Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Master Lovewit leaves the city because of plague. His butler, Jeremy, known as Face to his friends of the underworld, invites Subtle, a swindler posing as an alchemist, and Dol Common, a prostitute, to join him in using the house as a base of operations for their rascally activities. Matters fare well for the three until a dispute arises between Face and Subtle over authority. Dol, seeing their moneymaking projects doomed if this strife continues, rebukes the two men and cajoles them back to their senses.

No sooner have Face and Subtle become reconciled than Dapper, a gullible lawyer’s clerk given to gambling, calls, by previous arrangement with Face. Dapper wants to learn from the eminent astrologer, Doctor Subtle, how to win at all games of chance. In the hands of the two merciless rascals, Dapper is relieved of all his ready cash, in return for which Subtle predicts that Dapper will have good luck at the gaming tables. In order to gull Dapper further, Subtle tells him to return later to confer with the Queen of Fairy, a mysterious benefactress who can promote Dapper’s worldly success.

Abel Drugger, an ambitious young druggist who was led on by Face, is the next victim to enter the house. To his delight, he learns from Subtle, who speaks mostly in incomprehensible pharmaceutical and astrological jargon, that he will have a rich future.

Next arrives Sir Epicure Mammon, a greedy and lecherous knight, with his friend Pertinax Surly, a man versed in the ways of London confidence men. Having been promised the philosopher’s stone by Subtle, Mammon has wild visions of transforming all of his possessions into gold and silver, but he is completely taken in by the duplicities of Subtle and Face. Subtle further arouses Mammon’s greed by describing at length, in the pseudoscientific gibberish of the alchemist-confidence man, the processes that led to his approximate achievement of the mythical philosopher’s stone. Surly, quick to see what is afoot, scoffs at Subtle and at the folly of Mammon.

During the interview, Dol appears inadvertently. Mammon catches sight of her and is fascinated. Thinking quickly, Face tells Mammon that Dol is an aristocratic lady who, being mad, is under the care of Doctor Subtle but who, in her moments of sanity, is most affable. Before he leaves the house, Mammon promises to send to the unprincipled Subtle certain of his household objects of base metal for the purpose of having them transmuted into gold.

The parade of victims continues. Elder Ananias of the Amsterdam community of extreme Protestants comes to negotiate for his group with Subtle for the philosopher’s stone. Subtle, with Face as his assistant, repeats his extravagant jargon to the impressionable Ananias, who, in his greed, declares that the brethren are impatient with the slowness of the experiment. Subtle, feigning professional indignation, frightens Ananias with a threat to put out forever his alchemist’s fire.

Drugger reappears to be duped further. Subtle and Face are delighted when he tells them that a wealthy young widow took lodgings near his, and that her brother, recently come into an inheritance, journeyed to London to learn how to quarrel in rakish fashion. The two knaves plot eagerly to get brother and sister into their clutches.

Ananias returns with his pastor, Tribulation Wholesome. The Puritans manage to wink at moral considerations as Subtle glowingly describes the near completion of the philosopher’s stone. Prepared to go to any ends to procure the stone, Ananias and Tribulation contract to purchase Mammon’s household articles, which, Subtle explains, he needs for the experiment; the proceeds of the sale will go toward the care of orphans for whom Subtle says he is responsible.

Subtle and Face also plot to sell these same household articles to the young widow, who, having just moved to London, is probably in need of such items. In the meantime, Face meets in the streets a Spanish don—Surly in clever disguise—who expresses a desire to confer with Subtle on matters of business and health.

Dapper returns to meet the Queen of Fairy. At the same time, Drugger brings to the house Master Kastril, the angry young man who wants to learn to quarrel. Kastril is completely taken in. Subtle, promising to make him a perfect London gallant, arranges to have him instructed by Face, who poses as a city captain. Kastril is so pleased with his new acquaintances that he sends Drugger to bring his sister to the house.

Kastril having departed, Dol, Subtle, and Face relieve Dapper of all of his money in a ridiculous ritual in which Dapper is to see and talk to the Queen of Fairy. During the shameless proceedings, Mammon knocks. Dapper, who was blindfolded, is gagged and hastily put into a water closet at the rear of the house. Mammon enters and begins to woo Dol, whom he believes to be a distracted aristocrat. Face and Subtle, in order to have the front part of the house clear for further swindles, shunts the amorous pair to another part of the house.

Young Kastril returns with his widowed sister, Dame Pliant; both are deeply impressed by Subtle’s manner and rhetoric. When the Spanish don arrives, Subtle escorts Kastril and Dame Pliant to inspect his laboratory. By that time, both Subtle and Face are determined to wed Dame Pliant. Face introduces the Spaniard to Dame Pliant, who, in spite of her objections to Spaniards in general, consents to walk in the garden with the don.

