The Philosopher’s Stone
The main symbol in the play is the philosopher’s stone, the object of alchemy. Alchemy was supposedly a secret knowledge of transmutation or transforming one substance into another. The alchemist started with baser ingredients and through heating and changing in a furnace they became the “philosopher’s stone,” a powder that could produce gold. By analogy, Subtle plays the alchemist who can turn the base butler Jeremy into the suave Captain Face. He asks Face who “sublimed thee and exalted thee and fixed thee/ I’ the third region, called our state of grace?/ Wrought thee to spirit, to quintessence?” (1.1. lines 68-70). These terms describe the stages of exalting a substance to divine essence. The reference to making Jeremy into anything holy is satirical, for the change in him is superficial. Subtle’s art to make anything happen is in his imagination and skillful tongue. He is only a master of illusion.
The stone was also supposed to be a test of purity, for none but the pure could possess it. In the play it represents the desires people have; it is the answer to whatever they want—riches or success. Some people like Drugger have small wishes; he wants to improve his business. Dapper wants to win at cards. Mammon, on the other hand, has very grandiose desires, so bizarre and unrealistic that they could never and should never be fulfilled, for they are corrupt and destructive to life. He deludes himself that he will make Doll into a queen and “talk to her, all in gold . . . She shall feel gold, taste gold, hear gold, sleep gold” (4.1, lines 25-29). He calls himself the “lord of the philosopher’s stone” (4.1, line 121). He imagines he already has everything he wants. Face and Subtle pretend that his sexual sin with Doll disqualifies him by ruining the projection of the stone in the furnace, but he is already self-condemned by everything he says and does, obviously entertaining delusions of grandeur. The way Jonson thus uses the philosopher’s stone as a symbol is the opposite of what it meant in alchemy—a pure substance that could produce pure gold. He uses it instead as a symbol of human greed and self-deception.
Disguise and Costume
The con artists are basically actors who put on a spectacle and make the victims believe in what they are seeing. By putting on a certain robe and speaking in a certain language, Subtle plays an alchemist, a learned Doctor. Doll changes from a prostitute into a lady or a Fairy Queen with her costumes. Face can be Jeremy the butler or Captain Face or Lungs, the furnace assistant. They highlight the fact that all the characters are insincere and try to hide their true nature. Kestrel and Dame Pliant come to London in hopes that they can learn how to play the role of genteel people by dressing and acting a certain way. Dapper is made to dress as a woman, wearing “the petticoat of Fortune” (3.5, line 7) in order to meet the Fairy Queen. Doll asks, “Do not we/ Sustain our parts?” (1.1. line 145), implying that the three partners not only act out roles but do it fairly as a team effort for their livelihood.
Surly unmasks the actors by himself playing the part of a Spanish count to spy on them. All the men vie to get a Spanish costume like his to win the widow who thinks she is supposed to marry a Spanish nobleman, as Subtle tells her she should. Even the owner of the house, Lovewit, has to dress up as the Spanish noble to marry Dame Pliant. There seems to be no apology about disguise, as if this is the normal way to operate in the world. The disguise is taken as the person, everyone taken at “face” value. The Anabaptists, for instance, look and speak like religious people but they are like everyone else, greedy at heart for gold and power. Jonson shows that the world is a theater. The masked will be unmasked at some point, however. That is the point of the comedy.
Realm of Fairy
There is a lot of reference to the realm of fairy, since Subtle is supposed to be a sort of magician who can raise spirits and grant wishes and transform objects, like a Prospero figure. In Act 3, scene 5, the three conspirators create a Fairyland to fleece Dapper. They prepare him to meet his aunt, the Queen of Fairy, who will give him riches. Subtle disguises himself as the Priest of Fairy and when they blindfold Dapper, Subtle and Face pretend to be elves pinching him to make give all “that is transitory,” (3.5, line 30) namely, his money. Subtle cries, “Ti ti, it ti to ta” as elf language (3, 5, line 40). Dapper empties his pockets of coins. Dapper never learns he is being gulled, not even when he has to stay in a privy for two hours to stay out of the way of other customers. When Doll, dressed as his aunt, the Fairy Queen, blesses him with good fortune, he says, “I cannot speak for joy” (5.4, line 34). He, at least, is transformed by the charade. The realm of the supernatural is thus a metaphor for gullibility. Those who are easily duped are those who believe in fairies, spirits, and free gold, and the crooks play on the beliefs of these greedy simpletons. Jonson equates the sane person as a man of reason. Fairyland is an illusion.
In Renaissance thought, humans were situated between the animal kingdom and the angelic kingdom. Whenever animal imagery is used in the play, Jonson is indicating subhuman behavior. Doll calls Face and Subtle “my good baboons” (1,1, line 163) indicating their monkey antics as they mock and imitate to fool the victims of their hoaxes. In Act 2, scene 4 the conspirators refer to Mammon as a fish on the line. Face says, “I ha’ given him line, and now he plays” (line 2). Subtle replies, “And shall we twitch him?” (line 3). They see their victims as stupid and less than human, though Doll had referred to the crooks themselves as animals. Jonson thus equates the cozeners with the cozened. When the Anabaptists arrive, Subtle refers to them as “more gudgeons” or fish (2. 4. line 19). The character Kestrel bears the name of an aggressive hawk. He is angry and wants to fight just so he can fit into a group of fashionable young men. Mammon speaks in nothing but animal images, conveying his gross thoughts and desire (“tongues of carps,” “lampreys,” “beards of barbells,” “unctuous paps/ Of a fat pregnant sow” (2. 2, lines 75-84). He tells Doll they will have long life with the stone “a perpetuity/ Of life and lust” (4.1, lines 166-7). This is the opposite of what the philosopher’s stone is supposed to do. It “sublimes,” lifting substance to pure essence, taking humans up the ladder to more angelic status. The animal imagery thus points out that the project of transmutation touted by Subtle is a mockery and scam. Both crooks and victims are busy going down the Great Chain of Being, or the ladder of life, to the animal kingdom instead of up to heaven.