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...
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