Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist”: Cast of Characters, Argument, and Prologue



Subtle: The alchemist. The word “subtle” used to mean cunning in a crafty and/or deceitful way. It also meant devious and underhand. Subtle is an older man.

Face: The housekeeper, Lovewit’s Jeremy the butler. The housekeeper is the person in charge of taking care of the house. While the owner of the house is away, Face takes care of it; he is a house-sitter. During most of the play, he is known as Captain Face because he often wears a Captain’s uniform in order to con people. He is also known as Lungs because he supposedly manages the bellows in the alchemical laboratory. As you can tell, he wears many faces; he is also double-faced. Face is bearded for most of the play.

Doll Common: The co-conspirator of Subtle and Face. She is a prostitute, a doll who is common to all and who will sleep with men for money or other materialistic advantage. “Doll” is a nickname for “Dorothy.”


Lovewit: The owner of the house in which Subtle sets up his work. He appreciates the wit, aka intelligence, of his servant Jeremy the butler, who is intelligent enough to get himself out of trouble by enriching his employer. In this society, bosses are called “Master.” Lovewit is an older man.


Dapper: A lawyer’s clerk. He wants Subtle to help him win in gambling by giving him a familiar spirit. (Witches have familiar spirits; usually, they take the form of an animal or a fly.) Apparently, Dapper wears dapper clothing and is a clean, neat person.

Abel Drugger: A tobacco merchant. He wants Subtle to assist him through magic in setting up a new, successful tobacco shop. “Nab” is a nickname for Abel.

Sir Epicure Mammon: A Knight. He wants Subtle’s help to become very wealthy. “Mammon” is a negative word for money and wealth, which can have an evil influence on human beings and can be an object of worship — the word “worship” means “adoration.” An Epicurean is a person who devotes himself to sensual pleasure. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was an atheist and a materialist.

Tribulation Wholesome: A pastor of Amsterdam. Both Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias, who are called the brethren in the play, are Anabaptists. Anabaptists were commonly regarded as members of an extremist sect of Puritanism.

Ananias: A deacon, colleague of Tribulation Wholesome. These religious brothers want Subtle’s help in getting money to help establish Anabaptism in Britain.

Kastril: The angry boy, recently come into an inheritance. He wants Subtle to teach him the protocol for quarreling. A kestrel is a small falcon. While hunting, it hovers in the air with rapidly beating wings. Kastril wants to be a roaring boy, a well-born boy who quarrels with other well-born boys. “Coistrel” is an archaic word for a troublemaker.

Dame Pliant: A widow, sister of Kastril. She wants to know her fortune in marriage. Dame Pliant is compliant.


Pertinax Surly: A gamester, aka gambler. He sees through the deceptions. The Latin word pertinax means stubborn, obstinate, resisting, unyielding, firm. By the way, Pertinax (1 August 126 – 28 March 193) was a Roman Emperor who unsuccessfully tried to implement many reforms.


Neighbors, Police Officers, Attendants.


The action takes place in Lovewit’s house in London and on the street outside, while he is mostly away in the country.


Ben Jonson’s play has one main plot, with no subplots.

Ben Jonson’s play takes place within one day.

Ben Jonson’s play takes place in one location.


Ben Jonson’s play was first performed in 1610. The years 1609 and 1610 were plague years in London.


The serpent of the Garden of Eden was subtle.

Genesis 3:1 — King James Version (KJV)

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

Relevant Bible Quotations

1 Timothy 6:10 — King James Version (KJV)

10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Matthew 6:21 — King James Version (KJV)

21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Ecclesiastes 5:10 — King James Version (KJV)

10 He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.

Matthew 6:41 — King James Version (KJV)

 41 No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.


The sickness hot, a master quit, for fear,

His house in town, and left one servant there;

Ease him corrupted, and gave means to know


A cheater, and his punk; who now brought low,

Leaving their narrow practice, were become

Cozeners at large; and only wanting some

House to set up, with him they here contract,

Each for a share, and all begin to act.

Much company they draw, and much abuse,

In casting figures, telling fortunes, news,

Selling of flies, flat bawdry with the stone,

Till it, and they, and all in fume are gone.


