1. What was the political and religious situation in England in Jonson’s time?
Jonson was born in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the period when England became an important world power. It was the time of global exploration and colonization as well as the Renaissance of English literature and letters. Jonson was contemporary with Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Phillip Sidney, the founders of the modern English classics.
Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, cut off the English Church from Rome, making an English church answerable only to him. When he died, his descendents stimulated religious turmoil by changing the national church from Protestant Anglicanism to Catholicism and back again. Elizabeth was celebrated for her pragmatic religious tolerance with the via media, or middle way between extreme Protestantism and Catholicism. The references to Rome (Catholicism) on the one hand, and Geneva or Amsterdam on the other hand (where the Puritans and Anabaptists and other radical sects had fled for religious freedom) refer to the threats the English throne faced from the extremes. Both Catholics and Puritans sought to overthrow Elizabeth.
After her death in 1603, the Protestant King James of Scotland, ascended the throne. Jonson, who had briefly converted to Catholicism, converted back again and became popular in the Jacobean court for his plays and masques. The Alchemist records the tension between these religious factions where sneers on Rome come up with Surly’s impersonation of a Spanish Catholic count, and the Anabaptists are made fun of as representing Puritan ideas. The Puritan threat is jokingly referred to by Subtle as he tells Tribulation that with the gold he will provide him the Anabaptists could “pay an army” or “buy the King of France” (3.2, lines 47-48). This was no joke. Only a few years after Jonson’s death in 1637, the English Civil War ended with the beheading of Charles I and the Puritan Commonwealth replacing the throne from 1649-1660. Jonson was politically conservative and a Royalist. His attack on the Puritans is thus both comic and serious, as he strives to preserve the enlightened humanist culture that Elizabeth had established.
2. What is alchemy?
According to Greek philosophy all things strive to attain perfection, as Subtle explains to Mammon and Surly: “Nature doth first beget the imperfect, then/ Proceeds she to the perfect” (2.3, lines 158-59). Alchemy was not only an early version of the science of chemistry, but also the art of attaining perfection. It was an ancient knowledge found in Egypt, China, Greece, Arabia, and in Western medieval and Renaissance Europe. In Jonson’s time alchemy was not taken seriously by intellectuals, though the ideals it promoted were still circulated in literature, as the poetry of the period is full of alchemical references.
Gold was thought to be the perfect substance. Creating the chemical powder known as “the philosopher’s stone” was a secret art that would allow one to make gold from base metal, to prolong life, and to create health from a panacea called the “elixir of life.” The entire knowledge included astrology, cosmology, chemistry, and medicine. It promised transformation from a lower state of existence to a higher state, both materially and spiritually. Any substance could be changed into another substance through understanding how to transmute the elements. All substances contain the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water with their different qualities of hot, cold, wet, and dry. Paracelsus, the great Renaissance alchemist, added sulphur, mercury, and salt as basic constituents for the transmuting chemistry; thus, their constant mention in the play. Subtle expounds the philosophy in Act 2, scene 3. By manipulating the balance of primary elements you could alter the substance. Metals were thought to go through a process in the furnace akin to the changes the spirit goes through in its growth. The metal has to die to one state before being reborn to a higher state as pure gold:
Ay, for ‘twere absurd’
To think that nature, in the earth, bred gold
Perfect. I’ the instant. Something went before (2.3, 137-139).
This manipulation of the primary levels of matter eventually led to the development of modern chemistry, but in the Renaissance there was still a mystical aura around these ideas, for it was a knowledge passed on only to the initiated and pure of heart. For a rational and thinking man like Jonson, alchemy was the kind of hoax that Subtle and Face could use to their advantage to cheat their customers. The whole play is full of references to transformations, mostly of a comic nature. One supposedly could never make the stone, the perfect substance, without being perfect oneself; hence, Subtle’s assuming the role of a pious doctor of philosophy.
3. What was the position of women in Elizabethan and Jacobean England?
Doll Common and Dame Pliant are the two women in the play; they are largely in the background and do not make decisions that change the action. The Alchemist conveys the misogynist attitude common in Renaissance literature. It can be somewhat shocking to a modern audience to hear the blatant belittling of women, as Surly says to Dame Pliant: “For you’re a handsome woman: would yo’ were wise, too” (4.6, line 7). Women were considered naturally deficient in the godlike faculty of reason; therefore, they were treated as ignorant children who had to be ruled. Kestrel’s behavior to his sister is abusive by today’s standards. He threatens her with violence if she will not do as he says. She does not want to marry someone she thinks is a Spanish count but is bullied into it. Pliant is beautiful, dumb, and rich, a perfect woman in the eyes of the men who treat her as a commodity to be traded behind her back as though it is none of her business who marries her. She is the butt of crude jokes, especially between Face and Subtle. Face does not mind pimping her to the Spanish count and then having used goods. Subtle balks at this and decides to sell his share in Dame Pliant! Even Doll Common is disgusted with Pliant, calling her a “good dull innocent” (5.4, line 69).
Women were not educated as men were. In the Protestant tradition, women were taught to read so they could read the Bible, but they did not generally go to school. Doll, on the other hand, has a brain and knows enough to spout some fake theology (4.5, lines 25-32) or fairy lore or alchemy on cue. In the Renaissance, as in classical Greece and Rome, prostitutes could often be high-class call girls, afforded more education than respectable women. Doll is not aristocratic but can play the part of a lady, enough to fool Mammon. Yet, though she speaks of the equality of the “venture tripartite” (1.1, line 135), she is not an equal partner with Face and Subtle. She does what they bid her, and every night, they draw straws for her. Though good natured and the peacemaker of the group, she is given no real respect or credit for her part.
