Discussion Topic

Exploring the role of satire and allegory in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist

Summary:

In The Alchemist, Ben Jonson employs satire and allegory to critique human greed and gullibility. The play uses exaggerated characters and situations to mock the foolishness of those who fall for scams, reflecting broader societal flaws. Through this, Jonson exposes the corruptive power of greed and the ease with which people can be deceived.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Ben Jonson's The Alchemist a satire on practitioners of alchemy and also uses alchemy as a metaphor?

What is correct to say about the satire in Jonson's play is that he is satirizing fools, crooks, and swindlers. Biographers have not succeeded in definitively identifying Jonson's personal opinion about alchemy, itself, though he obviously scorned the use of alchemy in crooked practices and swindles.

The way we know that Jonson is satirizing crooks and swindlers and not practitioners of alchemy is that the characters are obviously identified by their character names. This style of naming makes this play an allegory, which makes Jonson's point obvious and clear. Some of the allegorical names follow. Lovewitt is trusting but of low wit (low intelligence) as he leaves his home without hesitation in the hands of untrustworthy and unscrupulous fellows. Subtle is the one who is the Alchemist.

FACE.
When all your alchemy, and your algebra,
  [...]
  Your conjuring, ...
  Could not relieve your corps [body] ....

His allegorical name implies his art and skillful manipulation of the swindle and of the fools being swindled. Face is the nickname of the intermediary who finds the fools and introduces them to Subtle. He has been helped by the Alchemist's skills:

SUBTLE.
[Have I not] Giv'n thee thy oaths, ...
  Thy rules to cheat at horse-race, ...
  Made thee a second in mine own great art?

His allegorical name implies his ability to be changeable and effectively convince fools to enter the swindle. These allegorical names, which identify character types, prove the satire is aimed at fools, crooks and swindlers. If Jonson had chosen characters earnestly pursuing alchemical experiments in material composition who affected people's lives for the worse, it would be easy to assert that the satire was aimed at practitioners of alchemy. Since this is not the case, an analysis of the play as satirizing alchemists is more difficult to make. Though it may be said he sees them as one of the fools.

Alchemy was the pseudo-science--in an era when science was young and untried--of creating molecular change in material objects, especially metals. The belief was that metals could eventually be forced to transmute (i.e., change) to gold. Scientific practitioners believed that proving this transmutation would open the doors to understanding the properties of the material world, much like today's particle physicists believe experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider will open the doors to our understanding of the quantum world. Of course, less scrupulous practitioners sought to master the secrets of alchemy for the wealth of the gold itself, but these sorts were not the only practitioners.

This discussion of the goal of alchemy reveals its metaphor. Alchemy is the metaphor for chasing ultimate knowledge; it is the metaphor for attaining ultimate wealth; it is the metaphor for ultimate understanding of life's mysteries. In Jonson's play, alchemy is the metaphor for ambition chasing ultimate greed and wealth. Yet, there is a second metaphor that may be recognizable. In his comments in "To the Reader," Jonson compares the comedies of his contemporary playwrights to swindles by asserting that they are full of foolery and vastly far from showing human nature. Thus the second metaphor represents his peers' plays:

thou wert never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age, in poetry, especially in plays: wherein, now the concupiscence of dances and of antics so reigneth, as to run away from nature, ... ("To the Reader," Ben Jonson)

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is The Alchemist by Ben Jonson an allegory?

An allegory can be defined as a narrative which is interpreted to reveal an implicit meaning. Jonson's play The Alchemist is certainly open to such an interpretation. In this play, Jonson ruthlessly exposes the rampant greed, moral corruption, and obsession with social status in a hierarchical society.

Through the various characters in the play, Jonson provides a withering critique of Elizabethan England. A great example comes in the form of the wonderfully-named Sir Epicure Mammon, whose very name is allegorical. An epicure is an old-fashioned name for a "lover of pleasure." Additionally, in the New Testament, "mammon" is generally thought to refer to wealth worshipped as an idol.

Sir Epicure is so obsessed with maintaining his life of hedonistic excess that he readily agrees to invest substantial sums of money in Subtle's crazy scheme to produce the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life. In the ludicrous and entertaining character of Sir Epicure, Jonson skillfully epitomizes—in one allegorical figure—the headlong pursuit of riches and the corresponding neglect of spiritual values which he sees all around him in Elizabethan society.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is The Alchemist by Ben Jonson an allegory?

Absolutely!

Ben Johnson's comedy The Alchemist is a direct blow to society's tendency to believe in anything that is advertised, especially everything that is dubbed to be a quick money maker. Even today people rush to buy things that supposedly help them create business, sell things, or make quick cash. In Johnson's comedy everyone from every walk of life seemed to be enthralled by the possibility of having metal turn into gold, for acquiring the sorcere's stone, and for having things just by asking some magical power. This happened with everyone from a Lord to a butler. Ambition runs everywhere and affects everyone equally. Therefore, The Alchemist" is indeed an allegory to hunan irrational behavior and excessive ambition.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is The Alchemist by Ben Jonson an allegory?

A discussion of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist as an allegory is, in truth, a little difficult. The reason why this is so is that The Alchemist is in the genre of farce not that of allegory. However, while a work may not be definitively an allegory, through the process of allegoresis it may be critically read as an allegory in part or in whole.

Allegoresis is the process by which a work that is not written as an allegory--like for example the allegorical works The Faerie Queene and The Pilgrim's Progress--may be critically and analytically read and understood as an allegory or as having parts that are allegorical. An allegory is a work (or a section, passage or line of a work) that has universally representative characters and experience. For instance, if a folk fable that has the characters Tommy the Toad and Bobby the Billy Goat and in which they say, "We are creatures of the wild, aren't we?" is modified so that Tommy the Toad becomes Toad the Teacher and Bobby the Billy Goat becomes Stubborn Student Bobby Billy and they talk about "We are creatures of rational reason, aren't we?", then the fable about individuals has become an allegory about all of humankind through the universality of character and experience.

In constructing The Alchemist, which some critics say is the most perfect play in English literature, Ben Jonson didn't draw on old stories for his storyline and plot; he created the story and plot himself. To do so, he used character types, not allegorical characters. This is what classifies The Alchemist as farce instead of allegory. Type, or "typical," characters are standard characters or archetypal characters that everyone has experience with and therefore can understand even though a particular type may not be universally representative in the way allegorical characters are. For example, not everyone is the swindler type though many people have experience of that type of person. Another example is that not everyone is the giddy girl type though many people have experience of that type of person. Which points out another difference between typical characters and allegorical characters: Character types lend themselves to humor, farce and satire while allegorical characters are serious characters meant to be taken in earnest.

So--this said--an allegoresis reading of The Alchemist could interpret the character types as universal allegorical representations portraying an underlying earnestly serious message. Therefore in an allegoresis the characters would be The Puritan Ananias, The Law Clerk Dapper, The Rich Young Man Kastril, and The Master Lovwit, etc., and the themes might be woven together to teach a serious lesson, perhaps about Morality and Order in a Disordered world that requires vigilance against Victimization through right-minded Religion. Furthermore, in allgoresis, the satire that Jonson writes would undergird the delivery of the earnestly serious theme.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on