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Ben Jonson (1572–1637). The Alchemist.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. | |
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|Introductory Note |
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|BEN JONSON was born of poor parents at Westminster in 1573. Through the influence of Camden, the antiquary, he got a good | 1|
|education at Westminster School; but he does not seem to have gone to a University, though later both Oxford and Cambridge gave | |
|him degrees. In his youth he practised for a time his stepfather’s trade of bricklaying, and he served as a soldier in Flanders. | |
| It was probably about 1595 that he began to write for the stage, and within a few years he was recognized as a distinguished | 2|
|playwright. His comedy of “Every Man in His Humour” was not only a great immediate success, but founded a school of satirical | |
|drama in England. “Sejanus” and “Catiline” were less popular, but are impressive pictures of Roman life, less interesting but more| |
|accurate than the Roman plays of Shakespeare. | |
| For the court of James I, Jonson wrote a large number of masques, which procured him substantial rewards in the form of | 3|
|pensions. | |
| But it was between 1605 and 1614 that Jonson’s greatest work was done. “Volpone,” “Epicœne,” “The Alchemist,” and “Bartholomew | 4|
|Fair” belong to this period, and are all masterpieces. | |
| After the accession of Charles I, Jonson fell into adversity. His plays were less successful and he had enemies at court; but he| 5|
|continued to hold his position of leadership among his fellow authors. | |
| Jonson died in 1637, and was celebrated in a volume of elegies to which all the chief poets of the day contributed. | 6|
| “The Alchemist” is perhaps the most perfect technically of Jonson’s plays, and is an admirable satire on the quacks and humbugs | |
|of the day. It contains, at the same time so much universal human nature, and is so excellent in art, that it holds a place among | |
|the first of those Elizabethan works that have held the interest of posterity. | |

Ben Jonson - The Alchemist
Ben Jonson (1573-1637) was one of the foremost of the Jacobean dramatists. He wrote a number of plays (both comedies and tragedies) and a series of stylized masques for the Court. He had a keen eye for the follies of his contemporaries, and in this play he particularly satirises human gullibility. He displays considerable understanding of alchemy and makes many jokes based on its symbolism (and in two places even refers to Dee and Kelly). He obviously expected the audience for this play to have some knowledge of alchemical ideas. Jonson's The Alchemist written in 1610 thus presents us with a satirical window through which we can see one way in which alchemy was perceived in the opening decade of the 17th century
The characters in the play:-

Subtle - The Alchemist.
Face - The house-keeper, otherwise Lovewit's butler Jeremy.
Dol Common - The conspirator of Subtle and Face.

Lovewit - The owner of the house in which Subtle sets up his work.
Dapper - A Lawyer's Clerk, who wants Subtle to help him in gambling.
Abel Drugger - A Tobacco merchant, who wants Subtle to assist him, through magic in setting up an apothecaries shop.
Sir Epicure Mammon - a Knight, who wants Subtle’s help in making him wealthy,.
Tribulation Wholesome - A Pastor of Amsterdam.
Ananias - A Deacon, colleague of Tribulation. These religious brothers want Subtle's help in minting money to help establish Puritanism in Britain.
Kastril - The angry boy, recently come into an inheritance. He wants Subtle's help in aiding him to win fights.
Dame Pliant - A widow, sister of Kastril, wants to know her fortune in marriage.
Pertinax Surly - A Gamester, who sees through the deceptions.
Neighbours, Officers, Attendants.

The action takes place in Lovewit's house in London, while he is away in the country.
The Alchemist is one of Ben Jonson's more popular comedies. Cony-catching or swindling (a cony was another word for dupe, gull, or victim) was as popular in the seventeenth century as it is in the twentieth. The con or swindle was a familiar theme and one which Jonson found to be a natural topic for comedy. There is little known about audience reaction to any of Jonson's plays. There were no theatre reviews and no newspapers or magazines to report on the opening of a play. The little that is known is drawn from surviving letters and diaries. But Jonson was not as popular with theatre-goers as William Shakespeare. In general, Jonson's plays were not well received by audiences, but The Alchemist appears to have been more popular than most, probably because of its topic.
Jonson differed from other playwrights of his period in that he did not use old stories, fables, or histories as the sources for his plays. Instead, Jonson used a plot "type" as the basis for most of his drama. In The Alchemist the plot is the familiar one of a farce. The characters are common, a man or men and a woman who set up the swindle. The victims offer a selection of London society. Like the characters from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, there are religious men, a clerk and a shopkeeper, a widow, a knight, and a foolish young man. Jonson's characters are not well-defined, nor do they have any depth. Instead, they are "types" familiar to the audience. The initial popularity of The Alchemist diminished in subsequent years; by the eighteenth century the play was rarely being produced. As is the case with most of Jonson's plays, The Alchemist has been rarely produced outside of England during the twentieth century
Appearances and Reality
What the victims of the three swindlers perceive as reality is not the truth of the play. Each one thinks that he will receive wealth or power as a reward gained through little effort. The reality is that each will be left with less wealth and no more power than they had initially.
Change and Transformation
The theme of transformation is crucial to this play. The plot revolves around the chance and expectation that Subtle can change base metals into gold. A belief in alchemy was still firmly held at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
The Alchemist is a comedy by English playwright Ben Jonson. First performed in 1610 by the King's Men, it is generally considered Jonson's best and most characteristic comedy; Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that it had one of the three most perfect plots in literature. The play's clever fulfillment of the classical unities and vivid depiction of human folly have made it one of the few Renaissance plays (excepting of course the works of Shakespeare) with, apart from a period of neglect during the Victorian era, a continual life on stage.
With his master Lovewit resting in the country to avoid an outbreak of plague in London, a clever servant named Face develops a scheme to make money and amuse himself. He gives Subtle, a charlatan, and a prostitute named Dol Common access to the house. Subtle disguises himself as an alchemist, with Face as his servant; Doll disguises herself as a zealous Puritan. Together, the three of them gull and cheat an assortment of foolish clients. These include Sir Epicure Mammon, a wealthy sensualist looking for the philosopher's stone; two greedy Puritans, Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias, who hope to counterfeit Dutch money; Drugger, a "tobacco man" hoping to marry the wealthy widow Dame Pliant; Dapper, an incredibly suave, fashionable, good-looking 17th century gentleman, and other minor figures looking for a short-cut to success in gambling or in business.
The play takes place over the course of one day in the house of Face's master. The three rogues are forced to increasingly frenetic manoeuvres first to manage all of their simultaneous scams, and then to fend off the suspicious Kestrel, Dame Pliant's brother. At last, Lovewit returns; quickly perceiving what Face has done in his absence, he devises a scheme of his own to allow all to end well. Doll and Subtle escape unpunished but empty-handed; Mammon's goods are restored to him, but the Puritans' are not. The smaller victims either flee or are driven from the stage. Lovewit himself pledges troth to Dame Pliant, with Kastril's approval. Face is restored without punishment to his original place as Jeremy, Lovewit's butler.
The Alchemist is one of Ben Jonson’s more popular comedies. Cony-catching or swindling (a cony was another word for dupe, gull, or victim) was as popular in the seventeenth century as it is in the twentieth. The con or swindle was a familiar theme and one which Jonson found to be a natural topic for comedy. There is little known about audience reaction to any of Jonson's plays. There were no theatre reviews and no newspapers or magazines to report on the opening of a play. The little that is known is drawn from surviving letters and diaries. But Jonson was not as popular with theatre-goers as William Shakespeare. In general, Jonson's plays were not well received by audiences, but The Alchemist appears to have been more popular than most, probably because of its topic.
Jonson differed from other playwrights of his period iq, that he did not use old stories, fables, or histories as the sources for his plays.
[pic][pic]Instead, Jonson used a plot "type" as the basis for most of his drama. In The Alchemist the plot is the familiar one of a farce. The characters are common, a man or men and a woman who set up the swindle. The victims offer a selection of London society. Like the characters from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, there are religious men, a clerk and a shopkeeper, a widow, a knight, and a foolish young man. Jonson's characters are not well-defined, nor do they have any depth. Instead, they are "types" familiar to the audience. The initial popularity of The Alchemist diminished in subsequent years; by BEN(JAMIN) JONSON 1610 the eighteenth century the play was rarely being produced. As is the case with most of Jonson's plays, The Alchemist has been rarely produced outside of England during the twentieth century.
Jonson's most popular and, in the light of his theory, most perfect play, The Alchemist, entered in the Stationers' Register October 3, 1610, and published in 1612, was written during the plague season of 1610 for performance before Londoners who, like Lovewit, would return to their homes after all danger of infection had passed. The practice of alchemy was as common to the life of the time as it had been in the Middle Ages, and exposures of impostures such as Jonson portrays were so frequent in life as well as in literature that it has been impossible to discover any source for this aspect of the play. From Plautus' Mostellaria he may have derived the quarrel scene at the opening of the play and the idea of the unexpected return of the owner of a house in which rogues are carrying on their practices; and he may have taken certain minor suggestions from Plautus' Pœnulus and Erasmus' colloquy on the alchemist. Professor Child's suggestion of Giordano Bruno's Il Candelaio (1582) as a source has not won general acceptance. The construction of the play reveals the hand of the master. All the unities are rigidly observed. The action takes place in a single day at a house in the Blackfriars district of London, and, while the three intrigues remain distinct, each being a unit in itself, they are actuated by similar motives, are pervaded by one comic tone, and are related to the general plan. Suspense as to the outcome of the action constantly increases to the very end of the play.
Act 1
Act 1. Scene 1
The play opens with an explosion of words. Three characters enter, two locked in bitter verbal combat. There is nothing to suggest that these three are partners, the first hint of a common purpose being Doll’s attempt to quiet them saying, "Will you betray all?" (I.i.8) A few lines later Face too, attempts to quiet the argument. He is however so provoked by Subtle that they are both soon shouting.
Through their taunts, the identity of the characters and the nature of their relationship is revealed. Face is the butler of the house in which they reside. With his master away at his "hop-yards" Face has been running scams from the house and has enlisted the help of Subtle and Doll. Subtle, it soon becomes clear, is the alchemist who Face claims was, before they met, penniless and dressed in rags. Face gave him "A house to practise in" and the tools to advance his black arts. It is clear, however, that the black art which Subtle practises is not alchemy but cozenry, that is, confidence trickery. With the pretence of being a sorcerer, Subtle tricks unsuspecting out of their money. It is Face's role to provide Subtle with gulls, fools ripe for the plucking. Dol, the third corner of the "venture tripartite", is a whore, which gives the three a second tool in their cozenery, sex.
That the introduction to these three is through a vicious argument immediately shows the fragility of their union. Their "republic", as Dol terms it, is at any moment pray to the possibility that they will "undo (themselves), with civil war" (I.i.82). Note, however, how they do refer to their partnership as "a republic", their "common work" and the "venture tripartite". Later when Face goes against their agreement, Dol claims that his actions are "direct/ Against our articles" (V.iv.71-72) To speak of 'articles' is to speak of a formal, legal agreement which is at odds with the nature of their venture, thievery. As E B Partridge points out, "They are thieves but they throw a specious air of legality over their activities by euphemistic terms believing the common fallacy that, if one refers to low things in high words, one raises them both legally and aesthetically". The specious use of language to invert the truth is a constant theme of the play.
Once Dol has stopped their bickering (for the time being) by reminding them of the need to "Fall to your couples again, and cozen kindly" (I.i.137) i.e. to work harmoniously together, they are interrupted by a knock at the door. Subtle fears it is the master of the house, Lovewit, returned from the country. Face allays his fears, reminding him that "while there dies one a week/ O' the plague" (I.i.182) there is no chance of the master returning. This suggestion, however, makes it clear to the audience that they are in a race against time for at some point the master shall return, and owing to the nature of drama this is likely to be sooner rather than later.
The knock, however, merely signals the arrival of the first gull, Face's "lawyer's clerk", Dapper who seeks some mystical thing to give him luck at gambling. Despite Subtle's denials, it may be seen from an early stage that Face is the one they look to orchestrate the cozenry as they ask him, "Who shall do't?" (I.i.194) and "What shall I do?" (I.i.196).
Having established the central characters, everything which happens in the play from this point on is a direct result of the cozeners' plans to gull the neighbourhood and a constant stream of ready fools now follows. At first carefully controlled by the three, the gulling quickly spirals out of control until they must react spontaneously with great comic effect.
Act 1. Scene 2
For this scene, Subtle dons his Doctor's robes and Face appears as Captain Face, a disguise he uses for much deception. Face pretends to be on his way out having just broached the question of Dapper's request with "the noble Doctor". The Doctor, Face claims, is not overly keen to help Dapper, owing to the Statute against Sorcery, mentioned in scene 1, and the recent case of Simon Read who was charged, though pardoned, for invoking spirits. (The case of Read, like many of the tricks used in The Alchemist, was a real case, of which the audience would've been well aware. This is one of the many examples of Jonson using contemporary references to ground his play in reality, aiding his educative aims (see Jonson's 'Theory of Comedy' below)). Face feigns reluctance on the part of the Doctor in order to make Dapper all the more eager, a trick used in other spots of the play. There then ensues a mock argument between Face and Subtle in which Face attempts to persuade 'the Doctor' to help Dapper. Though the argument is put on for the benefit of trickery it, of course, contains undertones, giving Face an opportunity to insult Subtle and continue the argument of scene 1. Indeed Face insults Subtle with such force that Dapper is lead to comment "I'd ha' you use master Doctor with some more respect" (I.ii.60). Thus it may be seen that by appearing to be on the side of the victim, Face bolsters the veracity of Subtle's claims, whether he be in the guise of alchemist, doctor or astrologer.
Once Dapper has parted with more money to 'persuade' the Doctor, Subtle quickly spins tales of the great riches Dapper is destined to receive. Though Dapper only came to get a little luck "for cups, and horses" he is quickly tempted by talk of gambling greatness and soon talks of leaving law to gamble professionally. His spiralling dreams are directed by Subtle's hints of greatness though fuelled by his own greed. As The Alchemist shows throughout, the greedy are willingly duped.
The double act of Face and Subtle is in full effect here. As Subtle persuades Dapper of his future good fortune, Face reprimands him for his lack of gratitude asking "Will you be trivial?" (I.ii.141), ie why worry about the small sums you are giving the Doctor in the face of your future riches? Dapper, once snared in this way, is told how he is "Ally'd to the Queen of Faery" (I.i.126) and is sent away to prepare for a meeting with her when he will be bestowed with great fortune. In truth of course it is the cozeners who have fortune to look forward to, as the afternoon's meeting is the occasion of his full cozening.
Act 1. Scene 3
It is in this scene that Subtle's specious learning really comes in to its own. He appears to the next victim, Abel Drugger, a tobacconist, as an astrologer and quickly impresses him with his knowledge of metoscopy (character reading and fortune telling by inspection of appearance) and the planets. Drugger seeks astrological advice for his business, asking where he should place his shelves, his pots and boxes for the best results, seeing Subtle as a necromantical practitioner of Feng Shui. Again Face plays the role of go between for the victim, commending his business practices and pushing him to be more generous in his payment.
It is of note that whilst for Dapper, a lawyer's clerk, Subtle appeared as a Doctor, for the lower in rank Drugger he is merely an astrologer and the fooling is less fantastical. Having said this, Subtle does play on Drugger's somewhat humble dreams saying, "This fellow, Captain,/ Will come, in time, to be a great distiller" (I.iii.78). Drugger leaves happy in the knowledge that his business will thrive.
With Drugger gone, Face resumes his quarrel with Subtle, bemoaning the difficulty and expense of seeking out gulls. Though quarrelling, however, his speech has a business like air again revealing the pretensions of the rogues.
Act 1. Scene 4
The argument is interrupted by the entrance of Dol who has found fresh gulls to cozen later. She has also "spied Sir Epicure Mammon" who, it fast becomes clear, is their greatest project. Here the name Mammon is important and distinctive, as it resonates with biblical significance of evil and fallen arch angels. In Milton’s Paradise Lost it is Mammon who is fallen even before the archangels are repulsed, because he continually looks down at the pavements of gold in Heaven - more intent on wealth than God’s glory, his greed superseding his devotion.
The culmination of this project, Subtle reveals, is to take place today, for it is today that he is "to perfect for him/ The magisterium... the stone". The creation of the philosopher's stone, that which would turn base metals into gold. Mammon then, even before his entrance, is revealed as a man most prone to the temptations laid out by the three cozeners. Mammon's dreams have turned the stone into more than a device for the transmutation of metals but into general elixir of life, curing all diseases. Subtle talks of the great dreams of this man who in his excitement has been promising cures to all and sundry and in his greed planned great riches for, "If his dreams last, he'll turn the age to gold" (I.iv.29)
Mammon's vivid imagination coupled with his greed leads to the most fabulously voluptuous speeches, filled with expectation, which is of course ultimately doomed. Note that despite his greed, his arrival is perhaps later than expected, for Subtle "did look for him/ With the sun's rising" (I.iv.11-12). This suggests that even while the fulfilment of his dreams is so close he is still lazy, another trait which allows the three, with their 'get rich quick' schemes, to cozen him easily.
Act 2
Act 2. Scene 1
Mammon enters with his friend, the cynical Surly. As they enter the house, Mammon refers to it as "novo orbe", that is the new world, for Mammon believes the Stone will change the world, indeed change nature herself. The house is also his Peru, that being the source of Spanish gold, and 'Great Solomon's Orphir', Orphir being where Solomon made his gold after he had acquired the Stone. All these foreign names and ancient references conjure up images of orientalist grandeur and the exotic opulence of the East, synonymous for Johnson’s audience with passion, excess, otherness and evil. All this implies, as the rogues have before, that the house is a realm unto itself, with its own rules and possibilities. Whilst Mammon believes this because it is to be the starting point of his creation of a new order, for the rogues it is a world of their own creation for inside the house they are the masters claiming to transmute dreams into reality, just as alchemy transmutes base metals into gold. Parallels between the processes of alchemy and various elements of the play, including its structure, are to be found throughout.
This scene is mostly spent with Mammon waxing lyrical about how the stone shall change everything. It is not just to be his route to untold riches for it shall also "confer honour, love, respect, long life/ Give safety, valour: yea and victory" (II.i.50-51). Yet all these things Mammon essentially sees as coming from the creation of gold. He seems to see the satiation of desire as the solution to all his and indeed the world's problems. The stone will satisfy, not just his desire for gold but also his and all men's desires for sexual potency. The connection between money and sex is made in many ways throughout the play as we see it portrayed as a commodity, usable and exploitable.
Surly is "not willingly gull'd", "Your stone" he claims, "cannot transmute me". In an effort to persuade, Mammon points to mythical proof of the power of the stone speaking of "a treatise penn'd by Adam/ O' the philosopher's stone, and in High Dutch" (II.i.83-84). High Dutch it was claimed, by for example Johanes Goropius Becanus in Origanes Anterpianae in 1569, was the original language confused at Babel, giving rise to many different languages. Ian Donaldson suggests that "The Alchemist depicts a new Babel, a house in which different people try in different ways to reach the heaven of their private fantasies, yet are driven further and further from the common language which joins them to each other and to common sense".
Whilst Mammon, then, sees the philosopher's stone as something primitive almost closer to the true reality of the world than the everyday, something that will enable him to herald a new age like the golden ages of the past, for example Adam's time in paradise, his fantasies are in fact taking him further and further from reality. This break from reality is mirrored in the confusion of languages in The Alchemist. The alchemical cant, astrological and numerological jargon, the talk of Hebrew and High Dutch and Surly's later use of Spanish all take language further from truth and reality. The corruption of verbal communication throughout The Alchemist is an important theme and typifies contemporary concerns about language - its purpose is to communicate not to obfuscate, a concern reiterated in Milton’s Paradise tals into gold, was the ultimate aim of all alchemists and Mammon has commissioned Subtle to
Lost where Satan the arch villain and root of evil is endowed with similar rhetorical and manipulative skills.
In the final speech of the scene, for further proof, Mammon claims that various classical stories are "All abstract riddles of our stone" (II.i.104), that is secret, figurative presentations. The stone, he seems to believe, is, and always has been, at the very heart of the truth of the world and in acquiring it he shall return to this truth. Such a viewpoint can only come from the greediest of men, who place their desire for wealth at the centre of their universe.
Act 2. Scene 2
Here Face enters, playing the role of Lungs, the alchemist's assistant, later called Ulen Spiegel, a mythical German practical joker. He reassures Mammon that all is set for "projection", setting Mammon off on further more outlandish and greedier dreams of the future with the stone. He fully reveals his immoral desires, first stating that his only worry is getting enough stuff to transmute. Face wonderfully fuels his immorality by suggesting that he buy the lead coverings off the churches. Mammon needs no persuading and has soon launched into sexual fantasies, drooling at the thought of what the stone will bring him. He believes it will enable him to have any women he desires and shall give him the power to have fifty in a night should he so desire! His talk is entirely of sensual pleasure, from perfumed mists to exquisite foods. By the time Surly points out that it is generally believed that the man who gains the stone must be "a pious, holy and religious man" (II.ii.98) Mammon has well revealed that he is the antithesis of these adjectives. This, he believes, poses no problem for he does not make the stone but merely buys it. The phrase "But I buy it" well demonstrates how in Mammon's world money and satisfying the desire for money are the only things that matter, all other things simply fall into place afterwards.
Act 2. Scene 3
The previous scene ends on an ironic note with Mammon praising Subtle's piety and claiming that he is a man free enough of greed to create the philosopher's stone. Subtle, of course, has created the dream of the stone entirely out of greed. In this scene we are treated to Subtle's pretence of piety as he appears in the role of the holy alchemist, the greatest of roles for the greatest of gulls - Johnson thus highlights the gap between appearance and reality, fantasy and fact.
The scene opens with Subtle warning Mammon of the dangers of "importune, and carnal appetite" (II.iii.8) lest his wanton mind should jeopardise their project. This of course is a set up to allow Subtle to blame the lack of a stone on Mammon's "voluptuous mind". There follows a discussion between Subtle and Face regarding the progress of the stone. It is couched in alchemical jargon which, though deliberately obscurantist, is largely taken from Martin Delrio's Disquisitiones Magicae (1599). Jonson's use of the language of alchemy is well informed and any discussion of its principles in The Alchemist would have been accepted by the authorities of the day. Indeed when the sceptical Surly challenges Subtle, as he does later in the scene, it is not the principles of alchemy that he takes issue with but rather the esoteric nature of the terms used. Subtle, for his part, uses the standard argument of the day in support of his cant that being that the terms are deliberately obscure so that, as Mammon is keen to point out, "the simple idiot should not learn it,/ And make it vulgar" (II.iii.201-202) Mammon, to support the claim, relates the story of Sisyphus who was damned for betraying the secrets of the Gods saying "Sisyphus was damn'd/ To roll the ceaseless stone, only because/ He would have made ours common" (II.iii.208-210).
As he says "common", in a neat theatrical joke, Dol Common appears and Mammon's downfall is furthered. Dol appears as bait for Mammon who sees her and is tempted by Face who leads him to believe she is "a lord's sister". In the hope of sexual conquest, Mammon asks Face to arrange a meeting with her. Face warns Mammon that the alchemist would be very angry if he discovered that he was with her and this harks back to Subtle's warnings of the possibility of endangering the project through giving in to carnal appetites. Thrown into this perfect set up is the easy means for 'the alchemist' to discover Mammon with Dol as Face claims Th at she has "gone mad, with studying Broughton's works", and "If you but name a word, touching the Hebrew,/ She falls into a fit". In this way, Mammon's downfall is guaranteed, artfully engineered by the rogues. The ease with which the cozeners manipulate him is further shown when he enters into deception himself to defend their name, attacking Surly who has been convinced by the sight of Dol that he is in a brothel. Mammon lies through his teeth and claims to "know the lady, and her friends, and means,/ The original of this disaster" (II.iii.267-268) Such is his greed for gold and sexual conquest that he cozens himself, without prompting, showing that though the three are exploiting people's dreams, if blame is to be apportioned, the fault lies as much with the dreamers as with the exploiters.
Throughout the scene, Surly makes disparaging remarks about the alchemist and his "Lungs" revealing that he is indeed not "willingly gulled". It is quickly obvious that he could become a thorn in the side of the thieving republic and when Face, relishing the challenge of gulling the sharp witted Surly, says that a certain 'Captain Face' would like to meet him later, he spies his chance, and sets out to prove "by a third person", in other words in disguise, that the set up is a sham. Thus ends the scene with Mammon heading off to find stuff to be transmuted and Surly plotting the downfall of the cozeners. So far the plot has largely been within the control of the three but it may be seen that with the arrival of Surly complexities lie ahead.
Act 2. Scene 4
Using the imagery of fishing to express the 'capture' of Mammon the three celebrate the success of their trickery before being interrupted by a knock at the door which signals the arrival of "more gudgeons". It is the Ananias the Anabaptist.
The Anabaptists were particularly extreme Puritans and it was Puritan antagonism to the theatre that had forced professional theatre companies to work outside the city of London's main walls. The Puritans were opposed to the theatre for a variety of reasons not least because they saw it as frivolous fun and it managed to draw huge crowds. They were also alarmed at its secular basis. Over the years of Elizabethan theatre they launched many attacks upon it, for example Stephen Gossom's Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582), but royal patronage ensured that the theatre survived despite the Puritan pressure. They were, therefore, a group who Jonson was doubtless keen to satirise, indeed the alchemical jargon employed in the play may be seen as an attack on the religious cant which permeated the Church. The Anabaptists in The Alchemist are depicted as hypocritical and greedy for power, a view of them probably shared by many in society at the time.
Act 2. Scene 5
Ananias, one of "the exil'd brethren", exiled to England from the Netherlands after the attempts of John of Leyden, the Anabaptist 'king' of Munster, to seize control of Dutch towns, enters. Subtle has stated that he must somehow make this Anabaptist minion admire him and ignores Ananias at first, instead talking in jargon to Face. When he does take note of Ananias he is almost rude, deliberately mistaking his claims to be "a faithful brother" (II.v.7) for claims of being an alchemist. He fills the air with jargon which Ananias dismisses as "Heathen Greek" (II.v.16) for "All's heathen but the Hebrew". As Herford and Simpson note in their famous edition of the play, Puritans at the time wanted Hebrew to be used as a universal language. They believed that it had been handed down by Adam and then given to the Hebrew race after the confusion of Babel.
Subtle continues to attempt to blind Ananias with alchemy before asking of the reason for his visit. The Anabaptists it seems have also commissioned Subtle to create the stone in the hope of "rooting out the bishops/ Or th' antichristian hierarchy" (II.v.82-83). They too are greedy for power and Subtle has done well out of them having gulled a significant amount of money from them already. Ananias has been sent to tell Subtle that he shall have no more money until they get some results. At this, Subtle explodes, calling Ananias "the varlet,/ That cozen'd the Apostles" for in Acts V i-xi a man named Ananias lies about money to the apostle Peter and promptly dies. Subtle claims that without more money they shall have no chance of success and in this way ensures that he may gull them much further, for he says "A man must deal like a rough nurse, and fright/ Those that are froward to an appetite" (II.v.89-90). Ananias is thus sent off to fetch his superior, Tribulation Wholesome.
Act 2. Scene 6
As Ananias leaves, Drugger, the tobacconist, enters with Face seeking a lucky shop sign. Subtle, of course, rises to the occasion creating a "mystery and hieroglyphic" combining Drugger's name with the name of John Dee, the famous Elizabethan mathematician and astrologer who was also interested in alchemy. Dee was a name that would have been familiar to Jonson's audience, another example of Jonson's use of contemporary references. Once this easy piece of gulling is out of the way Drugger tells Subtle and Face of a young women of his acquaintance who wishes to have her fortune read. The women in question is Dame Pliant, a nineteen year old "rich young widow". Immediately the cozeners see a fresh opportunity, indeed the possibility of a wife for one of them, and encourage Drugger to bring her to the house. It then comes to light that she also has a brother who wishes to learn to quarrel, the art of witty quarrelling being much valued in certain sectors of gentlemanly society at the time. Of course, "The doctor is the only man/ In Christendom for him" ( and Drugger is sent off to fetch these two new gulls.
When he's gone, Face suggests they draw lots for the hand of Dame Pliant with the winner gaining the lady and the loser being recompensed in goods. In the world of their republic it is clear that sex is more closely connected with money and business then love. This attitude towards women and more specifically towards sex may be seen throughout the play.
This arrangement between the two marks the first real split in the "venture tripartite" as they warn each other that Dol must be kept unaware of this business dealing from which she obviously has nothing to gain.
Act 3
Act 3. Scene 1
This scene again demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Anabaptists, Ananias and Tribulation. Whilst the headstrong Ananias abhors their contact with the alchemist, "a profane man", the somewhat more pragmatic Tribulation believes that it is a necessary means to an end. He convinces Ananias that their involvement is a necessary evil with specious argument and a bizarre theory about the satanic dangers of working as closely with fire as the alchemist does.
Act 3.Scene 2
Subtle, easily reconciled with Ananias when they profess that "the saints/ throw down their purse before you" (III.ii.17-18), tempts the hypocritical holy men with tales of the power and influence they will wield once in possession of the stone. They are easily deceived, though Tribulation has to rebuke Ananias at various points for his interjections regarding the profanity of certain things. Tribulation's pragmatism and willingness almost to grovel to Subtle reveal how his thirst for power ranks higher in his mind than his adherence to his cause.
This hypocrisy, coupled with language which obfuscates rather than communicates, is common to both the cozeners and the Anabaptists. They consider the question of the forging of money to raise funds for the brethren in Amsterdam. It is decided that since they are making foreign money for the brethren in Holland it is not 'coining' but rather, 'casting' and is therefore deemed legal. They decide however that they must verify the veracity of this claim with the rest of the brethren though they are convinced of its truth. Language, then, once again proves a powerful tool for deception, including self-deception.

