False Purity: Alchemical Warning in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist - by Sara Wheeler
English 241/Ellen Perry
28 November 2016
Ben Jonson, a lesser-known contemporary of William Shakespeare, became a rather controversial yet successful figure during the course of his life. Raised from “humble beginnings,” Jonson began as a small-time actor and playwright, ending up on trial or in prison on multiple occasions because of his controversial first plays such as The Isle of Dogs, Sejanus, and Eastward Ho(Greenblatt 1441). He gained more respect and success with his plays, however, eventually becoming “England’s unofficial poet laureate, with a pension from the king and honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge” (Greenblatt 1441). Regardless of his tough, outgoing, and somewhat controversial personality, Jonson was very concerned about the notion of “protocapitalist economic order,” which seemed to feed into the later ideas and materialistic values of consumerism that were gaining traction in London at the time (Greenblatt 1442).
Jonson’s concern about materialism over morals is related to the themes and messages explored in his 1610 work The Alchemist, a play about a group of London con artists who attempt to lure people into giving them their money and possessions in exchange for services (including the creation of the elixir of life, otherwise known as the philosopher’s stone). By using the basic principles of alchemy as a structural guide for the themes of his play, Jonson meant for The Alchemist to serve as a philosophical warning against the dangers of pursuing human perfection too quickly through inexpensive and easily obtainable means.
Alchemy is the process of accelerating the purification of nature, especially in regards to natural metals (Flachmann 262). The experts in alchemy, according to Michael Flachmann, believed in the central idea that “all elements in nature were slowly and incessantly being pushed to perfection by ‘pneuma’ or ‘spiritus,’ the divine breath of the universe” (262). In its most literal sense, the process turns even the most base and earthly metal – lead – into gold, the intended possession of which is the main drive for many of the characters in The Alchemist. The acceleration of the natural purification process happens when the alchemist creates the proper mixture of mercury and sulfur – representing the body and soul – and isolates it, thereby containing and controlling the breath of the universe, or “pneuma.” This isolation of “pneuma,” or the purifying force, would theoretically produce “the philosopher’s stone” (Flachmann 262). If one did not achieve the creation of the philosopher’s stone, however, there was thought to be a seven-step process used by the alchemist to ultimately reach a state of metallic purity: Distillation, Congelation, Solucion, Decension, Sublimination, Calcination, and, eventually, Fixation (Flachmann 262). This process, when taken literally, could easily draw the attention of many people looking to apply a quick, economical fix to whatever ills they find themselves facing.
Arlene Oseman, however, takes this definition of alchemy a step further by interpreting it as a humanistic metaphor. According to Oseman, the complicated and somewhat fantastical process of alchemy is a simple metaphor for the process towards human perfection (73). Oseman states that “alchemy . . . can be understood as an analogy for the process of knowing, or, more specifically, for the development of self-knowledge” (73). In this case, the characters in The Alchemist that have been fooled by con artists Subtle, Face, and Dol have truly been fooled by the pseudo-science itself, for they neglect to look past the thought of potential gold to see the offering of personal growth that the concept of alchemy metaphorically provides. Jonson himself even spoke of the merits of knowledge, as he is quoted in Oseman’s article:
I know of no disease of the soul but ignorance: not of the arts and sciences, but of itself; yet relating to those, it is a pernicious evil, the darkener of man’s life, the disturber of his reason, and common confounder of truth, with which a man goes groping in the dark no otherwise than if he were blind . . . Think then what an evil it is, and what good the contrary. (74)
With the addition of Jonson’s own opinion on knowledge, the warning that can be seen behind the foreground of comedic dialogue becomes clearer: the pursuit of worldly elevation through the accruement of gold or status can in no way substitute for the genuine pursuit of wisdom and knowledge of both self and world.
One character who helps to exemplify the warning embedded in Jonson’s The Alchemist is Surly, the “gamester” who attempts to foil the plot of Subtle, Face, and Dol but ultimately becomes even more fooled and humiliated than the rest of the victims (Jonson 43). Surly is the only one of the “dupes” to see through the falseness of Subtle, Face, and Dol’s cons, declaring to Sir Epicure Mammon that “[Subtle] I will prove, by a third person, to find / The subtleties of this dark labyrinth” (Jonson 131). Surly does not appear again until he puts his plan to expose the deceptions of the con artists into action nearly 87 pages later, when he disguises himself as a Spanish count looking to marry the widowed Dame Pliant, evidently the “third person” unknowingly chosen to help Surly succeed in his plans (Jonson 218). While Surly’s actions might seem to be noble and just, placing him in the perfect position to serve as the hero of the story, his motives, when examined further, become questionable. David Finnigan argues that “Surly is much like Subtle and Face, although he allies himself with the gulls in the conflict which constitutes the action of the play,” although he is not nearly as effective a con man as the seasoned “cozeners” Subtle, Dol, and Face (102). Finnigan continues in his analysis of Surly’s character by discussing moments of dialogue, such as when Sir Epicure lists the exciting possibilities of the “elixir of life” with Surly and happens to provide a glimpse into how Surly makes a living: “[Surly] shall no more deal with the hollow dye, / Or the frail card. No more be at charge of keeping the livery-punk for the young heir” (Jonson 93). Finnigan interprets this to mean that Surly “deals in loaded dice, marked cards, whores, and the commodity racket” (101). In addition to Finnigan’s citations of specific moments of dialogue that showcase Surly’s questionable motives, an obvious point of evidence lies in Jonson’s own description of the part of Surly; his title is clearly marked “Gamester” (Jonson 43). This complexity of Surly’s character, and his attempts to do good on some level that ultimately fail, make for an intriguing point of analysis in relation to Jonson’s warning against the dangers of cheap, too-quick human improvement or transformation.
