The Alchemist (Jonson)

The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary and Analysis of Act 4, Scenes 1 and 2

Subtle has left to change into his Doctor’s robes, and Face (as Lungs) greets Mammon, who is here to meet with Dol. Face tells Mammon that the Doctor would be furious if he knew of the meeting, so he warns him to keep his voice down when he is talking to Dol–for the Doctor, he says, is working at the furnace. Face tells Mammon he has been praising him to Dol, and he then leaves to bring her. Mammon gives himself a pep talk, advising himself to “heighten thyself’ and “talk to her all in gold.”

Dol enters with Face, pretending to be a “great lady” (i.e., “noble”), and her conversation with Mammon is an odd mixture of pecuniary puns and obscene double meanings (Mammon leans to “kiss [her] vesture” at one point). Face provides ironic commentary on the scene, and Mammon’s language rises to higher and higher peaks. At one point, Dol Common resembles an “Austriac Prince,” with the Valois nose and the Medici forehead, all symbols of Renaissance nobility.

Mammon talks to Dol about her studies (she is, remember, posing as a mad student of Broughton’s works under the Doctor). Excited by her displayed nobility (“It is a noble humor”), he gives her a diamond ring. He brags that he is the “lord of the philosopher’s stone,” telling Dol she is its “lady.” His fantasies climb as he dreams aloud of removing her from the Blackfriars house and taking her off to “a free state” where they will eat the most glorious foods, such as “shrimps … in a rare butter, made of dolphins’ milk.”

Face returns to tell Mammon he is too loud, and he takes the two of them offstage to a “fitter place,” warning him not to mention Broughton.

Subtle comes back into the room after Dol and Mammon have left to announce that the widow has arrived and that she is pretty. Face realizes he will have to change out of his Lungs costumes and back into his “captainship” as Captain Face. He angrily suggests that Subtle will have “the first kiss, ’cause I am not ready.” Both conmen seem keen to marry the widow.

As Kastrill enters, Subtle immediately has him quarrel, and unsurprisingly he is appalled at Kastrill’s “ill logic” and lack of true quarrelling “grammar.” This critique intimidates and impresses Kastrill, who resolves to learn quarrelling from the Doctor. Subtle is in the middle of his quarrelling lecture when he suddenly sees Dame Pliant, the widow, and kisses her several times, which delights Kastrill. He then takes her hand and relates her fortune: she is to marry “a man of art,” perhaps the Doctor himself.

Face enters and interrupts. He is invited to kiss Dame Pliant. Immediately he and Subtle talk aside, and Face reveals that “The count is come,” and either Subtle or Face must occupy him. Both of them want to stay with the widow, however, but eventually Subtle takes her and Kastrill upstairs to look at something that will reveal more to them.


Tonally, the Mammon-Dol love scene is one of the most unusual in the play, and it is often cut down or cut altogether in performance. Jonson’s expert balance between sentimentality and brutality, however, comes to a head in this central scene of the play: it is a love scene between a wealthy man who has no wealth and a noblewoman who is a prostitute. What this scene really displays is Mammon’s capacity to delude himself completely, and the irony of his comparing Dol to Renaissance nobility is that, of course, she is only a Blackfriars prostitute. It is at once a hilarious and sad construction. We feel sorry for Mammon’s genuine tenderness, for we know he is being tricked, yet we revel in the irony of, as Face says, having “Dol Common for a great lady.” Is this a brutal scene which exploits Mammon’s genuine tenderness for Dol, leading us to feel sorry for Mammon and what he is put through? Or is it rather a scene in which greedy and self-obsessed Mammon gets exactly what he deserves? We cannot quite laugh without facing the moral question as well.

Again faith and belief are a central question in the scene, for Dol claims not to believe Mammon’s boasts about his wealth and the luxurious lifestyle he will enjoy. That is one reason why he gives her the diamond ring: “to bind you to believe me.” Again and again in The Alchemist the gulls are made to feel that they are being questioned, and in persuading Dol, Mammon gulls himself even further.

Mammon’s verse hits an interesting note when it reaches the final description of foodstuffs (lines 155-169). As the climax of his fantasies in this scene, the greediness of his appetite seems a fitting emblem of his character throughout. One might see the lines also as an indication that the actor playing Mammon should be fat. When Ian Richardson, the greatest Mammon in recent memory, played the scene at London’s National Theatre in 2006, he gave it a rising crescendo toward which this final speech was a truly memorable peak.

Face’s line in Act 4, Scene 2, wishing for a suit to “fall now, like a curtain,” is another key theatrical image among the wealth of theatrical language in the play. This tension–the on-stage discussion of costume–also reminds us that Face does not trust Subtle at all.

Kastrill’s earlier introduction in Act 3, Scene 4, has already slightly intimidated him at the hands of Face. Here his gulling is extremely quick, perhaps because Subtle is keen to move on to the widow. Dame Pliant, who hardly says a word in this scene or elsewhere in the play, represents a sexual object to be set alongside the financial objects the conmen desire. Accordingly, the conmen immediately argued over who would get to sleep with her first. She also (and perhaps more importantly, to them) is a financial object, being recently widowed; a marriage to her would be extremely profitable. In some ways, this empty vessel of a widow, pretty and rich, is the embodiment of everything Subtle and Face are out to gain.