The Alchemist by Ben Jonson Summary and Analysis
Read our detailed notes on the comedy play The Alchemist by Ben Jonson. Our notes cover The Alchemist by Ben Jonson summary, themes, characters, and analysis.
The Alchemist Introduction:
The comedy “The Alchemist” is written by a playwright, Ben Jonson. This play was first staged in 1610 in king’s men theater. The play Alchemist is generally considered as one of the most characteristic and best comedy and satire on the vices of the society. According to the S.T Coleridge, this play has one of the three best plots in the literature.
The play cleverly fulfills the classical unities and clearly depicts the vices of the society. Due to its rebellion against false religious practices, this play is considered as one of the Renaissance plays.
Jonson’s comedy echoes the new-fangled self-confidence. In this play, for the first time, he smears his conventional commencement of play to a setting in modern London, with energizing consequences. The conventional components, chiefly the connection between Lovewit and Face, is completely rationalized; similarly, the representation of 17th century London is given direction and course by the orthodox indulgent of comedy as revenue to uncover immorality and imprudence to mockery.
The Alchemist by Ben Jonson Summary:
Lovewit handed over his house to his butler, Jeremy, while leaving for him hop-yard in London. Jeremy is known by the name of Face in this play. He lives with subtle, a supposed alchemist, and a prostitute named Dol Common in Lovewit’s house. They run a major fraud business in the house.
When the play opens there is an argument between Face and subtle that continues throughout the play. The argument is based on who is of chief importance for the business they run, each talking about his supremacy. Don come in between and resolves their conflict and compel both to shake their hands. Meanwhile, there is knock on the door the first gull of the day, a legal clerk, enters. Subtle takes the role of the “Doctor” while Face plays the role of “Captain Face”
Dapper, a legal clerk, desires for a spirit that can help him win the game at gambling. Subtle tells him that he is connected to the queen of fairies and promises him to get one for him. He asks Dapper to come back after washing himself and bring a clean shirt with him. As soon as Dapper left, another client, known as Drugger, enters. He is a tobacconist who comes to know how he should place his shop. Subtle asks him to return back with tobacco and a damask. The argument between Face and Subtle resume, however, Dol interferences and warns them about the visit of Sir Epicure Mammon.
Subtle has promised Sir Epicure Mammon that he will make him a Philosopher’s stone for which Mammon is extremely happy and is fantasizing about it. Now, Sir Mammon and Sir Pertinax, his cynical assistance are standing next to the door. Face now plays the role of “Lungs”, a doctor’s laboratory assistance while the two conmen astonish Mammon and irritate Surly with their twisted scientific language. Face told Surly that he will meet him at temple church at half an hour, meanwhile, Dol enters that provokes Sir Mammon and he starts pleading Face to arrange a meeting with Dol.
Another client Ananias, an Anabaptist, comes and meets with Subtle with anger. He wants Subtle to give him the Philosopher’s stone so that he can earn much money to convert people to his religion. He returns with Tribulation, his priest. As he leaves, another client Kastril is brought by Drugger. Kastril comes to know how to fight and to case the joint in order to see if this man is suitable for his rich, widowed sister, Dame Pliant, or not. Kastril is immediately impressed by Face.
Subtle and Face robbed Dapper by engaging him in a fairy rite. When Mammon comes he is engaged by Dol in the outhouse while Face pretending that Subtle is unaware of Mammon’s attraction towards Dol.
Another entry happens when a widow comes. Face meets a Spanish Don, who is in fact Surly in disguise. Face and Subtle are now having a conversation that who is going to marry the widow and mocks the Spaniard by speaking loudly that they will deceive him. As Dol is busy with Mammon, they trick the Spaniard and made him agree to marry the widow.
Dol, in the meantime, has gone extra comfortable with Mammon. They are caught by a furious “father” (Subtle). He tells them, as they were involved with illegal actions, all the furnace and Alchemist apparatus has been destroyed by an explosion. Mammon immediately pushed himself at the door, having entirely destroyed by the loss of his investment.
Everything is getting out of control and all the clients are gathered at the door without warning. Later, all the clients are present in the room, including Surly while Face manages himself to get out of the spot. However, Dol informed them that Lovewit has just reached, Face changes his masks once again and become “Jeremy the Butler”.
When love reaches his home, he is surrounded by the neighbors and the clients on the door. Face is forced to admit everything by the Dapper when his voice emerges from t0he privy that nothing happens at it is shown to us. Face puts every blame on the Dol and subtle, however, they manage to escape penniless from the back wall and the clients come back with police and a search warrant. The clients search every corner of the house but can’t find anything for themselves and are forced to leave with nothing. Kastril, Lovewit and his new wife leave the stage. Face is rewarded financially and delivers an epilogue.
The Alchemist Characters:
He is an “Alchemist” in the play who runs a con business. It is not clear the name “Subtle” is either surname or the forename of the character. As the name indicates Subtle is very clever and crafty man. Subtle, throughout the play, is in conflict with Face, another character in the play. He is elder than Face, and more learned to have alchemical expertise. He is also a “Doctor” in disguise to run his fraud business.
