Text: Ben Jonson, The Alchemist and Other Plays, Edited with an Introduction by Gordon Campbell, Oxford’s World Classics, 1995.
The play is dedicated to Mary, Lady Wroth, niece of Sir Phillip Sidney. The Sidneys were one of the great families of the time and synonymous with virtue and patriotism. Her uncle was the great poet and diplomat. Her approval of his book will give it its value.
To the Reader
Jonson criticizes what passes on the stage at the present time as unworthy. He asks for discriminating readers of his work and more harmony and skill in the art of drama.
Summary of Act 1, scene 1
The scene is set in Blackfriars, London, in 1610, in Ben Jonson’s own time, the time the play was first written and performed. It takes place in the home of Lovewit, a gentleman who has gone to the country in fear of the plague, and left the house in charge of his butler, Jeremy.
While his master is gone, the respectable Jeremy becomes the notorious Face, a con-man who uses the house for his money-making schemes. Scene I opens with an argument between Jeremy-Face and his fellow conspirators—Subtle, who pretends to be an alchemist (a sort of wise magician who can transform base metals into gold), and Doll Common, a prostitute. Their argument reveals how they became a team to scam a number of gullible Londoners who come to the house to consult “Doctor” Subtle.
Face and Subtle are threatening one another with violence, Face with a sword, and Subtle with a bottle of acid. Subtle claims he has been a true alchemist, transforming the poor servant Jeremy into the well-dressed Captain Face. Face says he found Subtle as a loser starving in the tavern called Pie Corner.
Doll Common serves as a peacemaker, saying they must cooperate if they are to avoid being caught and punished for their crimes (such as the practice of cropping the ears of criminals, or “ear rent,” line 169). The disagreement starts because the men are arguing over their share in the spoils, each claiming to be the brains of the scheme. Subtle must maintain the role of the learned philosopher who can cure any ill, but Face is the one who spots the “gulls” or victims and recruits them to come to the house where they are taken. Doll is a supporting player, doing what she is told. They each use many disguises to con the money from the victims. At the end of the scene the first victim or gull arrives, and they scatter to take their places. Face has told Dapper, a law clerk, that Subtle will raise a spirit (a “familiar,” line 192) to assist him in his gambling so he will win.
Commentary on Act 1, scene 1
An alchemist refers to a philosopher-scientist who could turn base metals into gold. Alchemy was a compendium of ancient knowledge that included astrology, medicine (the elixir for long life), magic, and chemistry. Subtle dresses as an old “doctor” who has found the secret of making gold. Face finds out what people are looking for and promises Subtle can give them what they want through his experiments to produce the philosopher’s stone, that powder that transmutes all metals to gold. They will have wealth, power, sexual potency, long life, and success. The three conspirators shape each scam to suit the victim, playing out their illusions and collecting the cash.
In this scene we learn the origin of each of these con-artists and how they operate. The dynamic scene puts the audience in the middle of their flimsy but brilliant teamwork. They do not trust each other and explain why. Face saw the potential of Subtle, who was starving and in rags. He gave Subtle use of his master’s house, bought the costumes and equipment, gave him the idea and brought the customers. Subtle, however, seems to believe his role in part. He is called a “Witch” (line 107) by Face who refers to Subtle’s “conjuring” (line 40). In addition, Subtle claims to know how to cast horoscopes and find things through divination, to tell fortunes with a glass ball and call up spirits.
Subtle claims he has actually transformed from “his own great art” (lines 64-70) the life of the poor servant, Jeremy, who only knew how to perform petty theft and pimping before they met. Subtle has taught him to gamble and play the part of a Captain. Each threatens to expose the other. Doll accuses them of “civil war” (line 83). She flatters Subtle as “Sovereign” (line 88) and calls Face “General” (line 90) and herself their “republic,” (line 110), a pun on her profession as public property. They are supposed to share equally in “The venture tripartite” (line 135). The men even share Doll, drawing straws for her, each night.
During the play, all the conspirators continue to try to cheat each other as well as the customers. The fact that the two men are rivals threatening to expose each other, and the mention of the possible return of the owner, Lovewit, shows they face danger in continuing their schemes. Face has mentioned a “statute of sorcery” (line 112), a law that prosecuted any form of witchcraft. Even though they are pretending, they could be taken seriously. They also seem to be altering coins to make them look like gold, another crime (line 114).