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 entire section is 790 words.)