The Alchemist (With Notes)by Ben Jonson
The Alchemist is a comedy by English playwright Ben Jonson. First performed in 1610 by the King's Men, it is generally considered Jonson's best and most characteristic comedy; Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that it had one of the three most perfect plots in literature. The play's clever fulfillment of the classical unities and vivid depiction of human folly have made… See more details below
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The Alchemist is a comedy by English playwright Ben Jonson. First performed in 1610 by the King's Men, it is generally considered Jonson's best and most characteristic comedy; Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that it had one of the three most perfect plots in literature. The play's clever fulfillment of the classical unities and vivid depiction of human folly have made it one of the few Renaissance plays (except the works of Shakespeare) with a continuing life on stage (except for a period of neglect during the Victorian era).
The Alchemist premiered 34 years after the first permanent public theatre (The Theatre) opened in London; it is, then, a product of the early maturity of commercial drama in London. Only one of the University wits who had transformed drama in the Elizabethan period remained alive (this was Thomas Lodge); in the other direction, the last great playwright to flourish before the Interregnum, James Shirley, was already a teenager. The theatres had survived the challenge mounted by the city and religious authorities; plays were a regular feature of life at court and for a great number of Londoners.
The venue for which Jonson apparently wrote his play reflects this newly solid acceptance of theatre as a fact of city life. In 1597, the Lord Chamberlain's Men (aka the King's Men) had been denied permission to use the theatre in Blackfriars as a winter playhouse because of objections from the neighborhood's influential residents. Some time between 1608 and 1610, the company, now the King's Men, reassumed control of the playhouse, this time without objections. Their delayed premiere on this stage within the city walls, along with royal patronage, marks the ascendance of this company in the London play-world (Gurr, 171). The Alchemist was among the first plays chosen for performance at the theatre.
Jonson's play reflects this new confidence. In it, he applies his classical conception of drama to a setting in contemporary London for the first time, with invigorating results. The classical elements, most notably the relation between Lovewit and Face, are fully modernized; likewise, the depiction of Jacobean London is given order and direction by the classical understanding of comedy as a means to expose vice and foolishness to ridicule.
An outbreak of plague in London forces a gentleman, Lovewit, to flee temporarily to the country, leaving his house under the sole charge of his butler, Jeremy. Jeremy uses the opportunity given to him to use the house as the headquarters for fraudulent acts. He transforms himself into "Captain Face", and enlists the aid of Subtle, a fellow conman and Dol Common, a prostitute.
The play opens with a violent argument between Subtle and Face concerning the division of the riches which they have, and will continue to gather. Dol breaks the pair apart and reasons with them that they must work as a team if they are to succeed. Their first customer is Dapper, a lawyer's clerk who wishes Subtle to use his supposed necromantic skills to summon a "familiar" or spirit to help in his gambling ambitions. The tripartite suggest that Dapper may win favour with the 'Queen of Fairy', but he must subject himself to humiliating rituals in order for her to help him. Their second gull is Drugger, a tobacconist, who is keen to establish a profitable business. After this, a wealthy nobleman, Sir Epicure Mammon arrives, expressing the desire to gain himself the philosopher's stone which he believes will bring him huge material and spiritual wealth. He is accompanied by Surly, a skeptic and debunker of the whole idea of alchemy. He is promised the philosopher's stone and promised that it will turn all base metal into gold. Surly however, suspects Subtle of being a thief. Mammon accidentally sees Dol and is told that she is a Lord’s sister who is suffering from madness. Subtle contrives to become angry with Ananias, an Anabaptist or Puritan, and demands that he should return with a more senior member of his sect. Drugger returns and is given false and ludicrous advice about setting up his shop; he also brings news that a rich young widow (Dame Pliant) and her brother (Kastril) have arrived in London. Both Subtle and Face in their greed and ambition seek out to win the widow. The play continues from here.
The Alchemist is tightly structured, based around a simple dramatic concept. Subtle claims to be on the verge of projection in his offstage workroom, but all the characters in the play are overly-concerned with projection of a different kind: image-projection. The end result, in structural terms, is an onstage base of operations in Friars, to which can be brought a succession of unconsciously-comic characters from different social backgrounds, who hold different professions and different beliefs, but whose lowest common denominator – gullibility – grants them equal victim-status in the end.
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