’s army had invaded  the territory of neighbouring Queen Obadia, killing a large number of her subjects, burning down their huts and stealing their livestock. This explained the desolate landscape and piles of bones which Cook and Banks had observed. (p.130)
  • Back at sea, on 27 August, the boatswain’s mate, John Reading of Kinsale, County Cork, drank three half pints of raw rum and died as a result.
  • On 9 October 1769 they landed at a wide bay of what they came to realise was New Zealand. When three Maori warriors approached the landing party and one came forward threatening with his spear, the cox in charge of the boat ordered soldiers to fire over their heads and, when he came very close, at him. Te Maro was the first Maori killed by the British.
  • Next day a Maori whipped the curved sword from the waist of astronomer Green, and the Brits initially fired birdshot which peppered him but, as he ran off, Surgeon Monkhouse fired his musket and killed him.
  • Later the same day, on the way back to the ship, they encountered two rafts paddled by Maoris and tried to corner one in order to take the natives aboard the Endeavour, show them trinkets and prove how friendly we are. But the Maoris put up a stiff resistance, throwing rocks and anything they could reach so that the Brits eventually fired muskets into the canoe, killing four Maoris.
  • 9 November 1769,  in a different bay, while Cook was exploring the man in charge of the landing party, John Gore was trading with natives. When one of them stole a roll of cloth and ran away, Gore levelled his musket and shot him dead. (p.147)
  • 30 April 1770, in Botany Bay Australia, seaman Forby Sutherland died of pneumonia contracted on Tierra del Fuego, the first Briton to die in Australia.

Death in Batavia

In November 1770 the Endeavour reached Batavia, main city of the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta). They were relieved to see white men and have access to all the joys of civilisation again, after more than a year either at sea or among native peoples, and also relieved to be able to make repairs to the Endeavour which was in poor shape after enduring such a long voyage, and a number of fierce storms.

But it proved to be a fatal stay. Batavia had been laid out in a grid of canals by the Dutch East India Company but these had silted up and become reservoirs for mosquitoes as well as a host of other tropical diseases.

  • ship’s surgeon Bill Monkhouse 5 November died of malaria
  • 11 November the Tahitian native they’d brought along to act as interpreter, Tupia, died, as did his servant, Taita
  • seamen John Reynolds, Irishman Tim Rearden, John Woodman, marines corporal John Truslove, Sydney Parkinson the wonderful artist and illustrator, the Finnish naturalist and artist Spöring, who had been recommended by Linnaeus, John Ravenshill the ship drunk
  • 31 January 1771 ship’s cook John Thompson, carpenter’s mate Benjamin Jordan, and seamen James Nicholson and Archibald Wolfe
  • February 1771 – midshipman John Bootie, gunner’s servant Daniel Roberts, the surgeon’s brother Jonathan Monkhouse, boatswain John Gathrey, marine John Preston, carpenter John Satterly

In all some 34 of the crew died soon, or from lingering effects of disease caught in Batavia on the journey back across the Indian Ocean and up the Atlantic coast of Africa. Both Cook and Banks were laid low for a while with fevers, but recovered. For a man as proud of caring for his men’s health as Cook, it was a devastating blow.

Death and cannibalism

  • 16 January 1770, in a cove on the New Zealand coast, Cook and his translator Tupia are invited to dinner by a Maori family who explain that they are cannibals. A group of enemies had attacked this tribe, seven had been killed and then – eaten. Some of the sailors saw a native eating the meat off a human arm bone. 20 January some Maori canoes come alongside, sporting dried human heads as decoration.

On the second voyage there were two ships, Resolution captained by Cook, and Adventure, captained by Tobias Furneaux. On 17 December 1773 Furneaux sent a cutter with ten men, commanded by midshipman Rowe, to collect wild greens for the crew. It never returned and next day another cutter went in search and, at a beach they’d named Grass Cove, found hundreds of Maoris and the body parts of their colleagues.

Dogs were chewing at the discarded entrails of four or five men, and they found the eyes, hearts, lungs, livers and heads of their comrades … various feet and Rowe’s left hand (identified by its scarred forefinger) roasting on fires or scattered on the ground.