This is the last scene in the play solely involving the three rogues for from this point on the gulls come thick and the fast until the trickery spirals out of their control. Indeed this scene marks the point at which it takes on a life of its own as neither Dapper nor Drugger have turned up on time and Surly failed to make his meeting with Face. It appears that the tight grip which Face had upon the timing of the gulling is loosening.
Though Surly failed to show, in what Face believes to be a stroke of good fortune, a fresh fool has been found, a Spanish Count. The Spaniard seeks a whore and Face has thus arranged for him to be serviced by Dol. She must "milk his epididimis" (III.iii.22). This highly biological description of sex brings with it the recurrent theme of sex as a business tool. E B Partridge points out that this scene also connects sexual aggression with warfare. "The impostors are at war", he writes, "and have fortified themselves in their castle, from which they daily send out small sorties. Any enemies captured are held to ransom and possibly tortured in to submission by Dol's drum".
Act 3. Scene 4
This scene sees the pace of action increased somewhat as two sets of gulls arrive on the stage. The first is Dapper, the lawyer's clerk, returned for his meeting with the Queen of Faery. The second is Drugger, who has brought Kastril, the young gentleman seeking advice on quarrelling. Kastril wants to live by his wits like the so called "angry boys" who were a set of men in the upper echelons of Jacobean society. It soon becomes obvious, however, that he lacks the wit of these gallants and is therefore a perfect victim for the cunning of Face and Subtle. In order to convince Kastril that he has come to the right place and that his sister should also come and be "instructed", Face regales him with tales of the incredible skills of the Doctor. He tells him of how Drugger's fortunes are to change following his encounters with Subtle, claims which Drugger is all too keen to cooborate. He also speaks of the doctor's skills at "making matches, for rich widows," (III.iv.101). When Kastril hears this he is convinced and exclaims "God's will, my suster shall see him" (III.iv.104) and he goes with Drugger to fetch the nubile Dame Pliant. This leaves Dapper, ready for his meeting with his aunt of the Faery.
Act 3. Scene 5
Whilst most of the victims of the three impostors make themselves look ridiculous through their greed fuelled blindness Dapper is made to look truly ridiculous by the fantastical schemes of the three. They blindfold him in preparation for the meeting and then urge him to throw away all his worldly effects, his purse, his handkerchiefs, his rings, etc. This he does and thus becomes the physical embodiment of the process of gulling; a man blindfolded, willingly throwing away his money whilst the three rogues stand around laughing. The comedy is heightened by the cozeners' impressions of the Queen of Faery's elves, sent to ensure that Dapper has got rid of all "that is transitory" (III.v.30). They pinch him, make high pitched noises and converse with the 'elves' until he admits that he has a half-crown around his wrist given to him by a former lover. Mercilessly the rogues take all.
The visual gags and humour in The Alchemist seems nothing more than intellectually unimpressive farce and ‘low’ art but as Dutton says there is "no necessary incompatibility between high farce and the asking of awkward questions". The scene with Dapper’s first audience with the Fairy Queen is entertaining because of his total belief in the episode, set against the unsophisticated nature of the cozeners’ staging of the encounter - we see Dapper enthralled and blindfolded, his mouth stuffed with gingerbread stored in "Fortune’s privy lodgings". Whilst the audience may laugh at the man’s gullibility, Jonson also pinpoints Man’s vulnerability and our laughter turns back on ourselves. The grandiose language of Subtle has conned the fool; he has worked upon his dreams of wealth and self-interest and exposes him only to embarrassment and loss. The real "base metal" on which Subtle’s alchemy works is the man’s weakness, his profit is created by exploiting and working on vices already present.
Doll enters, interrupting their mirth to warn them that Mammon who, until now they had forgotten about, has returned. This poses a problem, for Dol is integral to the gulling of both Dapper, as Queen of Faery, and Mammon. Since Mammon is the bigger catch, they must deal with him first, but must also occupy Dapper until they are ready for him.They therefore stuff his mouth with a gag of gingerbread and shut him in the toilet. There he stays for so long, like a comic time bomb, that they (and most likely the audience too) forget about him. He, of course, explodes back into the play at a most inopportune moment.
Act 4
Act 4. Scene 1
As this scene opens it is clear that Mammon has just two things on his mind, money and sex. He first asks after the progress of the stone which, Face assures him, is reaching fruition, and secondly he asks of "the lady" who he expects to meet.
Face prepares the meeting carefully, reminding Mammon of "the lady's" fits which will be sparked off at the merest mention of religion. Should she have a fit, Face warns, "The very house would run mad" (IV.i.13) for the alchemist would discover Mammon's desires for the lady and the great project would be ruined. This, of course, is exactly what Face wants to happen, indeed what Face will make happen to ensure that Mammon believes that he is to blame for the lack of philosopher's stone.
Mammon gears himself up for what he believes will be a seduction saying, "The stone will do't./ She shall feel gold, taste gold, hear gold, sleep gold" (IV.i.28-29) Again the recurring image of sex as something to be bought asserts itself, perfectly expressed in the line "we will concumbere(lie together sexually) gold" (IV.i.30). Dol acts the temptress and Mammon is hooked. He flatters her, comparing her to the 'Austriac princes' and other royal houses. The noble epithets which Mammon ascribes to this whore are juxtaposed against Face's asides which serve as a reminder of what Dol really is. Face eventually has to leave the room, unable to contain his amusement at Mammon's ridiculous opinion of Dol.
Mammon continues his attempts at wooing her with tales of the glorious future he has ahead as "lord of the philosopher's stone" (IV.i.120) until he is interrupted by Face who sends them into the garden so that they might escape detection by the alchemist. Mammon survives this scene without a fit from Dol though his speeches are given a new tension through the audiences' knowledge that at some point he will slip up.
Act 4. Scene 2
The enmity between Face and Subtle again rears its head at the start of this scene. Dame Pliant has arrived with Kastril and the two rogues talk of their "business" regarding her, again agreeing to draw lots. Subtle hints that he will not necessarily play fairly with Face, saying in an aside that he shall "perhaps hit you through both nostrils" (IV.ii.9) a phrase which may be given the modern reading "put your nose out of joint".
With the gulls arriving at such a pace, Face has no time to change and so answers the door in the guise of Lungs. It should be remembered that at this point Dapper is locked in the toilet, Mammon is outside wooing Dol and now Kastril and Dame Pliant are in the main room. That Face has no time to change is a sign that things are spinning out of his control and he quickly leaves to resume his role as Captain Face. Subtle enters and immediately engages Kastril in the art of quarrelling, something Kastril is woefully poor at, before taking note of Dame Pliant and under the guise of metoscopy (telling character and fortune by inspection of appearance) kissing her twice. Face soon renters with the news that the Spanish Count is outside thus posing further problems, for he is a third gull for whom the services of Dol are required. To allow Face to deal with the count, Subtle takes Kastril and Dame Pliant away to study some spurious books and nick-nacks.
Throughout this scene there runs a sexual undercurrent for both Subtle and Face desire Dame Pliant and both use sexual innuendo when talking to her. Face states that he 'shall be proud to know' her, knowing being used in both the common and sexual sense here, whilst Subtle makes reference to her monte veneris, both a line on the hand as well as the swelling of the female sexual organ. Their rivalry for the hand or rather the body of Dame Pliant is escalating.
Act 4. Scene 3
The dispute continues into this scene, with Face, in a brief moment which he and Subtle get alone, claiming that he "needs must have this widow" (IV.iii.5). They bicker until the Spanish Count enters. The Count is in fact Surly in disguise though neither Face nor Subtle realise this. Whilst with other victims they make veiled references to the truth of their intentions, with the disguised Surly they abuse him to his face, telling him of their plans to rob and trick him. They believe, after all, that "His great/ Verdugoship has not a jot of language" (III.iii.70-71) and is therefore "So much easier to cozen" (III.iii.72). Here then we are presented with the dramatic irony that the masters of word play, the arch manipulators of language who weave a safety net of deception and trickery are 'hoist by their own petard'. The deceptive use of language is employed by another to undo them - it is with this ostensible Spanish Count, when they believe they are at their most powerful, that they are at their most vulnerable.
Despite this supposed ease they are presented with a problem. The false Count has come for a whore and yet Dol is otherwise engaged. If, they think, they fail to supply, then "the credit of our house" (IV.iii.70) will be endangered for their good reputation will be shattered. Again, one may see their pretensions towards legitimate business in this language. Face, forever the plotter, is reminded of Dame Pliant's presence in the house and, despite his own business-like desire for her, contrives to pimp her to the 'Spaniard'. This he justifies with reference to "the common cause", a hypocritical statement in the light of their deception of Dol. He leaves to engineer the whoring of Dame Pliant whilst Subtle shows Surly to the bedroom.
Act 4. Scene 4
Face enters with Kastril and Dame Pliant in the midst of telling her of her 'good fortune', this being that she is to wed a Spanish Count. She is unconvinced, saying that she has hated the Spanish since "eighty eight", that being the year of the Spanish Armada. Indeed there had been much anti Spanish feeling in England since this battle, as evidenced by the unpopularity of James I's attempts to foster good relations with the country. Kastril, in an attempt to appear worldly and knowledgeable of the worth of Spanish Counts, threatens her with violence if she refuses, his lack of wit leaving violence as his only recourse for persuasion. Subtle and Face employ gentler measures until she is won round, as much by promises of great splendour as by her brother's violent tendencies. The disguised Surly soon enters and she is persuaded by Subtle, to ensure that she acts like a whore, to make the first advances for "It is the Spanish fashion, for the women/ To make the first court" (IV.IV.67-68)
She leaves with Surly, creating audience expectations of the downfall of the cozeners. Subtle then urges Face to "give Dol the word", i.e. to cue her enter her fit, and then takes Kastril off to engage him in a quarrelling lesson.
Act 4. Scene 5
A torrent of nonsense gushes onto the stage as Dol enters with Mammon. She is spouting word for word the works of Arch puritan Hugh Broughton who was known for fantastical biblical exegesis. Mammon vainly tries to stop the flow with pleas of "Lady...Sweet Madam" but to no avail. Face quickly enters and does nothing to ease Mammon's concern, mournfully saying "If/ the old man/ hear her/ We are but faeces, ashes" (IV.v.30). No sooner has he said this than Subtle calls and enters. Dol and Face quickly exit leaving Mammon to face the 'wrath' of the alchemist. He strongly reprimands Mammon until there is a great explosion, the furnace in the laboratory has blown up, or more likely has been blown up.
This explosion has been described by E B Partridge as "an objectification of what happens in the plot". The characters and situations are inflated until the play can stand no more and then they explode. As Ian Donaldson writes, "the explosion...marks the moment at which vanity is spectacularly deflated. It is as if Jonson blew his characters up like balloons and then pricked them with a pin". No character is more inflated than Sir Epicure Mammon and his cry of "O my voluptuous mind! I am justly punish'd" (IV.v.74) could almost elicit sympathy, as his dreams, all be they greedy and selfish dreams, come crashing down around him. Mammon is told that nothing is left of their great project and he is hastily removed from the house by claims of the arrival of "the lady's" (Dol) furious brother. He leaves a broken man.
Subtle and Face then have a few moments to plan their next move before the next piece of action. The plot is well and truly beyond their control now and they will only survive by spontaneous use of their wits, a skill not equally possessed by all in the venture tripartite.
Act 4. Scene 6
Surly has revealed his true identity and dastardly plottings of the cozeners to Dame Plaint. For this service and his honesty he hopes to win her hand. He then confronts Subtle whose less than cunning reply is "Help, murder!" whilst Face manages a somewhat bolder "How, Surly!" Surly then tells them both of his knowledge of their trickery in intricate detail. indeed he gets somewhat carried away and doesn't notice Face slip away to get some form of help. It seems that the impostors' plans are undone.
Act 4. Scene 7
Surly's rant is interrupted by the re-entrance of Face along with Kastril. Face presents the situation to Kastril as an opportunity to practice his quarrelling saying, "The Doctor and your sister, both are abus'd" (IV.vii.3). Kastril attempts to rise to the challenge and though he says little more than "you lie" to Surly he is supported by the greater wits of Face. Subtle takes some time to regain his composure and needs prompting from Face.
They are further aided, however, by the entrance of Drugger who also abuses Surly. A further chemical to this volatile mixture comes in the form of Ananias who immediately takes offence at Surly's "Lewd, superstitious, and idolatrous breeches" (IV.vii.49) Attacked from all sides by an inept quarreller, the humble Drugger, a zealous Puritan and masterful Face, Surly has little choice but to quit the fray. Kastril is quickly dispatched after him to continue the quarrel.
Having recovered from the brink of discovery, Face enlists Drugger to find him a Spanish outfit so that he may provide Dame Pliant with a Spanish groom, namely himself. Drugger is to get the outfit from "the players" who should have the costume of Hieronimo, a character from Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, yet another example of Jonson making contemporary references. It has even been suggested that in his time as an actor Jonson himself had played this role.
Meanwhile, Subtle deals with Ananias who has come to tell him that, true to their hypocrisy, the brethren have decided that the 'casting' of coins is lawful. Subtle gets rid of him by claiming that it is too risky to cast in the house and that they shall meet again soon. With Face and Subtle finally on their own, Face berates Subtle for his slowness of wits and in a moment of reconciliation Subtle thanks him for the help. They are soon at loggerheads again, however, as Subtle states that, though he had lost interest in Dame Pliant earlier when he thought she was to be a whore, he was now desirous of her again since Surly had not taken advantage of her. They are, however, prevented from venting the matter further by the entrance of Dol.
She comes with the news that the thing that has underscored the whole play has happened, the master of the house, Lovewit, has returned home and is talking to a crowd of the neighbours. Whilst the other two despair, Face, always quick off the mark, makes a plan. He shall return to his normal guise as Jeremy the butler and deal with Lovewit, whilst the other two pack up their illgot earnings and take them to Ratcliff, an area in Stepney, where they shall meet the next day to share the booty.
Act 5

