The Alchemist (Jonson)

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

There is another argument, increasing in ferocity, about whether Subtle or Face should have the Widow. Face even offers Subtle money in order that he can have the widow (Subtle refuses), and it is only when Subtle threatens to tell Dol about what Face wants that the argument ceases, begrudgingly.

Surly enters, dressed as a Spaniard, and he speaks in Spanish to the conmen, neither of whom seems to understand him. The two conmen mock and laugh openly at the costume, thinking that he cannot understand English. They feel his pockets and tell him mockingly that he shall be “cozened”–thinking the Spaniard will not know the word. When Surly talks of his “Señora,” they remember that he is here to sleep with Dol, who is otherwise occupied with Mammon. This poses something of a problem, and the argument instantly flares back up.

Face argues that the Widow should be given over to the Don. Subtle, backtracking, tries to get money out of him, as Face had earlier suggested, for “Subtle’s share” in the widow. Face, his interest in the widow now removed in favor of giving her to the Don, threatens to call Dol, and Subtle now has to concede. Subtle is furious, calling Face a “terrible rogue,” but the two shake hands on the deal (further evidence of their mutual distrust). Face leaves to bring Dame Pliant and Kastrill, and Subtle takes Surly up to the bathroom. As he leaves, he tells the audience that he intends to sleep with the widow regardless and thus revenge himself on “this impetuous Face.”

Face re-enters with Dame Pliant and Kastrill, who seems delighted at the idea that his sister will be a “Spanish Countess.” Subtle enters, and Dame Pliant shocks the assembled company by saying she will “never brook a Spaniard.” Subtle’s attempt at persuasion is to say, “you must love him or be miserable,” and Kastrill’s attempt is stronger: “you shall love him, or I’ll kick you.” Subtle and Face then paint a picture of Dame Pliant as a Countess, finely dressed and traveling in pomp with eight horses and coaches to hurry her through London, tempting her further.

Surly now enters unexpectedly, and Face has to cover (with, perhaps, a hidden aggressive comment to Subtle): “the doctor knew he would be here, by his art!” He picks up Dame Pliant and carries her out to the garden. Subtle sees the opportunity to get rid of Mammon, takes Kastrill out to continue “our quarrelling lesson,” and then sends Face to get Mammon.


The Spanish Don is an interesting contemporary choice for a city comedy (that is, a comedy set in a modern-day city). The contemporary resonance of that character is acknowledged in Dame Pliant’s line explaining why she will never marry a Spaniard: “Never ’sin eighty-eight could I abide ’em,” she says, then acknowledging that 1588 was three years before she was born (making her exactly twenty-five years old). Everyone would know that 1588 was the defeat of the Spanish Armada, an English triumph, which tipped the balance of a long and frightening conflict in England’s favor for the first time.

The joking at the expense of the Spaniard has been read a number of ways—more deeply than as a mockery of the Spanish language and Spanish costume. On many levels, the play is about the importance of what Face calls the “common cause” in Act 4, Scene 3, and the gulls do have a common cause in their greed. Similarly, it is important for Face to remind Subtle of the “common cause”; as Dol points out in the play’s first scene, the con only works if three people’s efforts point in the same direction, a “venture tripartite.” Surly is a con as the Spaniard; what is this suggesting as the common cause, if any, of Spain and England?

When Surly enters, dressed like a Spaniard, the audience might believe that the same actor was simply doubling as an entirely different character, not Surly in disguise. Like Face and Subtle, we thus might also buy into the convention; we do not yet know for sure that the Spanish don is really Surly. The theater game is, again, double: the gulls believe in the conmen while we “believe” in the theater.

The argument over Dame Pliant escalates in this scene. Subtle’s promise that he will be revenged further complicates the sense that the play is starting to accelerate beyond the conmen’s control. Surly’s sudden entrance into Act 4, Scene 3, foreshadows the numerous entrances into Act 4, Scene 7.