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Sir Epicure Mammon, one of the most memorable characters in Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist, is associated with excess and with a commitment to material pleasures. These traits are especially evident in his famous speech outlining his sensual desires. Important aspects of the speech include the following:
- He desires a
list of wives and concubines,
Equal with Solomon . . . .
This phrasing implies his excessive sexual appetite. He looks forward to having sex with fifty women every night (!) – a hope that shows how little he would care about these women as actual human beings. Instead, they would be mere instruments for his own sexual pleasure.
- He looks forward to having a room full of pornographic images to inspire his lust – another indication of how much his focus is merely on the body rather than the soul.
- He plans to have the room filled with perfumes, indicating yet another of the five senses (in this case, smell) that preoccupies him.
- When he emerges from his bath, he plans to roll around and dry himself in “gossamer and roses,” indicating non-sexual pleasures associated with the flesh and with feeling.
- He plans to bribe married men to let him sleep with their wives, indicating how much faith he has in the power of money and how little respect he has for the sanctity of holy matrimony.
- He assumes that he will actually be able to bribe parents into selling their children into sexual service to him. This assumption seems preposterous, but something very similar happens in Jonson’s play titled Volpone.
- He assumes that he will be able to bribe priests into flattering him – an assumption that allows Jonson to satirize corruption among priests and also to illustrate Mammon’s pride and (as his last name suggests) his association with money.
- He assumes that he will be able to bribe poets to flatter him – an assumption that allows Jonson to satirize writers who (unlike himself, he suggests) are more concerned with money than with virtue. Jonson considered poets and priests to be two of the kinds of people most responsible for teaching morality.
- He emphasizes how luxuriantly he will satisfy his appetite for food, indicating yet another aspect of his sensuality.
In short, Mammon assumes that everyone and everything can be bought. His speech displays his pride or self-centeredness, the root cause of all sin.
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