In another part of the house, Dol assumes the manner of madness. Subtle, discovering the distraught Mammon with her, declares that Mammon’s moral laxity will surely delay completion of the philosopher’s stone. Following a loud explosion, Face reports that the laboratory is a shambles. Mammon despondently leaves the house, and Subtle simulates a fainting spell.

In the garden, Surly reveals his true identity to Dame Pliant and warns the young widow against the swindlers. When, as Surly, he confronts the two rogues, Face, in desperation, tells Kastril that Surly is an impostor who is trying to steal Dame Pliant away. Drugger enters and, being Face’s creature, insists that he knows Surly to be a scoundrel. Ananias comes to the house and all but wrecks Subtle’s plot by talking indiscreetly of making counterfeit money. Unable to cope with the wily rascals, Surly departs, followed by Kastril.

Glad to be rid of his callers, Subtle places Dame Pliant in Dol’s care. They are thrown once more into confusion when Lovewit, owner of the house, makes an untimely appearance. Face, quickly reverting to his normal role of Jeremy, the butler, goes to the door in an attempt to detain his master long enough to permit Subtle and Dol to escape.

Although warned by his butler that the house is infested, Lovewit suspects that something is amiss when Mammon and Surly return to expose Subtle and Face. Kastril, Ananias, and Tribulation confirm their account. Dapper, having managed to get rid of his gag, cries out inside the house. Deciding that honesty is the only policy, Face confesses everything to his master and promises to provide him with a wealthy young widow as his wife, if Lovewit will have mercy on his servant.

In the house, meanwhile, Subtle concludes the gulling of Dapper and sends the young clerk on his way, filled with the belief that he will win at all games of chance. Subtle and Dol then try to abscond with the threesome’s loot, but Face, back in Lovewit’s good graces, thwarts them in their attempt. They are forced to escape empty-handed by the back gate.

Lovewit wins the hand of Dame Pliant and, in his good humor, forgives his crafty butler. When those who have been swindled demand retribution, they are finally convinced that they have been defrauded as a result of their own selfishness and greed.

Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like Volpone, The Alchemist, also in verse, has a complex intrigue plot with a radial design. In both plays, there is a central place where deceit is practiced on a procession of fools. In The Alchemist, the setting is Lovewit’s London house, where, in Lovewit’s absence, his butler Jeremy has invited a cheater, Subtle, and his whore, Doll, to set up shop as tricksters on a profit-sharing basis.

At the beginning of the play, Subtle and Jeremy haggle over their respective cuts, and Doll manages to restore peace at the moment that the first of the fools, Dapper, enters. He is a clerk whom Jeremy, as Captain Face, has encouraged to consult with “Doctor” Subtle. Dapper wants a familiar spirit to help him win at gambling. After telling him that he is related to the Queen of Fairy, the tricksters whisk him out in order to welcome the next victim, Drugger, a tobacconist who wants to use magic for arranging his shop properly. After he leaves, the tricksters spot Sir Epicure Mammon approaching. Jeremy quickly changes into his disguise as Lungs, Subtle’s alchemical assistant, to welcome the knight and his friend, Surly.

What Sir Epicure wants, and Jeremy and Subtle have promised to deliver, is the “philosopher’s stone,” the end result of the alchemical process. The stone is supposed to have great power, offering its owner eternal youth and the ability to transform base metals into gold. Sir Epicure is a believer, but Surly is not, and no amount of alchemical mumbo jumbo changes his mind. Meanwhile, Sir Epicure is led to believe that Doll is a lord’s sister driven mad by scholarship.

After getting rid of Sir Epicure and Surly, the tricksters bring in the Puritan Ananias, who wants the philosopher’s stone to aid his cause. Ananias refuses to pay any more money without first seeing some results, and Jeremy indignantly throws him out. Drugger then returns and tells Subtle and Jeremy about Dame Pliant, a rich widow, and her brother, Kastril, prompting Subtle and Jeremy’s great interest.

After Ananias returns with Tribulation Wholesome, and they are sent off to settle an ethical point, the other clients start parading in too quickly. For a moment, Subtle and Jeremy get rid of all but Dapper, whom they prepare for a visit from the Queen of Fairy. They blindfold him, tie him to a chair, take his money, and begin pinching him as fairies. Interrupted by Sir Epicure knocking at the door, the rascals gag Dapper with gingerbread and lock him in a privy closet.

