How might one explain the significance of the characters' names in Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist?
The characters in Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist all have significant names, as the following list of the dramatis personae (“persons of the drama”) implies:
- SUBTLE, the Alchemist: Subtle’s name suggests that he is both clever and deceptive. He is intelligent, but his motives are not immediately obvious, at least to the fools he helps to hoodwink. He pretends to be a person of great knowledge in a bogus field of knowledge.
- FACE, the Housekeeper: Face’s name suggests his role as the character who puts on a good face to the various gulls or victims with whom he deals. He is literally the “face” of the criminal operation. He is the character with whom the fools interact. His name suggests his superficiality and two-faced nature. He is untrustworthy; other characters can never be sure that the “face” he presents to them has anything to do with his real nature.
- DOL COMMON, their Colleague: The name Dol (or “Doll,” short for “Dorothy”) implies that she is a plaything and somewhat empty-headed. Her name also implies that she is a prostitute. Moreover, in Jonson’s day the word “doll” could also refer to the smallest pig in a litter – not the most flattering connotation.
- DAPPER, a Lawyer's Clerk: Dapper’s name implies that he is a small person who is neat and trim. His smallness makes him seem trivial and unintimidating; his neatness implies his superficiality.
- DRUGGER, a Tobacco Man: In Jonson’s day, tobacco was often condemned (especially by King James I) as a drug or narcotic; smoking it was often considered a nasty habit. Drugger’s name associates him with the dispensing of drugs.
- LOVEWIT, Master of the House: Lovewit’s name foreshadows his role in the conclusion of the play. Rather than being outraged by the wit of Subtle, Lovewit will actually take advantage of it and profit by it. He is the master or owner of the house, although, ironically, he is absent from it for most of the play. In the end, however, his mastery is clearly reasserted, and his butler, Jeremy (a.k.a. Face) quickly submits.
- SIR EPICURE MAMMON, a Knight: This character’s name associates him with a love of sensual pleasure and with a love of money.
- PERTINAX SURLY, a Gamester. His first name suggests that he is stubborn; his second suggests that he is haughty and arrogant.
- TRIBULATION WHOLESOME, a Pastor of Amsterdam: His elaborate name would immediately have associated him with the Puritans, whom Jonson considered religious fanatics.
- ANANIAS, a Deacon there: His Biblical name would have linked him to the Puritans. His name also links him, Biblically, to a famous liar and cheat.
- KASTRIL, the angry Boy. The term used to define him here suggests that he is ill-tempered and immature. He is described as an imitative youth who has
heard some speech of the angry boys and seem ’em take tobacco.
He is not the most intelligent of characters.
- DAME PLIANT, his Sister, a Widow: her name suggests that she is easy to manipulate. Her status as a young, rich widow makes her attractive to those interested in her beauty and wealth.