He is a faceless character. The audience has little or no idea about his personality as he changes his appearances time and again. His switches his roles constantly. Some critics think that his real name is Jeremy, however, some contradict this point due to his role switching and claims that Jeremy is his one of the faces. He is “Lungs” for Sir Mammon and plays the role of the wise boy “Captain Face” for the rest. He is responsible for finds clients for his con business and brings him to the Lovewit house.
Dol Common, also known as Dorothy is a prostitute in the play. The surname Common is pun meaning “available to everyone”. We come to know that Dol has sexual relationships with both Face and Subtle. She is not that important member of the con business as Face and Subtle are. Yet, she is needed to transform herself into a “royal lady” to steer Mammon and diverge his attention. At the end of the play, she runs away with Subtle without any share.
He is an extremely greedy legal clerk who wants to get a “gambling fly”, a spirit that will help him to win the game of gambling”. Face, when meets with Dapper at the pub” tempts him to his blackfriars houses. Subtle claims him that he fairy queens are his relative, when Dapper come back, the lock him in the outhouse for rest of the play.
- Abel (“Nab”) Drugger:
He is an honest, tobacconist who just starts his new shop in the street. He wants Face, disguise as “Doctor” to guide him in starting a new business. He likes Dame Pliant, a rich widow, and wants to marry her. Face and Subtle plays a trick on him and asks him to bring a lot of expensive tobacco plus Dame Pliant and his brother along with to the Blackfriars house. At the end of the play, he is looted and left with nothing.
He is the master of the house who leave for hop-yard in London and hands over his house to his butler, Jeremy. He is not seen in the play except at the start and at the end of the play. When Lovewit come back he punishes Face for his deeds. He marries Dame pliant and leaves the stage.
- Sir Epicure Mammon:
He is the biggest con in the play. His name, Epicure Mammon, means the one who devotes himself to the material wealth and sensual enjoyments. He is very greedy and compares himself to the alchemist. He is very much obsessed with food and lust and wants his resources turns into gold by philosopher’s stone. Conmen. At the end make his lust responsible for the blast of the furnace.
- Sir Pertinax Surly:
He is the personal assistant of Sir Epicure Mammon. Throughout the play, he constantly criticizes Mammon and also inquires about the action of the Face and Subtle. Surly plan to catch them naked-handed, disguised as Spaniard but fall in their trick. He, by chance, falls in love with Dame Pliant. However, in the end, he fights with Kastrill that losses his sister.
- Tribulation Wholesome:
He is a pastor of Amsterdam and leader of Anabaptist’s group. He is very greedy for money, power, and leadership. He seems to be more logical and measured that Ananias.
He is a Deacon of Amsterdam and Anabaptist, who, too, like Tribulation is hungry for power, membership, and money. He is symbolically represented as the character of a New Testament who died due to his greedy nature. Ananias, in the play, is very furious and very quick to judge anything.
Kastrill is a Furious boy who comes to the conmen to learn an art of fighting, for instance, he wants to learn how to argue formally with others. He is quite young having gullible personality. We find him very concern and over-protective for sister, Dame Pliant. He is searching for a better suitor for her. The way he quarrels throughout the play is unimpressive and immature.
- Dame Pliant:
She is a window and innocent sister of Kastrill. The name dame Pliant means flexible and bendy. She is considered as one of the senseless characters in the literature. She has some speech problem as her brother and speaks very rarely. She is every time lost and doesn’t notice when subtle steals kisses from her. The two conmen, looking for the considerable fortune that Dame inherits from her husband, fight over her to marry her. However, in the end, it is Lovewit who marries her.
At the end of the play, various neighbors appear and mobbed Lovewit and tell him about the conmen business at his house that he handed-over to Jeremy. Neighbors have a very little role in the play i.e. mainly at the end of the play, however, in some instances in the play, we find Dol shooing some women at the door. They describe these women as the “sailor’s wives” and Oyster-women that shows that the conmen have done much other con business than that of shown in the play.
The Alchemist by Ben Jonson Major Themes:
Reality versus Desire:
It is in human nature that people want to achieve high status in the society but does not want to work hard, hence, they try shortcuts to fulfill their desires. Same is the case with the characters of the play “The Alchemist”. The characters transform their roles time to time in order to achieve their dreams through con business. Jonson, by showing the transformation of the characters in the play, displays the human weaknesses and tries to demonstrate the point that human can achieve nothing by pretending what they are not. Whether it is Drugger, Dapper, Mammon, or the conmen, everyone is in the desire to earn a lot of wealth through shortcuts and wrong means.
The schemers think that they are more intelligent than that of their victims as they are all planning and manipulating things, however, in the end, they themselves are caught in the inconsistency between reality and desire. The conmen and other characters manipulate an illusion for their rich life ahead, however, in the end, all illusions are uncovered and audience experiences a comic catharsis. Jonson conveys a lesson that if you desire for the truth and work hard for our future, I would be far better than adopting false desires and attain it through false means. The false desire, at the end of the play, is shown as just dreams by the power of reality.
