The Alchemist Study: Summary and Analysis

The Analysis of The Alchemist
The Alchemist Study

The Alchemist Study: Summary and Analysis

Written by Ben Jonson, “The Alchemist” is a comedic masterpiece first performed in 1610. The play unfolds in London amidst the backdrop of the city grappling with the plague. It centers on three cunning individuals: Subtle, who poses as an alchemist; Face, the caretaker of a gentleman’s townhouse; and Dol Common, their accomplice. As the house’s owner retreats to the countryside to escape the plague, this trio transforms the residence into a den of deceit. They concoct a series of scams, exploiting the hopes and dreams of their unsuspecting victims with promises of wealth and miraculous transformations through alchemy. Jonson’s play is a brilliant satire that explores themes of greed, gullibility, and the pursuit of illusions.

Characters of “The Alchemist”


Subtle is the ‘alchemist’ of the trio, presenting himself as a master of mysterious and arcane knowledge. His role is pivotal in orchestrating the deceptive schemes because he provides the intellectual and scientific facade necessary for the scams to be believable. Subtle is manipulative and quick-witted, leveraging his supposed expertise to take advantage of the greed and ignorance of their victims. His character criticizes the false science and the common obsession with alchemy in Jonson’s era. It shows the risk of blindly believing those who claim to have special, secret knowledge.


Face is the housekeeper of the home where the cons are carried out and is the one who recruits the trio’s victims. His ability to change personas and manipulate people is key to the operation’s success. Face is pragmatic and adaptable, qualities that make him an effective con man but also lead to tension with Subtle over control and the division of their spoils. Face represents the facade that people present to the world, highlighting themes of identity and the performative aspects of social interaction.

Dol Common

Dol Common is the female accomplice of Subtle and Face. She is essential to the cons, playing various roles to deceive the victims, including pretending to be a noble lady or a wealthy widow. Dol’s intelligence and acting skills are as crucial as those of her male counterparts, making her an equal participant in the schemes. Her character challenges traditional gender roles and reflects the theme of versatility and adaptability in the face of societal constraints.

Sir Epicure Mammon

Sir Epicure Mammon is one of the trio’s victims, embodying the vices of greed and hedonism. He dreams of the wealth and luxury he believes alchemy will bring him, fantasizing about endless pleasure and indulgence. Mammon’s gullibility and excessive desires make him an easy target for the con artists. His character serves as a satirical critique of the materialism and moral decay Jonson saw in society, illustrating how the pursuit of wealth and pleasure can lead to one’s downfall.

Some other key characters

  • Sir Epicure Mammon: A wealthy and gullible gentleman, obsessed with the pursuit of wealth and pleasures, who becomes one of the trio’s main targets.
  • Pertinax Surly: A skeptic of the alchemical arts who attempts to expose the trio’s deceit.
  • Ananias: A deacon of the Anabaptist church, seeking the philosopher’s stone to advance his religious group’s cause.
  • Tribulation Wholesome: A pastor of the same Anabaptist congregation as Ananias, was also involved in seeking the philosopher’s stone.
  • Kastril: A young man eager to learn the art of quarreling, who brings his sister to the alchemists in the hope of finding her a wealthy husband.
  • Dame Pliant: Kastril’s sister, a widow, who is also seen as a potential match for Sir Epicure Mammon and becomes involved in the trio’s plotting.

“The Alchemist” is comprised of five acts, which is a common structure for Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Each act contains several scenes that advance the plot, develop the characters, and explore the play’s themes.

Summary of Acts in Ben Jonson’s ‘The Alchemist’

Act 1 Summary

The Alchemist ACT 1 Summary

Act 1 of “The Alchemist” shows us three clever cheats: Face, a servant pretending to be a gentleman, Subtle, a fake alchemist, and Dol, their partner. They use an empty house to trick people out of money. We meet several of their victims – Dapper wants to win at gambling, Drugger wants his shop to do well, and Sir Epicure Mammon dreams of endless riches. The tricksters use fancy words and pretend to have special powers to take advantage of these greedy people. This sets the stage for a funny play about how people try to get rich quickly and move up in society, even if it means being dishonest.

