What are the historical elements that identify the settings within Jonson's The Alchemist and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The historical elements that identify the settings within Ben Jonson's The Alchemist and William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar are numerous. The setting is important in each play for various reasons. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, the Roman setting is of course highly appropriate to a play about some of the major figures, and one of the most important events, in ancient Roman history. In Jonson’s play, a specific setting would seem to be less dictated by the plot than in Shakespeare’s text, but Jonson definitely wanted to imply that chicanery and foolishness were alive in contemporary London. For these reasons, both playwrights are careful to provide details that call constant attention to specific locales (Rome and London, respectively).

Consider, for example, the first several hundred words of each play (which can be searched electronically). Thus, in the opening portion of Julius Caesar, characters mention such details as the following:

  • Rome (multiple references)
  • chariot-wheels
  • Pompey
  • the Tiber river
  • the Roman gods
  • the Capitol
  • the feast of Lupercal
  • Caesar’s trophies
  • Caesar himself

All these references occur within the first 76 lines of the play, and often the references are multiple references. Shakespeare obviously wanted to emphasize a point that would already have been clear from the play’s title: that this is a play about Rome (although, of course, with implications for other places and other periods in history).

In Jonson’s The Alchemist, the London setting is not emphasized immediately, but it isn’t long before passages such as the following begin to appear:

FACE. Not of this, I think it.
But I shall put you in mind, sir; -- at Pie-corner,
Taking your meal of steam in, from cooks' stalls,
Where, like the father of hunger, you did walk
Piteously costive, with your pinch'd-horn-nose,
And your complexion of the Roman wash,
Stuck full of black and melancholic worms,
Like powder corns shot at the artillery-yard.

The references here to “Pie-corner” and to “the artillery-yard” would have indicated quite clearly to contemporary audiences that the play was set in London. So would later references to “Paul’s” (that is, St. Paul Cathedral, the biggest church in London) and to “a Puritan in Blackfriars” (that is, an extreme Protestant in a well-known London neighborhood). Very soon into the play, London audiences would have realized that London itself was the setting of the play and that London’s citizens and mores would be chief objects of its satire.