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.
KeywordsGood Faith Strange Thing Exit Face Happy Word Young Gentleman
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