The Alchemist Historical Context

Ben Jonson

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...

(The entire section is 662 words.)