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

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is universally agreed to be the best of the half dozen or so comedies Middleton wrote or co-wrote. It is yet another comedy about sex and class and money, about corruption and greed and adultery – all the usual subjects – in fact the oppressively narrow range of subjects which Jacobean comedy dealt with. Elizabethan comedy is generally mirthful, while comedy under James I (came to the throne in 1603) becomes more and more disgusted.

These plays are saturated in an atmosphere of sex – not only are the plots about legal and illegal couplings (i.e. marriage and adultery) but right down at the verbal level, almost every word in Jacobean English was packed with sexual double meanings and innuendo.

This thick fog of sexual meaning radiates from just the cast list, before the play itself has even begun. As a little academic exercise I was going to keep a record of the sexual ambiguities mentioned in the notes, but there are four or five on every page and the play is 100 pages long, so it almost immediately became unmanageable.

Cast

Master YELLOWHAMMER, a goldsmith
MAUDLIN, his wife
TIM, their idiot son
MOLL, their daughter – heroine of the play
TUTOR to Tim
SIR WALTER WHOREHOUND, a suitor to Moll who has, for years, been sleeping with and impregnating Allwit’s wife
SIR OLIVER KIX, and his wife LADY KIX – endlessly argue because they can’t get pregnant
Master John ALLWIT, and his wife MISTRESS ALLWIT, whom Sir Walter keeps i.e. he pays for their entire London establishment on the agreement that he can sleep with the wife whenever he’s in town, and has sired on her no fewer than seven children!
A WELSH GENTLEWOMAN, Sir Walter’s whore, who he brings up to London to marry off to dim Tim
WAT and NICK, Whorehound’s bastards by Mistress Allwit
DAVY DAHUMMA, Whorehound’s man
TOUCHWOOD SENIOR and his wife MISTRESS TOUCHWOOD – helpful older brother to…
TOUCHWOOD JUNIOR – the ‘hero’ of the play, in love with Moll, the two young lovers who feature in all these plays
TWO PROMOTERS i.e. officials paid to police the city’s Lent policy i.e. buying, cooking or eating meat is forbidden
Three or four WATERMEN, who get involved in Moll and Young Touchwood’s attempts to escape the City by river
A WENCH carrying Touchwood Senior’s bastard, who confronts him in the street
Jugg, Lady Kix’s MAID
A DRY NURSE and A WET NURSE for Lady Mistress Allwit’s baby
TWO PURITANS, the first named Mistress Underman
FIVE GOSSIPS, a word which means both middle-aged wives and godmothers
A PARSON – drafted in to hurriedly marry Young Touchwood and Moll in Act 5
SUSAN, Moll’s maid – who is instrumental in the final plot

Smut

The play opens with Moll playing on the virginals – nudge nudge – and her mother, Maudlin, chastising her for missing her dancing classes, commonly associated with sexual opportunity. Page two starts with a pun about the size of women’s vaginas (‘When I was of your bord’, Maudlin tells Moll, where bord derives from ‘bore’ as of a rifle, i.e. when I had a nice young ****), then goes on to talk about imperfections, cracks and rents in smart fabrics, ‘cracks’ which need to be filled up by a husband, fnah fnah…

And on it goes, three hours of unrelenting smut and obscenity. Every mention of entering, before and after, up and down, standing to attention and so on, are drenched in sexual overtones, her mother tells Moll she’ll have to get used to kissing her husband ‘when he enters’ and using her hand ‘before and after’ and ‘waving her body’ i.e undulating up and down as in sex – not to mention the wealth of Jacobean slang terms for aspects of sex which crop up in the oddest places – ‘nock’ was a slang term for the female genitals. I don’t think I’ve ever read the words ‘c***’ and ‘f***’ and ‘penis’ used so often in the notes of any text.

The plot

Critics discern five plots in the play:

1. Young love A straightforward young-couple hampered-love story, namely Moll Yellowhammer (the chaste maid of the title) is the daughter of a wealthy Cheapside goldsmith and his wife. She is in love with dashing Young Touchwood, but her ambitious parents want to marry her off to Sir Walter Whorehound, who has just arrived in town, accompanied by a young woman, his ‘landed niece from Wales’ who they don’t realise is his whore.

2. Tim nice but dim The Yellowhammers have a son, Tim, who returns from Cambridge with his Latin tutor. Much piss is taken out of his low level classical learning, with Tim and the tutor given a scene where they speak to each other in pig Latin (Act 4 scene 1) and later he speaks to the Welsh niece in Latin and she replies in Welsh so they merrily speak at cross purposes for a bit before servants come in and misinterpret both their speeches.

Anyway, the idea is that Tim will be married off to the landed niece, and he is promised 19 mountains and 2,000 runts (there is much unsubtle wordplay on a rude word which rhymes with run) and indeed, at the end of the play dim Tim and his Welsh whore do get married, in an obvious parody of the happy wedding of the heroes Young Touchwood and Moll, and discovering she has no mountains and no runts, although she does have a ….

