The Alchemist (Jonson)

The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary and Analysis of Act 4, Scenes 5, 6, and 7

Dol enters “in her fit of talking.” Mammon has mentioned Broughton, which he was told not to mention, and her (pretend) madness has been activated. Mammon panics, and he desperately tries to get her to talk sense, but she will not. Face enters, dressed as Lungs, and he asks Mammon what happened.

Subtle shouts from offstage, “What’s to do there?” and the tension escalates toward a terrific entry at which the characters “disperse,” leaving only Mammon to pathetically ask, “Where shall I hide me?” Subtle pretends fury and stamps on Mammon’s weak suggestion that “There was no unchaste purpose,” telling him that his behavior will “retard / The work, a month at least.” Suddenly there is “a great crack and noise within,” and Lungs enters to report that the furnace, with all its glasses and scientific equipment, has been destroyed. Subtle says nothing but “falls down as in a swoon.”

There is a knock on the door, and Face tells Mammon, who stands “readier to depart” than the “fainted” Subtle, that Dol’s brother is at the door. Dol’s brother is as furious, Face tells Mammon, as Dol is mad, and he advises Mammon to escape as quickly as possible. Subtle “seems to come to himself” and rails against the sin and vice that has ruined his work. Face warns Mammon again that he is grieving Subtle and will grieve Dol’s brother more. Mammon agrees to leave. As he is going, Face persuades him to give “a hundred pound” to charity in penance for what he has done–and Face will “send one to you to receive it.”

The door closes, Mammon exits, and–just like that–Subtle is back on his feet. The two of them are delighted that “so much of our care” is “now cast away.” The conmen resolve now to sort out the matter of the Spanish Don and the Widow; it seems as if things have just become much easier. (They haven’t.) As the two conmen exit, Surly and Dame Pliant enter. Surly, now speaking as himself, attempts to explain to her what is going on in this “nest of villains,” but she does not really understand him. Surly tells Pliant that he himself will deal with “these household-rogues.”

At that, Subtle enters and continues to mock the Spanish Don by speaking in English, but he is astonished when, having announced that he will pick the Don’s pockets, the Don answers back in English: “Will you, Don bawd and pickpurse?” Surly immediately fights Subtle, who shouts, “Help! Murder!” As Face enters, Surly bitterly and verbosely delivers a long speech about the con he has uncovered. During this speech, Face makes a quiet exit, and–when Subtle tries to do the same–Surly restrains him.

Face returns with Kastrill, telling him that “now’s the time, if ever you will quarrel.” Face sets Kastrill, delighted to be quarrelling, onto the unsuspecting Surly, who is baffled. Face tells Kastrill that the real Spanish Count is indeed on the way, and that this is an imposter. Kastrill, encouraged by Face, verbally attacks him.

Just as things are settling down, Drugger enters unexpectedly. Face bravely incorporates him into the plans, telling him to “make good what I say” and accusing Surly of cheating Drugger out of tobacco. Drugger plays along, to Surly’s consternation, and when Kastrill refuses to stop “quarrelling,” Surly seems on the verge of escaping.

Ananias, elated because casting dollars has been declared lawful by his fellows, now arrives through the door. He immediately delivers the final blow to Surly’s resistance, attacking his Spanish costume as “profane, lewd, superstitious and idolatrous.” Understandably, Surly escapes.

Kastrill is pleased with himself for quarrelling so well, and he runs after Surly to make good his threats to stop him from returning. Face sends Drugger off to borrow another Spanish suit (presumably to make good on his theory to Kastrill that the real Spanish Don is on the way), and he dispatches Ananias to confer with his brethren about a safe place to undertake the casting of money.

Face mocks Subtle for being “so down upon the least disaster” and makes him grudgingly admit that Subtle would not have coped in that situation without Face. Just when it seems that this chaotic scene has been returned to order, Dol enters with the biggest shock of the play. Lovewit, the master of the house, has returned, and he is standing outside with forty neighbors.

Panic ensues. Face silences Subtle and Dol and makes a plan. He will change back into Jeremy Butler, they will pack their gold and goods into trunks, and they will escape to Ratcliff, where he will meet them tomorrow. But first, Subtle will shave him, for Jeremy Butler, unlike Captain Face, was clean-shaven.


This section of the play is the glorious climax of the farce. Jonson makes everything go wrong until the moment when all the gulls arrive, uninvited, which tests to the limits Face’s powers of improvisation. Lovewit’s arrival finally forces a retreat.

Subtle’s sighting of Mammon “in sin” justifies the explosion of the furnace because alchemy cannot, it is said, take place in a house where sin has been committed, or on behalf of someone who was lustful. Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National Theatre, London, in 2006 made clear that Dol and Mammon actually were caught in the act, with Dol grabbing Mammon as if panicked and, as Subtle enters, freezing in a damning tableau. Still, this and the explosion that follow it are palpably fake; only Mammon’s reactions are genuine. The explosion is more likely to be a small-scale explosion which Face sets off to represent the furnace exploding. In any case, any explosion is deliberate.

The explosion itself has given directors a lot of fun. Hytner’s was reasonably low-key, with a lot of smoke and a loud bang. Hytner said in an interview that the conmen just set off a “stick of dynamite,” always ready as their “get out of jail free card.” The Swan Theatre Company production in Cambridge actually had the door to the furnace room blown off its hinges and flat onto the floor with a huge explosion, visibly set up by Face “behind the scenes.”

Surly’s unmasking reverses the balance against the conmen, and the lines between reality and illusion are dangerously blurred. With Kastrill and Drugger’s combined aggression a solution is found, and the story is hastily re-written by Face to make everything plausible to Kastrill and to ensure the widow’s hand in marriage. It is notable that this scene openly refers to Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy; Drugger is sent to fetch Hieronymo’s hat and ruff, which itself would have been in the company’s store—Hieronymo is Kyd’s main character.

Earlier, too, Dol quotes from Broughton’s A Concent of Scripture (1590) in her “fit of talking.” (Broughton’s work attempts to answer questions of Old Testament chronology.) This further adds to the sense that the play is in part a patchwork of recycled texts, of old pretenses re-adapted. When Subtle enters with the lines “O I have lived too long,” we can be forgiven for comparing him to King Lear.

It is typical of Jonson’s plot-work that, after the terrific pileup of gull after gull, he retains the biggest and best trick for last. Lovewit’s return, completely unexpected by the audience and the characters alike, is a brilliant way of ensuring that the play escalates into its highest gear for the final act. Face now must revert to being “Jeremy the Butler,” a character we have not yet encountered. Anne Barton thinks that Jeremy is Face’s real name, despite the fact that it is not stated in the Dramatis Personae. It would be still more intriguing if this is just another costume in his wardrobe. It is perhaps part of Jonson’s design that Face, who wins over Subtle in the play’s final scene, does so because he has this last trumping disguise–he can exploit his theatricality one level further.