Further Themes and Points of Interest


Alchemy is, of course, the central theme of the play. The villains' methods of deceit may be likened to alchemical processes, the plot may be likened to the progress of transmutation of base metals and the way in which language is used to change the appearance of truth is pure alchemy.

Though much of the alchemical jargon may appear nonsensical it is all well-informed and would have been recognised by the authorities of the day. The folly of those presented in the play is not their faith in alchemy, but rather their greedy dreams which they believe alchemy will fulfil. It must be remembered that some very distinguished people were interested in alchemy. Sir Isaac Newton the President of the Royal Society is but one example. References to others such as John Dee are made throughout Jonson's play.


In the Discoveries, Jonson describes language as "the instrument of society", "the only benefit man hath to express his excellencie of mind above other creaturesQ. In The Alchemist, language is abused to such an extent that one is given cause to wonder whether man is any higher than the 'other creatures'. It is the main device of the villains for their cozening. The alchemical jargon and other specious learning expounded in the play is used to blind victims to the truth of what is going on. Throughout, the rogues and their gulls use language for deception including self-deception.

The naming of the characters and the names they give each other are particularly revealing. The opening scene, for example, is full of animal imagery as the three impostors throw insults at each other. As E.B Partridge points out, these titles "suggest animals which live on a lower plane than men, or insects which prey on other beings".

Vulgar and grandiose epithets are frequently juxtaposed against one another so that Dol is both a "bitch" and "royal Dol".

The three rogues often refer to one another with military and royal titles suggesting their own republic with its own rules and inverted structures. In The Alchemist the appearance of characters and situations depicted through language is usually far from the truth of the matter.

The episode with Dapper and the faery Queen also highlights the power of the alchemists jargon and convincing pedantic ceremonies - allowing a parallel between alchemy and religion to emerge. The use of Latin for simple and prosaic things "equi clibanum" (warm horse dung) "balneo vaproso"(bucket of sand) shows up not only the pretended grandeur of the ‘science’ but also could be a comment on the use of Latin in Roman Catholic ceremonies. Is the episode a warning against being fooled by both the linguistic exuberance of these cozeners and the priests of the Catholic church? Is this "world of ceremonies", pedantic ridiculous rituals of "three drops of vinegar in at your nose;/ two at your mouth;/ and one at either ear", a scornful indictment against the papal excesses of Rome? It definitely shows up the dangers of speech as Subtle and Face appear to have authority and knowledge, justifying their will to power, where really there is none.


With Dol as their whore, the cozeners use sex as a tool for thievery. It is another weapon in the arsenal of their business. Sex is commodified and frequent links between it, business and money are made. For Mammon, for example, sex and money are virtually synonymous and his desire for money is fuelled by his desire for the sexual gratification which he believes possession of money will bring. It is the unchecked desires of the play's fools which is the root of their downfalls.

Classical unities

  By PanEris using Melati.

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