Reality vs. Desire
aracters in “The Alchemist” desire to be transformed so they can realize their dreams. This is a normal human aspiration, but these characters try to take short cuts, to get something for nothing. Jonson shows the audience their own weakness when they try to be something they are not. Only Drugger the tobacconist seems to have desires in line with who he is. He wants tips for improving his shop and business. But he, too, wants to go beyond common-sense means to do this, and so he does what the alchemist tells him, such as burying a lodestone on his threshold to attract knights who wear spurs. Dapper imagines he will retire from his job as a law clerk making forty marks a year when he starts winning at cards, with the spirit that the Queen of Fairy gives him to wear in a bag around his neck. He has already planned on quitting and giving thousands of his winnings to the Doctor before he plays a single card. Similarly, Mammon has conquered the world and seduced the pure wives of other men, eaten rare foods, regained his youth, changed all his household goods to gold, and become a general benefactor, in anticipation of receiving the philosopher’s stone. All Surly’s sarcasm is not enough to spoil Mammon’s certainty that all will be his, based on Subtle’s eloquent persuasion. Mammon even promises Face a new job as “the master/ Of my seraglio” (2.2, lines 32-33).
The conspirators are trapped as well in this discrepancy between desire and reality, though they are the manipulators of the illusion. They imagine they are more intelligent than the victims because they know they are making it all up. Captain Face knows he is only Jeremy the Butler, and Doll knows she is not a lady or the Queen of Fairy. Subtle, however, seems captivated by his own words and half believes he can create things “in mine own great art” (1.1, line77), even though Face keeps reminding him he was a pitiful beggar hanging out at Pie Corner when he found him. Surly is skeptical, not wanting to participate in the charade: “I would not willingly be gulled. Your stone/ Cannot transmute me” (2.1, lines77-78). Yet Surly gets caught up too, dressing as a Spanish count and playing the part of a hero saving Dame Pliant so he can marry her. All illusions are stripped away at the end, part of the comic catharsis for the audience. The desire for truth is thus shown by Jonson to be stronger than the thousand false desires people reach for. In the end, false desire will be exposed as a mere dream by the forces of reality.
Though Face, Subtle, and Doll are running a sting operation, all the characters, including the crooks, are primarily victimized by their own self-deception. Tribulation Wholesome, the Anabaptist preacher, uses the brotherhood’s money to buy so-called orphans’ goods (Mammon’s property resold) to be turned into gold by the alchemist, thus easing his conscience that he is engaging in anything illegal or questionable. Subtle knows how to appeal to these Puritans so they won’t feel guilty about trying to get rich. He tells them he will make gold coins by “casting” not “coining” or counterfeiting (3,2m lines 151-152). This is blatant self-deception in the sect, especially in Ananais’s proclamation that they are above the law because of their religious vocation: “We know no magistrate” (3.2, line 149).
A primary means of self-deception is the language the characters use to hide behind. The Anabaptists speak a holy language of “grace” and “zeal”; their names, such as Tribulation indicate a religious testing, but they merely fool themselves. Mammon believes if he calls himself the “lord of the philosopher’s stone” (4.1, line 121) and speaks of giving gold to everyone, it is as good as done. Kestrel believes he can be a gentleman with the right insults and ways of quarreling. He does it so badly when he tries to attack Surly that Surly says, “I must laugh at this” (4.7, line 38). Kestrel tries to call Surly “a pimp and a trig,/ And an Amadis de Gaule, or a Don Quixote” (4.7, lines 39-40), not really knowing what he is saying.
The characters least self-deceived are Lovewit and Face, and they end up triumphant. They may not be model citizens, but they are the most open-eyed, knowing their own faults and the weaknesses of others. Because they have more “wit” than the others, they survive.
Folly and Vanity
The characters are personifications of vices or eccentricities, a display of human vanity and folly. Mammon is greed and corruption; Doll is prostitution; Subtle knows how to manipulate people’s emotions; Face is an opportunist; Kestrel is a bully; Dame Pliant is yielding and overruled; Dapper is gullible; Drugger is thick-headed; Surly, like his name, is ill-tempered; Tribulation is a hypocrite; Ananais is dogmatic. Jonson took his example from the comedy of the classical satirists, such as Plautus, especially Plautus’s play, “Mostellaria,” a possible source for “The Alchemist.” Jonson wanted his drama to show vice punished and virtue rewarded. Critics such as John Dryden were thus upset at Face getting off in the end, but the classical virtues of quick wit, moderation, and self-knowledge are praised here, rather than absolute moral values.
When Lovewit returns and Face sees the game is up, he surrenders gracefully man to man to his master, Lovewit, who likes the butler’s straight approach: “Give me but leave to make the best of my fortune,/ And only pardon me th’abuse of your house:/It’s all I beg. I’ll help you to a widow” (5.3, lines 85-87).
Jonson’s strength as a playwright is his realistic examination of the teeming and varied life around him. He took familiar classic comic characters (the vices) and transposed them to the familiar types of the London streets of 1610.
The Alchemist (Johnson): Theme Analysis
Reality vs. Desire