Although Dol, Face, subtle run a con business to deceive other for the sake of earning money, all other characters, primarily, are a victim of their own self-deception. For instance, the Anabaptist preacher, Tribulation, uses the money he received a donation to buy goods for a so-called orphan; similarly, Mammon wants his all wealth and property to transfer into gold; thus selling their conscience to do illegal things. Subtle, by manipulating the words, make these greedy puritans to believe in him so that at any point they don’t encounter any guilt and change their decision. He convinces them that he will build gold coin by remolding the previous ones not making totally new ones. This demonstrates the obvious self-deception.
The language that characters use in the play is their primary means of self-deception. For instance, the name Tribulation suggests a religious testing and they speak of religion and holy language, however, they just fool themselves by doing so. Similarly, Mammon thinks that if he considers himself as the “philosophical stone’s lord” and declares that he will donate gold to everyone, it will be of great profit to him. Moreover, Kastrill, being so innocent, believes that he can change himself to an impressive personality by insulting people, however, his insults turn out to be more comical than serious.
Face and lovewit are the least deceived characters in the play as at the end they are only who are successful. Though they cannot be considered as the ideal citizens but are more observant characters in the play and know their flaws and other’s weaknesses. They survive because of their intelligence and more “wit” than others.
Foolishness and Arrogance:
The characters in the play “The Alchemist” are personifications of various kinds of vices in the society. Mammon is represented as greed and corruption; subtle as cunning man who knows how to manipulate people; Dol as prostitution; Face an opportunist; Kastrill an aggressor, Dame Pliant is representation of elastic and over-ruled; Dapper as naïve; Drugger, a big-headed; Surly, a impolite, Tribulation and Ananias as hypocrite and dogmatic respectively.
The plot of the play “The Alchemist” is extracted from the comedies of the classical satirists, especially the Plautus’s comedy, “Mostellaria” is considers to a possible source for Jonson’s comedy. Vive punished and virtue rewarded is one of the major themes of the drama. Since the triumph of Face at the end of play upset various critics especially John Dryden, however, the triumph of Face shows the praise for classical virtues such as wit, self-knowledge, and moderation than absolute morality.
On the return of Lovewit, Face surrenders himself to his master gracefully. This straightforward approach of Jeremy has impressed Lovewit. Jeremy (face) begs him to leave him so that he can make his good fortune and asks for forgiveness. He also offers his help to marry the widow, Pliant.
The strength of Jonson as play is depicted in his realistic consideration of the over-whelmed and diverse life around him. Jonson personified the archetypal comic characters i.e. the vices and rearranged them according to the need of time.
The Alchemist by Ben Jonson Analysis:
Ben Jonson, in the play “The Alchemist” blatantly ridicules the vices, vanities, and follies of the humans, primarily gullibility induced by greed in the man. Jonson, with his pitiless satire and wit, criticizes all the social classes. He taunts hominid faults and naivety to publicity and to “miracle treatments” through the personality of Sir Epicure Mammon, who thinks that by sipping the tonic of youth to enjoy eccentric sexual subjugations.
Jonson, in the play “The Alchemist” emphases on the consequences, when one man tries to seek advantage over another man. A big city like London is prone to the advantage-seeking over others. The three conmen Face, Subtle, and Dol are deceiving themselves through shortcuts for achieving their desires, consequently, un-fastened by the same flaws they searched for in their victims, known as the clients. The fate of the conmen is prefigured in the comedy’s introductory act that structures them unruffled in Lovewit’s house, which handover to the Face to take care of it. The dialogues between the characters show the inconsistency in the play, as illustrated by the metaphor; For instance, it is foreshadowed that the alchemical will end up in a reaction with undesirable consequences. Moreover, the play begins with the fight between Face and Subtle and Dol always suppressing their voices also foreshadowed the imbalance among the characters.
Jonson also assets his ruthless satire on the Puritans of the real world who wished to close the theatres. He illustrates the Puritans as the man who claims to men of religion and wants to eliminate all the vices in the society but only a few know their real face. All other characters in the play might encounter some pity from the audience but the Puritans, for Jonson, are supercilious unworthy of it. Jonson, time and again, looks down on two-facedness, particularly the religious two-facedness which expresses its critical findings in exalted language. According to Jonson, these so-called religious men are greedy for money and sell the religion by calling every other person as “heathens”.
In most of the comedies, particularly in European and English, it is conventional that the main character, especially the high-class character resolves the conflict between the lower characters. However, in this play, Jonson breaks the tradition. Lovewit is supposed to resolve the conflict, yet when Face offers him to help in marriage with a young lady, Dame Pliant, he accepts the offer enthusiastically. We see both masters, lovewit, and servant, Face or Jeremy, as the opportunist and knows how to have to good fortune in the life disregard of any ethical boundaries. Lovewit skillfully feats Mammon’s unwillingness to acquire a lawful authorization of his foolishness to grip on to the old fellow’s wealth.