The Alchemist: plot and character overview
It is 1 November 1610. Plague is raging in London. To try to avoid the sickness, the gentleman Lovewit has shut up his town house and gone to the countryside. He has left his servant Jeremy to watch the house. This was a mistake: in his master’s absence Jeremy styles himself ‘Face’, and teams up with the con man Subtle and the prostitute Doll Common to run a scamming enterprise from the house. With Subtle masquerading as the master of alchemical, astrologica, and magical arts, the trio offer a variety of deceptions to their unsuspecting customers, who pay handsomely. The clerk Dapper, believing that Subtle is a sorcerer, wants a spirit to aid him in his gambling. The superstitious tobacconist Abel Drugger seeks advice about the most auspicious layout for his new shop. The lascivious and extravagant Sir Epicure Mammon has contracted Subtle to make him the philosopher’s stone, believing it will bring him unlimited riches, power and pleasures, including ‘a list of wives and concubines | Equal with Solomon’. Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias, elders of a strict Protestant sect in Amsterdam, also pay Subtle to create the philosopher’s stone, so that they can generate wealth for their congregation to oppose the Catholics. Only Sir Epicure’s acquaintance, Pertinax Surly, is unconvinced.
Like Volpone, The Alchemist is a biting satire of human folly and greed: Subtle, Face and Doll’s unwitting customers are not only fleeced but also punished in ways appropriate to their particular vices and hypocrisies. But Subtle and Face quarrel over Dame Pliant, a young, wealthy widow, and their schemes are nearly exposed by the suspicious Surly. Eventually, Subtle and Face contrive to have all of the customers and Surly sent packing. But Lovewit, the master of the house, unexpectedly returns, and Subtle and Doll flee. Lovewit conspires with his servant Face, now ‘Jeremy’ again, to deny that anything at all has happened in the house in his absence, to the dismay of Abel, Sir Epicure, Surly and the Puritans. Lovewit takes possession of all their swindled goods, and marries Dame Pliant.
When was The Alchemist first staged and published?
The earliest recorded performance of The Alchemist by the King’s Men took place in Oxford in late August or early September 1610. The playtext was first printed in 1612, and included with revisions in Ben Jonson’s folio Workes in 1616.