57 pages 1 hour read

Ben Jonson

The Alchemist

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1610

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Summary and Study Guide


The Alchemist is an early modern comedic play written by Ben Jonson and originally performed in 1610 at Oxford by the King’s Men, a group most associated with Shakespeare.

The Alchemist, like many of Jonson’s plays, is a comedy of humors based on Galenic medical theory, which held that people are predominantly influenced by “humors,” or bodily fluids associated with specific personality types or traits. The play addresses themes of greed, deception, performance, and justice. Its three characters, Face, Subtle, and Dol, decide to deceive and rob as many people as they can. Their customers—merchants to knights to clergy—are tricked by virtue of their desire for some unattainable or magical thing that the trio promises to provide. The main object of desire is the philosopher’s stone, a mythic artifact that can cure any sickness and turn any metal into gold.

Jonson was a prolific playwright, writing 18 complete plays in his lifetime with two more left incomplete at the time of his death. Like Shakespeare, he was also an actor, becoming part of the theater scene after working as a bricklayer and a soldier. Jonson’s first play, Every Man in His Humour, was first performed in 1598. The Alchemist is a notable early modern comedy, foreshadowing many of the themes and topics of later playwrights of the Restoration, who would also focus on greed and sexuality as entertaining vices.

This guide uses the digiReads collection Ben Jonson: Volpone, The Alchemist, and Other Plays, published in 2020 by Digireads.com Publishing. In this edition, The Alchemist spans pages 239-352.

Plot Summary

The play opens in London at Lovewit’s house. Lovewit has left the city to avoid the plague, so his butler, Face, and Face’s friends, Subtle and Dol have taken up residence there. The three have agreed to work together, splitting the rewards of their endeavors evenly; their plan is to bring people into the house with promises of riches and fortune, only to deceive them and take their money. Face takes on the guise of Captain Face, a boisterous barker that goes into town to find gullible people. Subtle pretends to be a wizard or doctor, promising the riches and supernatural abilities that customers request, particularly the philosopher’s stone. Dol’s function is limited, extending to sex work and any feminine role that may be needed in a deception. It is also implied that Dol is sleeping with both Face and Subtle.

Their first customer is Dapper, who wants a familiar or spirit to help him win at gambling. Subtle promises him the familiar, offering to also arrange a meeting with the Queen of Fairy to further enhance Dapper’s luck. All the while, Face emphasizes the deal Dapper is getting, asking him for more and more money. Next, Face brings in Drugger, a merchant who wants advice on how to design his shop for better sales. Subtle offers to read Drugger’s fortune and provide a detailed sign and layout for Drugger’s shop to improve business. The third customer is Sir Epicure Mammon, a knight in search of the philosopher’s stone, accompanied by Surly, a servant who is not convinced by Face’s or Subtle’s performances. Mammon agrees to hand over several metal goods for conversion to gold using the stone; he plans to use the stone’s restorative powers to heal the sick while amassing wealth and immortality for himself. When Mammon spots Dol, Face tells him that she is a noblewoman with a mental illness and sets up a date. Surly then threatens to call the police on Face, suspecting Face of running a ring of sex workers.

The fourth customer is Ananias, an Anabaptist deacon, who wants to purchase Mammon’s goods, which he believes were sold by an orphan or widow. Ananias doubts Subtle’s ability to make the philosopher’s stone, declaring that the Anabaptists will no longer fund Subtle’s experiments. Ananias returns with another Anabaptist, Tribulation Wholesome, a true believer who encourages Subtle to continue his work and forgive Ananias. Ananias changes his mind about Subtle when Subtle suggests counterfeiting money with some of Mammon’s goods. When Dapper returns to meet the Queen of Fairy, as Subtle promised, Subtle and Face pick Dapper’s pockets, and then accuse him of being deceitful. They gag him with gingerbread and keep him in the bathroom.

Drugger returns with his brother Kastril and his sister Pliant, a widow. Kastril wants instruction in arguing and fighting, while Face and Subtle each want to marry Pliant, who has a great deal of wealth from her deceased husband. Subtle provides Drugger with a sign for his shop, and Face sends Drugger out to get some clothes. In the meantime, Subtle convinces Pliant to remarry either a soldier (Subtle) or a man of the arts (Face). Then, Face invites a Spanish nobleman to meet Pliant, hoping to get him to pay for sex with the widow and rob him at the same time.

The play increases in tension as Mammon arrives for his date with Dol, Kastril returns with his sister Pliant for more lessons, and Surly arrives dressed as the Spanish noble. Dol pretends to have a “fit” to get out of marrying Mammon when he proposes, and Face and Subtle use Mammon’s attempt to sleep with Dol as a reason to end the philosopher’s stone experiment. They claim that Mammon’s sin has destroyed what they had created thus far. Surly reveals himself to Pliant, telling her that he loves her and wants to have Face and Subtle arrested. However, Face tricks Kastril into attacking Surly, and, when Drugger and Ananias arrive, they also assault Surly. With Surly out of the house, Face sends Drugger to get a new Spanish outfit, Kastril resumes his lessons, Dol tells Pliant that the real Spanish noble is on his way, and Dol reveals to Face that Lovewit, the owner of the house, is on his way home. Drugger returns, and Face offers to have him marry Pliant in the Spanish outfit.

Lovewit arrives surrounded by neighbors, all of whom tell him that people have been coming in and out of his house since he left. He is shocked, but Face, answering the door as Jeremy the butler, tells him that they are hallucinating. However, Mammon and Surly arrive and demand their goods. They want to arrest Face. The neighbors confirm their story, but Lovewit protects Face. Ananias and Wholesome come next, demanding the same thing, and they, too, are sent away. However, Dapper, still in the bathroom, starts yelling, and Face is forced to admit the truth to Lovewit. Lovewit forgives him. When Mammon, Surly, Ananias, and Wholesome return with the police, Lovewit sends them away, telling them to press a formal lawsuit if they want their goods returned. Subtle and Dol take care of Dapper, convincing him that Dol is the Queen of Fairy and sending him out to retrieve more money to pay them. Face reveals to Subtle and Dol that he called Lovewit home, and that Lovewit is taking all the goods they have stolen over the course of the operation. Dol and Subtle escape, planning to set up shop elsewhere. Lovewit assaults Drugger and marries Pliant using Drugger’s Spanish outfit. Kastril is satisfied with his sister’s marriage, and Lovewit thanks Face, giving him a portion of the stolen money as payment.