The Alchemist A Comedy

  • Ben Jonson


When Ben Jonson wrote in one of the commendatory verses to the Shakespeare First Folio that the works of his former colleague were ‘not just for an age, but for all time’, he not only provided posterity with the universalising formula which would resonate throughout cultural history, but also unwittingly and, for his own reputation, more damagingly, implicitly supplied the terms of reference within which his own work would subsequently be judged (more often than not, against Shakespeare’s). Jonson, unlike his literary colleague and rival, has generally been viewed as a writer whose immersion in his own age has prevented his plays (with a few partial exceptions) from transcending it: not only is his work steeped in socially and historically specific manners and beliefs, and organised according to a classical model of comic dramaturgy that Shakespeare, for one, largely chose to disregard, it is also explicitly and precisely localised in terms of its geographical setting and cultural milieu. The Alchemist was first published in quarto in 1612; as in the majority of Jonson’s comedies written during the Jacobean period, this setting is the city of London, a locale which is imagined in the kind of vivid detail that hovers perpetually on the edge of the baroque: asserting that ‘Our scene is London,’cause we would make known/ No country’s mirth is better than our own’ (Prologue, 5–6), the play evokes that scene as an urban topography of roof-tiles and shop-signs, water-conduits and dungheap-choked alleyways, eating-houses, brothels and taverns, in which the steam from pie-shops mingles with the smoke of tobacco-vendors: each detail voraciously observed, itemised and ordered within the overall intellectual and poetic scheme.


Good Faith Strange Thing Exit Face Happy Word Young Gentleman 
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Further reading

  1. Barton, Ann, Ben Jonson, Dramatist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Burt, Richard, Licensed by Authority: Ben Jonson and the Discourses of Censorship (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  3. Cave, Richard, Ben Jonson, English Dramatists (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cave, Richard, Elizabeth Schafer and Brian Woolland (eds), Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice and Theory (London: Routledge, 1999).Google Scholar
  5. Chedzgoy, Kate, Julie Sanders and Sue Wiseman (eds), Refashioning Ben Jonson: Gender, Politics and the Jonsonian Canon (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998).Google Scholar
  6. Cook, Elizabeth (ed.), The Alchemist, Second Edition, New Mermaids (London: Ernest Benn, 1991).Google Scholar
  7. Dutton, Richard, Ben Jonson: Authority: Criticism (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Harp, Richard and Stanley Stewart (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  9. Herford, C. H., Percy and Evelyn Simpson (eds), Ben Jonson, 11 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925–52).Google Scholar
  10. Jensen, Ejner J., Ben Jonson’s Comedies on the Modern Stage (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  11. Kay, W. D., Ben Jonson: A Literary Life (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Mares, F. H. (ed.), The Alchemist, The Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  13. Sanders, Julie, Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Peter Womack, Ben Jonson, Rereading Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Editor(s) 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ben Jonson

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