Themes and Further Information
Introduction to Jonson and The Alchemist
When Benjamin Jonson died on August 6, 1637, it was a major public event. A crowd of the days' great and good gathered at his house in Westminster and his final resting place was Westminster's great Abbey. He was acclaimed as "our Poet first in merit, as in love". In contrast, Shakepeare's death in April 1616, was a quiet affair, his burial taking place in his parish church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Here was a man esteemed as much for his respectable place in society as his literature. To modern ears, for whom Shakespeare is a benchmark of literary genius, these facts appear strange. Jonson's popular reputation, which was only overtaken by Shakespeare's in the nineteenth century, has not endured. This is certainly due in part to his misfortune of being born a mere eight years after the Bard. It is also, however, a necessary consequence of the nature of what are held to be his greatest works: his comedies.
Jonson's Theory Of Comedy
Comedy should deal "in deedes, and language, such as men doe use", showing, "an Image of the times". Thus wrote Jonson in the prologue to his first great success Every Man in His Humour. His belief was that comedy, as Cordatus in Every Man out of His Humour says, should be "Imitatio vitae, Speculum consuetudinis, Imago veritatis', that is, 'an imitation of life, a mirror of manners, an image of truth". Comedy must, then, hold up a magnifying mirror to the reality of life to enlarge its features, good and bad, though for Jonson, particularly the bad. It was not his aim simply to make the audience laugh at the knavishness and foolery of his characters but rather to educate his audience through their foolishness. As he notes in the Discoveries, "the comics are called didaskoi (teachers) by the Greeks, no less than the tragics".
Prefigured by Cicero, who had held that comedy should be a mirror of human life, and perhaps informed by English morality plays with their expositions of Christian morality, Jonson developed his brand of 'gulling' comedy with an educative agenda. By ridiculing the undesirable traits of humanity, which manifest themselves in man's foolishness, he offered a dose of theatrical medicine.
His comedy is then rooted in the times in which he lived. It is fiercely contemporary, containing references to people, events, streets and houses and even Inns of the time. These references serve to ground the work in reality lest his audience forget that what they are seeing is not a mere fantasy but a mirror of themselves. These references have also, however, lead to Jonson being dismissed as 'a man of his time', with little relevance today. This, whilst it contains a grain of truth, is a gross simplification.
Comedy of Humours
Tied into his theory of comedy is the notion of humours. This refers to the four humours of medieval physiology after the teachings of Galen - blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy. It was commonly held that one's temperament was the result of a balance of these humours which were each believed to have an affect on character. Jonson believed that normality in human conduct was to be held up as a goal and that this was distorted by excess of a individual humours. In The Alchemist, then, it is avarice that is under attack and through ridicule of excessive greed he felt that he could teach people to keep it in check.
In the same way, then, as doctors attempted to provide medical treatments for the imbalance of humours, Jonson attempted to provide psychological treatment through ridicule.
"Here is rhyme, not empty of reason:
This we were bid to credit, from our poet,
Whose true scope, if you would know it,
In all his poems, still, hath been this measure,
To mix profit with your pleasure"
In the prologue to Volpone Jonson propounds a stock formula for poetry derived from the Roman poet, satirist and critic Horace in his Ars Poetica. That is that the role of the poet was both to "entertain and delight" (much like More’s "serious playing" in Utopia). Poetry was regarded as a civilising force and educational instrument to the humanists. Jonson’s contemporary Sidney expounded in his Apology for Poetry 1595, "But the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs, the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher"(cited by I. Rivers in Classical and Christian Ideas in Renaissance Poetry). This highlights the moral education expected of poetry and the public responsibility of the poet. The audience in the prologue to The Alchemist are portrayed as "judging spectators", highlighting the active participation of the audience in their own moral education. Jonson’s art is one self-consciously aware of the mechanics of dramatics and public theatre, the influence of the classics and the job of the poet. The aims of Jonson’s art seems to remain the same whether in dedicatory poems for select readership or plays for the public forum; a humanist and conservative drive to educate and entertain "to inform men in the best reason of living" (Epistle to Volpone). Satire is the vehicle by which he attempts his moral education in the comedies The Alchemist, Volpone and Epiceone. His style seems to have close affinities with the Roman satirist Juvenal whose scornful, farcical and vituperative poetry forms an attack against human folly. Like this satirist he treads a thin line between alienating his audience and provoking a productive self-examination in the audience. He must engineer his strategy somewhere in between didactic "railing rhetoric"(Epistle to Volpone) and amoral wit and hollow laughter
Further Themes and Points of Interest
Alchemy is, of course, the central theme of the play. The villains' methods of deceit may be likened to alchemical processes, the plot may be likened to the progress of transmutation of base metals and the way in which language is used to change the appearance of truth is pure alchemy.
Though much of the alchemical jargon may appear nonsensical it is all well-informed and would have been recognised by the authorities of the day. The folly of those presented in the play is not their faith in alchemy, but rather their greedy dreams which they believe alchemy will fulfil. It must be remembered that some very distinguished people were interested in alchemy. Sir Isaac Newton the President of the Royal Society is but one example. References to others such as John Dee are made throughout Jonson's play.
In the Discoveries, Jonson describes language as "the instrument of society", "the only benefit man hath to express his excellencie of mind above other creaturesQ. In The Alchemist, language is abused to such an extent that one is given cause to wonder whether man is any higher than the 'other creatures'. It is the main device of the villains for their cozening. The alchemical jargon and other specious learning expounded in the play is used to blind victims to the truth of what is going on. Throughout, the rogues and their gulls use language for deception including self-deception.
The naming of the characters and the names they give each other are particularly revealing. The opening scene, for example, is full of animal imagery as the three impostors throw insults at each other. As E.B Partridge points out, these titles "suggest animals which live on a lower plane than men, or insects which prey on other beings".
Vulgar and grandiose epithets are frequently juxtaposed against one another so that Dol is both a "bitch" and "royal Dol".
The three rogues often refer to one another with military and royal titles suggesting their own republic with its own rules and inverted structures. In The Alchemist the appearance of characters and situations depicted through language is usually far from the truth of the matter.
The episode with Dapper and the faery Queen also highlights the power of the alchemists jargon and convincing pedantic ceremonies - allowing a parallel between alchemy and religion to emerge. The use of Latin for simple and prosaic things "equi clibanum" (warm horse dung) "balneo vaproso"(bucket of sand) shows up not only the pretended grandeur of the ‘science’ but also could be a comment on the use of Latin in Roman Catholic ceremonies. Is the episode a warning against being fooled by both the linguistic exuberance of these cozeners and the priests of the Catholic church? Is this "world of ceremonies", pedantic ridiculous rituals of "three drops of vinegar in at your nose;/ two at your mouth;/ and one at either ear", a scornful indictment against the papal excesses of Rome? It definitely shows up the dangers of speech as Subtle and Face appear to have authority and knowledge, justifying their will to power, where really there is none.
With Dol as their whore, the cozeners use sex as a tool for thievery. It is another weapon in the arsenal of their business. Sex is commodified and frequent links between it, business and money are made. For Mammon, for example, sex and money are virtually synonymous and his desire for money is fuelled by his desire for the sexual gratification which he believes possession of money will bring. It is the unchecked desires of the play's fools which is the root of their downfalls.
As noted above, The Alchemist is a perfect example of adherence to the classical unities of place, time and action. The permanent interior of the play is the first witnessed on the English stage. All the action takes place between around nine o'clock in the morning and five in the afternoon, well within the twenty four hour time frame recommended by Aristotle. This period is also about the length of an English November day, the month in which the play was first performed. Perhaps the greatest and most interesting achievement of the play, however, is its unity of action. The entire plot is a consequence of a single action, that being the plans of three thieves to rob their neighbourhood. There is nothing in the play which is extraneous to this, and the various separate actions which result from this are interwoven masterfully. As T S Eliot describes it, "the plot is enough to keep the players in motion; it is rather an 'action' than a plot. The plot does not hold the play together; what holds the play together is a unity of inspiration that radiates into plot and personages alike".
The Characters
It is often argued that Jonson's comedy of 'humours' has the effect of simplifying characterisation. The characters are presented as caricatures, as personifications of the excess of certain humours. E M Forster has suggested that the kind of characters that he calls "flat" derived ultimately from the Renaissance notion of humours. Indeed when compared with the characters of Shakespeare, Jonson's character's, with their obsessive single focus can appear two dimensional. This, however, must be borne in mind with his theory of comedy which of necessity needed caricature. It has also been pointed out that we don't dismiss a caricature in a newspaper for its lack of accurate representation, it's purpose being to highlight salient features of human life so that we may be made more aware of our defects.
The Alchemist is indeed a masterful piece of caricature, of biting satire of the society of the time and of timeless human traits. It is also, as Jonson believed, the most perfect expression of his theory of comedy and should be viewed as not without educative possibility even today. After all, it would take a naive person to suggest that we, in our twenty first century sophistication, are beyond being gulled and have vanquished the enemy of greed from our balance of humours. The confidence tricks and selfish dreams of Jonson's time are still very much with us and The Alchemist serves as a warning to all that a 'voluptuous mind' can only lead to ruin.