In fume” is Latin for “in smoke.”

The “argument” is the plot in brief of a play or other work of art. Ben Jonson, clever man whom he was, made the argument of his play The Alchemist an acrostic: The first letter of each line spells out “THE ALCHEMIST.”

In modern English, this is the “argument” of The Alchemist:

When the plague was raging in London, the master of a house left London out of fear of catching the plague. He left behind one servant; this servant, left on his own, became corrupted through lack of an overseer, and he became acquainted with a con man and his prostitute. These two were at a low position on the Wheel of Fortune, and so they were branching away from their small-scale illegal activities and were becoming swindlers on a greater scale. To help them engage in their illegal activities, they needed a house to set up shop in, and so they made an agreement with the servant: They would act in concert to cheat suckers and then share equally in the spoils — one third to each of the three. They were able to draw many suckers to the house, and they were able to cheat and abuse them by doing such things as making and selling horoscopes, telling fortunes and gossip, selling familiar spirits of the kind that are aides to witches, and selling immorality such as prostitution, along with pretending to create a philosopher’s stone, which believers supposed to be able to turn base metals such as iron and lead into silver and gold. The three con artists engaged in such swindling until their supposed philosopher’s stone, and they themselves, and everything else went up in smoke.


For the few short hours it takes to read this book, the authors — Ben Jonson and David Bruce — wish away Lady Fortune, who favors fools, both for the sakes of you judging readers and for our sakes. We desire, in the place of the dumb luck of non-deserving celebrities who are rich and famous simply because they are rich and famous without having done anything (other than perhaps a sex tape) to deserve such wealth and fame, to find that you believe that the authors deserve the justice of a careful reading of this book and to find that you will show grace to this book.

The scene of our book is London because we would make known to all of you that no country causes mirth and is laughed at more than our own — Ben Jonson was born, lived, and died in London, while David Bruce is an Anglophile.

No region breeds better material for writing. London provides whores, bawds, pimps, impostors, and many more types of persons, whose chief characteristics, which were once called humors, feed the actors on the stage and the ink on the pages between book covers and the electrons on computer screens and eBook readers, and which have always been subject to the rage or the spite of comic writers.

We, the wielders of a pen and of a computer keyboard, have never aimed to afflict men, both those with and without wombs, but instead we have always aimed to better and improve men and womb-men.

However, the ages we lived or live in endure the vices that those ages — and all ages — breed, rather than to endure their cure.

But when the wholesome remedies are sweet, and in their working gain and profit meet, we authors hope to find no spirit so much diseased,
 but that it will with such fair corrective medicine be pleased. In other words, satire is funny medicine that can make a belly laugh and a brain think and a character reform.

We authors are not afraid that you will get to know our characters and think, Hey, I know people just like that! In fact, that’s what we want to happen. It would be even better if you were to think, Hey, I’m just like that!

Are any of you readers willing to sit so near to the stream that you can see what’s in it? (These days, sewage no longer runs in the streets, but how many sewage treatment plants dump sewage into a river near you?)

If you are willing to look carefully, you shall find things that you would think or wish were finished and over and done. Those things are very natural follies, but we will show them to you in the pages of this book, which is a safe place where even if you recognize that you do the same foolish things, yet you need not admit that to anyone else — or to yourself.

People may no longer believe in the philosopher’s stone or the Queen of Fairy, but the love of money is still very much with us.

By the way, although it is true that no region other than London and England breeds better material for writing, it has at least two close runners-up: Ireland and the United States of America.

When Jonathan Swift died, he left £10,000 to be used for the founding of an Irish Hospital for Idiots and Lunatics. That was his final joke. As he had written earlier:

He gave the little wealth he had

To build a house for fools and mad [insane],

And shew’d [showed] by one satiric touch,

No nation wanted [needed] it so much.

And as everyone knows, the United States of America is so arrogant that it ignores the existence of Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America and calls itself “America” instead of “USAmerica.”

But let us be fair to USAmericans: Many of them don’t know that such places as Central America and South America exist.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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