Ananais is a young deacon in the Puritan Anabaptist group from Amsterdam who visits the alchemist to get riches for their religious sect. Ananais does not suspect the dishonest motives of his superior, Tribulation Wholesome. He is indoctrinated and spouts dogma whenever anyone says anything to set off his trigger. He does what he is told by his sect. His speech gives a clue to things the Puritans did not like, such as ostentation or ritual in church. They disliked Catholic and Anglican practices and believed in an austere lifestyle. Subtle points out that Ananais has an unfortunate name since he was the one in The Book of Acts who cheated the Apostles of Christ.
Dame Pliant’s name gives her character: she is easily used and controlled. She is the stock figure of the dumb blonde—beautiful, rich, desirable, but with no mind or judgment of her own. She does what she is told and is basically treated as an object. She is only nineteen and a widow who has come to London with her brother (Kestrel) to learn more fashionable ways and to find a good husband. Every man in the play is after her and bargains for her behind her back. Her brother bullies her and expects to tell her whom to marry. Based on the fictitious horoscope of Subtle, she is supposed to look for a Spanish nobleman, so the man in the Spanish suit at the right time gets her. This turns out to be Lovewit. The bride does not even really know whom she marries until it is too late. The only opinion we hear from her is that she does not like the Spanish since they used to be an enemy of the English.
Dapper is a law clerk who asks the alchemist to raise him a spirit to help him at cards. He has petty desires and is completely gullible, letting Face and Subtle and Doll make him believe he is going to meet the Fairy Queen. He does all sorts of humiliating rituals to prepare to meet her including bathing in vinegar and dressing in woman’s clothes. The comic climax is when he is thrust into a privy to get him out of the way. He stays there for hours waiting for his chance to meet the Queen. Dapper is never aware that he has been made a fool of. He feels he has been blessed by the Fairy Queen and departs, happy.
Doll Common’s name is perfect for her profession, prostitution. While Doll is short for Dorothy, it also means a whore. She is, however, very clever, able to join in and improvise with Face and Subtle to fleece their victims. She plays the Fairy Queen for Dapper and an unnamed lady who is half mad from studying theology for Mammon. She prepares to serve as a regular prostitute for the supposed Spanish count (Surly in disguise). She befriends the stupid Dame Pliant to get money out of her. In the first scene she speaks of the “venture tripartite” where the three crooks are equal, but it is clear that she is subservient to the men. She seems to be running a prostitution business with Face on the side, for he is her pimp. The men draw straws each night to see who will have her company. She names Subtle as the “Sovereign” of their group, and Face as the “General,” and she calls herself their “republic,” the public property. She does not seem to be in on the planning of their venture. She is however a peacemaker, trying to get the rival men to work together.
Abel Drugger is fairly honest, a tobacconist who comes to the alchemist for advice on how to enhance his business. Where should he place his shelves? What days are best for business? He has no vision for larger greed like Dapper and Mammon. He always shows up at unexpected times, however, which often plays into the hands of the schemers. Like Dapper, he is easily led and ends up running errands for Face. They make him believe, when it suits the scam, that he can win Dame Pliant, but like Dapper, he is never aware of being a victim.
