The Alchemist (Jonson)

The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary and Analysis of Act 2, Scenes 1, 2, and 3

Sir Epicure Mammon begins Act 2, Scene 1, with a lengthy speech. In heightened poetic language, he compares the Blackfriars house to “the rich Peru,” “the golden mines,” and “Great Solomon’s Ophir.” Surly from the start is lagging behind (he is, naturally, surly) and calls into question Mammon’s assumptions that he will end up rich. Mammon is in this excited state because today is the day the Philosopher’s Stone is due to be ready. Surly warns him only to believe in things when he sees them with his own eyes. When Mammon talks about the effects of the “great med’cine,” Surly says he will believe it, but only “when I see’t.”

Mammon has extravagant plans to cure all diseases, become immortal, and have sex with several different wives at once (he will, he says, encounter “twenty a night”). He also possesses, he says to Surly, several relics already: “dragon’s teeth” and “a piece of Jason’s fleece. They are very unlikely genuine, but Mammon of course believes they are.

Face enters, dressed as Lungs, the bellows-man (who blows air into the furnace), and he tells Mammon that the stone has gone “red,” a very good sign that it is nearly fully alchemized. Mammon promises him extensive riches if the stone does indeed form correctly. This is plainly ironic because Face is already making money from the very idea of the stone. Mammon indulges in further lengthy descriptions of his future lifestyle when he is very rich—the rich clothes he will wear, the fine foods he will eat, and the status he will be afforded in the world.

Subtle enters as the “Alchemist” and is treated very respectfully by Mammon, who addresses him as “Father.” According to Mammon, Surly has been brought along “in hope … to convert him” to believing in the Alchemist. Immediately Subtle worries Mammon by suggesting that he might be covetous (see “A note on alchemy” in this ClassicNote) and that the stone may therefore not form. Face and Subtle then baffle Mammon with a torrent of dense, scientific language which neither Mammon nor Surly understands. (The speakers probably do not understand it, either.)

Face exits to “change the filter” and bring Subtle the “complexion of glass B,” two imaginary adjustments to what might well be an imaginary furnace. Face returns with the bad news that glass B is black, which unsurprisingly needs a financial investment of ten pounds from Mammon to buy “some three ounces of fresh materials,” which will provide a better chance of developing the stone. Mammon, excited by this, decides to bring all of the metal from his house to the Blackfriars so that it is ready to be converted into gold.

Subtle expounds the theory of alchemy at length, explaining to the cynical Surly that objects are always in flux and that, in the way that an egg can become a chicken, base metal is waiting to be transformed into gold. The speech is a tour de force, though Surly is not convinced, and he calls alchemy “a pretty kind of game … to cheat a man.” Surly points out that all Subtle’s “terms” (his scientific language) are only words that mean nothing to the layman; besides, there is no evidence of anything that the alchemy has achieved—just a storm of words. Subtle is slightly perplexed by this accurate argument, and he tells Surly that “all the knowledge / of the Egyptians” was “writ in mystic symbols,” and the “Scriptures” likewise speak “oft in parables.”

Suddenly Dol enters, and Mammon is immediately besotted. Subtle sends Face in to see what is going on, and when Face returns, Mammon questions him in the absence of Subtle. Dol is pretending to be, as Face reveals to Mammon, a “rare scholar” who has “gone mad” studying a scholar called Broughton, and who has come to the Doctor to be cured. Surly is not convinced, feeling sure that this is “a bawdy house.” Mammon is desperate to meet this scholar, and Face promises to set up a meeting. Surly remains cynical, and Face persuades Surly to meet “Captain Face” at the Temple Church in half an hour.

The scene ends with a touching moment when Mammon reveals his own total lack of self-worth. “Wilt thou … be constant to thy promise?” he asks Face, “And wilt thou … praise me? / And say I am a noble fellow?” When Face agrees, Mammon is so excited and moved by the prospect of being praised that he exclaims, “Lungs, my Lungs! I love thee!” and, handing over still more money to Face, exits.


Mammon is the play’s most imaginative character and the best example of someone who is prepared, in Surly’s words, practically to gull himself. His comparisons of the Blackfriars house and its business to all manner of classical, worldly, and literary wonders exemplifies the way he is prepared to be optimistic almost to the point of absurdity. Mammon, when propelled by his considerable greed, seems unable to live in the real world. He lives more in the dream-land of “what it will be like when I am rich.”

Moreover, we never see any real alchemy, and the “furnace” that Lovewit describes is offstage. The alchemical language that Face and Subtle talk to baffle Mammon in this scene seems to be genuinely accurate according to 17th-century ideas about alchemy. But as Anne Barton points out, it is “real” only in “words”: again, the glasses, furnaces, and bubbling liquids that the pair describe are situated offstage.

As in so much theatre, particularly Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, we are asked to believe in things that we never see. In this case, we are also invited not to believe; perhaps the furnace does not exist or, at least, exists not in the way that Lovewit describes it. This point again brings up the general point about theater: Mammon’s belief, so mocked by Surly, is much the same belief that the audience chooses to have in order to make the play itself function. Again, the suggestion is that theater itself is a con not unlike the ones Face and Subtle carry out. What saves theater is our trust for the playwright; we believe temporarily in what is false because we might get something worth gold out of it, and a good playwright will see to it that we do.

This idea itself, which is repeatedly drawn out during the scene, is in the play itself, for theater itself, the world of the poets, involves a process of believing in things when they are not actually in front of us. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the Chorus asks the audience to “Think when we talk of horses, that you see them,” and this is exactly what Mammon does. Anticipating his riches gives him extreme pleasure before he even has them. We do the same in anticipating the good that comes or will come out of our experience in the audience.

Dol’s entrance into the middle of Act 2, Scene 3, is another good example of the play’s constant ambiguity about what is a con and what is real. Jonson does not set up the idea that Dol is due to enter, and it is only afterwards that we realize it has been another con to trick Mammon into handing over more money. Like Drugger, Mammon becomes a bit sympathetic, and there is something endearing about his enthusiasm. Surly, on the other hand, is cynical to the point of being dislikeable. Jonson is brilliant at balancing our responses: the conmen are glitteringly clever but morally corrupt while Mammon, though greedy and unpleasant, is self-doubting and sympathetically pathetic. There are no good characters here, just various shades of bad characters. Can any gold really come out of that for us?