A Fools World- Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Subverts

English 110 – Literature as Social Criticism
A Fool’s World: The Alchemist Subverts The Status Quo
Overrun by gullible souls piously intent on social elevation, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is a comedic exposй in which the fabric of society is inextricably linked to the status-quo and its ravenous desire for wealth and power. Through the characters in the play, Jonson presents an allusive manifestation of Elizabethan society, and a clairvoyant analysis of human vices. On the surface, it is a story that makes use of the alchemical powers of fiction to put a bleakly humorous spin on foolish people and those who greedily exploit them. However, through deeper inference it is obvious that what Jonson is proposing is not merely a portrait of the status-quo in his own society, but of the maleficent faults apparent in human nature. These conditions are deeply rooted and historically enduring. Ultimately, Ben Jonson’s critique of the Elizabethan status-quo is relevant to our own society in which wealth, power, and the desire for status casts a shadow over a dismal human reality in desperate need of reform.
The characters of the play are all spellbound with greed and in pursuit of some form of wealth or power. Despite their effor
. . .
Jonson presents us with the obvious consequences of a materialistic status quo, and we, as the audience and society, are left with the decision of which collective path to choose. This ambition arises from the accepted belief that every person has the right to cultivate their own desires and beliefs without consideration for any intrinsic moral consequences. The second division includes anyone who is, essentially, a con-victim. Perhaps in time we may come to see that a determined solution to this problem would be an asset to all, but it cannot be said that there has been much sign of any movement in this direction. It is an attractive notion to rally behind Subtle, Face, and Doll, to cheer on ‘the bad guys’. The theatre becomes a deceptive mirror for the audience to live vicariously through. The essential point that must be realized is that the perpetuation of a materialistic, power-starved status quo is corrosive to the well being of society. The audience is the key to the success of Jonson’s criticism only if they are able to influence a reform. The characters all end up worse off after their ambitious desires fail to materialize. The message is quite literal and clear: both dupe and cozener are left empty handed, and the social acceptance of the status quo is just as destructive as it is predominantly acceptable. Of course Subtle is unable to deliver the goods, and poor Dapper is left to ponder frivolously in the latrine until the final act. The first type is that of the ‘cozener’, the con artist. Rather than losing face in the community by committing to legal inquiry the seizure of his belongings by Lovewit and Face, he decides that he would “rather lose ‘em” (5.

17th c writing

Politics has always been the patriarch of arts. Power of the pen to form, affect and sway opinions has been recognised and used effectively by politicians from time immemorial. Most writers transcended political reigns, for example Shakespeare wrote under Queen Elizabeth I and continued well into the reign of James I. Each monarch influences literature in his or her own way, which writers imbibe or reject, thus producing a change in their writing styles. Therefore political boundaries are very useful to consider literary writings. In this essay I will provide an overview of literary writing within the contexts of reigns of James I and Charles I.
Scottish printing of The essayes of a prentise in the divine art of Poesie in 1584 and His Majesties poeticall exercise at vacant houres in 1591 had ensured that James I was known for his own writing skill. Accession of this ‘Poet King’ in 1603 propagated diverse genres of literary writing. The king was of the opinion that the best poetry was the kind that could be rewritten as prose without losing its beauty, so on one hand was his simplistic views on poetry and on the other hand he was the patron of flamboyant genre of Masques an satirical comedies.
. . .
God is like a magnet attracting the poet’s ‘iron heart’, here the sonnet resonates Calvinist humility as the poet may turn to god only if by god’s permission. each other in the Stuart reign as James Doleman correctly points out that religious verse was ‘public and political activity’ under James I. In The Alchemist Jonson offers a critique of 17th century society but in particular of the Puritan characters of Ananias and Tribulation. Employing the courtly genre of Masques Milton rejects coterie aesthetics and puritan limitations to develop a stance on art. Barbara Lewalski notes Love’s triumph through Callipolis, the last collaboration between Jonson and Inigo Jones, as reminiscent of Luadian Anglicanism or Catholicism. In The Alchemist Jonson tries not to offend the Royals and the influential in being careful in selecting the kind of puritans he satirizes.
The English monarch were the nucleus of the social religious, and political developments which had a ripple affect on literature in terms of writers, content, readership or audience and style. A reaction to James’s religious policies was The Gunpowder plot of 1605 that fuelled anti-Catholics sentiment. Sonnet 5 expresses a healing quality through divine judgement that man deserves because while mortality is a fact of life, sin has also ensured his spiritual death.
James I laid the foundation of Stuart absolutism with his belief in the divine right of kings and inherently the supremacy of the Church of England, which he headed. The year 1610 saw the creation of works with discrepancy of views. Although Francis Bacon dismissed this genre of writing, as ‘toys’ Jonathan Goldberg is correct in saying that a masque ‘mirrors the royal mind’ both in its staging as well as content. Neptune’s Triumph was written (but never performed) to cover up the Prince Charles’ bride-less return from a disastrous visit to Spain. In Masque of blackness, James is the ‘Sun King’ capable of giving beauty of colour to the black daughter of Niger. Jonson supports the unpopular Buckingham as ‘loyal Hippius’ who was Albion’s companion on the journey.

The Alchemy of Human Relations in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist

Two of the dominant metaphors for human relations in this play are: • alchemy • counterfeiting
Alchemy, as a symbol, suggests that real and wonderful transformations are possible and that iron and copper can be made into gold. The symbolism associated with counterfeiting, by contrast, suggests that the effort to make base metals into gold, on both the literal and symbolic levels, is a sham. The question is: can the "alchemy" of human relations transform people? Can they be made better or do their interactions show that they are "counterfeits," more debased than they appear to be?
More specifically, Subtle's long speech of praise to alchemy (2.3.142-77) suggests that through "alchemy," metals can be made more perfect than they are in nature. At 3.2.148 Ananias and Tribulation Worthy worry about whether their desire to make gold coins through alchemy is legal. In point of fact, such a practice, whether of domestic or foreign coins, was not. Counterfeiting therefore means producing a false coin, one that is worth not more, but far less, than it seems to be worth.
Use these two metaphors to analyze the principal characters of The Alchemist. To reiterate the question: can the "alchemy" of human relations transform people? Can they be made better or do their interactions show that they are "counterfeits," more debased than they appear to be?

About The Alchemist

The Alchemist is one of Ben Jonson's four great comedies. The earliest recorded performance of the play occurred in Oxford in 1610. It was also entered into the Stationers' Register in this year, though it might have been written and performed earlier than this date. Critics talk of the play as being written and performed in 1610. It was first printed in quarto in 1612, and it was included in the folio of Jonson's works in 1616.
A second folio edition of Jonson's works came out in 1640. This version included some emendations, many of which had to do with the tightening of regulations about uttering religious material on the stage. "God's will" (1612), for example, became "Death on me" (1640). Jonson's meticulous preparation of his own folio version was unusual, but it gives us greater confidence in the actual text of the play (no similar source history for Shakespeare, for instance, survives). Thus we have a stronger opportunity for insight into the playwright’s sense of humor on the page and on the stage. For example, we infer that it was Jonson who had all the German and Dutch in the play ("Ulen Spiegel," for example) set in black-letter type.
To Jonson's audiences, The Alchemist would have been a modern play, set in Blackfriars in his own day—a town where there also was a famous theatre in which Shakespeare's late plays were performed.
The Folio edition lists as its principal comedians the actors of the King's men, many of whom were also the stars of Shakespeare's comedies. We know that Burbage, Heminges, Condell, and Armin, all lead actors in Shakespeare's company, were also in The Alchemist, and contextual evidence suggests that the Globe company had begun to use Blackfriars (an indoor theatre) as a winter alternative to the Globe (an outdoor theatre) in 1609.
The play is extensively informed by Jonson's wide-ranging learning and reading. It abounds with quotes from other plays and the Old Testament. Dol's "fit of talking" is itself an extensive quotation from A Concent of Scripture by Hugh Broughton. There are also quotations and references to a myriad of other works, such as Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, whose lead character Hieronymo is also winkingly referenced. (Hieronymo is a part, some evidence suggests, that Jonson himself might have played.) There is so much unusual or archaic language, especially in the alchemism scenes, that it could ruin one's enjoyment of the play by repeatedly returning to a glossary--part of the point is to be bowled over by the strange diction of the alchemist.
The play can seem fantastical to a modern audience, and it is often read as a cynical play that argues that even the most obvious illusions are believed by stupid people. Yet there is evidence to suggest that people in Jonson's time really were taken by cons such as that in the play. One man, Goodwin Wharton, was tricked at length into believing he was to be visited by the Fairy Queen some seventy years after the play was published and performed. See the excellent biography of Wharton, a real-life case of Alchemy-conmanship, in the citations for this ClassicNote.
As Jonson has risen to greater prominence, The Alchemist has shaken its reputation as being densely Elizabethan and unfunny, and critics have bolstered its rise into being known as one of the key texts of the Renaissance. Coleridge thought it, along with Oedipus Rex / Oedipus the King and Tom Jones, one of the three "most perfect plots ever planned." Note, though, that the play's plot is linear, with the stories of the seven gulls cleverly intersected to keep tension at the maximum.
Kenneth Tynan thought it a "good episodic play ... bead after bead, the episodes click together upon the connecting string, which is chicanery and chiselry." F. H. Mares led many modern commentators by beginning his essay with the observation that "All through the play there is a disparity between what people are and what they say they are." Such readings have culminated with Anne Barton's excellent chapter in Ben Jonson: Dramatist, which pronounces it "a play about transformation, as it affects not metals, but human beings."
Without doubt, The Alchemist has been restored to prominence since Victorian times. Often in the company of Jonson's other "great comedy," Volpone, it is analyzed with regard to Jonson's cynical and darkly comic views of London in 1610, legality (since justice in Jonson's plays is always an important question), belief, faith, and the sort of people who believe that they will one day secure infinite wealth.

Character List

Subtle: The "Alchemist" of the play's title. We never learn whether "Subtle" is a forename or a surname (or the only name). Meaning "crafty" or "clever" in Elizabethan English, it is an appropriate choice. Subtle is grumpy, constantly at odds with Face (he is often played as considerably older), and is very learned, being the one with alchemical expertise. He disguises himself as "the Doctor" to carry out his con.
Face: Face seems, to some extent, faceless; we get very little idea of a personality or an impetus behind his character. He is constantly switching roles. Some commentators think that his real name is "Jeremy," but this idea--particularly because it is not supported by Jonson's dramatis personae--could just be one more in a series of disguises Face undertakes. He plays "Ulen Spiegel" or "Lungs" for the Mammon-con, and more usually he is the wiseboy "Captain Face" for everyone else. He is essential in finding the gulls in the pubs of London and bringing them to the Blackfriars house.
Dol: Also "Dol Common," Dol is short for Dorothy, and her second name, "Common," is in itself a pun, meaning "everyone's"--because Dol is a prostitute. The play implies she is in casual sexual relationships with both Face and Subtle. Her role is not as important as Face's or Subtle's, yet her one transformation, into a "royal lady," is essential in maneuvering Mammon into the right place at the right time. She escapes with Subtle "over the back wall" at the end--without a share of the goods.
Dapper: A legal clerk and a social climber who comes to the conmen in order to get a "gambling fly" (a spirit who will allow him to cheat and win at gambling). Dapper has met Face in a pub and has been tempted to the house. Extremely greedy and extremely gullible, Subtle tells him he is a relative of the Faery-Queen. Upon his return, he is locked in the privy for most of the play.
Abel ("Nab") Drugger: An honest, good soul, he is a young tobacconist who has just bought a new shop on the corner of a street. He wants the Doctor (having met Face in a pub) to advise him on (effectively) the feng shui of the building. He is tricked into handing over a lot of expensive tobacco and into bringing Kastrill and Dame Pliant (Drugger's shyly admitted crush) into the Blackfriars house. At the end of the play, he loses everything and is dispatched with a punch from Lovewit.
Lovewit: The master of the house and the employer of "Jeremy the Butler," his housekeeper (alias Face). Away for the majority of the play, Lovewit doesn't return until Act 5--unexpectedly, though Face lies and claims to have sent for him. At this point he punishes Face, but without uncovering the plot itself, or caring to. He marries Dame Pliant and leaves the stage halfway through the epilogue in order to smoke tobacco.
Sir Epicure Mammon: Epicure Mammon's name means a person who is devoted to sensory enjoyment and material wealth, and he is perhaps the play's biggest con. He is also the greediest gull of the lot. Constantly comparing himself and the alchemist's work with classical or antique riches, he is obsessed with food, sex, and the idea of getting his riches turned into gold by the Philosopher's Stone. His lust is the reason given by the conmen for the explosion that destroys the (non-existent) furnace and vanquishes his hopes of getting rich.
Sir Pertinax Surly: The sidekick of Epicure Mammon, he spends the first part of his time in the play bitterly mocking and criticizing Mammon but also calling into question the actions of the conmen. Surly then decides to try to catch them out, and--in his successful disguise as a Spaniard--he falls in love with Dame Pliant. In the end he is attacked by Kastrill and loses the girl.
Tribulation Wholesome, a Pastor of Amsterdam: The leader of the local group of Anabaptists (see "About Anabaptists" in this ClassicNote), Tribulation is rather more measured and logical than Ananias, but, as the representative of his group, he is hungry for money, membership, and power.
Ananias, a Deacon of Amsterdam: Ananias is an Anabaptist (see "About Anabaptists") and is greedy for power, land, and membership for his order. He is also incredibly angry and quick to condemn anything that may not be, as he sees it, Christian, and on numerous occasions he blurts out furiously that, for example, "Christ-tide" is the right, Christian name for Christmas. Ananias is also the name of a New Testament character who is stricken dead because of his greed.
Kastrill: An "Angry Boy," he wants to learn the skill of quarrelling: formal, rhetorical argument. He has come to Subtle to learn it. Clearly young and impressionable, he is very protective over his sister, Dame Pliant, and he goes to huge lengths to seem "one of the guys" in several of the group scenes. His "quarrelling" is rather unimpressive. Comically, he seems to know only a handful of (immature) insults, including "you lie" and "you are a pimp."
Dame Pliant: Often called "Widow" in the play, she is the recently-widowed sister of Kastrill. Dame Pliant's name means bendy, supple, or flexible; true to her name, she seems one of the stupidest characters in literature. When she does speak, very rarely, she has the same speech mannerisms (e.g., "suster") as her brother. Subtle steals several kisses from her (4.2) while she seems not to notice, and the two conmen fight over which of them will wed her (and inherit the considerable fortune she has inherited from her husband). In the end, it is Lovewit who gets the girl with no wits.
Neighbors: Several neighbors appear in the street upon Lovewit's return in 5.1, and they describe to Lovewit what they have seen happen while he has been away at his hop-yards. They have a tiny role to play within the play itself, though on a couple of occasions, Dol is seen shooing women away from the door. Their descriptions of "oyster-women" and "Sailor's wives" (5.1.3-4) give us the sense that the conmen have performed several more cons than the play showcases.

Major Themes

Belief and faith:
The gulls are "gullible," easily led to lend their belief to the tricks and plots of the conmen. The play itself is obsessed from the Prologue onward with the idea of what Coleridge would call the "willing suspension of disbelief," except that the gulls do not really start with much or any disbelief, and this is reality for them, not a story in which they believe the premises of a story in order to see what the author does with it. As Jonson’s audience, we know that the stories (and the whole play) are not real, so we are not gulled.
Or is Jonson playing any jokes on us as well? Belief of course is essential to theater, and the play's many metatheatrical forays play on this theme. Note how Jonson exploits theatrical convention to alienate the audience, such as when Surly, as a Spaniard, initially seems to be another character altogether.
Jonson, in portraying two Christian believers, explicitly considers whether there is a difference between having faith in the particulars of a Christian denomination—or having faith in God, or in anything transcendent—and believing in the false tricks of the conmen. All denominations cannot be completely right, so do some people believe because they have been conned rather than simply mistaken?
Alchemical theory suggests that things are in a constant state of flux and transformation, and several parts of the play deal explicitly with this notion. Not only do the characters themselves transform into other characters, but their wares, their fears, and their faith are easily transformed into gold for the conmen.
Naturally, Subtle's status as "The Alchemist" is questioned throughout the play. What can he really transform, after all?
The process of alchemy itself is related explicitly to theater, because in addition to theatrical transformations, theater offers a world in which magical things can happen, and we often wish they would.
Alchemy is, of course, the central theme of the play. The villains' methods of deceit may be likened to alchemical processes, the plot may be likened to the progress of transmutation of base metals and the way in which language is used to change the appearance of truth is pure alchemy.
Though much of the alchemical jargon may appear nonsensical it is all well-informed and would have been recognised by the authorities of the day. The folly of those presented in the play is not their faith in alchemy, but rather their greedy dreams which they believe alchemy will fulfil. It must be remembered that some very distinguished people were interested in alchemy. Sir Isaac Newton the President of the Royal Society is but one example. References to others such as John Dee are made throughout Jonson's play.