Face is an appropriate name for one of the two main crooks. Jeremy the butler is transformed by Subtle into many roles, the main one being Captain Face, an officer. He is also “Lungs,” the bellows operator for the laboratory of the alchemist. He even tries to get a Spanish costume to play the count so he can have Dame Pliant. He changes face, not only in terms of costumes and roles, but he “turns face,” ready to betray anyone in his own interest. He is never who he seems to be, a genius at improvisation. For years he has been a respectable butler, according to the neighbors. Meanwhile, he has been a pimp and has stolen and resold his master’s food and other items. He is the one who provides his master’s house in the suburb of Blackfriars and the seed money for the scam. He is the one who found Subtle, as he reminds him, as a starving loser in a tavern in Pie Corner. Though Subtle has enough learning to pull off the role of an alchemist, Face is the one who spots the potential victims. He recruits and brings them to the Blackfriars house so Subtle can con them. He is constantly arguing with Subtle about who is the cleverest and deserves the largest share. Subtle may have taught him how to act the part of a Captain, but Face is the one who keeps them all afloat, the one who can talk his way out of a corner, as when his master returns and he improvises improbable lies to cover for his actions. Even his master is taken in until there is too much evidence against him to refute. His master gives Face or Jeremy the credit for having the most “wit,” and the play proves that he does. He walks away free, having made a new deal with Lovewit, while his other partners barely escape with nothing in hand. Face is like a cat that lands on its feet. At one point he is called Ulen after Til Ulen Spiegel, the merry German prankster who gets away with mayhem. He is not very likeable since he has no loyalty even to his fellow schemers, but his dazzling wit and inventiveness recommend him as a memorable comic figure.
(see also “Face”). Jeremy is the butler of Lovewit, the owner of the house in Blackfriars where the crooks operate. The neighbors swear Jeremy is respectable, though they don’t know why strange people are going in and out of the house and strange noises are heard. At the end of the play, Face is Jeremy again, serving Lovewit by giving him the rich widow as a wife. Lovewit feels well taken care of with such a clever servant.
Kestrel is a type of small hawk used in hunting. It is an appropriate name for this character since he wants to be one of the “angry boys” of London, the belligerent and fashionable gentlemen who get into duels and know how to insult each other in the right jargon. He is a green landowner from the country who wants to learn city ways and be a real gentleman. He goes to Subtle to learn the proper way to fight so he can be accepted, not understanding that there is more to being a gentleman than fighting. He is not refined in manner or habit; Kestrel has a temper and bullies his sister. Kestrel is taught nonsense terms from geometry about the rules of fighting. He wants rank and power. Face uses Kestrel’s anger, directing it towards his enemy, Surly, to get him out of the house. Kestrel tries to marry off his sister to a fictitious Spanish count, but then is happy to find Lovewit as a brother-in-law because he draws a sword and knows how to fight.
Lovewit, the owner of the house in Blackfriars, is absent until the last act when he returns to London. He is an older widower and has been in the country because of the plague, not expected to return as soon as he does. He has been gone six weeks, long enough for Jeremy to set up his business in the house. Lovewit defends his crooked butler, explaining that he is a generous master. When Jeremy offers him the rich widow, he takes her and thus strikes a deal with his butler. Lovewit is almost as clever as Face, and knows how to cheat Mammon of his goods. When Mammon arrives to collect his stuff from the basement, Lovewit challenges him to go to court to prove he was cheated. Mammon backs down, and Lovewit keeps his goods. Lovewit thus proves himself a bit of a crook or opportunist, though he stays within the law himself. Knowing that Jeremy cheated others, however, makes him an accomplice. He is happy with such a “witty” servant who can make money for him.
Sir Epicure Mammon
The most important “gull” or victim is Mammon. His first name “Epicure” means a gourmet, a hedonist who enjoys the senses. Mammon in the Bible is the name of a false god that is the personification of material riches and corruption. Mammon exhibits in his character all the extreme egotism and gluttonous desire for wealth that could motivate anyone, and so he is a symbol of the weakness that wants to hoard and use money the wrong way. First, he wants not only gold but also the philosopher’s stone itself that produces gold, even though, according to alchemy, only a pure man can possess it. He believes he can buy the purity needed to produce gold by buying someone with purity–the so-called “Doctor.” Mammon knows more about alchemy than anyone but Subtle, so they are able to throw around the terms together. In fact, Mammon is the symbol of what people commonly believe to be alchemy, the promise of something for nothing. At first Mammon pretends that he wants the money to do good, but his fantasies become more and more grotesque and perverted. He will use his money not only to have things and power but also to corrupt other people. He wants to take virtuous women from their husbands, for instance. He believes the philosopher’s stone can be used to destroy others. He calls himself the master of the stone. One is therefore not sorry to see him fall from his own delusions. He deserves no pity. Face and Subtle victimize him by getting him to donate money for the alchemical experiment, and then they get all his metal household goods to turn into gold. Instead, they keep reselling the goods to different victims, like the Anabaptists. Finally, they make him believe Doll the prostitute is a lady, whom he thinks he will make his partner in his deluded schemes. The crooks set him up with a sex partner and then pretend that Mammon’s sin has made the experiment fail. When he finally figures it all out, he comes back for his goods, but Lovewit sets him up again. He will have to go to court and expose himself to get the goods back, something he won’t do. He leaves defeated but not wiser. He does not admit his fault but claims the world has lost a benefactor. He is the epitome of self-deception.
