The Alchemist (Jonson)

The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary and Analysis of Act 2, Scenes 4, 5, and 6

Face and Subtle are delighted that Mammon has been further conned, and they compare him to a fish that has taken the bait and will now be “twitched”–pulled out of the water and killed. The two also talk about the metal that Mammon is going to send them, including his “andirons” (fire-irons) and his “iron shoeing-horn.” Face is about to lrave for the Temple Church to meet Surly when there is a knock at the door. It is Ananias, Subtle’s “Anabaptist” to whom he is going to sell Mammon’s metal.

The two change characters again. Subtle “in a new tune, new gesture, but old language” takes on the mantle of a highly religious old man, temperamental and intimidating. Another whirl of scientific language baffles Ananias, who says he understands “no heathen language” (ungodly language). Ananias is a religious fundamentalist, and he takes it to an extreme: even Greek (the language of the New Testament) is heathen, as is every language but Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament, akin to the language spoken by Jesus).

Subtle reacts vehemently to the suggestion that his alchemical language is heathen, and he prompts Face to define several alchemical terms, asking Ananias angrily, “This’s heathen Greek to you?” after the complicated definitions. Subtle is deeply intimidating, and he briskly asks Ananias, “what are you, sir?”

Ananias has come from Tribulation Wholesome, to whom Subtle purportedly will sell some orphans’ metal, which will be turned into gold for the Anabaptists. Ananias, in an interesting admission, says that the Brethren will only “deal justly” and give the real value of the metal if the orphans’ parents are “sincere professors” (of their understanding of Christianity). Ananias then tells Subtle that the Brethren (the Anabaptists) will not give him any more money for the Philosopher’s Stone until they can see some results—the same problem that Surly posed in the previous scene.

This is no good to Subtle, who cannot provide any visible results and who therefore seizes on the biblical source of Ananias’s name (“the varlet / That cozened the Apostles!”) to justify a hastily improvised fury. Ananias is thrown out, and Subtle makes the final comment of the scene: this rage will fetch the Brethren back and “make ’em haste towards their gulling more.”

Suddenly Face appears unexpectedly with Drugger, who wants a sign for his shop. Subtle does not really know what to suggest, and Face makes helpful suggestions: “What say you to his constellation, Doctor?” This provokes Subtle into a hilarious wordplay representation of “Abel Drugger”: a bell, a man called Dee (presumably suggesting John Dee, the famous occultist) in a rug gown, and a “dog snarling Er,” thus A-bell Dee-rug-er. Drugger hands over some more tobacco for the service. He also mentions “a rich young widow” whom he wants to marry.

Subtle and Face are immediately interested and, when Drugger mentions that this widow (Dame Pliant) “strangely longs to know her fortune,” they persuade Drugger to bring the widow to the house. Her brother (Kastrill), Drugger tells them, is determined that she will marry–at least marrying a knight. When Drugger mentions that Kastrill is determined to be an “angry boy” and quarrel, Face immediately claims that the Doctor “is the only man” to teach him. Drugger exits to fetch them. As he leaves, Face asks him to bring a length of damask.

The two argue about who will marry the widow, and they agree to see her before making a decision. They also agree that Dol will not be told about it. Suddenly Subtle remembers that Face is supposed to be meeting Surly at the Temple Church, and Face rushes off.


The methods Subtle uses to attempt to gull Ananias are reworked versions of what he has already used on Dapper, Drugger, and Mammon: anger, torrents of scientific terminology, and the promise of riches.

Ananias, the hyper-Christian, is hypocritical, admitting that the Brethren give preferential treatment to people of their own faith. Ananias is quick to damn all others as “heathen.” Throughout the play Ananias seems, as he does in this scene, dislikeable, arrogant, and–like the character Subtle adopts to oppose him–quick-tempered. Those who are so explicitly Christians in The Alchemist are not treated kindly by Jonson.

It is another interesting reflection of the power of words within the play that Ananias is offended by the idea of a language that is not Hebrew, the original language of the Bible, and therefore considered the most holy. In the play, language itself is a major focus of attention. It can transform things, convince people of things, and be “holy” or “unholy” by nature. The alchemical jargon works almost as a witch’s incantation, though it results in no tangible changes of raw materials.

Ananias’s refusal to bring more money has to be overcome by Subtle, and his final speech in Act 2, Scene 5, is an interesting example of the conmen’s ability to improvise emotion in order to serve their purposes. Subtle even takes stock of what he has just done at the end of the scene, satisfied that he has ensured that the Brethren will come back. We are reminded, meta-theatrically, of the conmen’s startling ability to take up or discard a character at a moment’s notice.

Drugger’s request provides some comic relief after the harsher and more bitter scene with Ananias. Drugger’s warmth and shyness are immediately endearing. The business of making his cute sign is comic, for Subtle and Face specialize in making “outward signs” such as roles, costumes, and other suggestions and signifiers of things that are not really there.

Drugger is also used by Jonson to provide the exposition about Kastrill’s and Dame Pliant’s background that is necessary before they are introduced seamlessly in the next act. Such plot-making is often cited as a key facet of Jonson’s ability as a playwright. It seems that in The Alchemist, as in Volpone and Epicoene, that there is no wasted material—and that, in Tynan’s image, the plot clicks neatly and tightly together like beads on a string.