3. Whorehound’s arrangement In the most interesting because most genuinely original storyline, Whorehound has been paying Allwit and his wife to live in luxury, in a house with all mod cons, with food on the table every day and a bunker full of Newcastle coal, purely and simply so that he can sleep with Allwit’s wife every time he is in London. Allwit doesn’t mind, he’s been kept in very fine style for ten years! He has a soliloquy (Act 1 scene 2) in which he sings the joys of being a kept cuckold, not for him any worries or cares as long as Whorehound carries on shagging his wife. And his wife is quite happy with the arrangement, too, an occasional loaning out to Whorehound in return for a loving marriage and financial security.

In fact she has proceeded to bear no fewer than seven children to Whorehound, some of whom are 12 or 10-years-old and going to school. They are proudly presented to him on his arrival at the Allwit house and he promises them all financial support.

The other plotlines – frustrated young lovers, idiot young man duped into marrying a whore – these are boringly familiar. But the Whorehound-Allwit plotline feels as if it breaks new ground, and takes things into an entirely new realm of (entertainingly) cynical depravity.

4. The prolific Touchwoods Meanwhile, Touchwood Senior (the elder brother of Moll’s true love, Young Touchwood) has a scene (Act 2 scene 1) where he tearfully takes leave of his wife. His problem is that he is prodigiously fertile and impregnates any woman he sleeps with, but he is poor. Thus the couple have had umpteen children each one of which impoverishes them further.

we must give way to need
And live awhile asunder, our desires
Are both too fruitful for our barren fortunes.

Little more is heard of Touchwood Senior’s wife, and most of his energy goes, in the second half of the play, into helping his young brother organise eloping with beautiful Moll.

5. The barren Kixes Finally, there is yet another couple, the Kixes, an aging couple who are the mirror opposite of the Touchwoods in that they have been trying for years but cannot conceive. The result is an endless cycle of recriminations and arguments in which they blame each other for being barren or sterile before bursting into tears and falling into each others’ arms – as Touchwood witnesses on an embarrassing visit to their house.

As so often, fertility is directly connected with money across a web of relationships, because if they die without an heir, Whorehound will inherit their estate. He is so confident this will not happen that he has been living beyond his means for years, banking on inheriting and paying off his debts. Unfortunately for him, the Kixes’ maid, Jugg, tells them that Touchwood Senior has a special fertility potion which will soon see Lady Kix pregnant and in a sly scene (Act 3 scene 3), Touchwood Senior inveigles his way into Lady Kix’s bed, waves his magic wand and lo! she becomes pregnant.

So those are the five storylines which Middleton confidently and stylishly weaves together to make a play which is brilliantly crafted, and benefits from a really confident and mature interweaving of blank verse, rhymed verse and prose – but which I found utterly unfunny and unmoving. It is brilliantly made – but sterile.

The way the five storylines are interwoven becomes very complicated, but the key highlights are:

– There is an immensely long scene after Mistress Yellowhammer has given birth to another baby, her eighth child by Whorehound and – this is what makes it so long – a large retinue of ‘gossips’ i.e. local merchants wives, and several Puritan neighbours, are all called in to attend what we’d nowadays call a baby shower. The mickey is taken out of the gossipy ladies, and of the two Puritans who get blind drunk, at extreme length. Most modern productions of the play cut the entire scene as it isn’t part of any of the five plotlines and a lot of the force of its contemporary satire has evaporated.

– Similarly, seven pages are devoted to two ‘promoters’, officers who were set to enforce the new and more strict laws enacted under James I to ban the buying, cooking or eating of meat during Lent. Their scene exists solely to demonstrate how utterly corrupt they are, as we see them bullying citizens, all the time keeping the meat they confiscate either to sell to rich patrons or for their own families – until they get their come-uppance when a woman pretends to be caught red-handed with a basket full of meat, only for the promoters to discover a crying baby at the bottom of it for which they thereupon become legally responsible (and it is a hanging offence to abandon or kill).

Like the Puritans in the baby shower scene, it feels as if the promoters have been thrown into the play solely to get the audience laughing, mocking and jeering these popular hate figures.

– There’s a cooly cynical scene where Allwit presents himself to Yellowhammer as himself a remote member of the Yellowhammer family and says he has come to visit out of the goodness of his heart because he knows that they plan to marry their fine daughter off to Sir Walter Whorehound and he (Allwit posing as a Yellowhammer) has the sad duty to inform them that Sir Walter has for many years kept a married woman as whore in London and fathered a brace of bastards by her. Yellowhammer acts shocked and Allwit goes his ways rejoicing that he has scuppered Sir Walter’s plans for getting married (which means that he, Allwit, will remain in the life of luxury because Whorehound will continue swiving his wife indefinitely). What he doesn’t realise is that Yellowhammer doesn’t mind – he still thinks the marriage will bring his family social advantage and, after all, he casually tells the audience, he kept a whore when he was young and fathered a bastard on her (Act 4 scene 1).

– After an initial attempt to elope with Touchwood Junior, Moll is locked up in her room until the wedding with Whorehound. The day before the wedding, she manages to escape through a small hole and flee her parents’ home again – hooray! – but is once again caught just as she was getting into a waterman’s boat to go upriver to meet Touchwood Junior – boo!

