The Alchemist ThemesThe three main themes in The Alchemist are appearances and reality, change and transformation, and deception.
- Appearances and reality: What the victims of the three swindlers perceive as reality is not the truth of the play.
- Change and transformation: The plot revolves around the chance and expectation that Subtle can change base metals into gold.
- Deception: Each of the three swindlers uses deception for financial gain, but the victims are also self-deceiving.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790
Appearances and Reality
What the victims of the three swindlers perceive as reality is not the truth of the play. Each one thinks that he will receive wealth or power as a reward gained through little effort. The reality is that each will be left with less wealth and no more power than they had initially.
Change and Transformation
The theme of transformation is crucial to this play. The plot revolves around the chance and expectation that Subtle can change base metals into gold. A belief in alchemy was still firmly held at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Queen Elizabeth investigated the possibility of using alchemy to increase her worth and even Sir Isaac Newton believed in the principle. In The Alchemist, alchemy is the basis for a con game, a means to swindle unsuspecting victims. The only transformation that occurs is a lightening of their purses.
The plot of Jonson's play is based on deception. Each of the three swindlers uses deception for financial gain. But the victims are also self-deceiving. Their willingness to believe allows the game to succeed. Surly assumes a disguise to reveal the deception, but his disguise is in itself a deception. Jeremy disguises himself as Face to lure victims to the house and later he becomes Lungs, the alchemist's assistant. Dol pretends to be the Queen of Fairy and a mad aristocrat as part of the game, and Subtle is an astrologer and an alchemist. Each deception is dependent on none of the victims meeting one another. Thus, beginning with the middle of Act IV when the victims comings and goings reach a level of unanticipated activity, the deception becomes more difficult to control.
It is the victim's greed that allows the swindles to occur. Each man seeks more power or wealth than he has earned or deserves. And each returns to be further swindled as their greed escalates. The loss of goods and money increases as each victim fails to be satisfied with his lot and each desires even more wealth.
The play's resolution creates some questions about morality. The sting of loss is eased in the victims as they learn their lessons; their lives are better knowing the ill-effects caused by excessive greed. When Subtle and Dol are forced to flee the house without the money and goods gained from their efforts, it is also clear that there is no reward for dishonesty. But Jeremy escapes any punishment for his role in the swindles, and so, the concept of justice is questioned. Traditionally, the audience wants to see the bad guys punished and the good characters rewarded. That resolution is denied when Jeremy is forgiven by his master, and the end of the play leaves Jeremy victorious.
Order and Disorder
These two ideas are tied to the exit and entrance of Lovewit. When Lovewit leaves London and his house in Jeremy's care, disorder is the result. This is especially evident in Act IV when the victims begin amassing at the house, each seeking more help and more wealth. Order is finally restored when Lovewit returns to the house. The swindlers flee the house and the victims are forced to restore order to their lives when they accept their losses.
The two Puritans are important symbols of Jonson's intent to satirize extreme religious practice. When Subtle tells the two that they need more money, he also suggests that they can "make" more money by transforming pewter to coin. The initial concern is the legality of transforming foreign coin. But this is all a deceptive debate about counterfeiting. The two Deacons decide that their need for money is necessary to fulfill God's work. Accordingly, the needs to God outweigh the laws of man or, in this case, the laws of the king.
In effect, the Puritans compromise their religion and their ethics in the name of God's work. Jonson uses the two Puritans to illustrate what he sees as one of the problems of organized religion, the inability of some zealots to recognize that civil laws are important in the function of a society and cannot be discarded to satisfy religious need.
Victim and Victimization
The Alchemist put the definition of victim and victimization to the test. The victims of the swindlers are victims because they have been willing to cheat, to gain from magic or dishonesty what they have not earned. The issue, then, becomes whether they are victimized by Subtle, Jeremy, and Dol or if they are victims of their own greed. Since in the end, all, except Jeremy, become victims, the audience concludes that each character has arrived at their destination due to their own actions; they have only victimized themselves and have reaped what they deserve.