The Alchemist (Jonson): Act 2, Scene 3

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Act 2, Scene 3

 

Summary of Act 2, scene 3
 
Subtle enters as the alchemist and asks Mammon who his friend is. Mammon says he is a heretic that he wants to convert by bringing him to see the projection. Subtle warns him that this is a critical moment and all must approach with pure motives or they will be cursed. Surly bursts out that he refuses to be gulled. Subtle and Face immediately launch into alchemical jargon pretending they are doing the experiment. Mammon enthusiastically quizzes Subtle, using the same jargon, while Surly watches, knowing it is a con game. Subtle gets more money from Mammon to continue the experiments and produce even more stones. Meanwhile, Mammon is advised to bring in all his metal goods that he wants transformed to gold. Surly keeps making sarcasms while Subtle explains how baser materials can be made into gold. Mammon is impressed, but Surly launches into a clever parody of Subtle, using the same jargon. Mammon then sees Doll Common and is told she is a lord’s sister who is being cured of madness by Doctor Subtle. She has gone mad studying Puritan theology. Now Surly thinks they are in a brothel, but Mammon wants to meet the lady. Suddenly Surly receives a message to get him out of the way. A “Captain Face” wants to meet him at a tavern. Surly knows Face is a fellow pimp and thinks that he will be an ally to unmask the rascals of this house. He hints that he will return disguised as someone else.
 
Commentary on Act 2, scene 3
 
Subtle plays on Mammon’s greed by pretending they are perfecting other philosopher’s stones besides the one meant for him, but of course, it will take more money to buy the raw materials. Subtle asks Mammon why he needs more than one stone, and Mammon replies that he can do more good works: “I shall employ it in all pious uses” (line 49).
 
The brilliance of this scene lies in the skillful banter between Subtle and Face, how they use alchemical terms to suggest to Mammon the various stages of the “work” of producing the stones. If this isn’t funny enough, Surly joins in, using the same terms in a ridiculous excess to mock them:
 
“Your stone, your medicine, and your chrysosperm/ Your sal, your sulphur, and your mercury . . . (lines 184-198).
 
Only Mammon is completely taken in because they play to his weaknesses, his vision of unlimited fulfillment of desire. Face gets the point that Surly is dangerous and tries to get him out of the way with an appointment with “Captain Face.” Surly threatens in an aside to return to unmask this pair, so the audience is on guard.
 
Face as Lungs has been addressed by Subtle in this scene as “Ulen” or “Til Ulenspiegel,” the merry trickster of German legend, a key to Face’s character.
 
Subtle actually gives a lucid description of the ideas behind alchemy—that things are born in the world imperfect—even the metals, mere iron or lead. They transmute to higher metals—sulphur, then quicksilver, and finally, gold. The alchemist is one who knows the secrets of nature and produces these changes more quickly through his art (lines 135-176). All of these ideas had spiritual or philosophical significance, which Subtle, in his pious Doctor disguise, suggests. He uses this as a reason why the “work” of transmutation may fail if one does not have faith and piety.
 
 

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