Jeremy as Lungs introduces Sir Epicure to Doll, then changes into his Captain Face uniform to welcome Kastril and Dame Pliant. Almost immediately Surly arrives, disguised as a Spanish don who speaks no English, which induces Subtle and Jeremy to insult him and openly confess their intentions to fleece him. Surly wants to see Doll, but since she is busy with Sir Epicure, they introduce him to Dame Pliant.

At this point, matters get totally out of control. Sir Epicure blunders by alluding to the philosopher’s stone, which makes Doll spout passages from an obscure scholarly work. Jeremy, as Lungs, tries to quiet her, and Subtle, always feigning piety, pretends to be deeply affronted by Sir Epicure’s lust. Meanwhile, Surly removes his Spanish disguise, denounces the tricksters, and proposes marriage to Dame Pliant. Jeremy, who as Face had been giving Kastril fighting lessons, tries to get him to challenge Surly, but Kastril will not fight. Ananias and Drugger arrive to add to the rout, and, as if to underscore the insanity, the alchemical project explodes.

The play draws to its complex unwinding with the return of Lovewit, who hears complaints from his neighbors. Jeremy at first tries to cover for the tricksters, but several of their victims return to confirm the neighbors’ account of their going and coming. With the help of his chastised butler, Lovewit takes full advantage of the situation. Jeremy drives off Doll and Subtle, claiming their booty for his master. Lovewit then marries Dame Pliant, and when officers come to search his house, he promises that he will return the goods of any victims who certify how they lost them. Since the fools are unwilling to disclose their stupidity, Lovewit keeps everything.

As in Volpone, in The Alchemist Jonson investigates the relationship between tricksters and their victims. Yet the two plays are very different in tone. The Alchemist lacks the decadent atmosphere of the earlier play. The perversion of the opening scene in Volpone gives way in The Alchemist to the bawdy antics of Subtle and Face, and the comic thrust never succumbs so completely to the moral degeneration that marks the darker moments of the former work. Unlike Volpone, The Alchemist seems to lack an organic, unified, and complete plot. Plot implies development in character or idea, but in The Alchemist characters undergo no changes, and the tricksters pay no penalty except the loss of their ill-gotten gains. The play develops as a series of redundant episodes in which the same theme is implicit from start to finish. Unlike Volpone and Mosca, however, the intriguers in The Alchemist deceive only fools deserving of their fate, and they therefore pay no harsh penalty.

The foolish victims are not interdependent. They duplicate and mirror each other, but they do not interact. They come together only by accident, not to work in concert, as Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino do in the trial scenes in Volpone. The only concerted efforts, always unstable, are made by the tricksters—Subtle, Face, and Doll. Characters of tremendous zest, they give the play its great appeal. All three share with Volpone and Mosca one important trait; greedy themselves, they also are comic overreachers who do not know when to quit. Although deft and resourceful, they cannot prevent their scheme from running beyond their control.

The central referent of the play is alchemy and its “grand work.” It is a perfect emblem for the play’s action, a metaphor for the bulging confidence scheme. By design, the play is tumultuous, with quick costume swapping and breathless sleight-of-hand activity that picks up, goes amiss, and finally undoes the trio of swindlers.

Jonson’s dramatic technique, duplication, is carefully patterned in the play. Each of the fools approaches Jeremy and Subtle in the same way. Variety is found only in the nature of their problems. In each case, Jeremy and Subtle promise results, then subject the victim to deliberate neglect before the final cheating. The repeated pattern is a simple but clever dramatic device. To reduce the central import of The Alchemist to a blunt attack on human greed is to oversimplify its theme. As in Volpone, Jonson is attacking a human depravity that offends against God’s creation, and his target is not merely a single vice but any impiety or false idol that perverts nature.

Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Act Summary

Act I Summary

The scene is London in 1610. This is a plague year and wealthy people have fled London for the safer countryside. Lovewit has departed until...

(The entire section is 169 words.)

Act II Summary

Sir Epicure Mammon, accompanied by Pertdnax Surly arrive at the house. Mammon is promised the philosopher's stone which will turn all base...

(The entire section is 183 words.)

Act III Summary

Ananias returns with Wholesome, who when told of a way to turn pewter into coins, is concerned with the morality of counterfeiting, even to...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

Act IV Summary

Mammon is ushered in to meet Dol, who is disguised as an aristocratic lady suffering from madness. Mammon is warned that he should not speak...

(The entire section is 200 words.)

Act V Summary

Jeremy goes to the door and tries to detain Lovewit long enough for Subtle and Dol to escape. Jeremy's attempts to convince his master that...

(The entire section is 174 words.)