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 so well met in The Alchemist that the play is, in its own way, a small classical masterpiece. Jonson observes unity of time, in that the dramatic situation is enacted in the same amount of time that it would take in real life. Unity of place is maintained because the scene, Lovewit’s house in the Friars, is specific and limited. The discrete beginning, middle, and inevitable conclusion of the play provide for unity of action. The characters are “types” who behave consistently, doing nothing unexpected, and thus the ideal of decorum, the paramount classical precept, is met: Jonson’s prostitute is bawdy, his churchmen sanctimonious.
Faithfulness to classical concepts, however, is not the only virtue of The Alchemist. A talented actor as well as a writer of poetry, masques, criticism, and tragic and comic plays, Jonson was a masterful manipulator of theatrical effects. The opening argument of The Alchemist, presented in antic verse, catapults the play headlong into a rollicking, boisterous, bawdy life of its own. The simple yet ingenious plot provides for the multiplicity of incident dear to the Renaissance heart; costume, disguise, and transmutation of identity are similarly exploited.
The internal development is more complex than some critics suggest. The characters are introduced in approximate order of their social status and rapacity. As these advance, so does the degree of cozening inflicted by Face and Subtle, and this progression reinforces the cohesiveness of the play. Although the fates of the characters are not contingent, since all are frauds or dupes, they interact in complex and amusing ways. These interactions, which become so dense that eventually Face and Subtle have their victims cozening each other, engender organic unity and dramatic tension simultaneously. As the play advances, the number of characters on stage increases, the pace quickens, and the scenes grow shorter. The climax is predictable but impressive, the entire proceeding animated by a genuine and hearty spirit.
Despite its qualifications as a well-wrought, clever, and entertaining play in the classical mode, The Alchemist owes much of its literary interest and charm to Jonson’s rhetorical flourishes. The underworld slang and alchemical jargon used by the protagonists lend color and authenticity. Double entendres and simultaneous dialogue, which originated with Jonson, add to the effect. Most impressive, perhaps, is the way Subtle and Face use a debased eloquence in perpetrating their frauds. One of Subtle’s elegant, highly rhetorical, pseudo-rational arguments, for example, seems unequivocally to establish the propensity of all metals to turn into gold. Surly’s calm and earnest reasoning with Dame Pliant, on the other hand, seems but a pale counterfeit of Subtle’s spirited equivocation.
The Alchemist dramatizes what might happen when moral order is suspended by plague in London. Lovewit, representing responsible society, jettisons civic responsibility and flees the city, leaving behind only knaves and fools. Although the reader is reminded early that order will be restored eventually, society in the hands of the unscrupulous degenerates into chaos. The servant supplants the master, science is overthrown by alchemy, reason is toppled by rhetoric, nature’s secrets are transcended, and moral order is subverted as churchmen become swindlers.
Jonson’s vehicle, satire, was quite popular in Elizabethan England, and in The Alchemist its effect is intensified by the plague in the background. Jonson intends to be instructive, even if it means instructing by ridicule. The classicist in him wants to restore to England some of the glory of Augustan Rome. To this end, Jonson adheres in his works to Cicero’s famous dictum, “a copy of life, a mirror of custom, a representation of truth.” Accordingly, he anchors his play in contemporary London and reflects the speech, behavior, and attitudes of its citizens. The Renaissance saw a shift in emphasis from the world of the Church to the world of experience, but while Jonson set an extremely worldly stage, his morality was severe and almost medieval. His moral values, clear from the first scene on, are constantly reiterated as The Alchemist indicts vain and wishful thinking and directs the mind to the contemplation of virtue. It is a sign of Jonson’s genius that he does it unequivocally and entertainingly.