Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Analysis

Historical Context

Religion and Society
In 1610, James I had been king for seven years. And the Anglican church, firmly re-established with the reign of Elizabeth I, was only one of several religious influences at work in Renaissance England. Among these different religions, the Puritans were of major importance to theatre-goers. Puritans opposed the theatre, since they viewed it as deceitful. Actors were, after all, assuming a role other than their own. For Puritans, acting was analogous to lying.

Accordingly, it is easy to understand why Jonson might target Puritans for satire in The Alchemist. It is also important to understand that plays were subject to censure and were reviewed by the Master of Revels, who could force revisions and censure content. Unlike twentieth-century works, seventeenth-century plays were not reviewed for sexual content or obscene language. Instead, the issue of review was religion and politics, theology governed politics in many cases. In addition, the depiction of the king, who was a representative of God, and as such, was head of the Anglican Church, was especially important.

The hierarchy that began with God and moved to the King, was also analogous to the structure of the family, with the order descending from man to woman to child. England was still a largely agrarian society at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Most men labored outside the house and most women functioned primarily as wife, mother, cook, housekeeper, and sometimes nurse. Few men and even fewer women could read. Society was very class-defined.

For most purposes, there were two...

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Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Literary Style

Act
A major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans and to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen combined some of the acts.

The Alchemist is a five act play. The exposition occurs in the first act when the audience learns of Subtle and Face's plan and meets the first of the victims. By the end of Act II, the complication, the audience has met the rest of the victims. The climax occurs in the third act when the victims all begin to arrive and Dapper must be gagged and locked in the privy. The near misses as each of the victims is targeted by the swindlers in a separate part of the house provides the falling action, and the catastrophe occurs in the last act when Lovewit arrives to restore order and each victim discovers the extent of the trickery.

Character
A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. "Characterization" is the process of creating a...

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Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Compare and Contrast

1610: The plague, which is a reoccurring problem for congested London, hits especially hard.

Today: The plague, while not completely eradicated, is no longer a major threat to London or other major cities of the world. Today's modern plague continues to be HIV and AIDS.

1610: The New World is being settled with Jamestown colonists preparing to abandon their colony after a particularly difficult period. They are convinced to stay and try again when more colonists arrive.

Today: Those British colonies, whose tenuous survival were once in doubt, have become a major military and economic force, the United States.

1610: Henry Hudson makes another attempt to find a Northwest Passage. Backed by English investors, Hudson succeeds only in entering the strait that will bear his name.

Today: The twentieth-fifth anniversary of the last manned lunar landing is celebrated, and NASA announces that another exploration of the moon is planned.

1610: Shakespeare has enjoyed nearly twenty-five years of success as a playwnght. After 1610, he will write The Tempest and collaborate on two more plays, All Is True (Henry VIII) and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Today: Shakespeare is enjoying a Renaissance in film and theatre. Nearly a dozen of his plays have been filmed in the last ten years or are in the planning stages. In addition, scenes...

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Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Topics for Further Study

Research the use of character names to represent traits or ideology. When did playwrights first begin this practice? Research contemporary characters in theater, film, and literature. How do their names reflect their character?

Religion was very important to English social structure during the seventeenth century. Roman Catholics were forbidden from receiving degrees from the universities and also banned from holding many political offices. Puritans were often the object of derision and many fled to the New World seeking religious freedom. Examine the role of religion during this period and try to resolve some of the references to religion that you find in Jonson's play.

At the end of the play, Subtle and Dol have fled without any reward for their knavery and only Jeremy seems to have profited from the three weeks his master has been gone. Jeremy is forgiven when he offers the widow in marriage. Nearly four hundred years after the play was written, changing social values would condemn such an arrangement and insist that Jeremy be punished rather than having the widow "sold" in exchange for his master's forgiveness. Considering those issues, do you think the play is still effective? Do you find that it condemns "get rich quick schemes" or that it offers an effective satire of the artificial nature of men's morals. Consider who you think really benefits from the play's resolution.

Critics sometimes argue that Jonson's play lacks a...

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Ben Jonson's The Alchemist What Do I Read Next?

Ben Jonson's Volpone, written in 1605, is another play that uses the farce or the con game as a plot device. In this case a wealthy man pretends to be dying so that he can con expensive gifts from everyone who thinks he or she might benefit from his will.

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" is another parable about greed. As he did elsewhere in his Canterbury Tales, written c. 1387, Chaucer uses an old man's greed and lust to reveal the vulnerability of men.

Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, was first presented in 1600. Although the plot is not about a swindle, it does involve the use of disguise and trickery to bring about order and resolution. Since Shakespeare was a contemporary of Jonson's, his comedies provide a useful contrast to Jonson's.

The Merchant of Venice, also by Shakespeare, was first presented in 1596. This play also involves disguise and deceit, but it is interesting because the ending creates many questions about the definition of comedy. Like The Alchemist, a complete moral resolution is missing, but in the case of this Shakespearean play, the plot raises more complicated questions about racism and honesty. The character of Portia also provides a contrast to Dol and Dame Pliant for those who are interested in the depiction of female characters in comedies of this era.

Volume 11 of Ben Jonson, written by C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson...

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Ben Jonson's The Alchemist Bibliography and Further Reading

Ferreira-Ross, Jeanette D. "Jonson's Satire of Puritanism in The Alchemist" in Sydney Studies in English, Vol 17,1991-92, pp 22-42.

Fothenngham, Richard. "The Doubling of Roles on the Jacobean Stage" in Theatre Research International, Vol. 10, no 1, September, 1985, pp 18-32.

Harp, Richard."Ben Jonson's Comic Apocalypse" in Cithara Essays in the Judaeo Christian Tradition, Vol. 34, no 1, November, 1994, pp 34-43.

Kernan, Alvin B "Shakespeare's and Jonson's View of Public Theatre Audiences" in Jonson & Shakespeare, edited by Ian Donaldson, Humanities, 1983, pp. 74-78.

Kernan, Alvin B., Editor. The Alchemist, Yale, 1974.

Mares, F...

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