The Alchemist

By Ben Jonson



In 1576, England's first professional playhouse, "The Theatre", was established, heralding a golden age of English drama. From this momentous date until the eve of the civil war in 1642, when Parliament decreed that "publike Stage-Playes shall cease, and bee forborne", England boasted such talents as Marlowe, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Their plays were the dramatic manifestation of the values of the Renaissance which had embraced classical literature and philosophy. The English Renaissance, which may be loosely considered to have begun with the accession of the house of Tudor to the throne in 1485 and ended with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, was primarily literary, though the term is used as a catch-all for manifold political, economic and religious changes which occurred.

One of the main influences on the literature of the time was Aristotle's Poetics which stressed the need for consistency, that is, adherence to the unities of time, place and action. It shall be seen that The Alchemist is one of the most perfect examples of adherence to these unities, though Jonson was probably motivated more by the fact that he thought this enhanced a play's excitement than out of a sense of duty to classical tradition. As he wrote in the Discoveries, I know nothing can conduce more to letters than to examine the writings of the ancients", adding the qualification that one should "not rest in their sole authority, or to take all upon trust from them... for to all the observations of the ancients we have our own experience, which if we apply, we have no better means to pronounce".

Interest in the classics instilled a Roman sense of what civilisation constituted and as a result, much literature of the time examined the society in which it was being produced. This was aided by the growth of theatres. As Marion Wynne-Davis wrote, "The public theatre with its fee paying audience enabled the dramatists to evade the necessity of pleasing a single patron, whether noble or clerical. Instead, they foregrounded the concerns of other classes, challenged the validity of the law, questioned the absolutes of religion and subverted traditional gender roles". Literature of the time was then challenging and it shall be seen that The Alchemist challenges not merely the society of the time but also the character defects of the individuals in it, making it relevant to audiences right up to today. It is also, however, with its incredibly specific details and contemporary references, a fine portrait of London in this period, a period of great change.