The "Alchemist" of the play's title. We never learn whether "Subtle" is a forename or a surname (or the only name). Meaning "crafty" or "clever" in Elizabethan English, it is an appropriate choice. Subtle is grumpy, constantly at odds with Face (he is often played as considerably older), and is very learned, being the one with alchemical expertise. He disguises himself as "the Doctor" to carry out his con.
Face seems, to some extent, faceless; we get very little idea of a personality or an impetus behind his character. He is constantly switching roles. Some commentators think that his real name is "Jeremy," but this idea--particularly because it is not supported by Jonson's dramatis personae--could just be one more in a series of disguises Face undertakes. He plays "Ulen Spiegel" or "Lungs" for the Mammon-con, and more usually he is the wiseboy "Captain Face" for everyone else. He is essential in finding the gulls in the pubs of London and bringing them to the Blackfriars house.
Also "Dol Common," Dol is short for Dorothy, and her second name, "Common," is in itself a pun, meaning "everyone's"--because Dol is a prostitute. The play implies she is in casual sexual relationships with both Face and Subtle. Her role is not as important as Face's or Subtle's, yet her one transformation, into a "royal lady," is essential in maneuvering Mammon into the right place at the right time. She escapes with Subtle "over the back wall" at the end--without a share of the goods.
A legal clerk and a social climber who comes to the conmen in order to get a "gambling fly" (a spirit who will allow him to cheat and win at gambling). Dapper has met Face in a pub and has been tempted to the house. Extremely greedy and extremely gullible, Subtle tells him he is a relative of the Faery-Queen. Upon his return, he is locked in the privy for most of the play.
Abel ("Nab") Drugger
An honest, good soul, he is a young tobacconist who has just bought a new shop on the corner of a street. He wants the Doctor (having met Face in a pub) to advise him on (effectively) the feng shui of the building. He is tricked into handing over a lot of expensive tobacco and into bringing Kastrill and Dame Pliant (Drugger's shyly admitted crush) into the Blackfriars house. At the end of the play, he loses everything and is dispatched with a punch from Lovewit.
The master of the house and the employer of "Jeremy the Butler," his housekeeper (alias Face). Away for the majority of the play, Lovewit doesn't return until Act 5--unexpectedly, though Face lies and claims to have sent for him. At this point he punishes Face, but without uncovering the plot itself, or caring to. He marries Dame Pliant and leaves the stage halfway through the epilogue in order to smoke tobacco.
Sir Epicure Mammon
Epicure Mammon's name means a person who is devoted to sensory enjoyment and material wealth, and he is perhaps the play's biggest con. He is also the greediest gull of the lot. Constantly comparing himself and the alchemist's work with classical or antique riches, he is obsessed with food, sex, and the idea of getting his riches turned into gold by the Philosopher's Stone. His lust is the reason given by the conmen for the explosion that destroys the (non-existent) furnace and vanquishes his hopes of getting rich.
Sir Pertinax Surly
The sidekick of Epicure Mammon, he spends the first part of his time in the play bitterly mocking and criticizing Mammon but also calling into question the actions of the conmen. Surly then decides to try to catch them out, and--in his successful disguise as a Spaniard--he falls in love with Dame Pliant. In the end he is attacked by Kastrill and loses the girl.
Tribulation Wholesome, a Pastor of Amsterdam
The leader of the local group of Anabaptists (see "About Anabaptists" in this ClassicNote), Tribulation is rather more measured and logical than Ananias, but, as the representative of his group, he is hungry for money, membership, and power.
Ananias, a Deacon of Amsterdam
Ananias is an Anabaptist (see "About Anabaptists") and is greedy for power, land, and membership for his order. He is also incredibly angry and quick to condemn anything that may not be, as he sees it, Christian, and on numerous occasions he blurts out furiously that, for example, "Christ-tide" is the right, Christian name for Christmas. Ananias is also the name of a New Testament character who is stricken dead because of his greed.
An "Angry Boy," he wants to learn the skill of quarrelling: formal, rhetorical argument. He has come to Subtle to learn it. Clearly young and impressionable, he is very protective over his sister, Dame Pliant, and he goes to huge lengths to seem "one of the guys" in several of the group scenes. His "quarrelling" is rather unimpressive. Comically, he seems to know only a handful of (immature) insults, including "you lie" and "you are a pimp."
Often called "Widow" in the play, she is the recently-widowed sister of Kastrill. Dame Pliant's name means bendy, supple, or flexible; true to her name, she seems one of the stupidest characters in literature. When she does speak, very rarely, she has the same speech mannerisms (e.g., "suster") as her brother. Subtle steals several kisses from her (4.2) while she seems not to notice, and the two conmen fight over which of them will wed her (and inherit the considerable fortune she has inherited from her husband). In the end, it is Lovewit who gets the girl with no wits.
Several neighbors appear in the street upon Lovewit's return in 5.1, and they describe to Lovewit what they have seen happen while he has been away at his hop-yards. They have a tiny role to play within the play itself, though on a couple of occasions, Dol is seen shooing women away from the door. Their descriptions of "oyster-women" and "Sailor's wives" (5.1.3-4) give us the sense that the conmen have performed several more cons than the play showcases.
The Alchemist (Jonson) Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Alchemist (Jonson) is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The Alchemist is one of Ben Jonson's four great comedies. The gulls are "gullible," easily led to lend their belief to the tricks and plots of the conmen. The play itself is obsessed from the Prologue onward with the idea of what Coleridge would...