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In The Alchemist, Jonson unashamedly satirises the follies, vanities and vices of mankind, most notably greed-induced credulity. People of all social classes are subject to Jonson's ruthless, satirical wit. He mocks human weakness and gullibility to advertising and to "miracle cures" with the character of Sir Epicure Mammon, who dreams of drinking the elixir of youth and enjoying fantastic sexual conquests.
The Alchemist focuses on what happens when one human being seeks advantage over another. In a big city like London, this process of advantage-seeking is rife. The trio of con-artists – Subtle, Face and Dol – are self-deluding small-timers, ultimately undone by the same human weaknesses they exploit in their victims. Their fate is foreshadowed in the play's opening scene, which features them together in the house of Lovewit, Face's master. In a metaphor which runs through the play, the dialogue shows them to exist in uneasy imbalance, like alchemical elements that will create an unstable reaction. Barely ten lines into the text, Face and Subtle's quarrelling forces Dol to quell their raised voices: “Will you have the neighbours hear you? Will you betray all?”
The con-artists' vanities and aspirations are revealed by the very personae they assume as part of their plan. The lowly housekeeper, Face, casts himself as a sea captain (a man accustomed to giving orders, instead of taking them), the egotistical Subtle casts himself as an alchemist (as one who can do what no one else can; turn base metal into gold), and Dol Common casts herself as an aristocratic lady. Their incessant bickering is fuelled by vanity, envy and jealousy, the root of which is Subtle's conviction that he is the key element in the ‘venture tripartite’:
- FACE: ‘Tis his fault. He ever murmurs and objects his pains, and says the weight of all lies upon him.
The ‘venture tripartite’ is as doomed as one of the Roman triumvirates. The play's end sees Subtle and Dol resume their original pairing, while Face resumes his role as housekeeper to a wealthy master. Significantly, none of the three is severely punished (the collapse of their scheme aside). Jonson's theatrical microcosm is not a neatly moral one; and he seems to enjoy seeing foolish characters like Epicure Mammon get their comeuppance. This is why, while London itself is a target of Jonson's satire, it is also, as his Prologue boasts, a cozening-ground worth celebrating: “Our scene is London, ‘cause we would make known/No country’s mirth is better than our own/No clime breeds better matter for your whore…”
The Alchemist is tightly structured, based around a simple dramatic concept. Subtle claims to be on the verge of projection in his offstage workroom, but all the characters in the play are overly-concerned with projection of a different kind: image-projection. The end result, in structural terms, is an onstage base of operations in Friars, to which can be brought a succession of unconsciously-comic characters from different social backgrounds, who hold different professions and different beliefs, but whose lowest common denominator – gullibility – grants them equal victim-status in the end. Dapper, the aspirant gambler, loses his stake; Sir Epicure Mammon loses his money and his dignity; Drugger, the would-be businessman, parts with his cash, but ends up no nearer to the success he craves; the Puritan duo, Tribulation and Ananias, never realise their scheme to counterfeit Dutch money.
Jonson reserves his harshest satire for these Puritan characters—perhaps because the Puritans, in real life, wished to close down the theatres. (Jonson's play Bartholomew Fair is also anti-Puritan.) Tellingly, of all those gulled in the play, it is the Puritans alone whom Jonson denies a brief moment of his audience's pity; presumably, he reckons their life-denying self-righteousness renders them unworthy of it. Jonson consistently despises hypocrisy, especially religious hypocrisy that couches its damning judgments in high-flown language. Tribulation and Ananias call their fellow men "heathens" and in one case, say that someone's hat suggests "the Anti-Christ." That these Puritans are just as money-hungry as the rest of the characters is part of the ironic joke.
In many English and European comedies, it is up to a high-class character to resolve the confusion that has been caused by lower-class characters. In The Alchemist, Jonson subverts this tradition. Face's master, Lovewit, at first seems to assert his social and ethical superiority to put matters to rights. But when Face dangles before him the prospect of marriage to a younger woman, his master eagerly accepts. Both master and servant are always on the lookout for how to get ahead in life, regardless of ethical boundaries. Lovewit adroitly exploits Mammon's reluctance to obtain legal certification of his folly to hold on to the old man's money.