Gold is the result of successful alchemy, though the goal remains aspirational. It plays a large part in the play as the motivation for just about everything that happens. The gulls are all greedy for gold in order to achieve their dreams, and they are therefore greedy for the Philosopher's Stone. The conmen, inversely, are greedy for the gold they make by tricking the gulls into believing that they will eventually be rich.
Face's epilogue considers the fact that a theater audience similarly has handed over gold in order to be knowingly tricked with a false story on stage.
The play is set in 1610, a likely date for the play's first performance, and set in a house (to this day, a synonym for an auditorium) in Blackfriars. It is possible that the Blackfriars theater was the site of the play's London performances. The conmen are actors who take on roles to suit their audience, and in the end they trick the real audience as well as the gulls.
Constantly the processes of conning and believing are equated with the medium of theater. The questions in the play can nearly always be couched in theatrical terms. Note, too, moments which might be considered a play within the play, such as the Fairy Queen moments.
London in 1610:
Jonson's play was a modern-dress play in its day, and it is hugely steeped in the culture of its time. The locations it names—the Temple Church, Deaf John's and the Pigeons Tavern, to name but three—were all close to the Blackfriars theater where the play was performed. The characters it satirizes, Anabaptists, Spaniards, and knights arrogant, would all have been familiar to the contemporary audience. Jonson similarly employs much modern slang for his characters. In some instances the language thus feels dense and dated.
Jonson's prologue in his Folio is addressed to the "Reader," and his play abounds with references to other texts, plays, and writers, which creates the impression that the play itself is in some way a patchwork of other texts.
The characters, particularly Subtle, also speak dense, technical jargon, as if to give the sense that their language is somehow plagiarized or borrowed from a better source.
Note that Dol's "noble lady" is a mad scholar of Broughton who quotes, "in her fit of talking," extensively from one of Broughton's works. The play quotes twice from Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. Several other critics have found references and in-jokes to various other contemporary works.
"All things in common":
The play poses some interesting arguments about the nature of working and living together. Dol Common puts forward an eloquent defense of the need for the con to be a "venture tripartite" if it is to succeed. Interestingly, Dol's claims are expressed in the language of classical political thought, and the London of the play seems vaguely equated with a classical idea of democracy. Dol Common, in this reading, is not just a prostitute but the founder of an admittedly shaky commonwealth

Short Summary

Lovewit has left for his hop-yards in London, and he has left Jeremy, his butler, in charge of his house in Blackfriars. Jeremy, whose name in the play is Face, lives in the house with Subtle, a supposed alchemist, and Dol Common, a prostitute. The three run a major con operation.
The play opens with an argument that continues throughout the play between Subtle and Face. It concerns which of them is the most essential to the business of the con, each claiming his own supremacy. Dol quells this argument and forces the conmen to shake hands. The bell rings, and Dapper, a legal clerk, enters, the first gull of the day. Face takes on the role of “Captain Face”, and Subtle plays the “Doctor.”
Dapper wants a spirit that will allow him to win at gambling. Subtle promises one and then tells him he is related to the Queen of the Fairies. Dispatched to get a clean shirt and wash himself, Dapper leaves, immediately replaced by Drugger, a young tobacconist who wants to know how he should arrange his shop. Subtle tells him, and Face gets him to return later with tobacco and a damask. Their argument looks set to resume when Dol returns to warn them that Sir Epicure Mammon is approaching.
Sir Epicure Mammon and his cynical sidekick, Sir Pertinax Surly, are next through the door. Mammon is terrifically excited because Subtle has promised to make him the Philosopher’s Stone, about which Mammon is already fantasizing. Face changes character into “Lungs” or “Ulen Spiegel,” the Doctor’s laboratory assistant, and the two conmen impress Mammon and irritate Surly with a whirl of scientific language. Face arranges for “Captain Face” to meet Surly in half an hour at the Temple Church, and a sudden entrance from Dol provokes Mammon, instantly besotted, into begging Face for a meeting with her.
Ananias, an Anabaptist, enters and is greeted with fury by Subtle. Ananias then returns with his pastor, Tribulation. The Anabaptists want the Philosopher’s Stone in order to make money in order to win more people to their religion. Subtle, adopting a slightly different persona, plays along. Kastrill is the next new gull, brought by Drugger, who has come to learn how to quarrel—and to case the joint to see if it is fit for his rich, widowed sister, Dame Pliant. Face immediately impresses young Kastrill, and he exits with Drugger to fetch his sister.
Dapper, in the meantime, is treated to a fairy rite in which Subtle and Face (accompanied by Dol on cithern) steal most of his possessions. When Mammon arrives at the door, they gag him and bundle him into the privy. Mammon and Dol (pretending to be a “great lady”) have a conversation which ends with them being bundled together into the garden or upstairs—Face is pretending that Subtle cannot know about Mammon’s attraction to Dol.
The widow is brought into the play, as is a Spanish Don who Face met when Surly did not turn up. This Spaniard is in fact Surly in disguise, and the two conmen flicker between arguing about who will marry the widow and mocking the Spaniard by speaking loudly in English of how they will “cozen” or deceive him. Because Dol is occupied with Mammon, the conmen agree to have the Spaniard marry the widow, and the widow is carried out by Surly.
In the meantime, Dol has gone into a fit of talking, being caught with a panicked Mammon by a furious “Father” Subtle. Because there has been lust in the house, a huge explosion happens offstage, which Face comes in to report has destroyed the furnace and all the alchemical apparatus. Mammon is quickly packed out the door, completely destroyed by the loss his entire investment.
Things start to spiral out of control, and the gulls turn up without warning. At one point, nearly all the gulls, including an unmasked Surly, are in the room, and Face only just manages to improvise his way out of it. Dol then reports that Lovewit has arrived, and suddenly Face has to make a final change into “Jeremy the Butler.”
Lovewit is mobbed by the neighbors and the gulls at the door, and Face admits to Lovewit, when forced to do so by Dapper’s voice emerging from the privy, that all is not as it seems—and has him marry the widow. After Dapper’s quick dispatch, Face undercuts Dol and Subtle and, as the gulls return with officers and a search warrant, Dol and Subtle are forced to escape, penniless, over the back wall. The gulls storm the house, find nothing themselves, and are forced to leave empty-handed. Lovewit leaves with Kastrill and his new wife, Dame Pliant. Face is left alone on stage with a financial reward, delivering the epilogue

Summary and Analysis of The Prologue

The prologue begins by addressing “Fortune,” wishing away the two hours that the play will take to perform and hoping to do justice to its author. It announces the play’s scene, London, with “no country’s mirth is better than our own.” It also is the best place to find whores and lowlifes. Many sorts of people, of many different humors, are to grace the stage. The writer, apparently, wishes not to attack these characters and the real people they represent, but to “better” them—the traditional aim of satire. He also hopes that no one will be displeased with the “fair correctives” the play is about to offer. He alerts us that no one who can “apply” lessons has anything to fear.
The prologue finishes with an ambiguous metaphor: there are people who can sit near to “the stream” to find things “they think or wish were done.” Yet these involve such “natural follies” that even the people who “do” them might see them and not “own” them—not recognize the follies as their own.


This in many ways is a traditional prologue, appearing in verse and apologizing for the shortcomings of the play and its writing—and thereby begging the audience’s endurance, while setting out something of what the play is about to treat. In this instance, it addresses the London and the sort of characters the play is to depict.
Most interesting perhaps is the warning that people watching the play will have to “apply” to understand it: The play is going to be a symbol, a metaphor; its characters must be applied to the real world. It is to attempt Hamlet’s “holding the mirror up to nature,” and we must, by examining the mirror, figure out what it is reflecting, what kinds of things it is designed to reflect.
The final image of the stream is variously interpretable. What it seems most clearly to mean is the plot, the stream of events, and those who watch intently will see that The Alchemist will reflect things very close to home, things that might otherwise (or may yet) be unrecognizable in their own lives. The audience is thus the subject of the satire; this is a play about them. In many ways, as later sections show, the play can be read as bearing out that judgment.
We do not know for certain if the prologue would have been spoken in theatrical performance or if it was a feature of the play preserved only in written editions, nor do we know in this case which of the characters, if any, would have spoken it. It is most likely to be Lovewit, master of the “house” (both in the Blackfriars and the theater itself), but there are various scholarly opinions about why, for example, Subtle or Face might be more appropriate speakers.

Summary and Analysis of Act I, Scene I

The scene, as in almost every following scene, is Lovewit’s house. The play opens with a blazing argument between Subtle and Face, which Dol Common is trying desperately to calm. The reason for the argument is not entirely clear, but the basic point is that both Subtle and Face feel the superior conman and the most important in the success of their “business”; neither feels duly appreciated by the other. Subtle claims that he is responsible for Face being in the position he is in—only a short time ago, he tells him, he was only the “good / Honest, plain, livery-three-pound-thrum” (a servant whose clothing is very cheaply made) who worked in his master’s house. Subtle claims that he has taught Face everything he knows, and that Face should therefore be grateful—without Subtle, he still would have been a mere housekeeper.
Face claims, conversely, that Subtle’s status as the titular “Alchemist” is dependent on Face’s bringing in the gulls to be gulled. Furthermore, Face claims that he got Subtle sufficient credit to buy the paraphernalia of alchemy, and that Face built him the furnace. Subtle retaliates by restating that it is only through his own alchemical expertise that Face has learned how to be a conman. Each believes that the other would be nothing without him.
Face threatens to publish the details of Subtle’s trickeries at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and he claims that they are so manifold that it would be plausible for him to write a book. His final threat is that he will have Subtle arrested under the “statute of sorcery.”
Dol eventually breaks up the argument, bringing the two down to earth by reminding Face that his word will not be taken by anyone, and likewise taking Subtle down a peg or two. She forces him to acknowledge that she and Face both play their parts in the cons; the venture is “tripartite.” She then forces the two conmen to swear that they will “labor, kindly, in the common work” which they do, rather unwillingly. They then praise Dol as “Dol Singular” (meaning that she is the best of all), only to be interrupted by the bell ringing.
Subtle worries initially that it will be the master, Lovewit, at the door, but Face gives us the key information that he will not return until the plague has left London. He will send an order to “air” the house before his return—the conmen should have, according to Face, a safe two weeks.
Dol looks out of the window to see who has rung the bell, and it is Dapper, a “fine young quodling” whom Face met in the Dagger Inn in Holborn last night. There is a hurried costume change as Subtle gets “his robes” on, and Face finishes the scene by beginning the con, shouting (so that Dapper hears) to Subtle as if he is about to leave the house, as Dapper has not yet appeared.


Jonson’s play observes, or at least nearly observes, Aristotle’s classical unities. The play takes place, except for the one scene outside the house, in the same room in Lovewit’s house. It happens, or can be staged so as to happen, in chronological order, and its events take place over one day. The events of the play take about as long as the play takes in performance. And all attention remains on the story of the conmen and their cons.
The play’s opening immediately plunges the audience into an argument which has no prequel. We do not know its characters, its origins, or its location–until the scene reveals them. There is no time for the audience to question the believability of what is going on; they immediately have to start to working out what is going on. This is one of the things that has led to Jonson’s reputation as a particularly difficult writer, a reputation not due solely to the age of the play. Jonson in this early part of the play purposely makes things difficult.
The meta-theatricality of the play is also immediately evident. The argument at the start of the play is all about which character–the one playing “Alchemist” or the one playing “Captain”–is the most convincing and important, an appropriate argument for the beginning of a stage play, particularly when one realizes that Subtle and Face are not an Alchemist and a Captain but a pair of conmen. The conmen seem almost too convinced by their own performances. Face has to be reminded that he, in fact, has no credibility as a mangy captain to turn the world against Subtle, and Subtle seems oddly convinced about his own extensive knowledge of alchemy.
Does Subtle actually know any alchemy? He certainly, as we see later, knows some alchemical theory, which he will use to confound Mammon. The play never answers the question of how much Subtle knows about alchemy. Nor does Jonson ever show us the “furnace” which Face claims to have built in this scene. Even if it might exist, for the audience it does not. Like the gulls, we are encouraged to buy into “nothing”–we might choose to believe that the furnace is indeed in the next room, but really it is just the backstage.
Dapper’s appearance at the door and the ring of the bell are the first of many moments when Jonson drives the plot forward with interruptions. The doorbell is a fantastically useful way of instantly introducing a new complication. In just a few lines, Subtle and Face must undergo costume changes to prepare for the first con. After the explosive opening argument about believability, the character changes enact literally what the argument itself has just achieved theatrically: convincing an audience.

Summary and Analysis of Act 1, Scene 2

Dapper meets Face, now “Captain Face,” just as, he pretends, he is leaving the house. Dapper apologizes for his lateness (he clearly arranged to meet Face at the house when they met at the Dagger Inn the night before), saying that he lent his watch to a friend of the sheriff’s.
Subtle enters, dressed in a doctor’s robes, and Dapper is amazed to see the “cunning man.” Dapper asks how he has responded to the “matter” in question, but Face implies that Subtle is not keen to proceed, and that Face himself would be keen to have it off his hands. Clearly Dapper wants something performed that would be illegal under the statute of sorcery, and Face is exploiting the precarious legal position to the full to make him uncomfortable.
Dapper promises that he will keep his mouth shut, and Face agrees to approach the Doctor about the case again. The “Doctor,” silent at the other side of the room, tells Face that he would do much for his love, “but this / I neither may nor can.” Face pleads that Dapper is no ordinary guy and certainly is no ordinary cheat, but the Doctor remains unmoved. Face instructs Dapper to offer the Doctor money, and then–when he will not accept–makes as if to storm out. Suddenly the Doctor calls him back in, accepting Dapper’s money, and he pulls Face to one side.
Their conversation is clearly heard by Dapper, who, it transpires, has come to the Alchemist to get a “gambling fly” or “spirit” which will allow him to win at betting. Why, the Doctor asks Face, does he want to help Dapper when, if the Doctor grants his request, Dapper will undo everyone by winning all the money in the town? After clarifying that this is indeed what Dapper wants to do, the two go back into another (perfectly audible) private conference. The Doctor reveals that Dapper is “of the only best complexion / The Queen of Fairy loves” which means that, as one favored by the Queen of the Fairies, he is liable to make even more money.
Suddenly Dapper, who has been listening throughout, is drawn back into the conversation and forced to admit that he has overheard. Dapper promises to send the Captain and the Doctor half of the ten thousand pounds he will win, and the Doctor agrees to give him the familiar spirit and introduce him to his aunt, the Queen of Fairies.
There is a knock on the door outside, and Face bundles Dapper out the back way, arranging with him to put vinegar in his nose, mouth, and ears, bathe his fingers’ ends, wash his eyes, cry hum and buz, and return at one o’clock to meet the Queen.


This first “gulling” scene shows us the meta-theater of the play in action. Subtle’s and Face’s relationship and characters change as Face pretends to leave a message for Subtle to give to Dapper: the pretence of the “con” is not discussed by the characters, but they know how to implement it in a split second. Face becomes the jovial “Captain Face” (referring, perhaps, to an imagined military past), and Subtle becomes “the Doctor,” who has the power to produce a “fly,” a personal familiar spirit, which will attend Dapper and aid his gambling.
It is interesting that the argument that opens the play itself also opens the con. Dapper is immediately made vulnerable by the way the conmen instantly place him at the center of an argument. His being late, having temporarily given up his watch, is a straightforward symbol of his gullibility. The “Captain” urges the Doctor to help with Dapper’s request, and the “Doctor” refuses. It is Dapper who makes the peace when, at one stage, the “Captain” seems to be storming out in a rage.
When the two conmen whisper to each other, perfectly aware that Dapper is overhearing their words, it is Dapper again who is called into question. He is accused of lying, of eavesdropping, and of wanting more than he claims to want. By questioning his believability, they ensure that he is never able to question theirs.
This episode might be seen as what in modern parlance is called “confidence trickery.” Dapper comes into the scene cocky and confident, but he is immediately undermined and thrown off guard, further able to be gulled.

Summary and Analysis of Act 1, Scenes 3 and 4

After Face’s exit, Subtle welcomes Abel Drugger (sometimes called “Nab”), a tobacconist who, like Dapper, was sent by “one Captain Face.” Face has apparently told Dapper (according to his initial, stumbling monologue) that the Doctor “knows men’s planets.” In short, Dapper wants astrological advice about the feng shui of the new tobacconist’s shop he is about to open: where to place his boxes, where his pots, where the door and windows should be, and so on.
Face enters, fresh from escorting Dapper outside. He greets Drugger warmly, for he provides Face, apparently, with the best, highest-quality tobacco. Immediately the “Doctor” decides that Abel is a “fortunate fellow” and predicts that he will soon come into great riches and will be made a sheriff. Subtle then, according to the “metoposcopy” he claims to work by, reads Drugger’s skin color, forehead, ear, teeth, and nails in order to ascertain that he was born on a Wednesday.
Subtle then performs a rapid feng shui treatment on the plan of Drugger’s shop, positioning the doors and providing the names of spirits who can “fright flies from boxes.” He then predicts that Drugger will deal “much with minerals” and may even have a chance at acquiring the Philosopher’s Stone. Drugger, like Dapper before him, is coerced into leaving money for the Doctor for his services, though not before he has produced his almanac so that the Doctor can cross out his unlucky days. The Doctor promises to have it done by afternoon, and Drugger excitedly leaves.
After he has left, the conmen come out of character for the first time since Act 1, Scene 1. Face makes a short speech, provocatively pointing out to Subtle that the two gulls who have just come through the doors were arranged and brought in by him alone.
As the argument looks set to rekindle itself, Dol enters, and the two immediately attempt to look nonchalant. Dol has been sending the “fish-wives” away from the door (presumably they are gulled characters who are constantly present near the door, but never seen by the audience). Dol has seen Sir Epicure Mammon heading this way. Subtle gleefully describes having waited for him since sunrise. Mammon, he tells us, is so convinced that he will have the Philosopher’s Stone that he is already behaving as if he does have it and the wealth it would produce.


