The Alchemist (Jonson)

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

Tribulation, Pastor of the Anabaptists, returns to the house with Ananias, who was thrown out by Subtle in the previous act. Tribulation tells Ananias that religious saints have to bear such “chastisements.” Ananias, aggressive as ever, says he does not like Subtle because he is a “heathen.” Tribulation agrees but repudiates Ananias’s suggestion that the “sanctified cause / should have a sanctified course” with the neat half-line, “Not always necessary.” Sometimes, Tribulation argues, the “heathen” children can be “instruments even of the greatest works.” Moreover, Tribulation continues, since Subtle is constantly around fire and furnaces, it is natural that he has become a bit like the devil. Besides, the Brethren really need all the money they will make from him. Ananias greets this rather contrived argument like a religious epiphany, and they knock on the door.

Subtle carries on with his fury from the last scene, forcing the Anabaptists to plead with him and offer some form of compromise before the financial conversation can really begin. Tribulation promises that the Brethren did not intend “to give you the least grievance, but are ready / to lend their willing hands to any project … you direct,” though it is only when he tells Subtle “the Saints / Throw down their purse before you” that Subtle is finally convinced.

Subtle gives a lengthy speech detailing the good the Philosopher’s Stone will bring to the Brethren: curing illness, making the old young again, restoring beauty, turning people’s metal to gold, and–through all of these charities–winning converts to Anabaptism. Subtle also advertises the possibility of being rich enough to raise an army to conquer the world in the name of Anabaptism. Ananias and Tribulation are delighted at this prospect of the Church militant.

Throughout this scene Ananias makes odd and angry corrections of Subtle, which threaten to provoke Subtle’s wrath but are quickly diverted by Tribulation, until Ananias launches into a furious rant against “traditions” seemingly for no reason other than because the word “tradition” has just been spoken.

Eventually Subtle promises Tribulation that the stone will be ready in fifteen days, and he extracts one hundred marks from the Brethren for the orphans’ goods (which Mammon, presumably, has already had delivered into the cellar). When Tribulation balks at this sum, he is reassured, “you’ll make six millions of ’em!” As Tribulation and Ananias exit to view the orphans’ goods, Subtle promises he can “cast” or melt them down, then remold the pewter into gold coins. Tribulation is not sure whether casting of money is legal under Christian law, however, and he resolves to check with the Brethren.

A knock at the door makes Subtle rapidly dispatch the Anabaptists into another room to “view the parcels.”


Jonson’s presentation of the Anabaptist Christians as more greedy than the other gulls, despite their good intentions, hits new heights in these two scenes. It is a darkly comic irony that these supposed guardians of morality are so ready to fight, even on the world stage. Tribulation does recognize that Ananias is haunted by “ignorant zeal,” and Tribulation is much more mature in his faith. It is possible that Tribulation is just refraining from judging all the corruption advertised in the promises and possibilities presented by Subtle, but he also lets it all pass as though he condones it. Subtle even advertises the Faustian bargain: “You may be any thing,” perhaps picking up on the Pauline idea of Christians being all things to all men, but in this context one cannot quite reach such a charitable interpretation. When Subtle advertises that the Anabaptists will no longer, out of a lack of resources, have to libel (lie) against the prelates, choose weird names like “Tribulation Wholesome,” or even “rail against plays,” Tribulation responds that such questionable activities are “very notable” methods invented for noble purposes.

Ananias’s fanatical aggression about the tiniest details makes him rather violent and unpredictable. Anabaptists were famous in Jonson’s day for this kind of specific and uncompromising zeal, which we still can observe among some religious fundamentalists today. The Anabaptists’ name and sect stem from the fact that they would only baptize adults because a baby would not know what it believed in. (That is, they chose “believer’s baptism” over paedobaptism.) Tribulation is the wiser and the more worldly of the two, while Ananias’s fervor seems to be expressed mainly by shouting.

The stock joke in this scene is that these extreme Anabaptists are so hypocritical and corrupt that on the one hand they will pick apart language, but on other hand sacrifice key beliefs in order to, for instance, achieve military domination and spread their religion by force. What happened to the Anabaptist doctrine of having a voluntary association of true believers? At least, Tribulation is unsure about the morality of coining money apart from the state, but it is not easy to see how this scruple is more important than worrying about gambling on an alchemist’s ability to turn orphans’ iron into gold.