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The first scene of The Alchemist is one of the most explosive openings in early modern drama. Face bursts onto the stage with a sword in his hand; Subtle follows, clutching a phial and throwing insults. Dol vainly attempts to mediate, before opting for the more successful strategy of matching their violence with her own. Within the space of two hundred lines their confederacy has been torn apart and stitched back together, their tripartite – but not entirely stable – agreement marking out the space that all the other characters in the play will have to negotiate. Face has memorably sketched a portrait of his collaborator, Subtle, as he first found him:

at Pie Corner, Taking your meal of steam in, from cooks’ stalls, Where, like the father of hunger, you did walk Piteously costive, with your pinched-horn-nose …


Subtle has countered by reminding Face of his own circumstances prior to their encounter, alone ‘in your master ’s house’ where ‘you, and the rats, here, kept possession’ (I.i.49-50). Both, it seems, feel that the other owes them a huge debt – it is Dol’s function to reassert their shared purposes, the need to ‘leave your factions, sir. / And labour, kindly, in the common work’ (I.i.155-6).