The Alchemist (Jonson): Act 2, Scene 1

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Act 2, Scene 1

 

Summary of Act 2, scene 1
 
As Sir Epicure Mammon and his friend, Surly, approach the house, they discuss alchemy. Mammon tells him Subtle can help him advance so he won’t have to be a cheating card shark and a pimp. Surly remains consistently skeptical, the more excited Mammon becomes.
 
While they wait for Subtle to receive them, Mammon envisions for Surly what it will mean for him to have possession of the philosopher’s stone: “This night I’ll change/ All that is metal in my house to gold” (lines 29-30). He will then buy up all the tin and copper and pewter. In addition, the stone is “great medicine” (line 37), an “elixir” (line 48) that confers “honour, love, respect, long life” (line 50). Mammon also claims it will restore virility to old men and fight the plague. Mammon pictures himself a great benefactor to all, but Surly is not convinced, even when Mammon claims the Bible and ancient philosophy are all hidden fables of alchemy (e.g., The story of Jason and the Golden Fleece).
 
Commentary on Act 2, scene 1
 
The name Mammon signifies greed and Epicure, one who enjoys the senses. In this initial fantasy of Mammon’s on the glory of alchemy, he sounds self-deluded but not yet vile. He pictures health and wealth for everyone and seems sufficiently learned that he can quote philosophy and religion. His choice of companion, however, is questionable. He tells Surly that he is about to make him rich so he won’t have to rely on cheating at cards and pimping to make a living. Surly’s constant antipathy to the crooks makes him look like the only honest and intelligent person visiting the house, but he gives himself away through his own illegal pursuits and his fear of being “gulled” (line 79). He brags, “Your stone/ Cannot transmute me” (lines 79-80). Surly’s name is “Pertinax,” the name of a stubborn Roman emperor. He too will get caught up and changed by the activities of Subtle and Face, though he believes he is too smart for them.
 
Surly says sarcastically that “the players” (line 71), meaning actors in a theatre, would be happy with Mammon’s stone if it could remove the plague, for the theatres were regularly shut down when the plague was raging in London. The stone’s promise of a cure to deadly disease was as intriguing as its promise of wealth.
 
 

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