What Drugger’s entrance immediately makes clear to the audience is the facility Subtle and Face have for suiting their cons to the persons they want to con. Nervous, hesitant Drugger is comically sympathetic as he is greeted firmly and definitely by the Doctor and Captain Face, both of whom seem twice as confident and have far higher status than he does.
The conmen’s method, though it is not entirely clear from the scene, is a combination of straightforward lying—the “certain star” in Drugger’s forehead, which only Subtle can see, is an omen of his wealth, good guesswork—that Drugger is born on a Wednesday, and stating the obvious—Subtle’s list of the chemicals Drugger possesses is a list of the standard chemicals any mineral-dealer would have. Thus they convince him that they have unearthly powers. From now on in the play, Drugger will do exactly as he is told.
There is an interesting turn already due to the treatment of the gulls. Drugger only wishes “to thrive,” and his innocent naivete makes him instantly sympathetic. Jonson’s view of the conmen is always ambiguous, but the introduction of Drugger certainly suggests that the audience might become aware of the cruelty and brutality of the cons. Conning, after all, is theft more than comedy, and we start to feel more sympathy for the gulls than for the protagonists.
Jonson carefully keeps the relationship between the conmen spiky. As the scene ends, it seems that they are about to get into another argument, but Dol’s entrance stops it. Face claims, again, that his part in the business is essential to its success—without him, Subtle would have nobody to con with his “crosslets, crucibles, and cucurbites [flasks].” Jonson keeps the audience aware of the fact that the plot of The Alchemist is not just a string of successful cons. There remains a constant question or disagreement about who is the better or more prominent partner. For them, it means who deserves what share of the profits; for us, it means assessing the quality of the performances.
Act 1, Scene 4 serves one main purpose: to build up expectation for the entrance of Epicure Mammon. If Dapper introduces the idea of conning and Drugger makes the gulls seem humanized and sympathetic, Epicure Mammon will bring a new level of interest to the play. He is at once more colorful, more outrageous, and more greedy than any of the other gulls. Fittingly, his final humiliation will be all the greater.

Summary and Analysis of Act 2, Scenes 1, 2, and 3

Sir Epicure Mammon begins Act 2, Scene 1, with a lengthy speech. In heightened poetic language, he compares the Blackfriars house to “the rich Peru,” “the golden mines,” and “Great Solomon’s Ophir.” Surly from the start is lagging behind (he is, naturally, surly) and calls into question Mammon’s assumptions that he will end up rich. Mammon is in this excited state because today is the day the Philosopher’s Stone is due to be ready. Surly warns him only to believe in things when he sees them with his own eyes. When Mammon talks about the effects of the “great med’cine,” Surly says he will believe it, but only “when I see’t.”
Mammon has extravagant plans to cure all diseases, become immortal, and have sex with several different wives at once (he will, he says, encounter “twenty a night”). He also possesses, he says to Surly, several relics already: “dragon’s teeth” and “a piece of Jason’s fleece. They are very unlikely genuine, but Mammon of course believes they are.
Face enters, dressed as Lungs, the bellows-man (who blows air into the furnace), and he tells Mammon that the stone has gone “red,” a very good sign that it is nearly fully alchemized. Mammon promises him extensive riches if the stone does indeed form correctly. This is plainly ironic because Face is already making money from the very idea of the stone. Mammon indulges in further lengthy descriptions of his future lifestyle when he is very rich—the rich clothes he will wear, the fine foods he will eat, and the status he will be afforded in the world.
Subtle enters as the “Alchemist” and is treated very respectfully by Mammon, who addresses him as “Father.” According to Mammon, Surly has been brought along “in hope … to convert him” to believing in the Alchemist. Immediately Subtle worries Mammon by suggesting that he might be covetous (see “A note on alchemy” in this ClassicNote) and that the stone may therefore not form. Face and Subtle then baffle Mammon with a torrent of dense, scientific language which neither Mammon nor Surly understands. (The speakers probably do not understand it, either.)
Face exits to “change the filter” and bring Subtle the “complexion of glass B,” two imaginary adjustments to what might well be an imaginary furnace. Face returns with the bad news that glass B is black, which unsurprisingly needs a financial investment of ten pounds from Mammon to buy “some three ounces of fresh materials,” which will provide a better chance of developing the stone. Mammon, excited by this, decides to bring all of the metal from his house to the Blackfriars so that it is ready to be converted into gold.
Subtle expounds the theory of alchemy at length, explaining to the cynical Surly that objects are always in flux and that, in the way that an egg can become a chicken, base metal is waiting to be transformed into gold. The speech is a tour de force, though Surly is not convinced, and he calls alchemy “a pretty kind of game … to cheat a man.” Surly points out that all Subtle’s “terms” (his scientific language) are only words that mean nothing to the layman; besides, there is no evidence of anything that the alchemy has achieved—just a storm of words. Subtle is slightly perplexed by this accurate argument, and he tells Surly that “all the knowledge / of the Egyptians” was “writ in mystic symbols,” and the “Scriptures” likewise speak “oft in parables.”
Suddenly Dol enters, and Mammon is immediately besotted. Subtle sends Face in to see what is going on, and when Face returns, Mammon questions him in the absence of Subtle. Dol is pretending to be, as Face reveals to Mammon, a “rare scholar” who has “gone mad” studying a scholar called Broughton, and who has come to the Doctor to be cured. Surly is not convinced, feeling sure that this is “a bawdy house.” Mammon is desperate to meet this scholar, and Face promises to set up a meeting. Surly remains cynical, and Face persuades Surly to meet “Captain Face” at the Temple Church in half an hour.
The scene ends with a touching moment when Mammon reveals his own total lack of self-worth. “Wilt thou … be constant to thy promise?” he asks Face, “And wilt thou … praise me? / And say I am a noble fellow?” When Face agrees, Mammon is so excited and moved by the prospect of being praised that he exclaims, “Lungs, my Lungs! I love thee!” and, handing over still more money to Face, exits.


Mammon is the play’s most imaginative character and the best example of someone who is prepared, in Surly’s words, practically to gull himself. His comparisons of the Blackfriars house and its business to all manner of classical, worldly, and literary wonders exemplifies the way he is prepared to be optimistic almost to the point of absurdity. Mammon, when propelled by his considerable greed, seems unable to live in the real world. He lives more in the dream-land of “what it will be like when I am rich.”
Moreover, we never see any real alchemy, and the “furnace” that Lovewit describes is offstage. The alchemical language that Face and Subtle talk to baffle Mammon in this scene seems to be genuinely accurate according to 17th-century ideas about alchemy. But as Anne Barton points out, it is “real” only in “words”: again, the glasses, furnaces, and bubbling liquids that the pair describe are situated offstage.
As in so much theatre, particularly Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, we are asked to believe in things that we never see. In this case, we are also invited not to believe; perhaps the furnace does not exist or, at least, exists not in the way that Lovewit describes it. This point again brings up the general point about theater: Mammon’s belief, so mocked by Surly, is much the same belief that the audience chooses to have in order to make the play itself function. Again, the suggestion is that theater itself is a con not unlike the ones Face and Subtle carry out. What saves theater is our trust for the playwright; we believe temporarily in what is false because we might get something worth gold out of it, and a good playwright will see to it that we do.
This idea itself, which is repeatedly drawn out during the scene, is in the play itself, for theater itself, the world of the poets, involves a process of believing in things when they are not actually in front of us. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the Chorus asks the audience to “Think when we talk of horses, that you see them,” and this is exactly what Mammon does. Anticipating his riches gives him extreme pleasure before he even has them. We do the same in anticipating the good that comes or will come out of our experience in the audience.
Dol’s entrance into the middle of Act 2, Scene 3, is another good example of the play’s constant ambiguity about what is a con and what is real. Jonson does not set up the idea that Dol is due to enter, and it is only afterwards that we realize it has been another con to trick Mammon into handing over more money. Like Drugger, Mammon becomes a bit sympathetic, and there is something endearing about his enthusiasm. Surly, on the other hand, is cynical to the point of being dislikeable. Jonson is brilliant at balancing our responses: the conmen are glitteringly clever but morally corrupt while Mammon, though greedy and unpleasant, is self-doubting and sympathetically pathetic. There are no good characters here, just various shades of bad characters. Can any gold really come out of that for us?

Summary and Analysis of Act 2, Scenes 4, 5, and 6

Face and Subtle are delighted that Mammon has been further conned, and they compare him to a fish that has taken the bait and will now be “twitched”–pulled out of the water and killed. The two also talk about the metal that Mammon is going to send them, including his “andirons” (fire-irons) and his “iron shoeing-horn.” Face is about to lrave for the Temple Church to meet Surly when there is a knock at the door. It is Ananias, Subtle’s “Anabaptist” to whom he is going to sell Mammon’s metal.
The two change characters again. Subtle “in a new tune, new gesture, but old language” takes on the mantle of a highly religious old man, temperamental and intimidating. Another whirl of scientific language baffles Ananias, who says he understands “no heathen language” (ungodly language). Ananias is a religious fundamentalist, and he takes it to an extreme: even Greek (the language of the New Testament) is heathen, as is every language but Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament, akin to the language spoken by Jesus).
Subtle reacts vehemently to the suggestion that his alchemical language is heathen, and he prompts Face to define several alchemical terms, asking Ananias angrily, “This’s heathen Greek to you?” after the complicated definitions. Subtle is deeply intimidating, and he briskly asks Ananias, “what are you, sir?”
Ananias has come from Tribulation Wholesome, to whom Subtle purportedly will sell some orphans’ metal, which will be turned into gold for the Anabaptists. Ananias, in an interesting admission, says that the Brethren will only “deal justly” and give the real value of the metal if the orphans’ parents are “sincere professors” (of their understanding of Christianity). Ananias then tells Subtle that the Brethren (the Anabaptists) will not give him any more money for the Philosopher’s Stone until they can see some results—the same problem that Surly posed in the previous scene.
This is no good to Subtle, who cannot provide any visible results and who therefore seizes on the biblical source of Ananias’s name (“the varlet / That cozened the Apostles!”) to justify a hastily improvised fury. Ananias is thrown out, and Subtle makes the final comment of the scene: this rage will fetch the Brethren back and “make ’em haste towards their gulling more.”
Suddenly Face appears unexpectedly with Drugger, who wants a sign for his shop. Subtle does not really know what to suggest, and Face makes helpful suggestions: “What say you to his constellation, Doctor?” This provokes Subtle into a hilarious wordplay representation of “Abel Drugger”: a bell, a man called Dee (presumably suggesting John Dee, the famous occultist) in a rug gown, and a “dog snarling Er,” thus A-bell Dee-rug-er. Drugger hands over some more tobacco for the service. He also mentions “a rich young widow” whom he wants to marry.
Subtle and Face are immediately interested and, when Drugger mentions that this widow (Dame Pliant) “strangely longs to know her fortune,” they persuade Drugger to bring the widow to the house. Her brother (Kastrill), Drugger tells them, is determined that she will marry–at least marrying a knight. When Drugger mentions that Kastrill is determined to be an “angry boy” and quarrel, Face immediately claims that the Doctor “is the only man” to teach him. Drugger exits to fetch them. As he leaves, Face asks him to bring a length of damask.
The two argue about who will marry the widow, and they agree to see her before making a decision. They also agree that Dol will not be told about it. Suddenly Subtle remembers that Face is supposed to be meeting Surly at the Temple Church, and Face rushes off.


The methods Subtle uses to attempt to gull Ananias are reworked versions of what he has already used on Dapper, Drugger, and Mammon: anger, torrents of scientific terminology, and the promise of riches.
Ananias, the hyper-Christian, is hypocritical, admitting that the Brethren give preferential treatment to people of their own faith. Ananias is quick to damn all others as “heathen.” Throughout the play Ananias seems, as he does in this scene, dislikeable, arrogant, and–like the character Subtle adopts to oppose him–quick-tempered. Those who are so explicitly Christians in The Alchemist are not treated kindly by Jonson.
It is another interesting reflection of the power of words within the play that Ananias is offended by the idea of a language that is not Hebrew, the original language of the Bible, and therefore considered the most holy. In the play, language itself is a major focus of attention. It can transform things, convince people of things, and be “holy” or “unholy” by nature. The alchemical jargon works almost as a witch’s incantation, though it results in no tangible changes of raw materials.
Ananias’s refusal to bring more money has to be overcome by Subtle, and his final speech in Act 2, Scene 5, is an interesting example of the conmen’s ability to improvise emotion in order to serve their purposes. Subtle even takes stock of what he has just done at the end of the scene, satisfied that he has ensured that the Brethren will come back. We are reminded, meta-theatrically, of the conmen’s startling ability to take up or discard a character at a moment’s notice.
Drugger’s request provides some comic relief after the harsher and more bitter scene with Ananias. Drugger’s warmth and shyness are immediately endearing. The business of making his cute sign is comic, for Subtle and Face specialize in making “outward signs” such as roles, costumes, and other suggestions and signifiers of things that are not really there.
Drugger is also used by Jonson to provide the exposition about Kastrill’s and Dame Pliant’s background that is necessary before they are introduced seamlessly in the next act. Such plot-making is often cited as a key facet of Jonson’s ability as a playwright. It seems that in The Alchemist, as in Volpone and Epicoene, that there is no wasted material—and that, in Tynan’s image, the plot clicks neatly and tightly together like beads on a string.

Summary and Analysis of Act 3, Scenes 1 and 2

Tribulation, Pastor of the Anabaptists, returns to the house with Ananias, who was thrown out by Subtle in the previous act. Tribulation tells Ananias that religious saints have to bear such “chastisements.” Ananias, aggressive as ever, says he does not like Subtle because he is a “heathen.” Tribulation agrees but repudiates Ananias’s suggestion that the “sanctified cause / should have a sanctified course” with the neat half-line, “Not always necessary.” Sometimes, Tribulation argues, the “heathen” children can be “instruments even of the greatest works.” Moreover, Tribulation continues, since Subtle is constantly around fire and furnaces, it is natural that he has become a bit like the devil. Besides, the Brethren really need all the money they will make from him. Ananias greets this rather contrived argument like a religious epiphany, and they knock on the door.
Subtle carries on with his fury from the last scene, forcing the Anabaptists to plead with him and offer some form of compromise before the financial conversation can really begin. Tribulation promises that the Brethren did not intend “to give you the least grievance, but are ready / to lend their willing hands to any project … you direct,” though it is only when he tells Subtle “the Saints / Throw down their purse before you” that Subtle is finally convinced.
Subtle gives a lengthy speech detailing the good the Philosopher’s Stone will bring to the Brethren: curing illness, making the old young again, restoring beauty, turning people’s metal to gold, and–through all of these charities–winning converts to Anabaptism. Subtle also advertises the possibility of being rich enough to raise an army to conquer the world in the name of Anabaptism. Ananias and Tribulation are delighted at this prospect of the Church militant.
Throughout this scene Ananias makes odd and angry corrections of Subtle, which threaten to provoke Subtle’s wrath but are quickly diverted by Tribulation, until Ananias launches into a furious rant against “traditions” seemingly for no reason other than because the word “tradition” has just been spoken.
Eventually Subtle promises Tribulation that the stone will be ready in fifteen days, and he extracts one hundred marks from the Brethren for the orphans’ goods (which Mammon, presumably, has already had delivered into the cellar). When Tribulation balks at this sum, he is reassured, “you’ll make six millions of ’em!” As Tribulation and Ananias exit to view the orphans’ goods, Subtle promises he can “cast” or melt them down, then remold the pewter into gold coins. Tribulation is not sure whether casting of money is legal under Christian law, however, and he resolves to check with the Brethren.
A knock at the door makes Subtle rapidly dispatch the Anabaptists into another room to “view the parcels.”


Jonson’s presentation of the Anabaptist Christians as more greedy than the other gulls, despite their good intentions, hits new heights in these two scenes. It is a darkly comic irony that these supposed guardians of morality are so ready to fight, even on the world stage. Tribulation does recognize that Ananias is haunted by “ignorant zeal,” and Tribulation is much more mature in his faith. It is possible that Tribulation is just refraining from judging all the corruption advertised in the promises and possibilities presented by Subtle, but he also lets it all pass as though he condones it. Subtle even advertises the Faustian bargain: “You may be any thing,” perhaps picking up on the Pauline idea of Christians being all things to all men, but in this context one cannot quite reach such a charitable interpretation. When Subtle advertises that the Anabaptists will no longer, out of a lack of resources, have to libel (lie) against the prelates, choose weird names like “Tribulation Wholesome,” or even “rail against plays,” Tribulation responds that such questionable activities are “very notable” methods invented for noble purposes.
Ananias’s fanatical aggression about the tiniest details makes him rather violent and unpredictable. Anabaptists were famous in Jonson’s day for this kind of specific and uncompromising zeal, which we still can observe among some religious fundamentalists today. The Anabaptists’ name and sect stem from the fact that they would only baptize adults because a baby would not know what it believed in. (That is, they chose “believer’s baptism” over paedobaptism.) Tribulation is the wiser and the more worldly of the two, while Ananias’s fervor seems to be expressed mainly by shouting.
The stock joke in this scene is that these extreme Anabaptists are so hypocritical and corrupt that on the one hand they will pick apart language, but on other hand sacrifice key beliefs in order to, for instance, achieve military domination and spread their religion by force. What happened to the Anabaptist doctrine of having a voluntary association of true believers? At least, Tribulation is unsure about the morality of coining money apart from the state, but it is not easy to see how this scruple is more important than worrying about gambling on an alchemist’s ability to turn orphans’ iron into gold.

