The Alchemist Summaries and Commentary

Act 1

Act 1 . Scene 1

The play opens with an explosion of words. Three characters enter, two locked in bitter verbal combat. There is nothing to suggest that these three are partners, the first hint of a common purpose being Dol's attempt to quiet them saying, "Will you betray all?" (I.i.8) A few lines later Face too, attempts to quiet the argument. He is however so provoked by Subtle that they are both soon shouting.

Through their taunts, the identity of the characters and the nature of their relationship is revealed. Face is the butler of the house in which they reside. With his master away at his "hop-yards" Face has been running scams from the house and has enlisted the help of Subtle and Doll. Subtle, it soon becomes clear, is the alchemist who Face claims was, before they met, penniless and dressed in rags. Face gave him "A house to practise in" and the tools to advance his black arts. It is clear, however, that the black art which Subtle practises is not alchemy but cozenry, that is, confidence trickery. With the pretence of being a sorcerer, Subtle tricks unsuspecting out of their money. It is Face's role to provide Subtle with gulls, fools ripe for the plucking. Dol, the third corner of the "venture tripartite", is a whore, which gives the three a second tool in their cozenery, sex.

That the introduction to these three is through a vicious argument immediately shows the fragility of their union. Their "republic", as Dol terms it, is at any moment pray to the possibility that they will "undo (themselves), with civil war" (I.i.82). Note, however, how they do refer to their partnership as "a republic", their "common work" and the "venture tripartite". Later when Face goes against their agreement, Dol claims that his actions are "direct/ Against our articles" (V.iv.71-72) To speak of 'articles' is to speak of a formal, legal agreement which is at odds with the nature of their venture, thievery. As E B Partridge points out, "They are thieves but they throw a specious air of legality over their activities by euphemistic terms believing the common fallacy that, if one refers to low things in high words, one raises them both legally and aesthetically". The specious use of language to invert the truth is a constant theme of the play.

Once Dol has stopped their bickering (for the time being) by reminding them of the need to "Fall to your couples again, and cozen kindly" (I.i.137) i.e. to work harmoniously together, they are interrupted by a knock at the door. Subtle fears it is the master of the house, Lovewit, returned from the country. Face allays his fears, reminding him that "while there dies one a week/ O' the plague" (I.i.182) there is no chance of the master returning. This suggestion, however, makes it clear to the audience that they are in a race against time for at some point the master shall return, and owing to the nature of drama this is likely to be sooner rather than later.

The knock, however, merely signals the arrival of the first gull, Face's "lawyer's clerk", Dapper who seeks some mystical thing to give him luck at gambling. Despite Subtle's denials, it may be seen from an early stage that Face is the one they look to to orchestrate the cozenry as they ask him, "Who shall do't?" (I.i.194) and "What shall I do?" (I.i.196).

Having established the central characters, everything which happens in the play from this point on is a direct result of the cozeners' plans to gull the neighbourhood and a constant stream of ready fools now follows. At first carefully controlled by the three, the gulling quickly spirals out of control until they must react spontaneously with great comic effect.

Act 1. Scene 2

For this scene, Subtle dons his Doctor's robes and Face appears as Captain Face, a disguise he uses for much deception. Face pretends to be on his way out having just broached the question of Dapper's request with "the noble Doctor". The Doctor, Face claims, is not overly keen to help Dapper, owing to the Statute against Sorcery, mentioned in scene 1, and the recent case of Simon Read who was charged, though pardoned, for invoking spirits. (The case of Read, like many of the tricks used in The Alchemist,

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