Act I

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Last Updated January 31, 2024.

Argument

The text begins with the “Argument,” a short poem summarizing the play’s plot. The poem is an acrostic, with the initial letters of each line spelling out the title of the play.

Prologue

In the “Prologue,” Jonson explains that his setting—the city of London—is a hotbed of vice and sin. He suggests that these vices are “natural follies” to which everyone is susceptible, although few acknowledge this is the case. By presenting these vices in a satirical, entertaining manner, Jonson aims to “better” his audience. 

The play, Jonson adds, is to be a comedy of “humors”—i.e. based on the Galenic medical theory that individual human characters are influenced by “humors,” referring to bodily fluids believed to be associated with specific traits or personality types.

Act 1, Scene 1

The play opens at Lovewit’s house. Lovewit left the city to escape the plague and, now, his butler, Face, resides there with his associates, Subtle and Dol. The play opens with Subtle and Face arguing about the hierarchy of the group. 

Face asserts that he saved Subtle from the streets and provided him with the premises for his bogus alchemy practice. However, Subtle counters that the house belongs to Lovewit, not Face. Plus, Subtle says he is now bringing in income to support the trio and deserves credit for his efforts.

Subtle is hard of hearing. so the discussion becomes increasingly loud, causing Dol to worry the neighbors will hear them. She eventually threatens both men with a sword, threatening to slit their throats if they do not agree they are all three equal partners in a “venture tripartite.”

The group’s first customer, Dapper, wants Subtle to conjure a familiar (a spirit or demon dedicated to the service of an individual) to help him with gambling.

Act 1 Scene 2

Subtle pretends to have reservations about granting Dapper’s request. He and Face stage an argument, in which Face argues that Dapper only wants to use the familiar for occasional gambling at specific types of games. Dapper swiftly intercedes, countering that he wants the full service. 

Taking Face aside, but still clearly audible to Dapper, Subtle tells Face that Dapper is a favorite of the Fairy Queen and is blessed with good luck. The excited Dapper offers to split his winnings with Face and Dapper if they will give him the familiar. The alchemist agrees but gives Dapper a series of elaborate rituals to perform over the next few days, at the end of which period the fairy queen will bless the familiar.

When there is a knock at the door, Face hurries Dapper toward the rear exit.

Act 1, Scene 3

The next customer is Abel Drugger, a tobacconist, who wants advice on the best layout for his shop. Subtle gives him elaborate instructions and predicts through metoposcopy (forehead reading) and chiromancy (palm reading) that he will become immensely wealthy over the course of the next year. 

Face encourages Drugger to pay Subtle handsomely and, after his departure, argues that he works harder than Subtle in his role seeking out and tricking gullible subjects. Drugger is due to return later in the afternoon to collect his almanac, on which Subtle will mark his lucky and unlucky days.

Act 1, Scene 4

Dol spots their next customer, Sir Epicure Mammon, through the window. Subtle tells Face to get changed quickly. He then explains to Dol that Sir Mammon believes the “alchemist” has created the Philosopher’s Stone for him—his belief is so strong that he has already been boasting to the afflicted of the town about all the good he intends to do with it.

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Act II