Study Guide

The Alchemist Quotes

By Ben Jonson

  • Religion

    Act 1, Scene 3

    DRUG. This, an't please your worship;
    I am a young beginner, and am building
    Of a new shop, an't like your worship, just
    At corner of a street:—Here is the plot on't——
    And I would know by art, sir, of your worship,
    Which way I should make my door, by necromancy,
    And where my shelves; and which should be for boxes,
    And which for pots. I would be glad to thrive, sir:
    And I was wish'd to your worship by a gentleman,
    One Captain Face, that says you know men's planets,
    And their good angels, and their bad. (1.3.12-23)

    Aww, the Drugger is pretty sweet. He's an idiot, but he's sweet. And his heart seems to be in the right place. He's a small business owner who wants to turn a better profit, and for that he's seeking astrological advice. He's clearly not so tied to religion that he's unwilling to seek the advice of a mystic…but he has enough religious belief in him to try out all sorts of ways of worshipping.

    Act 4, Scene 5

    DOL. For after Alexander's death—

    MAM. Good lady—

    DOL. That Perdiccas and Antigonus were slain,
    The two that stood, Seleuc' and Ptolomy—

    MAM. Madam—

    DOL. Make up the two legs, and the fourth beast,
    That was Gog-north and Egypt-south: which after
    Was call'd Gog-iron-leg and South-iron-leg—

    MAM. Lady—

    DOL. And then Gog-horned. So was Egypt, too:
    Then Egypt-clay-leg, and Gog-clay-leg—

    MAM. Sweet madam— (4.5.1-13)

    In one of the best scenes of the play, we see Doll Common acting the part of a woman who's read so much religious material that she's gone bonkers. But who's being lampooned harder in this scene: religious people, or people that believe that women who study too much go nuts? Also: can you pick out any actual snippets of religious doctrine in Doll's tirades?

    TRI. Ay; but stay,
    This act of coining, is it lawful?

    ANA. Lawful!
    We know no magistrate: or, if we did,
    This is foreign coin.

    SUB. It is no coining, sir.
    It is but casting.

    TRI. Ha! you distinguish well:
    Casting of money may be lawful.

    ANA. 'Tis, sir.

    Looky here— the Anabaptists are acting shady. This is kind of Jonson's M.O., however: this pair of "holy bretheren" are portrayed as gross, shallow, and money-grubbing. They're even willing to take from poor orphans. But since you've read the whole play (right?) here's a question: is Jonson attacking organized religion overall, or just the Puritans?

  • Transformation

    Act 2, Scene 2

    MAM. I will have all my beds blown up, not stuft;
    Down is too hard: and then, mine oval room
    Fill'd with such pictures as Tiberius took
    From Elephantis, and dull Aretine
    But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses
    Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse
    And multiply the figures, as I walk
    Naked between my succubæ.
    […]

    Where I spy
    A wealthy citizen, or [a] rich lawyer,
    Have a sublim'd pure wife, unto that fellow
    I'll send a thousand pound to be my cuckold. (2.2.57-73)

    Mammon is a blowhard. But he's a blowhard with a huge imagination. He is able to paint himself such a convincing picture of his own transformation—from nobody to studly rich guy—that he's willing for fork over all his dough.

    Act 3, Scene 2

    TRI. Ay; but stay,
    This act of coining, is it lawful?

    ANA. Lawful!
    We know no magistrate: or, if we did,
    This is foreign coin.

    SUB. It is no coining, sir.
    It is but casting.

    TRI. Ha! you distinguish well:
    Casting of money may be lawful.

    ANA. 'Tis, sir.

    TRI. Truly, I take it so. (3.2.170-181)

    Transforming metal into coin is illegal, but transforming metal into coin is…legal? Nope: the Anabaptists are just being shystie. They're making distinctions between two identical acts of forgery, just because they want to believe so badly in the legality of making counterfeit coins. Hmm—maybe the act of turning doubt into belief is an act of transformation too?

    Act 5, Scene 3

    "Sir, you were wont to affect mirth and wit—
    But here's no place to talk on't i' the street.
    Give me but leave to make the best of my fortune,
    And only pardon me thi' abuse of your house:
    It's all I beg. I'll help you to a widow,
    In recompense, that you shall give me thanks for,
    Will make you seven years younger, and a rich one.
    'Tis but your putting on a Spanish cloak:
    I have her within. You need not fear the house;
    It was not visited." (5.3.121-130)

    Oh look—an actual honest-to-goodness transformation is taking place. Face/Jeremy manages to transform his master's life in a matter of mere minutes. Lovewit gets a wife and some extra walking-around money. Transformations can actually occur…often with the help of shady butlers.

  • Art and Culture

    Act 2, Scene 2
    Subtle

    "Infuse vinegar,
    To draw his volatile substance and his tincture:
    And let the water in glass E be filt'red,
    And put into the gripe's egg. Lute him well;
    And leave him clos'd in balneo." (2.2.49-53)

    Subtle is playing the part of the wise alchemist…by spouting nonsense. But what does this have to do with theater? Well, it could be alluding to the fact that while many of Jonson's contemporaries (*cough, Shakespeare, *cough) were writing plays about fancy important subjects like suicidal princes of Denmark, Jonson was writing about everyday people. This alchemy gibberish is probably just as confusing (and just as made up) as certain plays' detailed language concerning noblemen from far-off lands.

    Act 2, Scene 3
    Pertinax Surly

    "Alchemy is a pretty kind of game, / Somewhat like tricks o' the cards, to cheat a man / With charming." (2.3.180-182)

    Preach, Surly. Everything you're saying is 100% true. But the fact that he mentions that alchemy is "pretty" and "charming" seems to reference that other pretty, charming way to trick a man—by showing him a play and letting him believe (for a few hours, at least) that it's real. Alchemy, like theater, is a lot of fun.

    Act 4, Scene 5

    DOL. For after Alexander's death—

    MAM. Good lady—

    DOL. That Perdiccas and Antigonus were slain,
    The two that stood, Seleuc' and Ptolomy—

    MAM. Madam—

    DOL. Make up the two legs, and the fourth beast,
    That was Gog-north and Egypt-south: which after
    Was call'd Gog-iron-leg and South-iron-leg—

    MAM. Lady—

    DOL. And then Gog-horned. So was Egypt, too:
    Then Egypt-clay-leg, and Gog-clay-leg—

    MAM. Sweet madam— (4.5.1-13)

    The part of a lifetime. Doll Common is pretending to be an insane religious woman…and she's so good she totally freaks Mammon out. But that's not the only role in Doll's repertoire. She's also appeared as the Fairy Queen. Sigh. If only women had been allowed onstage in 1610…Doll could have had a better career.