Moll is dragged onstage by Yellowhammer’s furious wife, Maudlin, half-soaked from his riverside capture, locked up again and falls into a sickness, partly from the cold water, partly from despair (Act 4 scene 2). Eventually, while Touchwood Senior is visiting, she appears to collapse and to actually expire. Touchwood Senior takes her into the other room to tend her along with a maid. Later it will emerge that he has paid the maid a handsome fee to conspire to pretend that Moll is dead, get her laid in a coffin and brought onstage as if dead in the final scene.

– Touchwood Junior and Sir Walter encounter each other in the street and, as rivals for the hand of Moll, draw swords and fight. They manage to wound each other and stagger off in opposite directions.

– Believing he is dying, Sir Walter staggers to Allwit’s house where he surprises the complaisant couple by sincerely repenting his sins and attacking the Allwits for leading him on to damnation (Act 5 scene 1). Whorehound’s repentance is delivered in a long speech in powerful verse, and I found it the most moving thing in the play.

Still my adulterous guilt hovers aloft,
And with her black wings beats down all my prayers
Ere they be half way up; what’s he knows now
How long I have to live? O, what comes then?
My taste grows bitter, the round world all gall now,
Her pleasing pleasures now hath poisoned me,
Which I exchanged my soul for;

Which makes it all the more bitter when news arrives that Lady Kix is pregnant (hang on, didn’t she only have sex with Touchwood Senior about half an hour ago? No-one cares about timeframes or plausibility, this is the theatre). The point is that the advent of an heir to the Kixes spells financial ruin for Sir Walter and so the Allwits, in a gesture of breath-taking cynicism and cruelty, order their servants to kick Whorehound out onto the street, in fact to get him arrested for murdering Young Touchstone (news of whose demise also arrives by messenger). Super-cynically, they coolly plan to rent out the big house (I think the implication is to turn it into a brothel) and themselves move to a smaller one in The Strand.

– As mentioned above, Moll continues very sick and when Touchwood Senior brings word that his brother has died (as a result of wounds incurred in the duel with Whorehound), she faints and appears to die. Her parents are distraught and, with wild improbability, allow Touchstone Senior and her servant to look after the body. This is where they cook up the plan to convey her in a coffin to the same place where the coffin conveying Young Touchwood will go.

– Thus the climax of the play is reached when, to doleful mourning music, the two coffins are borne onstage containing Moll and Young Touchwood and Touchwood Senior asks the assembled cast whether they would do anything and forgive anyone to see the two young people alive again? Like the audience at a pantomime, everyone shouts ‘Yes’ and so Touchwood Senior orders the young couple to arise from their coffins – and the two young lovers spring up large as life. Hooray!

Now to tie up all the loose ends: 1. Young Touchwood and Moll are married and her parents finally give their blessing, as parents in all these plays eventually do. 2. Dim Tim is married to the Welsh niece, discovers she is a whore, and is jokily challenged by his mother to prove his Latin learning and logic to transmute her into a chaste wife. 3. Lady Kix, as we saw, is now pregnant so she and Sir Oliver are so delighted they promptly promise to support the family of Touchwood Senior, so he’s sorted out. 4. Finally, Touchwood announces that Sir Walter has recovered from his wounds but is now confined to the debtors prison where he is likely to say for a very long time.

Which is a shame because the shamelessness with which he carried out his scandalous arrangement with the Allwits – and then the blistering sincerity of his fear of hell and damnation when he thinks he is dying – were, for me, by far the most vivid and memorable moments in the play.

Thoughts

As with The Roaring Girl I don’t know whether it’s me or Middleton, but I didn’t find any of the characters or any moments in the play actually funny, and the whole thing left an acrid, metallic aftertaste. This was caused by at least two things:

1. The extended scene where Sir Walter thinks he’s dying and calls down genuine and powerful curses on the Allwits head is very vivid – and then is compounded when they, hearing he is no longer of financial value to them, kick him out on the street, ordering their servants to fetch officers to arrest him, this adds sulphuric acid onto sump oil.

2. The sad music, the slow procession, the widespread weeping and moaning of the cast, of the many gossips and mothers and bystanders at the double funeral of Young Touchwood and Moll was genuinely doleful and depressing, it had real emotional and dramatic impact. So much so that when the lovers then suddenly sprang to their feet and were reunited in a happy marriage, this seemed somehow trivial and superficial. The bleaker narrative felt more true to the play’s tone of rancid cynicism.

So, for me, a page or so of ‘happy ending’ in no way counters the much harsher and bleaker notes struck earlier in the play. It felt like the harsh vision of human nature demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s plays but without the energising zaniness of the fox or the alchemist which redeems his plays.

Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. (T.S. Eliot on Thomas Middleton)

A final, fairly obvious thought is that the play is titled A Chaste Maid in Cheapside but, of course, the chaste maid – Moll, the young lover – is in many ways the most minor of all the characters; she is easily overshadowed by the cynical Allwits, by her dim brother, and by the monstrous but somehow dramatically powerful figure of Sir Walter Whorehound. I realise that that is the intention, to show how a chaste maid in Cheapside is overshadowed and dwarfed by the corruption all round her. Just highlighting how very much that is the case.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

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