The Alchemist (Johnson): Act 4, Scene 3

Act 4, Scene 3

Summary of Act 4, scene 3
Face and Subtle begin to argue over the widow. Face insists he must have her and accuses Subtle of being too old to satisfy her. Face offers to pay Subtle for her. Subtle says no, the best man has to win her, and if there is any funny business, Doll will hear about it.
Just then Surly enters dressed as the Spaniard. He speaks Spanish and so Subtle and Face assume he knows no English. They begin to ridicule his appearance in front of his face, assuming he doesn’t understand. Surly plays along by speaking pleasant replies in Spanish. The two understand some Spanish phrases and play off his remarks to insult him further. They tell him he will be fleeced in this house. They think Surly is a Spanish count that wants a prostitute. They remember Doll is busy with Mammon, so Face decides to offer the widow to the Count. He doesn’t mind having used goods for a wife. Face and Subtle continue arguing over who shall win her.
Commentary on Act 4, scene 3
When Face decides to turn pimp for the widow, Subtle decides he wants out. This is too much for him. Face may not mind trading a future wife around, but Subtle decides he will take Face’s offer to buy out his stake in the widow. Now Face refuses, realizing he has the upper hand. This move shows that in some ways Face is the more skillful crook. It foreshadows the end of the story.
All of this bargaining for the women behind their backs may seem unrealistic, but it demonstrates a common view of women in the Renaissance. Pliant is obedient and stupid. Doll on the other hand is clever but a prostitute. This dichotomy continued even through the Victorian period where good women did what they were told and independent women were somehow not nice.
Subtle claims to have a scruple about marrying a whore and so to revenge himself on Face he wants the “Spaniard” to take the widow. All of this bargaining is over a woman who has said nothing about what she wants! This indicates the illusion of power that the crooks hold about themselves.
The scene shows the break between Face and Subtle finally. They are clearly enemies and rivals. Neither, however, recognizes Surly as a danger. In fact, they treat him as an object and insult him as too stupid to deserve an act from them. Their over-confidence has reached a point where they are careless in their greed.