Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1325 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!