Themes and Further Information

Introduction to Jonson and The Alchemist

When Benjamin Jonson died on August 6, 1637, it was a major public event. A crowd of the days' great and good gathered at his house in Westminster and his final resting place was Westminster's great Abbey. He was acclaimed as "our Poet first in merit, as in love". In contrast, Shakepeare's death in April 1616, was a quiet affair, his burial taking place in his parish church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Here was a man esteemed as much for his respectable place in society as his literature. To modern ears, for whom Shakespeare is a benchmark of literary genius, these facts appear strange. Jonson's popular reputation, which was only overtaken by Shakespeare's in the nineteenth century, has not endured. This is certainly due in part to his misfortune of being born a mere eight years after the Bard. It is also, however, a necessary consequence of the nature of what are held to be his greatest works: his comedies.

Jonson's Theory Of Comedy

Comedy should deal "in deedes, and language, such as men doe use", showing, "an Image of the times". Thus wrote Jonson in the prologue to his first great success Every Man in His Humour. His belief was that comedy, as Cordatus in Every Man out of His Humour says, should be "Imitatio vitae, Speculum consuetudinis, Imago veritatis', that is, 'an imitation of life, a mirror of manners, an image of truth". Comedy must, then, hold up a magnifying mirror to the reality of life to enlarge its features, good and bad, though for Jonson, particularly the bad. It was not his aim simply to make the audience laugh at the knavishness and foolery of his characters but rather to educate his audience through their foolishness. As he notes in the Discoveries, "the comics are called didaskoi (teachers) by the Greeks, no less than the tragics".

Prefigured by Cicero, who had held that comedy should be a mirror of human life, and perhaps informed by English morality plays with their expositions of Christian morality, Jonson developed his brand of 'gulling' comedy with an educative agenda. By ridiculing the undesirable traits of humanity, which manifest themselves in man's foolishness, he offered a dose of theatrical medicine.

His comedy is then rooted in the times in which he lived. It is fiercely contemporary, containing references to people, events, streets and houses and even Inns of the time. These references serve to ground the work in reality lest his audience forget that what they are seeing is not a mere fantasy but a mirror of themselves. These references have also, however, lead to Jonson being dismissed as 'a man of his time', with little relevance today. This, whilst it contains a grain of truth, is a gross simplification.

Comedy of Humours

Tied into his theory of comedy is the notion of humours. This refers to the four humours of medieval physiology after the teachings of Galen - blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy. It was commonly held that one's temperament was the result of a balance of these humours which were each believed to have an affect on character. Jonson believed that normality in human conduct was to be held up as a goal and that this was distorted by excess of a individual humours. In The Alchemist, then, it is avarice that is under attack and through ridicule of excessive greed he felt that he could teach people to keep it in check.

In the same way, then, as doctors attempted to provide medical treatments for the imbalance of humours, Jonson attempted to provide psychological treatment through ridicule.

"Here is rhyme, not empty of reason:

This we were bid to credit, from our poet,

Whose true scope, if you would know it,

In all his poems, still, hath been this measure,

  By PanEris using Melati.

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