Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
(The entire section is 1154 words.)
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