Summary and Analysis of Act 3, Scenes 3, 4, and 5

The knock on the door is from Face, returning from the Temple Church with the news that Surly has not turned up. Yet Face has met, while out, a Spanish Don who has come with lots of rich goods. Face has persuaded him to come back to the house and sleep with Dol. Subtle exits to get Dol ready for this meeting (“she must prepare perfumes”) and to get rid of the Anabaptists. Face reflects on how much money has already been made today.
Dol enters, and Face tells her about the Spanish Don. Midway through their conversation, Subtle enters with the Anabaptists’ money, wishing they could sell the orphans’ goods a second time. Face suggests that Drugger might buy them. Subtle asks Face how he found this Spanish Don, and Face refuses to tell him, saying only “I ha’ my flies abroad.” Another knock on the door interrupts them. Dapper has returned to meet his “aunt,” and Dol is dispatched to get into her “queen of Fairy” costume.
Suddenly Drugger and Kastrill are at the door, too, and while Subtle and Dol are preparing to gull Dapper, Face has to occupy the three gulls in the room. Drugger brings tobacco (having forgotten the damask) and introduces Kastrill, who aggressively informs Face that he has come to check out the Blackfriars house to see if it is good enough for his sister. Immediately Face cons him into fear and awe of the Doctor, who Face claims is an expert in quarrelling. Face then cleverly praises Dapper in order to intimidate Kastrill.
Face then prompts Drugger to recount the time Drugger drank too much and was sick, and the time he had to pay too much taxes and his hair fell out. He is pretending (of course, Face heard Drugger tell the story) that the Doctor told Face the story. Kastrill is impressed, and he exits with Drugger to fetch his sister.
Face has Dapper hand over a lot of money before meeting the Fairy Queen, and together with Subtle (who is now dressed “like a Priest of Fairy”), the conmen blindfold Dapper and encourage him to throw away all his worldly possessions–his purse, his handkerchiefs, his ring, his silver bracelet–which they then take.
Dol enters with a cithern, and the conmen pretend the fairies have arrived. Dapper, blindfolded, is viciously pinched because “the fairies” claim he has not thrown everything away. With the conmen making the noise of fairies (“ti ti ti ti”) and pinching him, Dapper finally “throws away” a paper with a coin in it, and then a “half crown of gold” that he wears on his wrist, which his love gave him before she left him.
During this ridiculous scene, Dol suddenly sees Mammon at the window. While Subtle continues to talk to Dapper about the Fairy Queen, Face changes onstage into his “Lungs” costume. Subtle gags Dapper with a piece of gingerbread (often, in modern productions, a piece that he finds on the floor), and they lock Dapper in the privy until they can get rid of Mammon.


Jonson is brilliant at keeping the plot constantly moving forward, and the announcement of the Spanish Don is another brilliant piece of exposition. The Don is in fact Surly, but the audience (and the conmen) do not yet know it. When Surly enters as the Spaniard, we have already been well-prepared for his arrival, and therefore the first time in the play that the conmen are caught unawares can be explored immediately, without us having to process information about a new character.
The scenes “between cons” have a decidedly behind-the-scenes feel to them, as if we are seeing the actors out of character, backstage. Jonson is careful to thread throughout these scenes the primary dramatic argument which began the play: Subtle and Face are still competing over who is more essential to the con business. Face here, in boasting about having found the Don, makes subtly clear his own argument for his supremacy. Yet, as ever, just as this argument begins to spark up, the conmen are interrupted.
Dol’s line in Act 3, Scene 3, “Yes, say lord General, how fares our camp?” is a quote from Thomas Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy, again demonstrating the intertextuality of The Alchemist. Jonson never lets us forget that we are at the theater. This device might usefully be compared with Brecht’s notion of alienation (see the ClassicNote on Mother Courage and her Children), employing the premise that the audience should not get carried away by a play uncritically.
Kastrill is another gull, an “angry boy,” who would have been instantly recognizable to Jonson’s audience. Young, impetuous, and keen to be a man, he is instantly gulled by Face, who puts on a display, involving Dapper and Drugger, of out-and-out masculinity. It is interesting that this set of pretences involves all the men together presenting solidarity and strength, despite earlier scenes showing that they are all vulnerable and longing for supernatural or extraordinary alchemical aid. What Face sees in Kastrill is the difference between what he is (a boy) and what he wants to be (a man). Like any good conman or negotiator, he suggests that he can help the boy get what he wants.
The “Fairy Queen” sequence is almost a play within a play. Dol provides musical accompaniment while Subtle and Face play the fairies. Blindfolded, Dapper is the only audience member in the theater, and he believes what is happening. Unfortunately, this belief leads him to give away all his valuable possessions. Characteristically, Jonson cuts short the Fairy Queen section by introducing Mammon again. The interruptions increase the sense that the conmen’s actions are improvised while they leave the audience wanting more. We are tantalized by each of these brilliant comic set pieces.
There is a humanizing touch in Dapper’s final agreement to give away the keepsake of his love, who has since forsaken him. This tiny, personal, emotional detail makes Dapper much more sympathetic than just a bland legal clerk. Our reaction to the way the conmen so brutally fleece him of his money suddenly becomes morally problematic. Don’t we feel sorry for him as we laugh at what happens to him? Comedy often has its dark side.

Summary and Analysis of Act 4, Scenes 1 and 2

Subtle has left to change into his Doctor’s robes, and Face (as Lungs) greets Mammon, who is here to meet with Dol. Face tells Mammon that the Doctor would be furious if he knew of the meeting, so he warns him to keep his voice down when he is talking to Dol–for the Doctor, he says, is working at the furnace. Face tells Mammon he has been praising him to Dol, and he then leaves to bring her. Mammon gives himself a pep talk, advising himself to “heighten thyself’ and “talk to her all in gold.”
Dol enters with Face, pretending to be a “great lady” (i.e., “noble”), and her conversation with Mammon is an odd mixture of pecuniary puns and obscene double meanings (Mammon leans to “kiss [her] vesture” at one point). Face provides ironic commentary on the scene, and Mammon’s language rises to higher and higher peaks. At one point, Dol Common resembles an “Austriac Prince,” with the Valois nose and the Medici forehead, all symbols of Renaissance nobility.
Mammon talks to Dol about her studies (she is, remember, posing as a mad student of Broughton’s works under the Doctor). Excited by her displayed nobility (“It is a noble humor”), he gives her a diamond ring. He brags that he is the “lord of the philosopher’s stone,” telling Dol she is its “lady.” His fantasies climb as he dreams aloud of removing her from the Blackfriars house and taking her off to “a free state” where they will eat the most glorious foods, such as “shrimps … in a rare butter, made of dolphins’ milk.”
Face returns to tell Mammon he is too loud, and he takes the two of them offstage to a “fitter place,” warning him not to mention Broughton.
Subtle comes back into the room after Dol and Mammon have left to announce that the widow has arrived and that she is pretty. Face realizes he will have to change out of his Lungs costumes and back into his “captainship” as Captain Face. He angrily suggests that Subtle will have “the first kiss, ’cause I am not ready.” Both conmen seem keen to marry the widow.
As Kastrill enters, Subtle immediately has him quarrel, and unsurprisingly he is appalled at Kastrill’s “ill logic” and lack of true quarrelling “grammar.” This critique intimidates and impresses Kastrill, who resolves to learn quarrelling from the Doctor. Subtle is in the middle of his quarrelling lecture when he suddenly sees Dame Pliant, the widow, and kisses her several times, which delights Kastrill. He then takes her hand and relates her fortune: she is to marry “a man of art,” perhaps the Doctor himself.
Face enters and interrupts. He is invited to kiss Dame Pliant. Immediately he and Subtle talk aside, and Face reveals that “The count is come,” and either Subtle or Face must occupy him. Both of them want to stay with the widow, however, but eventually Subtle takes her and Kastrill upstairs to look at something that will reveal more to them.


Tonally, the Mammon-Dol love scene is one of the most unusual in the play, and it is often cut down or cut altogether in performance. Jonson’s expert balance between sentimentality and brutality, however, comes to a head in this central scene of the play: it is a love scene between a wealthy man who has no wealth and a noblewoman who is a prostitute. What this scene really displays is Mammon’s capacity to delude himself completely, and the irony of his comparing Dol to Renaissance nobility is that, of course, she is only a Blackfriars prostitute. It is at once a hilarious and sad construction. We feel sorry for Mammon’s genuine tenderness, for we know he is being tricked, yet we revel in the irony of, as Face says, having “Dol Common for a great lady.” Is this a brutal scene which exploits Mammon’s genuine tenderness for Dol, leading us to feel sorry for Mammon and what he is put through? Or is it rather a scene in which greedy and self-obsessed Mammon gets exactly what he deserves? We cannot quite laugh without facing the moral question as well.
Again faith and belief are a central question in the scene, for Dol claims not to believe Mammon’s boasts about his wealth and the luxurious lifestyle he will enjoy. That is one reason why he gives her the diamond ring: “to bind you to believe me.” Again and again in The Alchemist the gulls are made to feel that they are being questioned, and in persuading Dol, Mammon gulls himself even further.
Mammon’s verse hits an interesting note when it reaches the final description of foodstuffs (lines 155-169). As the climax of his fantasies in this scene, the greediness of his appetite seems a fitting emblem of his character throughout. One might see the lines also as an indication that the actor playing Mammon should be fat. When Ian Richardson, the greatest Mammon in recent memory, played the scene at London’s National Theatre in 2006, he gave it a rising crescendo toward which this final speech was a truly memorable peak.
Face’s line in Act 4, Scene 2, wishing for a suit to “fall now, like a curtain,” is another key theatrical image among the wealth of theatrical language in the play. This tension–the on-stage discussion of costume–also reminds us that Face does not trust Subtle at all.
Kastrill’s earlier introduction in Act 3, Scene 4, has already slightly intimidated him at the hands of Face. Here his gulling is extremely quick, perhaps because Subtle is keen to move on to the widow. Dame Pliant, who hardly says a word in this scene or elsewhere in the play, represents a sexual object to be set alongside the financial objects the conmen desire. Accordingly, the conmen immediately argued over who would get to sleep with her first. She also (and perhaps more importantly, to them) is a financial object, being recently widowed; a marriage to her would be extremely profitable. In some ways, this empty vessel of a widow, pretty and rich, is the embodiment of everything Subtle and Face are out to gain.

Summary and Analysis of Act 4, Scenes 3 and 4

There is another argument, increasing in ferocity, about whether Subtle or Face should have the Widow. Face even offers Subtle money in order that he can have the widow (Subtle refuses), and it is only when Subtle threatens to tell Dol about what Face wants that the argument ceases, begrudgingly.
Surly enters, dressed as a Spaniard, and he speaks in Spanish to the conmen, neither of whom seems to understand him. The two conmen mock and laugh openly at the costume, thinking that he cannot understand English. They feel his pockets and tell him mockingly that he shall be “cozened”–thinking the Spaniard will not know the word. When Surly talks of his “Señora,” they remember that he is here to sleep with Dol, who is otherwise occupied with Mammon. This poses something of a problem, and the argument instantly flares back up.
Face argues that the Widow should be given over to the Don. Subtle, backtracking, tries to get money out of him, as Face had earlier suggested, for “Subtle’s share” in the widow. Face, his interest in the widow now removed in favor of giving her to the Don, threatens to call Dol, and Subtle now has to concede. Subtle is furious, calling Face a “terrible rogue,” but the two shake hands on the deal (further evidence of their mutual distrust). Face leaves to bring Dame Pliant and Kastrill, and Subtle takes Surly up to the bathroom. As he leaves, he tells the audience that he intends to sleep with the widow regardless and thus revenge himself on “this impetuous Face.”
Face re-enters with Dame Pliant and Kastrill, who seems delighted at the idea that his sister will be a “Spanish Countess.” Subtle enters, and Dame Pliant shocks the assembled company by saying she will “never brook a Spaniard.” Subtle’s attempt at persuasion is to say, “you must love him or be miserable,” and Kastrill’s attempt is stronger: “you shall love him, or I’ll kick you.” Subtle and Face then paint a picture of Dame Pliant as a Countess, finely dressed and traveling in pomp with eight horses and coaches to hurry her through London, tempting her further.
Surly now enters unexpectedly, and Face has to cover (with, perhaps, a hidden aggressive comment to Subtle): “the doctor knew he would be here, by his art!” He picks up Dame Pliant and carries her out to the garden. Subtle sees the opportunity to get rid of Mammon, takes Kastrill out to continue “our quarrelling lesson,” and then sends Face to get Mammon.


The Spanish Don is an interesting contemporary choice for a city comedy (that is, a comedy set in a modern-day city). The contemporary resonance of that character is acknowledged in Dame Pliant’s line explaining why she will never marry a Spaniard: “Never ’sin eighty-eight could I abide ’em,” she says, then acknowledging that 1588 was three years before she was born (making her exactly twenty-five years old). Everyone would know that 1588 was the defeat of the Spanish Armada, an English triumph, which tipped the balance of a long and frightening conflict in England’s favor for the first time.
The joking at the expense of the Spaniard has been read a number of ways—more deeply than as a mockery of the Spanish language and Spanish costume. On many levels, the play is about the importance of what Face calls the “common cause” in Act 4, Scene 3, and the gulls do have a common cause in their greed. Similarly, it is important for Face to remind Subtle of the “common cause”; as Dol points out in the play’s first scene, the con only works if three people’s efforts point in the same direction, a “venture tripartite.” Surly is a con as the Spaniard; what is this suggesting as the common cause, if any, of Spain and England?
When Surly enters, dressed like a Spaniard, the audience might believe that the same actor was simply doubling as an entirely different character, not Surly in disguise. Like Face and Subtle, we thus might also buy into the convention; we do not yet know for sure that the Spanish don is really Surly. The theater game is, again, double: the gulls believe in the conmen while we “believe” in the theater.
The argument over Dame Pliant escalates in this scene. Subtle’s promise that he will be revenged further complicates the sense that the play is starting to accelerate beyond the conmen’s control. Surly’s sudden entrance into Act 4, Scene 3, foreshadows the numerous entrances into Act 4, Scene 7.

Summary and Analysis of Act 4, Scenes 5, 6, and 7

Dol enters “in her fit of talking.” Mammon has mentioned Broughton, which he was told not to mention, and her (pretend) madness has been activated. Mammon panics, and he desperately tries to get her to talk sense, but she will not. Face enters, dressed as Lungs, and he asks Mammon what happened.
Subtle shouts from offstage, “What’s to do there?” and the tension escalates toward a terrific entry at which the characters “disperse,” leaving only Mammon to pathetically ask, “Where shall I hide me?” Subtle pretends fury and stamps on Mammon’s weak suggestion that “There was no unchaste purpose,” telling him that his behavior will “retard / The work, a month at least.” Suddenly there is “a great crack and noise within,” and Lungs enters to report that the furnace, with all its glasses and scientific equipment, has been destroyed. Subtle says nothing but “falls down as in a swoon.”
There is a knock on the door, and Face tells Mammon, who stands “readier to depart” than the “fainted” Subtle, that Dol’s brother is at the door. Dol’s brother is as furious, Face tells Mammon, as Dol is mad, and he advises Mammon to escape as quickly as possible. Subtle “seems to come to himself” and rails against the sin and vice that has ruined his work. Face warns Mammon again that he is grieving Subtle and will grieve Dol’s brother more. Mammon agrees to leave. As he is going, Face persuades him to give “a hundred pound” to charity in penance for what he has done–and Face will “send one to you to receive it.”
The door closes, Mammon exits, and–just like that–Subtle is back on his feet. The two of them are delighted that “so much of our care” is “now cast away.” The conmen resolve now to sort out the matter of the Spanish Don and the Widow; it seems as if things have just become much easier. (They haven’t.) As the two conmen exit, Surly and Dame Pliant enter. Surly, now speaking as himself, attempts to explain to her what is going on in this “nest of villains,” but she does not really understand him. Surly tells Pliant that he himself will deal with “these household-rogues.”
At that, Subtle enters and continues to mock the Spanish Don by speaking in English, but he is astonished when, having announced that he will pick the Don’s pockets, the Don answers back in English: “Will you, Don bawd and pickpurse?” Surly immediately fights Subtle, who shouts, “Help! Murder!” As Face enters, Surly bitterly and verbosely delivers a long speech about the con he has uncovered. During this speech, Face makes a quiet exit, and–when Subtle tries to do the same–Surly restrains him.
Face returns with Kastrill, telling him that “now’s the time, if ever you will quarrel.” Face sets Kastrill, delighted to be quarrelling, onto the unsuspecting Surly, who is baffled. Face tells Kastrill that the real Spanish Count is indeed on the way, and that this is an imposter. Kastrill, encouraged by Face, verbally attacks him.
Just as things are settling down, Drugger enters unexpectedly. Face bravely incorporates him into the plans, telling him to “make good what I say” and accusing Surly of cheating Drugger out of tobacco. Drugger plays along, to Surly’s consternation, and when Kastrill refuses to stop “quarrelling,” Surly seems on the verge of escaping.
Ananias, elated because casting dollars has been declared lawful by his fellows, now arrives through the door. He immediately delivers the final blow to Surly’s resistance, attacking his Spanish costume as “profane, lewd, superstitious and idolatrous.” Understandably, Surly escapes.
Kastrill is pleased with himself for quarrelling so well, and he runs after Surly to make good his threats to stop him from returning. Face sends Drugger off to borrow another Spanish suit (presumably to make good on his theory to Kastrill that the real Spanish Don is on the way), and he dispatches Ananias to confer with his brethren about a safe place to undertake the casting of money.
Face mocks Subtle for being “so down upon the least disaster” and makes him grudgingly admit that Subtle would not have coped in that situation without Face. Just when it seems that this chaotic scene has been returned to order, Dol enters with the biggest shock of the play. Lovewit, the master of the house, has returned, and he is standing outside with forty neighbors.
Panic ensues. Face silences Subtle and Dol and makes a plan. He will change back into Jeremy Butler, they will pack their gold and goods into trunks, and they will escape to Ratcliff, where he will meet them tomorrow. But first, Subtle will shave him, for Jeremy Butler, unlike Captain Face, was clean-shaven.


