Write a note on Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist.
The Alchemist was first performed in 1610. The play is set in fashionable residential London during one of the city’s recurrent outbreaks of plague. Such epidemics occurred regularly in the summer months, spread by rat fleas, though at the time it was thought that the plague was carried in the air. Daniel Defoe, writing a century later, tells us that perhaps 200,000 people fled the city during the summer months, mainly the wealthy, leaving their servants behind to look after their affairs and take their chances with illness.
The setting of the play ties in with a kind of diseased moral climate, as well. It’s not just that the epidemic is a physical illness, but it’s something that goes deep into the fabric of the age. In Jonson’s play, a wealthy man, Lovewit, has left his town house in the care of his maestro domo, the master of the household. This man, named Face, exhibits different faces depending on what the situation requires. Face conspires with a conman, called Subtle, who pretends to be an alchemist. (Alchemy was sometimes called a process of subtilizing, or refining.) The third member of this conspiracy is a prostitute named Dol Common.
This trio sets out to run a scam on the fools left in the city. They will let it be known that Subtle has found the philosopher’s stone and has mastered the process of transmuting base metals into gold. The grand mystery of alchemy will, in fact, be available to anyone who pays for it. Puritans, shopkeepers, respectable citizens, and aristocrats all line up to get rich, while the tricksters compete to be the best “shark.” Face, Subtle, and Dol encourage their victims’ wild fantasies of wealth. One example, Sir Epicure Mammon, serves to illustrate the theme.
The name Epicure indicates this character’s addiction to pleasures of the flesh, and “Mammon” means money. Sir Mammon wants to be rich, and he wants to indulge his appetites on a gigantic scale. Mammon imagines the wonderful universe of self-indulgence he will inhabit once he gets the fool’s gold. His speech here is reminiscent of a speech by Marlowe’s Faustus, when he has Mephistopheles call up Helen of Troy for his bed partner.
Jonson outdoes even Marlowe in the lavishness and cloying richness of his blank verse. But most of all, this speech conveys a biting satire on human greed. Money is the root, not just of all evil, but of all human foolishness. The Alchemist ends with a wonderfully ironic stroke of theater: Out of the blue, Lovewit, the master of the house, returns and witnesses the criminal activities that have been going on in his household. Does he punish the wicked trio and return the victims’ cash? No, he laughs good-naturedly, congratulates Face, and pockets the profits. Human nature, Jonson tells us, is the same from top to bottom. Cash is God.