The Alchemist (Jonson)

The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary and Analysis of Act 1, Scenes 3 and 4

After Face’s exit, Subtle welcomes Abel Drugger (sometimes called “Nab”), a tobacconist who, like Dapper, was sent by “one Captain Face.” Face has apparently told Dapper (according to his initial, stumbling monologue) that the Doctor “knows men’s planets.” In short, Dapper wants astrological advice about the feng shui of the new tobacconist’s shop he is about to open: where to place his boxes, where his pots, where the door and windows should be, and so on.

Face enters, fresh from escorting Dapper outside. He greets Drugger warmly, for he provides Face, apparently, with the best, highest-quality tobacco. Immediately the “Doctor” decides that Abel is a “fortunate fellow” and predicts that he will soon come into great riches and will be made a sheriff. Subtle then, according to the “metoposcopy” he claims to work by, reads Drugger’s skin color, forehead, ear, teeth, and nails in order to ascertain that he was born on a Wednesday.

Subtle then performs a rapid feng shui treatment on the plan of Drugger’s shop, positioning the doors and providing the names of spirits who can “fright flies from boxes.” He then predicts that Drugger will deal “much with minerals” and may even have a chance at acquiring the Philosopher’s Stone. Drugger, like Dapper before him, is coerced into leaving money for the Doctor for his services, though not before he has produced his almanac so that the Doctor can cross out his unlucky days. The Doctor promises to have it done by afternoon, and Drugger excitedly leaves.

After he has left, the conmen come out of character for the first time since Act 1, Scene 1. Face makes a short speech, provocatively pointing out to Subtle that the two gulls who have just come through the doors were arranged and brought in by him alone.

As the argument looks set to rekindle itself, Dol enters, and the two immediately attempt to look nonchalant. Dol has been sending the “fish-wives” away from the door (presumably they are gulled characters who are constantly present near the door, but never seen by the audience). Dol has seen Sir Epicure Mammon heading this way. Subtle gleefully describes having waited for him since sunrise. Mammon, he tells us, is so convinced that he will have the Philosopher’s Stone that he is already behaving as if he does have it and the wealth it would produce.


What Drugger’s entrance immediately makes clear to the audience is the facility Subtle and Face have for suiting their cons to the persons they want to con. Nervous, hesitant Drugger is comically sympathetic as he is greeted firmly and definitely by the Doctor and Captain Face, both of whom seem twice as confident and have far higher status than he does.

The conmen’s method, though it is not entirely clear from the scene, is a combination of straightforward lying—the “certain star” in Drugger’s forehead, which only Subtle can see, is an omen of his wealth, good guesswork—that Drugger is born on a Wednesday, and stating the obvious—Subtle’s list of the chemicals Drugger possesses is a list of the standard chemicals any mineral-dealer would have. Thus they convince him that they have unearthly powers. From now on in the play, Drugger will do exactly as he is told.

There is an interesting turn already due to the treatment of the gulls. Drugger only wishes “to thrive,” and his innocent naivete makes him instantly sympathetic. Jonson’s view of the conmen is always ambiguous, but the introduction of Drugger certainly suggests that the audience might become aware of the cruelty and brutality of the cons. Conning, after all, is theft more than comedy, and we start to feel more sympathy for the gulls than for the protagonists.

Jonson carefully keeps the relationship between the conmen spiky. As the scene ends, it seems that they are about to get into another argument, but Dol’s entrance stops it. Face claims, again, that his part in the business is essential to its success—without him, Subtle would have nobody to con with his “crosslets, crucibles, and cucurbites [flasks].” Jonson keeps the audience aware of the fact that the plot of The Alchemist is not just a string of successful cons. There remains a constant question or disagreement about who is the better or more prominent partner. For them, it means who deserves what share of the profits; for us, it means assessing the quality of the performances.

Act 1, Scene 4 serves one main purpose: to build up expectation for the entrance of Epicure Mammon. If Dapper introduces the idea of conning and Drugger makes the gulls seem humanized and sympathetic, Epicure Mammon will bring a new level of interest to the play. He is at once more colorful, more outrageous, and more greedy than any of the other gulls. Fittingly, his final humiliation will be all the greater.