This section of the play is the glorious climax of the farce. Jonson makes everything go wrong until the moment when all the gulls arrive, uninvited, which tests to the limits Face’s powers of improvisation. Lovewit’s arrival finally forces a retreat.
Subtle’s sighting of Mammon “in sin” justifies the explosion of the furnace because alchemy cannot, it is said, take place in a house where sin has been committed, or on behalf of someone who was lustful. Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National Theatre, London, in 2006 made clear that Dol and Mammon actually were caught in the act, with Dol grabbing Mammon as if panicked and, as Subtle enters, freezing in a damning tableau. Still, this and the explosion that follow it are palpably fake; only Mammon’s reactions are genuine. The explosion is more likely to be a small-scale explosion which Face sets off to represent the furnace exploding. In any case, any explosion is deliberate.
The explosion itself has given directors a lot of fun. Hytner’s was reasonably low-key, with a lot of smoke and a loud bang. Hytner said in an interview that the conmen just set off a “stick of dynamite,” always ready as their “get out of jail free card.” The Swan Theatre Company production in Cambridge actually had the door to the furnace room blown off its hinges and flat onto the floor with a huge explosion, visibly set up by Face “behind the scenes.”
Surly’s unmasking reverses the balance against the conmen, and the lines between reality and illusion are dangerously blurred. With Kastrill and Drugger’s combined aggression a solution is found, and the story is hastily re-written by Face to make everything plausible to Kastrill and to ensure the widow’s hand in marriage. It is notable that this scene openly refers to Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy; Drugger is sent to fetch Hieronymo’s hat and ruff, which itself would have been in the company’s store—Hieronymo is Kyd’s main character.
Earlier, too, Dol quotes from Broughton’s A Concent of Scripture (1590) in her “fit of talking.” (Broughton’s work attempts to answer questions of Old Testament chronology.) This further adds to the sense that the play is in part a patchwork of recycled texts, of old pretenses re-adapted. When Subtle enters with the lines “O I have lived too long,” we can be forgiven for comparing him to King Lear.
It is typical of Jonson’s plot-work that, after the terrific pileup of gull after gull, he retains the biggest and best trick for last. Lovewit’s return, completely unexpected by the audience and the characters alike, is a brilliant way of ensuring that the play escalates into its highest gear for the final act. Face now must revert to being “Jeremy the Butler,” a character we have not yet encountered. Anne Barton thinks that Jeremy is Face’s real name, despite the fact that it is not stated in the Dramatis Personae. It would be still more intriguing if this is just another costume in his wardrobe. It is perhaps part of Jonson’s design that Face, who wins over Subtle in the play’s final scene, does so because he has this last trumping disguise–he can exploit his theatricality one level further.

Summary and Analysis of Act 5, Scenes 1, 2, and 3

Lovewit stands outside the house with the Neighbors, who complain to him of all the people who have been going in and out of the house. When Lovewit asks where Jeremy the Butler has been, they say they have not seen him for five or six weeks. Lovewit, worried, sends for a locksmith, and then knocks one more time.
Face, now “clean-shaven as Jeremy,” opens the door and tells Lovewit to back away from the door because the plague has been in the house. Lovewit asks Face if he has had the plague, and when he says he has not, Lovewit asks who has—only Face had been left in the house. “The cat,” replies Face, somewhat bemused, but Lovewit is suspicious. When he repeats what the neighbors have just said, Face denies it outright, without explanation.
This may be a stalemate, but Surly and Mammon arrive, complaining bitterly about the treatment they have had from the conmen, barging past Lovewit to hammer on the door. Lovewit questions them, and they talk of “Subtle and his Lungs.” Face tries to laugh it off as madness, but Surly is suspicious, as well: “This’s a new Face?” he asks. Surly and Mammon exit, promising to return with a search warrant.
“What means this?” asks Lovewit. Face continues to deny all knowledge, but the Neighbors claim to recognize Surly and Mammon. Kastrill now enters and furiously knocks on the door, and he shouts for his sister, who is still inside the house. Before long, he is joined by Ananias and Tribulation. “The world’s turned Bedlam,” says Lovewit, and at that, the final straw breaks the camel’s back. Dapper, having been forgotten in the privy, shouts, “Master Captain, master Doctor!” Inside, Subtle runs to try to shut him up.
Face tries to improvise an answer, telling Lovewit that it is the voice of a spirit, but this is no good. Lovewit marches Face inside and instructs the neighbors to depart. “I am an indulgent master,” Lovewit says, and he instructs Face to reveal all. Face asks him to pardon “th’abuse of your house,” and he promises to help Lovewit “to a widow that … will make you seven years younger.” Amazingly, Lovewit seems pleased, and the two exit together.


After such a tightly wound build-up, the plot of The Alchemist unravels in minutes, and with one final arrival into the scene which Face’s improvisation cannot explain away. Face tries many tactics: straightforward lying, locking the door, claiming that the plague has been to the house, and–in the end–arguing that Dapper’s voice is that of a spirit. But Lovewit seems wiser than the gulls of the play, and he is capable of putting two and two together in a way that many other characters fail to do. His reasoning throughout this scene is what trips Face up. Face, too, does not attempt to hoodwink him at the very end; he seems honest in giving up the widow as a compromise.
What Face does not mention, however, is what will happen to the money left over from the cons. One option, I suggest, is that it is stored in a trapdoor in the stage. This could be the “pelf” to which Face refers in his epilogue.
With the return of the gulls, this is a more intense version of Act 4, Scene 7, with the new presence of Lovewit. Lovewit prevents the possibility of drawing out or delaying the con, for Face cannot surmount its difficulties. It is brilliant that Jonson reintroduces Dapper, who has been entirely forgotten by the conmen and the audience. One of the exciting features of the play is its accuracy in terms of time and Jonson’s painstaking care in picking up all the loose ends in the denouement. Lovewit, mentioned in the first scene, returns for the play’s final scenes, and Dapper, left in the privy to await the Fairy Queen, is not lost.
This is, incidentally, the only part of the play not set inside Lovewit’s house, and therefore it is something of a staging challenge. It presents a real difficulty to directors. Sam Mendes’s RSC production of 1993 used the same set, with Face entering through the same door he had just exited, employing another aspect of meta-theater.

Summary and Analysis of Act 5, Scenes 4 and 5

Back inside Lovewit’s house, Subtle berates Dapper for allowing his gag to crumble away in his mouth—“the fume did overcome me,” Dapper says pathetically, having spent the last hour in a toilet. Face returns, and tells Subtle that he has succeeded in getting rid of Lovewit for tonight. Subtle rejoices at this news, calling Face “the precious king / Of present wits.”
Dol enters “like the Queen of Fairy,” and Subtle forces Dapper to his knees. The conmen indulge in a brief and rather rushed meeting between Dapper and his supposed aunt. Dapper kisses her velvet gowns, Dol strokes his head, and she gives him his spirit in a purse to wear about his neck. Subtle instructs Dapper to bring “a thousand pound / Before tomorrow night,” and as Dapper swears he will, Face, from another room, tries to end proceedings. Dapper is swiftly dispatched by Subtle to sell all of his lands.
Face returns and sends Subtle to the door to meet Drugger, who has brought the Spanish suit. Subtle has to tell him to bring a parson to the house. When he returns, Face takes parts of the suit and exits.
While Face is out, Subtle tells Dol that he intends to take all the goods but not to meet Face in Ratcliff as agreed. He will, like the play, unexpectedly “turn his course” and go somewhere else. Subtle outlines to Dol his dream of what he will do when they “have all,” and the two are kissing when Face returns to send Subtle to collect the parson from Drugger. Face leaves to bestow him, and Subtle crowingly observes that Face thinks he has the upper hand.
When Face returns again, the three itemize the things they have conned from the gulls onstage and off, and they pack them into bags and trunks. Face announces to Subtle and Dol that his master knows all and will keep all the proceeds—an assertion the play never verifies. Subtle and Dol are shocked into silence. A knock on the door prompts them to escape, cursing Face, “over the back wall” without any of the proceeds.
Officers are at the door, and Lovewit enters, newly married to the widow, stripping off his Spanish suit and discarding it before opening the door. Mammon, Surly, Kastrill, Tribulation, and Ananias pour into the house, searching for Captain Face, the Doctor, and “Madame Suppository.” Lovewit invites them to search, and they do, but they find nothing. Lovewit says there are just empty walls, slightly smoked, “a few cracked pots and glasses,” and a bit of graffiti on the walls. Lovewit has met just one person, the widow, whom he has married.
Mammon is hugely relieved to find his own goods and wants to take them back from the cellar so that “I may have home yet.” Lovewit tells him that if he brings “order of law” to prove they are his, then he can take them. Mammon says he’d “rather lose ‘em” and leaves, resolving to “mount a turnip cart and preach / The end o’the world.” Surly, having lost the widow, refuses to cheat himself “with that same foolish vice of honesty!” Tribulation and Ananias are beaten away by Lovewit, and, in a final cruel touch, so is Drugger.
There is a slightly positive turn in the final moments. Kastrill is deeply impressed by the violent, drinking Lovewit. He seems quite satisfied with his new brother-in-law. The two of them go off together with the widow to smoke and drink. Face, left alone on stage to deliver the epilogue, comments that for his part “a little fell in this last scene.” Face refers to the “pelf” (reward) which he has got, and he promises to use it to “feast you often” (meaning us, the audience)—as well as to bring more people to the theater.


This final movement of the play is the key to its unraveling and resolution. Face immediately lies to Subtle about what has gone on–clearly, Face’s resolution has been adapted to his own needs, and Subtle has been cut out of it. This is a central point in this final piece of theatricality: the Fairy Queen is both the least and the most believable part of the play. To the audience, if not to Dapper himself, Dol’s performance as a Fairy is highly unconvincing. Yet, while that performance goes on, another one is working simultaneously towards a conclusion. Face knows that he has to bide his time until Mammon’s officers return to the door, and Subtle and Dol need to be delayed until the last possible moment if he is going to manage to force them out without any of the profits.
Face also manipulates Subtle: Subtle meets Drugger at the door, collects the costume, and tells him to fetch a parson. For the first time, Subtle is doing something without knowing it, for the parson is not to marry Pliant to Face, but to Lovewit. When Face leaves, Subtle’s plan to “turn our course” comes too late, because unbeknownst to him, Face has already turned his course, which is over the back wall with nothing.
To have the proceeds from the cons not seen onstage is perfectly accurate if, as the play suggests, we are seeing the final day of six weeks of conning. It makes sense that there has been much more going on outside of the time of the play itself. Face’s inheritance from the cons, after Dol and Subtle leave hurriedly over the back wall, is considerable and not specifically counted up. As with everything else in the play, we do not really know what its theatrical status is. As about so much else in the play, we now ask: is this supposed to be real or illusory? It is certainly significant that, in a play full of imaginary people, spirits and fairies, Subtle’s final threat to Face is to hang himself and “haunt thee”.
The last scene of the play does nothing to resolve our sympathies with Subtle and Face; in fact, seeing Mammon gulled of so much money that he will lose his house is immediately sympathetic. Yet, he and the other gulls in this final scene constantly refer to the house in theatrical terms: Ananias calls it a “cave of cozenage” and Mammon wonders aloud if everything has been “a dream,” echoing the meta-theatrical endings of plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The more we remember that this is a play, the less we worry about the struggles of imaginary characters.
Jonson even invokes “decorum,” the classical word for theatrical justice, leading us to question whether we think the play has been just or fair. Nevertheless, in the end, the ending of The Alchemist keeps the lines between theater and life somewhat blurred, such as by verifying Surly’s observation that honesty is a “foolish vice.” The winner, Face, remains just that—a mask, a Face—who is theatrically flexible and thereby confounding. And so much of life is this way, so much of it consists of images and interpretations, confusions and dissimulations, remaking of self, plots against others, and mistakes about reality, when we view Jonson’s play we see evidence for the conclusion that all the world is, indeed, a stage.

Suggested Essay Questions

1. Is The Alchemist too cruel to be a comedy?

This question asks you to consider The Alchemist generically as a comedy, but to weigh its sense of humor with the cruelty of the play towards its characters (and perhaps, towards its audience). How would you define a comedy? Does The Alchemist fit your definition?

2. "Believ't, I will." (1.1.1). How important is "belief" to the play as a whole?

This question invites you to examine the concept of belief (and its synonyms) and relate it to your view of the play. Remember that this is the first line of the play, so it might be particularly significant in the author's view. Consider different modes of belief. Theater, remember, relies on what Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief."

3. "Hieronymo's old cloak, ruff and hat will serve" (4.7.71). Analyse Jonson's The Alchemist in the light of what you know about Elizabethan and Jacobean theater.

This quote asks you to look at the play objectively as a piece of theater from 1610, and to combine insights about the play with opinions about the contemporary theater. Where and how is theater mentioned in the play? Are there specific in-jokes within the play itself? (Looking up "Hieronimo" will give you a further clue.)

4. What is the importance of the title of the play?

Consider why Jonson might have called his play The Alchemist. How does alchemy as an idea relate to the play as you understand it? What part does alchemy play in the play? Who is the alchemist--and in what ways is he really an alchemist?

5. "I would be glad to thrive, sir." (1.3.13). Write a character study of Abel Drugger.

Describe Drugger's role in the play by asking questions such as, What sort of man is he? How is he essential to the plot? Why might this quotation be an appropriate starting point for an answer?

6. "His Satire points at no Defect, / But what all Mortals may correct..." (Swift). Do you think The Alchemist's satire is corrective?

This question invites you to consider the different groups that the play satirizes, looking in detail at how they are satirized. Swift here suggests that satire should only point out things that people could then correct; is that how Jonson's satire works? You also should define satire as you see it in relation to The Alchemist.

7. DAPPER: Is this the cunning man?

FACE: This is his worship. (1.2.8-9). Write about the various roles which Face, Subtle, and Dol Common play within The Alchemist and comment on the effect of this role-playing. Outline the different roles played by each of the characters (and consider, briefly, why these might be appropriate or humorous characters for them to take on) and then examine why--within the plot and within the play--they might choose to role-play in this way. Why is acting a good method of gulling?

8. "... you'll make her royal with the stone / An Empress, and yourself King of Bantam." (2.3.319-20). Write a character analysis of Epicure Mammon.

There are many possible approaches to this huge question. What is Mammon's purpose in the play? What does his name mean? What sort of character is he? How does he interact with Surly, and what does Surly teach us about Mammon?

9. "'Fore God! My intelligence / Costs me more money, than my share oft comes to" (1.4.107-8). How important is money to The Alchemist?

This question asks you to look at the play through a thematic lens. Money is the reason that Face and Subtle carry out the cons, but it is also the reason many of the gulls want to visit the Blackfriars house. A good answer to this question might consider both angles. Does the play suggest anything about Jonson's financial purpose in writing the play?

10. "I fart at thee." (1.1.1). Analyse the continuing quarrel between Face and Subtle in The Alchemist.

Describe the various points of quarrelling (start at the first scene) during the play, and look at the roles they take in the play as a whole. What is each quarrel about? Especially important might be an interpretation of the ending: how does the quarrel crucially change the final events before Lovewit's re-arrival? For comparison, consider the other quarrels in the play.

Alchemy is the process of turning base metal into gold. For Jonson, it was also characterized as the pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone (which could be a liquid), the thing that would effect or catalyze the transformation. The name comes from a place called Al-Kemia, the Black Land or Egypt, perhaps named after the black soil of the Nile.
Alchemy disappeared after the fall of Rome and reappeared in 12th century Europe, and was translated from the Arabic into Latin. Alchemy is the forerunner of chemistry, and one of the world’s scientists, Isaac Newton, made many secret alchemical investigations.
One of the central principles of alchemy as it is addressed in The Alchemist is that the transmutation cannot be achieved unless the person carrying it out is completely pure, completely expert, and completely pious. The alchemist “could not make gold until he had ceased to want to do so,” according to contemporary literature. This is why Epicure Mammon has to find someone who does not desire gold himself to craft the Philosopher’s stone on his behalf, for he is too lustful and covetous to be able to do it himself.
Also central to alchemy is the idea that everything is in a constant state of flux, which means that one thing can very easily become another. Just as the egg can hatch into a chicken, lead, under the right conditions, might easily turn into gold. Twelve stages of the process were imagined, identified by different colors (see the beginning of Act 2, Scene 2) and all with different names. All of this is almost totally in line with contemporary accounts when it is described by Subtle in his great speech in Act 2, Scene 3, lines 141-76.
Of course this idea of transformation is central not just to the alchemical process but also to the way that Face and Subtle can turn base substance into gold by tricking their gulls. It is similarly important to the ease with which Face and Subtle can “become” other characters. Alchemy is more than a scientific idea here; it provides Jonson with a multiplicity of rich metaphors for change and for wealth.
In The Alchemist, Jonson implies rôle playing, character, transformation, and disguise through the theme of alchemy. Dutton argues a case paralleling alchemy with rôle play, asserting that just as alchemy can be seen as meddling with nature, so too can imitation or disguise be seen as 'observing its own laws' rather than the laws of nature: 'Till he firk nature up, in her own centre (Act II, scene I, line 28).' That Face and Subtle are tricking other characters to believe that they are able to turn lead into gold is, however, part of their nature, just as it is in Mosca's nature to deceive (he refers to it as his 'art' [Act III, scene ii, line 30]). Since he makes his living out of it, Subtle may conceivably believe in the transmutation with which he tries to deceive, although it is unclear as to whether Jonson believed in alchemy. In Act II, scene iii, Subtle expounds the theory of alchemy in learned, scientific speech (lines 142 - 176) and this inclusion of Latin ('Materia liquida' [144] and 'propria materia' [148]) and various elements, whilst seeming to contradict Subtle's 'charlatan' image, actually illustrates his proficiency in putting on a deceitful disguise.
In The Alchemist, Ben Johnson's treatment of the self works to maintain a conservative worldview where identity is intimately tied to one's social standing. The permanence of the self is shown to be dependant upon both continued performance and ongoing social reinforcement. Character traits are treated as stubbornly enduring coping strategies rather than as signs of a coherent, internally unified self. Johnson's treatment of his characters' fantasies as vices to be exploited rejects the idea of an internally created self where fantasy is the impetus for change and self-improvement. The allegorical effect of The Alchemist presents an anti-existentialist treatment of the self that privileges knowledge of one's social role and standing above introspection and self-contemplation.

In The Alchemist the unity of the self is provisional, dependant upon continuous social reinforcement. The characters who are successfully gulled are the ones who lose sight of their socially reinforced identities as they play out their fantasy ideal selves.


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