The Alchemist (Jonson)

The Alchemist (Jonson) Summary and Analysis of Act 5, Scenes 4 and 5

Back inside Lovewit’s house, Subtle berates Dapper for allowing his gag to crumble away in his mouth—“the fume did overcome me,” Dapper says pathetically, having spent the last hour in a toilet. Face returns, and tells Subtle that he has succeeded in getting rid of Lovewit for tonight. Subtle rejoices at this news, calling Face “the precious king / Of present wits.”

Dol enters “like the Queen of Fairy,” and Subtle forces Dapper to his knees. The conmen indulge in a brief and rather rushed meeting between Dapper and his supposed aunt. Dapper kisses her velvet gowns, Dol strokes his head, and she gives him his spirit in a purse to wear about his neck. Subtle instructs Dapper to bring “a thousand pound / Before tomorrow night,” and as Dapper swears he will, Face, from another room, tries to end proceedings. Dapper is swiftly dispatched by Subtle to sell all of his lands.

Face returns and sends Subtle to the door to meet Drugger, who has brought the Spanish suit. Subtle has to tell him to bring a parson to the house. When he returns, Face takes parts of the suit and exits.

While Face is out, Subtle tells Dol that he intends to take all the goods but not to meet Face in Ratcliff as agreed. He will, like the play, unexpectedly “turn his course” and go somewhere else. Subtle outlines to Dol his dream of what he will do when they “have all,” and the two are kissing when Face returns to send Subtle to collect the parson from Drugger. Face leaves to bestow him, and Subtle crowingly observes that Face thinks he has the upper hand.

When Face returns again, the three itemize the things they have conned from the gulls onstage and off, and they pack them into bags and trunks. Face announces to Subtle and Dol that his master knows all and will keep all the proceeds—an assertion the play never verifies. Subtle and Dol are shocked into silence. A knock on the door prompts them to escape, cursing Face, “over the back wall” without any of the proceeds.

Officers are at the door, and Lovewit enters, newly married to the widow, stripping off his Spanish suit and discarding it before opening the door. Mammon, Surly, Kastrill, Tribulation, and Ananias pour into the house, searching for Captain Face, the Doctor, and “Madame Suppository.” Lovewit invites them to search, and they do, but they find nothing. Lovewit says there are just empty walls, slightly smoked, “a few cracked pots and glasses,” and a bit of graffiti on the walls. Lovewit has met just one person, the widow, whom he has married.

Mammon is hugely relieved to find his own goods and wants to take them back from the cellar so that “I may have home yet.” Lovewit tells him that if he brings “order of law” to prove they are his, then he can take them. Mammon says he’d “rather lose ‘em” and leaves, resolving to “mount a turnip cart and preach / The end o’the world.” Surly, having lost the widow, refuses to cheat himself “with that same foolish vice of honesty!” Tribulation and Ananias are beaten away by Lovewit, and, in a final cruel touch, so is Drugger.

There is a slightly positive turn in the final moments. Kastrill is deeply impressed by the violent, drinking Lovewit. He seems quite satisfied with his new brother-in-law. The two of them go off together with the widow to smoke and drink. Face, left alone on stage to deliver the epilogue, comments that for his part “a little fell in this last scene.” Face refers to the “pelf” (reward) which he has got, and he promises to use it to “feast you often” (meaning us, the audience)—as well as to bring more people to the theater.


This final movement of the play is the key to its unraveling and resolution. Face immediately lies to Subtle about what has gone on–clearly, Face’s resolution has been adapted to his own needs, and Subtle has been cut out of it. This is a central point in this final piece of theatricality: the Fairy Queen is both the least and the most believable part of the play. To the audience, if not to Dapper himself, Dol’s performance as a Fairy is highly unconvincing. Yet, while that performance goes on, another one is working simultaneously towards a conclusion. Face knows that he has to bide his time until Mammon’s officers return to the door, and Subtle and Dol need to be delayed until the last possible moment if he is going to manage to force them out without any of the profits.

Face also manipulates Subtle: Subtle meets Drugger at the door, collects the costume, and tells him to fetch a parson. For the first time, Subtle is doing something without knowing it, for the parson is not to marry Pliant to Face, but to Lovewit. When Face leaves, Subtle’s plan to “turn our course” comes too late, because unbeknownst to him, Face has already turned his course, which is over the back wall with nothing.

To have the proceeds from the cons not seen onstage is perfectly accurate if, as the play suggests, we are seeing the final day of six weeks of conning. It makes sense that there has been much more going on outside of the time of the play itself. Face’s inheritance from the cons, after Dol and Subtle leave hurriedly over the back wall, is considerable and not specifically counted up. As with everything else in the play, we do not really know what its theatrical status is. As about so much else in the play, we now ask: is this supposed to be real or illusory? It is certainly significant that, in a play full of imaginary people, spirits and fairies, Subtle’s final threat to Face is to hang himself and “haunt thee”.

The last scene of the play does nothing to resolve our sympathies with Subtle and Face; in fact, seeing Mammon gulled of so much money that he will lose his house is immediately sympathetic. Yet, he and the other gulls in this final scene constantly refer to the house in theatrical terms: Ananias calls it a “cave of cozenage” and Mammon wonders aloud if everything has been “a dream,” echoing the meta-theatrical endings of plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The more we remember that this is a play, the less we worry about the struggles of imaginary characters.

Jonson even invokes “decorum,” the classical word for theatrical justice, leading us to question whether we think the play has been just or fair. Nevertheless, in the end, the ending of The Alchemist keeps the lines between theater and life somewhat blurred, such as by verifying Surly’s observation that honesty is a “foolish vice.” The winner, Face, remains just that—a mask, a Face—who is theatrically flexible and thereby confounding. And so much of life is this way, so much of it consists of images and interpretations, confusions and dissimulations, remaking of self, plots against others, and mistakes about reality, when we view Jonson’s play we see evidence for the conclusion that all the world is, indeed, a stage.