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.