Over the next few years all visits to New Zealand confirmed that the Maori were cannibals who cooked and ate the bodies of the enemies they defeated in battle. Possibly the white men had got angry, maybe fired a few shots, then were lynched. Possibly they interrupted a native religious ceremony, and sparked the wrath of the celebrants. No one will ever know for sure.

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

But one of the notable aspects of this clash of cultures was the relative restraint the white commanders showed: his men wanted Furneaux to launch a massive bombardment with all the ships canon to devastate the area, but he resisted. Three years later, when Cook returned to the same area on his third expedition, the men again urged their captain to take devastating retaliation but Cook resisted. He even hosted the king of the tribe associated with the murders, Kahura, in his cabin.

Cook’s sense of guilt

This brings out a central thread of the book, which is Cook’s consistent concern to be fair to the natives, to be considerate and courteous, to pay for everything the crews bought, and to submit to quite a few (to him) incomprehensible religious and civic ceremonies. When he discovered crew members ill-treating natives, or when his subordinates were found guilty of shooting natives, Cook was always incensed, and quite a few were punished with floggings.

And yet the book also lists a steady litany of misunderstandings on both sides, and a steady pile of native corpses which builds up. The white men had cannon and muskets. With every misunderstanding which degenerated into violence, the white men (usually) triumphed. And every incident was a nail hammered into Cook’s agonised awareness that although he was carrying out his Majesty’s instructions to the letter, although he conducted his scientific enquiries, collected biological specimens and made endless maps as ordered – that despite all his good intentions, Western contact with First Peoples was fated to be disastrous.

At Ship Cove in New Zealand, in June 1773, Cook wrote in his Journal of the native Maori:

To our shame as civilized Christians, we debauch their morals already too prone to vice, and we introduce among them wants and perhaps disease which they never before knew and which serve only to disturb that happy tranquility which they and their forefathers enjoyed. If anyone denies the truth of this assertion, let him tell me what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans. (quoted p.264)

And it was, of course, disastrous for Cook himself, who was cut down in Kealakekua Bay, on Hawai’i island, as a result of a series of cultural misunderstandings with the islanders, which escalated into a bloodbath, described in harrowing detail by Hough on pages 412 to 427.

Cook’s brutal murder stands to this day as a symbol of the tragic ease with which minor cultural confusions can escalate into mass murder, and a gory prophecy of all the massacres which were to follow.

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

Cook is cooked

After the fight ashore in which Cook and four marines were stabbed and hacked to death, one of the two boats bombarded the shore while Captain Clerke, taking command, evacuated the remaining men ashore. Some of the chiefs, forlorn at Cook’s murder, promised to reclaim his body for the white men. But next day all they were able to offer was some cooked flesh from Cook’s body and some bones.

This gave rise to the enduring myth that Cook was eaten by cannibals.

No – the Hawaiian Islanders who killed Captain Cook were not cannibals. They believed that the power of a man was in his bones, so they cooked part of Cook’s body to enable the bones to be easily removed. It was the cooking of his body which gave rise to the rumour of cannibalism.

A week after his death, what remains of Cook had been recovered (being the captain’s hands, the scalp, the skull, the leg bones, lower jaw and feet, p.433) were buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, Captain Clerke assumed command but soon died of tuberculosis and the expedition was commanded for another fourteen months by the American John Gore, and navigated by 28-year-old martinet and expert chart-maker, William Bligh. They sailed north to chart the Sandwich Islands in greater detail, and then all the way north to Alaska to have another – futile – attempt to find the mythical North-West passage.

Elizabeth Cook

His wife, Elizabeth Cook, survived not only her husband by 56 years (he died in 1779, she died in 1835) but all of their children who died young, the three eldest sons aged 31, 16 and 16. On four days a year, the deathdays of her husband and three boys, she fasted and spent the day reading the Bible, and, according to the memoirs of her second cousin:

like many widows of sailors, she could never sleep in high wind for thinking of the men at sea. (p.444)

This may be an old-fashioned book, but partly for that reason, it is sympathetic and moving.


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