|1732 edition of The Alchemist.|
The Alchemist is a play by Ben Jonson, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, and was first performed around 1610, about the same time as Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. This is the first time I've read Ben Jonson and, despite the fact that it is a comedy, I found it a rather tough read! No surprise really, Jacobean comedy does not come easily to me (nor does Elizabethan come to that!). Nevertheless I wanted to read The Alchemist as there are some similarities with it and Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canon's Yeoman's Tale' of The Canterbury Tales (1386-94).
Jonson's The Alchemist is set in London in the house of Lovewit who has recently left for the country to avoid the plague, suggesting that the play is set around the middle of the 14th Century when the plague, and alchemy, took hold of England. It begins,
T he sickness hot, a master quit, for fear,
H is house in town, and left one servant there;
E ase him corrupted, and gave means to know
A Cheater, and his punk; who now brought low,
L eaving their narrow practice, were become
C ozeners at large; and only wanting some
H ouse to set up, with him they here contract,
E ach for a share, and all begin to act.
M uch company they draw, and much abuse,
I n casting figures, telling fortunes, news,
S elling of flies, flat bawdry with the stone,
T ill it, and they, and all in fume are gone.
Next, the Prologue in which Jonson sets up the tone of this play,
Our scene is London, 'cause we would make known,
No country's mirth is better than our own:
No clime breeds better matter for your whore,
Bawd, squire, impostor, many persons more,
Whose manners, now call'd humours, feed the stage...
He goes on to tell the story of the would-be alchemists, fraudsters who claim to be able to turn base metals into silver and gold. Lovewit's butler 'Captain Face', a conman 'Subtle', and a prostitute, 'Doll Common' are the main characters of the play and their first victim is Dapper, a lawyer's clerk, who is seeking a spirit to help him improve his luck in gambling. The thieving three claim that the Queen of the Fairies may be summoned; "the Fairy queen dispenses, / By me, this robe, the petticoat of fortune"", but first Dapper must perform several bizarre rituals. Next Drugger, a tobacconist, wishes for a more successful business, and by the horoscope Subtle tells him he will be successful with a few alterations, then claims Drugger may be lucky enough to gain the philosopher's stone, that legendary substance that turns metal into gold. Drugger will return later with more money for advice on how to attain the stone. Following Drugger, Sir Epicure Mammon and his sceptical companion Surly, also wishing for the philosopher's stone. Mammon says to Surly,
... This night, I'll change
All that is metal, in my house, to gold:
And, early in the morning, will I send
To all the plumbers and the pewterers,
And by their tin and lead up; and to Lothbury
For all the copper.
. . .
and I'll purchase Devonshire and Cornwall,
And make them perfect Indies! you admire now?
. . .
But when you see th' effects of the Great Medicine,
Of which one part projected on a hundred
Of Mercury, or Venus, or the moon,
Shall turn it to as many of the sun;
Nay, to a thousand, so ad infinitum:
You will believe me.
Finally, in comes Ananias, a deacon of the Anabaptists, who also wish to turn their metals into gold. And so it is agreed that Mammon and Ananias must return to Lovewit's house with all the metal they wish to be transformed into gold (along with payment), Dapper will return to perform humiliating tasks for the fairy queen, and Drugger will return for further advice on how to win the hand of a rich widow, Dame Pliant, who Subtle and Face also want to win over to secure her fortune. From here the play descends into farce with the 'customers' being moved around, hidden from one another, disguises, misunderstandings, all so typical (I think) of the comedy of this period. However a spanner is well and truly thrown into the works with the return of Lovewit who is told of the many visitors coming in and out his home during his absence.
As I say, I found it a tough play to follow but I know a great many who relish a Jacobean comedy of this kind so I think I'm more in the minority of readers on this one! What I did like is the portrayal of the criminal underclass, an aspect of English Renaissance life I'm looking forward to exploring in the anthology Cony-Catchers and Bawdy Baskets. Jonson's play is of course a satire on the weakness of mankind, the desperate pursuit of wealth and long life, and a satire on those who wish to exploit that: the three criminals, Face, Subtle, and Doll Common, are after all as weak as those they seek to profit from. Overall I did enjoy The Alchemist and, as ever, hope that one day the comedies of the time will come a little easier to me! I do have two other comedies by Jonson on my list, Volpone (1605-06) and Bartholomew Fair (1614) and do look forward to reading them, though with a touch of trepidation.
And that was my 30th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - 'Dr. Burney's Evening Party' by Virginia Woolf.