Study Guide

The Alchemist

By Ben Jonson

The Alchemist Introduction

What do you get when you cross Will Shakespeare's greatest frenemy, three brilliant con artists, and a city full of naive chumps who get duped out of a bunch of money because they're so desperate to transform themselves into something better than they are?

One of the best and funniest satires in English drama, that's what. We're talking, of course, about Ben Jonson's most popular comedy, The Alchemist.

What's that? You've never even heard of Ben Jonson? We'll introduce you two: chances are good you'll get along (although chances are also good that he'll mock you more than a little bit).

For now, let's talk about what you need to know about the play. The Alchemist was written early in the reign of King James I. In 1610, it was performed at London's famous Blackfriars theater, which just so happened to have been located in the exact same neighborhood where the entire action of the play goes down.

Why does this matter? Because Jonson was instrumental in developing a new kind of comedy that depicted the ordinary lives of lower and middle class folks in contemporary London. In terms of genre, it's super important because Jonson was one of the younger writers moving away from old school "romantic comedies" (think Shakespeare) and toward a genre that was all about using satire as a way to portray and critique city life.

Nope—no powerful monarchs or tricksy fairies living in magical, faraway kingdoms in this play. The stars of The Alchemist are a scheming servant, a poor trickster, and a cunning prostitute who have spent their fair share of time trolling the streets of London looking to make a quick buck or two off of gullible citizens.

So, what was London life like in the early 1600's? At the time, England's social and economic structures were changing pretty quickly. Capitalism was emerging as a new structure and Europe saw the rise of what we now call the middle class.

But there are no two-car garages or dadbod dads watering lawns here. Instead, it's all vice, all the time.

In a lot of ways, The Alchemist is a play can be read as a critique of how urban life + capitalism = a breeding ground for greed and fraud. Yep: hundreds of years before people spouted off thinkpieces and hot takes about Brooklyn hipsterism, urban centers were already considered to be doomed.

This play is also famous for its sense of realism. Even though his characters often seem to be caricatures and stereotypes ("the prostitute," "the religious fanatic," the trickster," etc.), Jonson goes out of his way to make us see them as realistic figures with their own unique, individual personalities. Go, Jonson.

As scholar Anne Barton famously points out, Jonson's characters are always sharing weird and random little details about their private lives, establishing their "habits, pasts, aspirations, and economic circumstances." According to Barton, this is what makes them seem so "arrestingly ordinary." (Source)

It's also what makes the figures in the play seem like characters in a contemporary novel. A very, warped, totally amoral, and totally hilarious contemporary novel.

What is The Alchemist About and Why Should I Care?

Why should you care about some dusty old play written by a dude that lived in Shakespeare's shadow most of his life? Because Ben Jonson had some serious writing chops and quite a reputation, that's why. Some scholars even think he's better than The Bard.

Yeah: when someone is considered better than Shakespeare, you best care.

Over the course of his career, he whipped up boatloads of popular plays, masques, and poems. Even King James I recognized his mad poetic and dramatic skills and hooked him up with a royal pension in 1616. (Source)

That's the same year that Jonson became the first English playwright to publish his own works in a folio edition. Hey. That's a huge deal.

Back in the day, writers basically had zero copyrights and Jonson was the first author to demand that he get props (and cash) for his work. Jonson even played a major role in helping to publish a folio of Shakespeare's works after the Bard's death.

At the same time, Jonson also has a rep for being a major rebel/trash talker/heavy drinker/fighter. He's famous for being arrested for helping to write and star in a play that was the dramatic equivalent of flipping the bird to Queen Elizabeth I's court. (That's a big no-no, friends. The theaters were shut down as a result.)

This literary bad boy was also prone to violence—he once killed a fellow actor during a duel, landing him in the slammer and getting him officially labeled a felon. Then again, Jonson was always butting heads with other playwrights and basically started a big fight called "The War of the Theaters " (or "Theatres" if you're British).

So, now that you've been introduced to our second favorite 16th/17th century playwright (we still love you the best, Big Billy Shakespeare), you should dive into The Alchemist.

Because the only thing more fascinating, rowdy, filthy-minded and shocking than Ben Jonson's life…is his work.

The Alchemist Resources

Websites

Ben Jonson vs. Shakespeare. Who's the Real Heavyweight Champ of 16th/17th c. Drama?
According to this news article by scholar Andrew Hadfield, Jonson was "sharper, funnier, and more varied than the Bard."

The 411 on Ben Jonson
All the dirt on the playwright, compliments of Luminarium.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Alchemy?
This website is a little strange but there's a boatload of info on alchemy here.

Free Online Edition of the Play
This is good in a pinch but, alas, there are no nifty footnotes to help with all the alchemy jargon and 17th Century slang we encounter as we read the play. That said, there's a pretty detailed "glossary" tacked on at the end of the text.

Links to Essays and Articles on The Alchemist
You're welcome.

Movie or TV Productions

1974 French Flick
If you speak French, you're in luck. If not, your best hope is to catch a live performance of the play at a local theater.

1959 East German Flick
Hmm. Good luck with this one, Shmoopers.

Historical Documents

16th and 17th Century Alchemy Texts
This site has a ton of links to the kinds of stuff that was floating around during the period Jonson wrote The Alchemist (1610).

Video

Scholar David Bevington Dishes on Ben Jonson
Watching this video is like hanging out with your favorite English Prof during office hours.

Cool Trailer
This one's from The National Theater's 2007 production.

Audio

Free Audio of The Alchemist
Compliments of LibriVox.

Images

Ben Jonson's Mug Shot
Just kidding. (They didn't really have mug shots back in the day when Jonson was running around getting tossed in the slammer for stabbing people and talking smack about Queen Elizabeth I's court.)

(The Second) Blackfriars Theater
This is the theater where The Alchemist was probably first performed in 1610. The setting of the play, by the way, takes place in the same neighborhood.

Super Famous Portrait of Jonson
This one's by the artist Robert Vaughan and it's not pretentious at all. (See, we can be just as sarcastic as Ben Jonson.)