The Alchemist marks the peak of Ben Jonson’s artistic career. Despite a somewhat muddled denouement, the play is a masterpiece of construction. As far as is known, the plot is original with Jonson. In this play, Jonson the artist supersedes Jonson the moralist: A highly entertaining and dramatic satire on human greed, The Alchemist displays none of the sermonizing that marks, to some extent, Jonson’s other plays.
For those interested in learning how to take in the gullible, Jonson’s The Alchemist is a fundamental text. “Cony-catching” was a popular practice in Elizabethan England, and Jonson, an intimate of London’s jails, taverns, theaters, and places of even less repute, reveals in this play the techniques involved in several of the most amusing and lucrative ploys. His protagonist, it should be noted, is not punished for his misdeeds.
The complexities of life in London during the Elizabethan era, coupled with limited general scientific understanding, help account for the widespread faith in astrology and alchemy of the time. This faith in such branches of knowledge helped make them leading gimmicks for swindles. Commerce thrived and new continents were explored, but people were not far from believing in the dragons slain by King Arthur’s knights. Many believed also that the dawning age of science would discover a “philosopher’s stone” that would transmute dross into gold. Jonson’s London, the London of The Alchemist, was growing and glittering and slightly hysterical, and cozening was easy, widespread, and immensely successful.
The critical response to the play has been intriguing. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, presumably impressed by the play’s adherence to the classical unities, praised it as having one of the three best plots in literature, the other two being Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). Several modern commentators have contended that, although The Alchemist does cleave to the classical ideals, it is not a proper comedy, has no plot at all, and consists merely of a series of linked incidents. Romantic and Victorian critics particularly, understandably enchanted by Jonson’s contemporary and diametric opposite, William Shakespeare, were put off by Jonson’s classical forms, his satiric manner, and his coarseness. They also disliked his unemotional tone, controlled plots, and intellectual detachment. Although The Alchemist lacks none of these features, they do not render it deficient.
The classical ideals are...
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