Queen Elizabeth I represents the new tradition for women of the upper class who were sometimes allowed a humanist education. In Elizabeth’s case, she was educated as a possible successor to the throne. Elizabeth had studied the classics and wrote poetry. She could hold her own intellectually with the members of court. The literature of the age was addressed to Elizabeth as the intellectual and moral inspiration for the English Renaissance. Jonson honors such a lady patroness in Mary, Lady Wroth, the educated niece of Sir Phillip Sidney, to whom he dedicates the play.
4. What was Jonson’s background in English theater?
In the 1590s, Jonson was an actor and playwright for some of the same companies for which Shakespeare wrote and acted. He was first employed by the Admiral’s Men to collaborate on “The Isle of Dogs” (1597). His own play, “Every Man in His Humour” was performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1598, establishing his reputation. Theater was a rough business in Elizabethan England. There were the challenges of the plague, which frequently closed the theaters for health reasons; there were political dangers of writing something that would offend the government (Jonson was often imprisoned for sedition); there were financial challenges of finding the patronage to put on the plays; there was the Puritan animosity against the stage as an immoral influence. The plays were not rehearsed for long, so the performances were not usually polished.
Jonson was forced into collaborating with other playwrights such as John Marston and Thomas Dekker, to make money, but often, the plays were put together slipshod for entertainment purposes and not for the serious purpose Jonson felt for drama. He traded insults with Marston and Dekker in the satirical writings known as “The War of the Theaters,” but in the end, he collaborated with them again out of necessity. It is telling that he did not include any of his collaborative efforts in his Collected Works of 1616, not considering them worthy. He was never, like Shakespeare and other writers, attached to one company as the resident writer, and he never earned his whole living from the theater. He sold his scripts to the company who paid the most for them. After the death of Elizabeth in 1603, he earned his living primarily by putting on the aristocratic court entertainments known as masques.
Jonson took his idea of comedy from the classical idea of correcting manners through satiric humor, but made it contemporary with native English themes. He thought of literature as didactic, but he avoided the self-righteousness he hated in the Puritan attitude. His comedy is more tough-minded than Shakespeare’s, in its satiric edge. He is known as a master of the comedy of manners, depicting the vices of society by using specific character types, known as the humours. The humours were based on the medieval idea of depicting character through the balance of hot, dry, moist, or cold fluids and vapors in the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholy). Surly is for instance, choleric or ill-tempered; Drugger is phlegmatic, or dull; Lovewit is sanguine or fun-loving; Doll, when she plays the lady who reads too much theology, is melancholy. Jonson’s characters are not all simple, but the humours provided a framework, and the names are keys to the types (Subtle = crafty; Face = outward show; Dapper = small and neat; Pliant = easily molded).
In terms of plotting, Jonson disliked the careless and improbable plotting of the popular plays in his time. He adheres in “The Alchemist,” for example, to Aristotle’s idea of the unities (time, place, and action), where the action is tightly planned around a single action executed in one place within twenty-four hours. “The Alchemist” shows a single day in the life of the crooks living in Lovewit’s house and their discovery. The plot is beautifully crafted in a five-act form in which the first two acts introduce characters and set up conflict, the third act provides a complication (Surly disguised as a Spanish nobleman), and act four ends in a false conclusion (Surly exposing the scam), with act five providing the real conclusion (Lovewit’s forgiveness of Face and marrying Pliant). “The Alchemist” has been one of Jonson’s most enduring and popular plays till the present time, and the humor is never outdated.
5. What was Jonson’s contribution to English literature?
In the later part of his life, Jonson was an unofficial poet laureate of England. He made his living as court poet, writing and putting on masques, the elaborate pageants popular at the time. He was a father figure and teacher to younger poets who gathered around him, such as Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, and Sir John Suckling, called “The Sons of Ben.” They met and talked at the Mermaid Club or at the Apollo Room of the Devil Tavern, and Jonson made up the rules for such witty literary forums.
Jonson carved out this niche as leader for himself by taking seriously the publication of his own works. Shakespeare and other playwrights did not do this. They were popular writers for the stage and did not think of their plays in terms of posterity. The drama of the time was not thought to be serious literature. Jonson, however, was a learned neo-classicist. He considered himself the most respectable and classic of modern writers and wanted to create a tradition. The publication of the 1616 folio of his Collected Works was seen as pretentious by his fellow writers but was important for his reputation and for the way his successors regarded their own production. Jonson felt himself to be in the company of the great classic writers of Greece and Rome. He adhered to the rules Aristotle laid down in The Poetics. He chided Shakespeare for his sloppy, though admittedly inspired, writing. He wanted English literature to be dignified, professional, and lasting.
He saw his role as satirist as bringing order to public thinking by exposing corruption. This had been the role of ancient writers like Horace and Juvenal—to advise rulers and governments by reminding them of ideals. Jonson thus dedicates “The Alchemist” to Mary, Lady Wroth, as a member of the Sidney family, one of the old and respected families of England, whose honor, virtue, and service uphold the country (“To the Lady Most Deserving Her Name and Blood”). He tells her that his ability to write depends on such families as hers who are the example. He thinks of his plays as ways to further immortalize the standards of public life; therefore, he wants to be more than a popular entertainer. He complains in his preface “To the Reader” about contemporary theater, that it is “rude” and “boisterous.” He hopes to present something more “polished” and lasting, with moral value. In this hope, he publishes and appeals to a serious minded “Reader” who wants to think about what he is saying.
Jonson was an experimenter, taking classic ideas and forms and transposing them into native forms with a contemporary voice and dialects. He wrote comedy, tragedy, masques, lyric poetry, epistles and epigrams, creating his own canon and the idea of an English canon. He left his noble vision of what literature was and could do to delight and instruct society.
The Alchemist (Johnson): Essay Q&A
1. What was the political and religious situation in England in Jonson’s time?