How is Ben Jonson's The Alchemist structured?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Ben Jonson prided himself on his skills of design as a dramatist, and certainly the design of his play The Alchemist reveals the kind of complex unity of which he was justly proud.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge would later commend the play for having one of the three best plots in literature (Oedipus Rex and Tom Jones having the other two), and the skill with which Jonson manages the intricate complications of the play’s structure is definitely impressive.  Among the most notable features of the play’s design are the following:

  • The way it begins so abruptly, by plunging us immediately in medias res (“into the midst of things”), thus demonstrating that the plot of a literary work is something quite different than the mere chronological order of incidents on which the plot is based. The plot of a play is the artistic design the playwright imposes on those incidents. The opening lines of the play are as startling on the page as they are on the stage:

FACE. Believe 't, I will.

SUB. Thy worst. I fart at thee.

DOL. Have you your wits? why, gentlemen! for love --

FACE. Sirrah, I'll strip you --

SUB. What to do? lick figs
Out at my –

  • The “centripetal” nature of the play’s design, in which all the dupes are pulled into the house, as into a kind of vortex, where Face, Subtle, and Doll have set up their deceptive enterprise.
  • The ways the different kinds of dupes represent different kinds and social levels of foolishness and greed, so that Jonson suggests an entire society pervaded by selfish motives (including such representative types as a knight, a druggist, a lawyer’s clerk, two Puritans, an aggressive young man whose wealth is rather recent, that youth’s attractive sister, and a perceptive if cynical gambler). Jonson, in other words, introduces great social diversity into the play; many representatives of many different social groups visit the house.
  • The play’s adherence to the three classical “unities” (of time, place, action), although its unity of action has sometimes been disputed because some critics have seen it as being two diffuse in its presentation of varying incidents.  Most audiences, however (including Coleridge) have been highly impressed by the ways Jonson manages to tie all the threads of the plot together.
  • The ways the characters are highly individualized (who can ever forget Sir Epicure Mammon?) while also representing clear social types.
  • The methods by which Jonson complicates the plot in ways that at first seem threaten to unravel it, even as he manages to keep everything under precise control by giving his schemers opportunities to improvise. Thus, Dapper is being duped when Mammon unexpectedly arrives, so Dapper has to be quickly gotten out of the way (by being shoved into a water closet). Similar antics appear at the end of the play when the absent master of the house, Lovewit, unexpectedly appears.
  • All in all Jonson manages to produce a play that seems both highly, comically chaotic and supremely ordered and well designed.

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