Act 2 Summary

The Alchemist Act 2 Summary

Act 2 gets even busier! More people come looking for the “alchemist” Subtle to help them get what they want. A lawyer and his partner arrive hoping for good luck winning legal cases. An angry Puritan couple, Ananias and Tribulation, want Subtle to make magic money for their strict religious group.

Meanwhile, there’s trouble brewing. Dapper, who thinks he’s just about to become super rich, gets tricked into going blindfolded into a silly ritual. Also, a flashy Spaniard shows up at the house – he gets involved and starts flirting with Dol, which makes Face jealous. This act introduces new victims and makes it even clearer that things aren’t going to end well for all these scheming characters!

Act 3 SummaryThe Alchemist Act 3 Summary

In Act 3, the tension ramps up! It starts with Surly, a friend of Sir Epicure Mammon, showing up to investigate Face and Subtle. Surly’s suspicious as he doesn’t believe alchemy is real, so he disguises himself to try and catch them in their tricks. Meanwhile, Dapper’s still trapped in a crazy ritual, hoping to make contact with a magical fairy queen who’s supposed to make him rich.

This act adds further layers to the chaos:

Danger Rises: Surly’s presence means the tricksters could actually get caught. This makes the stakes higher for everyone involved.
Greed Blinds Everyone: Despite the trouble brewing, characters like the Puritans and Mammon become even more obsessed with riches and keep trusting the scammers.
Jonson’s Criticism: This highlights just how foolish blind ambition can be! It shows society’s desperation for something they’ll never achieve by dishonest means.

Act 4 Summary

The Alchemist Act 4 Summary
The Alchemist Act 4

This act focuses on Sir Epicure Mammon, the greediest and most delusional of the clients. With him, everything turns farcical. He showers Subtle and Face with gifts, convinced he’s on the verge of possessing the Philosopher’s Stone and its infinite wealth. His wild fantasies reach absurd heights, including dreams of incredible luxury and weird magical powers.

At the same time, Face faces new complications:

  • The Spaniard (Don Surly in disguise) causes tension. Face gets in arguments with Surly over Dol Common.
  • Lovewit’s neighbor, Dame Pliant, shows up (a rich widow who could solve Face’s money problems if he can fool her.)

Act 5 Summary

The Alchemist Act 5 Summary
The Alchemist Act 5

Act 5 is where everything unravels! All the chaos the scammers caused finally explodes. The owner of the house, Lovewit, unexpectedly returns home. Face quickly pretends to be the loyal steward and convinces Lovewit he just saved the house from ruin. The other tricksters, Subtle and Dol, escape in the confusion.

But it’s not over yet! All the people who were tricked come back angry and ready for revenge. Lovewit realizes he’s been fooled too, and while he was away, these fake servants used his house for their schemes. Lovewit then takes a bold move – he decides to marry a rich widow who was also one of the victims! With a new wealthy wife, he shrugs off losing most of his stuff to the con artists.

Deception and self-deception in “The Alchemist”

What does “The Alchemist” suggest about the nature of deception and self-deception?

“The Alchemist” by Ben Jonson looks closely at how people deceive others and themselves. The play shows that lying is common in society, not just something a few people do. It tells the story of three tricksters, Subtle, Face, and Dol Common, who use people’s desires for quick riches or love to cheat them. The story suggests that people are easy to fool because they want to believe in quick fixes for their problems, like getting rich fast. Many characters in the play also lie to themselves, thinking they can get what they want without hard work or honesty. Jonson points out that these lies can lead to losing respect and self-respect. He also criticizes people who pretend to know more than they do to trick others. Overall, “The Alchemist” teaches that honesty and self-awareness are important, and it warns against believing things too easily.

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