The Analysis of the plot reveals that it is all intrigue multiplied upon intrigue. Face (a name assumed and also known under the name of Lungs), Subtle, and Doll common enter into a pact to dupe their neighbours by dangling before them or promise of the philosopher’s stone, and by an appeal to their greed to have their material substances (pewter, brass, and irons, kitchenware, etc.). converted into gold. Alchemic researches were then carried on in England and on the Continent, and the philosopher’s stone (that would convert all base metals into gold) and life’s elixir (that would bestow youth and prolong life) seemed to be within reach. Edward III, Henry IV, and Queen Elizabeth were more or less interested in alchemy. Henry VI, appointed commissions to go into the matter of alchemic researches as a possible source of replenishing his treasury. With alchemy went astrology, in which belief was equally widespread. The Alchemist is intended as a satire upon the two pseudo- sciences and also upon the gullibility of people, high and low. Alchemy and astrology are fully exploited in the play. Face and Subtle are very clever rogues, and easily dupe the company they draw to Lovewit’s house in the latter’s absence when the plague is raging in London.
The Alchemist is a very ingeniously constructed play. The show is run by the three people, Doll playing no insignificant part in the game. Doll is used as a bait to Dapper. He is told that the Queen of Fairy loves him, but he must give away everything he owns before he can win her favour, and perform a ceremony for the purpose too. He is rifled o everything he has, and then Doll personates the Fairy. Doll is let loose again upon Mammon; she might have been used for the Spanish Count about whom Face brings news, but they get hold of Dame Pliant, Kestrel’s sister in whom Drugger is primarily interested. Surly comes disguised as the Spanish Count, and Pliant is thrown as a bait to him. Surly might have spoiled the whole game if he had the chance. He tries to make Pliant realize the villainy with which she is surrounded, and offers to rescue her. But when Subtle attempts to pick his pockets, he throws off his disguise and strikes Subtle down. Face comes on the scene and brings in Kestrel. Kestrel is told that the fellow is a rogue and has come in, disguised as the Spanish Count. Later, Drugger and Ananias are tricked into denouncing Surly, and Surly has to withdraw. Drugger who is interested in Pliant, is then made use of. He is persuaded to bring a Spanish suit in order to win the lady. In the meantime there has been a dispute between Face and Subtle over Pliant. Face wants to have this rich young widow for himself, and finally Subtle has to yield to his demand. He takes Doll into confidence in this matter, and both are of opinion that Face is going against their pact.
But when the whole plan is upset by the unexpected return of Love wit, the master of the house, Face dupes his partners. He manages to send them away with little of the stuff they have amassed, but keep the rich young widow to placate his master, to whom her has finally to confess all his tricks. So it is his master who marries Pliant, and acquiesces in the knavery of Face, when he gets the main share of the spoil.
So, it is a play of intrigue, subtly interwoven, the credulity of people in respect of alchemy and astrology being fully exploited. Jonson is a learned dramatist, and the recondite alchemic lore of which loosen is in full possession, is well displayed in the discourse of Subtle and partly of Face- and this has ‘again the dramatic purpose of confounding and duping the whole lot attracted by the lure of amassing unbounded wealth. The dialogue is racy and witty; it never drags. Nor is action tardy. We are hurried on from scene to scene and one tricks so adroitly manipulated, reveal the resources of the dramatist as well as his craftsmanship, when the plot hinging on a succession of trick loses none of its unity and compactness. The object of Jonson is to expose vice and folly, for the play is a comedy and satire, but there is much of comic fun and frolic, relieving the serious interest of the play. Jonson does not seem to be unconscious of the secondary (or would we say-primary?) aim of the play to provide comic fun and laughter to the audience. The concluding lines of Face’s speech (at the end of the play) are, therefore, significant:
“Yet I put myself
On you, that are my country: and this pelf,
Which I have got, if you do quit me, rests
To feast you often, and invite new guests.”
“Now, according to three rules, the structure of Alchemist is almost perfect. Although the elapsed time is more than just the time of presentation, it is still well within the limits of a single day, and place is limited not quite to one room, but to he interior and the gage of a single wealthy town residence. Although the action is complicated, all parts are related to one another.”
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Andrew Gurr says, “The unity of action is much more central to the play’s artistic success than the other two unities, of time or place. No play has such an intricately woven structure of interlocking events. There is no subplot of the kind Shakespeare used to make parallels and contrasts, and which Jonson used for light relief in Volpone. There are no characters peripheral to the central movement of the play as there are in Batholom Fair. Every character is a cozener or a gull, every action relates to the cozeners’ plot. Every twist of the plot is explicable. from Subtle’s overbold assumption in iv. vi that Surly will be too weary after his sex with Dame Pliant to notice his pocket being picked, to Dapper being forgotten in the lavatory. The plot structure, like the central imagery of the play, is a marvelously adroit weave of intricate causes and effects. This intricate unity is the most conspicuous feature of the play’s artistry.”
The following points should be noted:
(i) The ingenuity of tricks, adapted to the gullibility of each individual and these tricks however varied, do not get the play into a tangled knot.
(ii) Quick movement of action and the play loses in none of its interest despite the technical jargon in the speeches of Subtle and Face and the canting of the two Puritans.
(iii) There is much of fun and amusement and so the comedy fulfils its function best.
(iv) The satirical purpose which is a double one- to discredit alchemy and to hold up to ridicule the Puritans- is also a part of the comedy, and this is also done very effectively. The role played by each of the characters-Subtle, Face and Doll should be then briefly explained, and it should be shown how all tricks of gulling do not in the least detract from the unity of the play. It is after all a play of intrigue, but the unity and interest of the play are strictly maintained.
Andrew Gurr says, “The unity of action is much more central to the play’s artistic success than the other two unities, of time and place. No play has such an intricately women structure of interlocking events. There is no subplot of the kind Shakespeare used to make parallels and contrasts, and which Jonson used for light relief in Volpone. There are no characters peripheral to the central movement of the play as there are in Bartholomew Fair. Every character is cozener or a gull, every action relates to the cozens’ plot. Every twist of the plot is explicable, from Subtle’s overbold assumption in iv, vi that Surly will be too weary after his sex with Dame Pliant to notice his pocket being picked, to Dapper being forgotten in the lavatory, The plot, structure, like the central imagery of the play, is a marvelously adroit weave of intricate causes and effects. This intricate unity is the most conspicuous feature of the play’s artistry.”