The Alchemist (Jonson)

The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary and Analysis of Act 1, Scene 2

Dapper meets Face, now “Captain Face,” just as, he pretends, he is leaving the house. Dapper apologizes for his lateness (he clearly arranged to meet Face at the house when they met at the Dagger Inn the night before), saying that he lent his watch to a friend of the sheriff’s.

Subtle enters, dressed in a doctor’s robes, and Dapper is amazed to see the “cunning man.” Dapper asks how he has responded to the “matter” in question, but Face implies that Subtle is not keen to proceed, and that Face himself would be keen to have it off his hands. Clearly Dapper wants something performed that would be illegal under the statute of sorcery, and Face is exploiting the precarious legal position to the full to make him uncomfortable.

Dapper promises that he will keep his mouth shut, and Face agrees to approach the Doctor about the case again. The “Doctor,” silent at the other side of the room, tells Face that he would do much for his love, “but this / I neither may nor can.” Face pleads that Dapper is no ordinary guy and certainly is no ordinary cheat, but the Doctor remains unmoved. Face instructs Dapper to offer the Doctor money, and then–when he will not accept–makes as if to storm out. Suddenly the Doctor calls him back in, accepting Dapper’s money, and he pulls Face to one side.

Their conversation is clearly heard by Dapper, who, it transpires, has come to the Alchemist to get a “gambling fly” or “spirit” which will allow him to win at betting. Why, the Doctor asks Face, does he want to help Dapper when, if the Doctor grants his request, Dapper will undo everyone by winning all the money in the town? After clarifying that this is indeed what Dapper wants to do, the two go back into another (perfectly audible) private conference. The Doctor reveals that Dapper is “of the only best complexion / The Queen of Fairy loves” which means that, as one favored by the Queen of the Fairies, he is liable to make even more money.

Suddenly Dapper, who has been listening throughout, is drawn back into the conversation and forced to admit that he has overheard. Dapper promises to send the Captain and the Doctor half of the ten thousand pounds he will win, and the Doctor agrees to give him the familiar spirit and introduce him to his aunt, the Queen of Fairies.

There is a knock on the door outside, and Face bundles Dapper out the back way, arranging with him to put vinegar in his nose, mouth, and ears, bathe his fingers’ ends, wash his eyes, cry hum and buz, and return at one o’clock to meet the Queen.


This first “gulling” scene shows us the meta-theater of the play in action. Subtle’s and Face’s relationship and characters change as Face pretends to leave a message for Subtle to give to Dapper: the pretence of the “con” is not discussed by the characters, but they know how to implement it in a split second. Face becomes the jovial “Captain Face” (referring, perhaps, to an imagined military past), and Subtle becomes “the Doctor,” who has the power to produce a “fly,” a personal familiar spirit, which will attend Dapper and aid his gambling.

It is interesting that the argument that opens the play itself also opens the con. Dapper is immediately made vulnerable by the way the conmen instantly place him at the center of an argument. His being late, having temporarily given up his watch, is a straightforward symbol of his gullibility. The “Captain” urges the Doctor to help with Dapper’s request, and the “Doctor” refuses. It is Dapper who makes the peace when, at one stage, the “Captain” seems to be storming out in a rage.

When the two conmen whisper to each other, perfectly aware that Dapper is overhearing their words, it is Dapper again who is called into question. He is accused of lying, of eavesdropping, and of wanting more than he claims to want. By questioning his believability, they ensure that he is never able to question theirs.

This episode might be seen as what in modern parlance is called “confidence trickery.” Dapper comes into the scene cocky and confident, but he is immediately undermined and thrown off guard, further able to be gulled.