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The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary

by Ben Jonson

The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary

Lovewit has left for his hop-yards in London, and he has left Jeremy, his butler, in charge of his house in Blackfriars. Jeremy, whose name in the play is Face, lives in the house with Subtle, a supposed alchemist, and Dol Common, a prostitute. The three run a major con operation.

The play opens with an argument that continues throughout the play between Subtle and Face. It concerns which of them is the most essential to the business of the con, each claiming his own supremacy. Dol quells this argument and forces the conmen to shake hands. The bell rings, and Dapper, a legal clerk, enters, the first gull of the day. Face takes on the role of “Captain Face”, and Subtle plays the “Doctor.”

Dapper wants a spirit that will allow him to win at gambling. Subtle promises one and then tells him he is related to the Queen of the Fairies. Dispatched to get a clean shirt and wash himself, Dapper leaves, immediately replaced by Drugger, a young tobacconist who wants to know how he should arrange his shop. Subtle tells him, and Face gets him to return later with tobacco and a damask. Their argument looks set to resume when Dol returns to warn them that Sir Epicure Mammon is approaching.

Sir Epicure Mammon and his cynical sidekick, Sir Pertinax Surly, are next through the door. Mammon is terrifically excited because Subtle has promised to make him the Philosopher’s Stone, about which Mammon is already fantasizing. Face changes character into “Lungs” or “Ulen Spiegel,” the Doctor’s laboratory assistant, and the two conmen impress Mammon and irritate Surly with a whirl of scientific language. Face arranges for “Captain Face” to meet Surly in half an hour at the Temple Church, and a sudden entrance from Dol provokes Mammon, instantly besotted, into begging Face for a meeting with her.

Ananias, an Anabaptist, enters and is greeted with fury by Subtle. Ananias then returns with his pastor, Tribulation. The Anabaptists want the Philosopher’s Stone in order to make money in order to win more people to their religion. Subtle, adopting a slightly different persona, plays along. Kastrill is the next new gull, brought by Drugger, who has come to learn how to quarrel—and to case the joint to see if it is fit for his rich, widowed sister, Dame Pliant. Face immediately impresses young Kastrill, and he exits with Drugger to fetch his sister.

Dapper, in the meantime, is treated to a fairy rite in which Subtle and Face (accompanied by Dol on cithern) steal most of his possessions. When Mammon arrives at the door, they gag him and bundle him into the privy. Mammon and Dol (pretending to be a “great lady”) have a conversation which ends with them being bundled together into the garden or upstairs—Face is pretending that Subtle cannot know about Mammon’s attraction to Dol.

The widow is brought into the play, as is a Spanish Don who Face met when Surly did not turn up. This Spaniard is in fact Surly in disguise, and the two conmen flicker between arguing about who will marry the widow and mocking the Spaniard by speaking loudly in English of how they will “cozen” or deceive him. Because Dol is occupied with Mammon, the conmen agree to have the Spaniard marry the widow, and the widow is carried out by Surly.

In the meantime, Dol has gone into a fit of talking, being caught with a panicked Mammon by a furious “Father” Subtle. Because there has been lust in the house, a huge explosion happens offstage, which Face comes in to report has destroyed the furnace and all the alchemical apparatus. Mammon is quickly packed out the door, completely destroyed by the loss his entire investment.

Things start to spiral out of control, and the gulls turn up without warning. At one point, nearly all the gulls, including an unmasked Surly, are in the room, and Face only just manages to improvise his way out of it. Dol then reports that Lovewit has arrived, and suddenly Face has to make a final change into “Jeremy the Butler.”

Lovewit is mobbed by the neighbors and the gulls at the door, and Face admits to Lovewit, when forced to do so by Dapper’s voice emerging from the privy, that all is not as it seems—and has him marry the widow. After Dapper’s quick dispatch, Face undercuts Dol and Subtle and, as the gulls return with officers and a search warrant, Dol and Subtle are forced to escape, penniless, over the back wall. The gulls storm the house, find nothing themselves, and are forced to leave empty-handed. Lovewit leaves with Kastrill and his new wife, Dame Pliant. Face is left alone on stage with a financial reward, delivering the epilogue.

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