Subtle is the Alchemist who supposedly changes base metal into gold in his alchemical laboratory within the house. He also claims to tell fortunes and perform magic, such as raising spirits. There are several scams going on at once, with Subtle, an older man, playing the learned “Doctor.” He is able to converse on many topics, or at least, has the lingo down and is able to sound authoritative. He seems to believe in his own lies as when he tells Face that he actually transformed him from a butler to a captain. The key to Subtle’s performances has to do with his manipulation of language to create illusions for people. He knows how to intimidate or flatter and is the intellectual fraud. When he and Face are not arguing they run a perfect sting operation together, improvising with costume, language, spectacle. Subtle understands theology enough to converse with the Anabaptists and philosophy enough to speak to Mammon about alchemy. He becomes dazzled with his own speech and ability to spin words, getting caught up in his own play. When they are caught, he crumbles, unlike Face who can keep improvising. Subtle, like his name, understands the emotions and inner nature of the victims so he can play on their weaknesses. He knows Dapper’s need for female approval and introduces him to the Fairy Queen, for instance.
Like Face, Subtle becomes over-confident. He lacks the predatory nature of Face or his adaptability, however. He tries but bungles picking Surly’s pockets, and when Surly catches him he drops his mask and cries for help. Face is cool even when caught, It is Face who is the more practical and has to cover their tracks as they are discovered. Subtle is double-crossing like Face, as when he makes separate plans with Doll, but he is not cunning and lacks the cutthroat “wit” of Face. Subtle is not fast enough to contend with Face, and one imagines him slinking back to Pie Corner, beaten.
Surly is ill-tempered and arrogant like his name. Pertinax also indicates arrogance, being the name of a Roman dictator. Surly is a pimp and card shark who accompanies his friend Mammon to the Alchemist. He is doubtful before he arrives, but once he sees what is going on, he knows at once it is a scam. He is unable to convince Mammon, however. Surly is the main enemy of the crooks, providing a real challenge for them. He brings in interesting complications, as when he returns in disguise as the Spanish count. He wants to see how they operate so he can expose them. He speaks Spanish, conning the conners. Although he seems to be more virtuous than the crooks he wants to catch, he is merely cynical. For instance, he does not enjoy the widow when he has a chance because he wants to impress her, so he can marry her. He is as opportunistic as the rest. His constant sneering when Subtle tries to put on his act creates tension. His asides let us know that he is onto their game. In the end, he does not succeed, even when he calls in the police, because Lovewit stands up for his butler.
Tribulation Wholesome is the Anabaptist elder who comes to the Alchemist when the deacon, Ananais, is unable to make a deal with Subtle. Subtle says he wants to talk with someone higher up. Subtle makes fun of his name and asks why all Puritans have to have pretentious names like “Tribulation,” as though they are more holy than others. Tribulation is like many Puritan businessmen in London in the seventeenth century. They supposedly despised the world, yet because they worked hard, they made money. Tribulation does not disguise his worldly desire for money to help his sect succeed. Subtle teases him that with the stone they could buy an army or a king, so they can be in political power. Tribulation is a hypocrite and doesn’t mind buying the goods of the “orphans” (Mammon’s household stuff) or in participating in “casting” gold coins (counterfeit). Jonson uses him to satirize the Puritans who were considered almost as much a political and religious threat as the Catholics.