Ben Jonson: The Alchemist

February 4, 2016

51fFZPA+7GL._AA160_Shakespeare and Ben Jonson knew each other; their plays were in performance at the same time in early seventeenth century London, and yet how different they are! You could not see the one writing like the other at all.

I’m doing some more pre-reading for my Shakespeare week in May, and hadn’t read The Alchemist since my university days. Thinking about Jonson, I realise I’m only familiar with his comedies – Volpone I taught for a number of years, and I also vaguely remember studying Bartholomew Fair – and haven’t read any of his other plays. He appears to capture the street life, the low-life, the unsavoury on-the-make characters of the London scene in great detail and really convincingly. And the names of his characters!

While his master is out of London avoiding the plague, Jeremy the butler (alias Face, alias Lungs), lets out the house to an alchemist, Subtle; they have a female accomplice named Doll, and all three set out to cheat as many people in as many different ways as possible. Our heroes are fast talkers and quick thinkers: the pace of the play is hectic and there are always several different plots up in the air and colliding with each other… They don’t speak the lofty, poetic language of Shakespeare’s characters, but speak the actual language of the streets, with lashings of swearing, insulting and abuse – I love it! – and so imaginative and colourful it is, too. There’s also the fancy jargon and abstruse terminology of alchemy and its processes to hoodwink the credulous and unwary – Sir Epicure Mammon in particular (he has shedloads of money and wants even more). Everyone succumbs to the temptations of instant wealth, even the purest of Puritans pretend that, of course, the ill-gotten gains will go to a godly end.

The action is dizzyingly fast, increasingly crazy and really funny too: I know I’ll be laughing my head off when I see it in performance. There is no honour involved – it’s like Volpone: everyone is out for what they can get in an incredibly rapacious world (no change there, then), and as we move towards the denouement, deception and double-cross rear their head, as everyone is out to save themselves and come out of the situation as best they can. They all try to brazen things out at the end, but it’s Face/Jeremy who does best because he lives in the house and manages to hoodwink his master with a wealthy widow…

But, interestingly, no-one is on the receiving end of moral censure at the close of the play: those who were gulled lose out and are cross about it and bluster a bit, but the overall feeling is ‘oh well, good try, maybe I’ll have better luck next time’. And the crooks get away with what they can… again, the more I think about it, the more it all seems quite familiar.

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