The Alchemist

Front Cover
Yale University Press, 1974 - Drama - 246 pages

In none of Ben Jonson's plays is Renaissance heroic humanism converted to comic reality more obviously and successfully than in The Alchemist. Here the aspiration of the Renaissance to control and remake the world is imaged as a great swindle, alchemy. Jonson parodies philosophers, scientists, the new Protestantism, the great Renaissance merchant adventurers, and the ages' ideals of military valor and impassioned love. His characters are comic versions of the ways in which the Renaissance sought power, knowledge, and pleasure--they are also a remarkably realistic cross section, ranging from servant through knight, of London's life. One of the most popular of Jonson's plays during his lifetime and a favorite throughout the seventeenth century, The Alchemist, was first produced in 1610.

In his introduction, Alvin B. Kernan skillfully conveys the vitality and ultimate power of this difficult play. The glosses and explanatory notes clarify Jonson's language, with all its references to classical and alchemical literature and the contemporary London underworld. In Appendix I, Mr. Kernan discusses Jonson's use of alchemy and provides a glossary of alchemical terms. Appendix II includes a discussion of the text, sources, and stage history of the play.


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About the author (1974)

Born in 1572, Ben Jonson rejected his father's bricklaying trade and ran away from his apprenticeship to join the army. He returned to England in 1592, working as an actor and playwright. In 1598, he was tried for murder after killing another actor in a duel, and was briefly imprisoned. One of his first plays, Every Man Out of His Humor (1599) had fellow playwright William Shakespeare as a cast member. His success grew with such works as Volpone (1605) and The Alchemist (1610) and he was popular at court, frequently writing the Christmas masque. He is considered a very fine Elizabethan poet. In some anti-Stratfordian circles he is proposed as the true author of Shakespeare's plays, though this view is not widely accepted. Jonson was appointed London historian in 1628, but that same year, his life took a downward turn. He suffered a paralyzing stroke and lost favor at court after an argument with architect Inigo Jones and the death of King James I. Ben Jonson died on August 6, 1637.

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