The Alchemist (Jonson)

The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary and Analysis of Act 3, Scenes 3, 4, and 5

The knock on the door is from Face, returning from the Temple Church with the news that Surly has not turned up. Yet Face has met, while out, a Spanish Don who has come with lots of rich goods. Face has persuaded him to come back to the house and sleep with Dol. Subtle exits to get Dol ready for this meeting (“she must prepare perfumes”) and to get rid of the Anabaptists. Face reflects on how much money has already been made today.

Dol enters, and Face tells her about the Spanish Don. Midway through their conversation, Subtle enters with the Anabaptists’ money, wishing they could sell the orphans’ goods a second time. Face suggests that Drugger might buy them. Subtle asks Face how he found this Spanish Don, and Face refuses to tell him, saying only “I ha’ my flies abroad.” Another knock on the door interrupts them. Dapper has returned to meet his “aunt,” and Dol is dispatched to get into her “queen of Fairy” costume.

Suddenly Drugger and Kastrill are at the door, too, and while Subtle and Dol are preparing to gull Dapper, Face has to occupy the three gulls in the room. Drugger brings tobacco (having forgotten the damask) and introduces Kastrill, who aggressively informs Face that he has come to check out the Blackfriars house to see if it is good enough for his sister. Immediately Face cons him into fear and awe of the Doctor, who Face claims is an expert in quarrelling. Face then cleverly praises Dapper in order to intimidate Kastrill.

Face then prompts Drugger to recount the time Drugger drank too much and was sick, and the time he had to pay too much taxes and his hair fell out. He is pretending (of course, Face heard Drugger tell the story) that the Doctor told Face the story. Kastrill is impressed, and he exits with Drugger to fetch his sister.

Face has Dapper hand over a lot of money before meeting the Fairy Queen, and together with Subtle (who is now dressed “like a Priest of Fairy”), the conmen blindfold Dapper and encourage him to throw away all his worldly possessions–his purse, his handkerchiefs, his ring, his silver bracelet–which they then take.

Dol enters with a cithern, and the conmen pretend the fairies have arrived. Dapper, blindfolded, is viciously pinched because “the fairies” claim he has not thrown everything away. With the conmen making the noise of fairies (“ti ti ti ti”) and pinching him, Dapper finally “throws away” a paper with a coin in it, and then a “half crown of gold” that he wears on his wrist, which his love gave him before she left him.

During this ridiculous scene, Dol suddenly sees Mammon at the window. While Subtle continues to talk to Dapper about the Fairy Queen, Face changes onstage into his “Lungs” costume. Subtle gags Dapper with a piece of gingerbread (often, in modern productions, a piece that he finds on the floor), and they lock Dapper in the privy until they can get rid of Mammon.


Jonson is brilliant at keeping the plot constantly moving forward, and the announcement of the Spanish Don is another brilliant piece of exposition. The Don is in fact Surly, but the audience (and the conmen) do not yet know it. When Surly enters as the Spaniard, we have already been well-prepared for his arrival, and therefore the first time in the play that the conmen are caught unawares can be explored immediately, without us having to process information about a new character.

The scenes “between cons” have a decidedly behind-the-scenes feel to them, as if we are seeing the actors out of character, backstage. Jonson is careful to thread throughout these scenes the primary dramatic argument which began the play: Subtle and Face are still competing over who is more essential to the con business. Face here, in boasting about having found the Don, makes subtly clear his own argument for his supremacy. Yet, as ever, just as this argument begins to spark up, the conmen are interrupted.

Dol’s line in Act 3, Scene 3, “Yes, say lord General, how fares our camp?” is a quote from Thomas Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy, again demonstrating the intertextuality of The Alchemist. Jonson never lets us forget that we are at the theater. This device might usefully be compared with Brecht’s notion of alienation (see the ClassicNote on Mother Courage and her Children), employing the premise that the audience should not get carried away by a play uncritically.

Kastrill is another gull, an “angry boy,” who would have been instantly recognizable to Jonson’s audience. Young, impetuous, and keen to be a man, he is instantly gulled by Face, who puts on a display, involving Dapper and Drugger, of out-and-out masculinity. It is interesting that this set of pretences involves all the men together presenting solidarity and strength, despite earlier scenes showing that they are all vulnerable and longing for supernatural or extraordinary alchemical aid. What Face sees in Kastrill is the difference between what he is (a boy) and what he wants to be (a man). Like any good conman or negotiator, he suggests that he can help the boy get what he wants.

The “Fairy Queen” sequence is almost a play within a play. Dol provides musical accompaniment while Subtle and Face play the fairies. Blindfolded, Dapper is the only audience member in the theater, and he believes what is happening. Unfortunately, this belief leads him to give away all his valuable possessions. Characteristically, Jonson cuts short the Fairy Queen section by introducing Mammon again. The interruptions increase the sense that the conmen’s actions are improvised while they leave the audience wanting more. We are tantalized by each of these brilliant comic set pieces.

There is a humanizing touch in Dapper’s final agreement to give away the keepsake of his love, who has since forsaken him. This tiny, personal, emotional detail makes Dapper much more sympathetic than just a bland legal clerk. Our reaction to the way the conmen so brutally fleece him of his money suddenly becomes morally problematic. Don’t we feel sorry for him as we laugh at what happens to him? Comedy often has its dark side.