Ben Jonson, who lived during the time of Shakespeare and who was both Shakespeare’s friend and friendly rival, was one of the great innovators in English dramatic comedy. Whereas Shakespeare’s best-known comedies are romantic, lyrical, playful, and celebratory, Jonson’s best-known comic dramas tend to be satirical and sometimes biting as they mock human sinfulness and folly. Certainly this is true of The Alchemist, in which Jonson mocks human greed, self-indulgence, and deceitfulness. This play’s contributions to comedy include the following:
• A London setting, making this one of the most important of all the “city comedies” produced during the reign of King James I (the so-called “Jacobean” period).
• A contemporary setting, making the events of the play directly relevant to the lives of its original spectators.
• A trio of comic deceivers (Face, Subtle, and Doll) who take advantage of the various fools they prey upon but whose own relationship is riven with tensions rooted in individual self-interest.
• A variety of ridiculous gulls, each of whom is motived by his own peculiar obsessions or selfish desires.
• Mockery of the religious hypocrisy of Puritans – always a favorite target of Jonson’s satire.
• An increasingly complicated plot that often threatens to spin out of the control of the trio of plotters. They must constantly improvise, so that the play is both comic and suspenseful.
• Rich, racy, bawdy, colloquial, but sometimes also arcane language and prose, so that we sense that we are really listening to the ways Londoners spoke during Jonson’s day. Consider, for example, the play's opening lines:
Face. Believe 't, I will.
Subtle. Thy worst. I fart at thee.
Dol. Have you your wits? why, gentlemen! for love -
Face. Sirrah, I'll strip you... out of all your sleights.
Dol. Nay, look ye, sovereign, general, are you mad-men?
Subtle. O, let the wild sheep loose. I'll gum your silks
With good strong water, an you come.
• Highly eccentric and bizarre characters, such as Sir Epicure Mammon, who is one of the most striking and memorable characters in all the dramas of this period.
• Satire that not only mocks the fools on stage but also implicates (indirectly) the foolishness of the spectators, so that when we laugh at the ridiculous antics of the characters we must ask ourselves if we recognize some of our own moral flaws.
• An ending that is (as Jonson’s endings often are) teasingly ambiguous, especially in the presentation of the “happy” resolution to all the many complications that have come before.