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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 classes: the aristocratic land-owners and those who worked for them. In a society where few people could read, men and women were largely dependent on the church for their information. The clergy used church services as an opportunity to teach lessons and morals, and so the English had a knowledge of the Bible that few twentieth-century church-goers can appreciate.
The Theatre The first permanent theatre was built c. 1576 and this led to a greater social status for theatre people. By 1600, some actors and playwrights like William Shakespeare also owned an interest in a theatre and earned a comfortable income. Most theatres were located just outside town due to religious problems, especially with Puritans. Plays were performed outside, during the day, and many patrons stood during the entire performance.
The theatres were open at the top, shaped in a circle or octagon, with rows of seating along the perimeter. The seats were protected by a covered gallery, but there was a large area in front of the stage where spectators stood that was open to the elements. If the weather was cooperative and a play was to be performed, a flag was displayed to notify the audiences of a performance. Since working people were not usually free to attend plays during the day, the audience consisted largely of gentlemen who paid about 1 pence for the more expensive seats, while those who could afford the less costly center area crowded before the stage. Respectable women could attend if accompanied by a male escort. Prostitutes also attended to increase trade. All roles were played by male actors, with younger boys assuming the roles of female characters.
Although many in the audience were uneducated, stage presentation and performance usually overcame those shortcomings, and the ideas of the plays were often familiar enough to be easily grasped by the audience. There were no curtains or dimming of lights to signal the end of an act; the act was finished when all actors in the scene had left the stage. There was no intermission and no scenery...
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and none of the tune or location indicators that are so familiar to today's audiences. There was only the text, which was often in verse.
Jonson's plays were frequently performed in the Globe, the theatre in which Shakespeare was part owner. Plays were very popular, but thirty years after Jonson's play, Puritans finally succeeded in closing down the theatres. They would remain closed until the Restoration in 1660.
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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 lifelike person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation.
The Alchemist differs slightly from this definition, since each character is little more than a "type." The audience does not really know or understand the character as an individual. For instance, Drugger is recognizable as a representative the new merchant class. He is a shopkeeper who hopes to use magic to be more successful than other shopkeepers.
Genre Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means "kind" or "type." Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance. The Alchemist is a comedy.
Plot This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of The Alchemist is the story of three swindlers who try to cheat some gullible victims of their money. But the theme is that of greed.
Setting The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Jonson's play is London and the house of Master Lovewit. The action is further reduced to three weeks during 1610.
Satire Satire attempts to blend social commentary with comedy and humor. Satire does not usually attack any individual but rather the institution he or she represents. The intent is to expose problems and create debate that will lead to a correction of the problem. In The Alchemist, the two Puritan Deacons are the object of satire because they represent an over-zealous approach to religion.
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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 or plots have been adapted to other popular film use.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488
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 H "Comic Procedures in Shakespeare and Jonson Much Ado about Nothing and The Alchemist" in Jonson & Shakespeare, edited by Ian Donaldson, Humanities, 1983, pp. 101-18.
Monsarrat, G. D."Editing the Actor Truth and Deception in The Alchemist, V.3-5" in Cahiers Elisabethans: Late Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol 23, April, 1983, pp. 61-71.
Raw, Laurence J. A. "William Pole's Staging of The Alchemist" in Theatre Notebook, Vol 44, no. 2,1990, pp. 74-80.
Ross, Cheryl Lynn. "The Plague of The Alchemist" in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 41, no 3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 439-58.
For Further Reading:
Ford, Boris, Editor The Cambridge Cultural History of Britain Vol. 4: Seventeenth-Century Britain, Cambridge, 1989 This book provides an easy to understand history of England in the seventeenth century. The book is divided into separate sections on literature, art, and music. An introductory section provides a historical context.
Fothenngham, Richard. "The Doubling of Roles on the Jacobean Stage" in Theatre Research International, Vol 10, no 1, September, 1985, pp. 18-32 This short essay provides an interesting examination of the doubling of roles on stage. Most playwrights wrote with an eye to how few actors would have to be paid to play the roles. Thus scenes and lines were constructed with the anticipation that one actor might be playing several roles, thus entrances and exits were planned accordingly.
Herford, C H., Percy and Evelyn Simpson, Editors Ben Jonson, Vols. I-XI, Oxford, 1925-52. This eleven volume work includes a biography of Jonson and introductions to each of the plays. This text of the plays is a reprint of the 1616 folio that Jonson printed There is also some information about the public's reception of the plays and a great deal of information dealing with almost every aspect of Jonson's life and work.
Hill, Christopher, The Century of Revolution 1603-1714, Norton, 1961. Hill is a well-known author of Renaissance books that examine the cultural and historical background of English literature. Hill has provided a well-organized examination of the economic, religious, and political issues of the seventeenth century. The events that led up to the English Revolution, the Revolution, and the Restoration that followed were crucial incidents that shaped the literature of this period and that which followed.
Maclean, Hugh, Editor Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets, Norton, 1974. This text provides a good selection of Jonson's poetry. Because a selection of his contemporary's poetry is also included, Maclean offers readers and students an easy way to study and compare the poetry of the period.