Ben Jonson pp 76-92 | Cite as

‘The Alchemist’

  • Richard Allen Cave
Part of the English Dramatists book series (ENGDRAMA)


Jonson the realist used his prologue to Every Man In His Humour to deal a blow at conventional Elizabethan stage-practice:

To make a child, now swaddled, to proceed

Man, and then shoot up, in one beard, and weed,

Past threescore years: or, with three rusty swords,

And help of some few foot-and-half-foot words,

Fight over York and Lancaster’s long jars:

And in the tiring-house bring wounds to scars.

And he goes on to list numerous devices of illusion (‘roll’d bullet heard/To say, it thunders’). He is questioning the validity of plays that need to establish principles of stylisation. Pushed to a logical extreme that line of argument would begin to question the very nature of drama as an exercise of the imagination requiring a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of its audiences. There is one dramatic genre — farce — that actually makes the willing suspension of disbelief its subject: it becomes the characters’ whole mode of being, the longing that their condition in time should be transcendently different. This is as true of Aristophanes exploring whether life would be significantly better if women were in supreme control in parliament or if Aeschylus could be resurrected from the grave to combat with his art the cynicism prevailing in Athens, as it is of Feydeau investigating his characters’ quest for the perfect sexual experience.


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  1. 1.
    All references to The Alchemist relate to the text edited by Michael Jamieson in Three Comedies: Ben Jonson for the Penguin English Library (Harmondsworth, 1966; reprinted in Penguin Classics, 1985).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For a full discussion of crime and punishment in Elizabethan and Jacobean society see Gamini Salgado, The Elizabethan Underworld (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Peter Womack: Ben Jonson, Rereading Literature Series (Oxford, 1986), pp. 117–18.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard Allen Cave 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Allen Cave
    • 1
  1. 1.Royal Holloway and Bedford New CollegeUK

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