Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist: Contemporary Relevance

Overrun by gullible souls piously intent on social elevation, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is a comedic exposé in which the fabric of society is inextricably linked to the status-quo and its ravenous desire for wealth and power. Through the characters in the play, Jonson presents an allusive manifestation of Elizabethan society, and a clairvoyant analysis of human vices. On the surface, it is a story that makes use of the alchemical powers of fiction to put a bleakly humorous spin on foolish people and those who greedily exploit them. However, through deeper inference it is obvious that what Jonson is proposing is not merely a portrait of the status-quo in his own society, but of the maleficent faults apparent in human nature. These conditions are deeply rooted and historically enduring. Ultimately, Ben Jonson’s critique of the Elizabethan status-quo is relevant to our own society in which wealth, power, and the desire for status cast a shadow over a dismal human reality in desperate need of reform.             

The characters of the play are all spellbound with greed and in pursuit of some form of wealth or power. Despite their efforts, each character is finally left with less than they initially had. This irony is exemplified in the ‘knight’, Sir Epicure Mammon, whose very name denotes the rapacious influence of wealth. Mammon exhibits the most considerable greed of all the gulls. Though he plays up the notion that his intentions are noble, promising to “fright the plague/ out o’ the kingdom, in three months” (Jonson, The Alchemist, 2.1.68-69), he longs only for the philosopher’s stone promised by Subtle and Face. Once it is in his possession, he believes no desire will smolder and no wish will go unanswered. His ambition is to use the stone to fashion himself into an omnipotent paragon. He will become irresistible to women, his every whim will be catered to, and his thirst and hunger will be exotically satisfied. However, when all is said and done, Sir Epicure Mammon is left empty-handed. He is essentially helpless to regain his forfeited wealth and his dignity. Rather than losing face in the community by committing to legal inquiry the seizure of his belongings by Lovewit and Face, he decides that he would “rather lose ‘em” (5.5.71). Covetous greed blinds him to his own folly. This is the case with each character. The characters do not have malicious intentions, and are presented in a two-dimensional, superfluous manner. All we can judge of them is by their actions. They are products of their environment, and to a lesser extent, each other. Essentially, each character wants to ascend in social status by acquiring wealth by any means – fairness is no concern at all.

There is a powerful sense of relevance in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, not merely because financial swindlers are ever present scandals in capitalist societies. It is a play about how utopian yearning can render us all foolish. Just as is shown in the play, the economic system we live in is an exploitative historical process running in real time. However, the play’s formal eloquence, excitement and energy manifested, above all, in delightful laughter express the how –though for now apparently deluded – for future world outside this ticking machine.

Last modified: Thursday, 13 July 2017, 10:59 AM