Surly is a prime example of a character who attempts to elevate himself but fails in a manner that is quite unique and, arguably, very complex. The character presents a unique opportunity to explore Jonson’s moralistic warning by leaving it open for the reader to discern exactly why this potentially heroic character fails. Although his character initially presents as a perfectly obvious budding hero, he ends up without a victory of any kind; further, he is more pointedly humiliated than the rest of the victims of the con (Jonson 308). While Surly begins as one who does not live the most honest of lives, enough character growth could very well have allowed him to succeed in his potential role as hero. However, he does not grow as a character in the least. Not only does he use Dame Pliant as the “third person” with whom he attempts to ally himself to end Subtle, Face, and Dol’s success, but he asks the widow to marry him in exchange for having rescued her from Subtle and Face: “And where I might have wrong’d your honour, and have not, / I claim some interest in your love. You are, / They say, a widow, rich: and I’m a bachelor, / Worth nought: your fortunes make me a man, / as mine have preserv’d you a woman. Think upon it, / and whether I have deserv’d you or no” (Jonson 249). Mentioned in Oseman’s article, the concept of character transformation into a state of self-knowledge is evident in the way that Surly is set up to succeed but remains in his deceptive, “base” state, never evolving to reach the “gold” and “purity” of self-knowledge (Oseman 72). Through Surly’s example, Jonson warns the audience specifically of the dangers of attempting to flourish in status and reputation, without allowing oneself to transform by way of a more organic, authentic, personal process.
Lovewit, the owner of the household and the only character who appears to elevate himself in any way, is also a curious example of a moralistic warning in The Alchemist. Lovewit is somehow able to show up in the very last scene, turn away all the angry victims, marry Dame Pliant, keep all the stolen goods from Sir Epicure Mammon and the others, and remain on good terms with his housekeeper Jeremy, also known as Face (Jonson 310). However, he still does not prove to be an accomplished specimen of alchemical transformation simply because the audience does not get to see him grow. Flachmann, looking through the lens of alchemy being a metaphor for satire rather than for personal growth, argues that “Lovewit’s upward alchemical progress may also be interpreted as a symbol of the proper psychic reward which comes to the ideal viewer of a well-wrought comedy” (280). This is a substantial argument when applying the contextual lens of the alchemical workings of satire. Yet, when examining this interpretation through the context of Jonson’s message being a warning against social elevation without personal transformation, the supposed elevation becomes more of a pointedly empty one lacking entirely in substance or even the slightest feeling of emotional victory.
Lovewit does indeed seem to succeed at the end of The Alchemist, swooping in during the last scene and acquiring all the long fought-for items of societal elevation (including Dame Pliant), yet the purpose of alchemy is not to make more wealth, but to shorten the process of substances that are constantly moving towards their “purest state” (Flachmann 262). If one were to consider the purpose of alchemy in a literal sense, it would be clear that Lovewit wins the alchemical game in that he is the only character to acquire more goods than what he began with. However, looking at the painstaking, yet ultimately rewarding, alchemical process from a metaphorical viewpoint, Lovewit does not succeed; in terms of transformation he is on level ground with the rest of the characters by the close of the curtain. Also, it is worth mentioning that, as Lovewit indicates, he did not achieve this social and monetary elevation through honest means:
That master that had received so much happiness by a servant . . . were very ungrateful, if he would not be a little indulgent of a servant’s wit, and help his fortune, though with some small strain of his own candour . . . if I have outstript an old man’s gravity, or strict canon, think what a young wife and a good brain may do, stretch age’s truth sometimes, and crack it too.” (Jonson 317, emphasis added)
Lovewit’s character not only remains out of the action of the play until his arrival in the last act, leaving his victory empty of any true sense of achievement. He acquires this paraphernalia of the socially elevated by following the lead of his housekeeper, Jeremy, who deceives the victims of the con one last time to gain prizes for his returning master.
Another character, Subtle’s partner-in-crime and Lovewit’s housekeeper, Face, exemplifies one who does not elevate, but who merely changes his “face,” molding himself and his role into whatever is most advantageous for him at the time. Face (as he is named in the dramatis personae) changes his name and appearance depending on which customers are in his presence: with Dapper and Drugger, he is referred to as “Captain” and is adorned in a uniform; to Sir Epicure Mammon, he is “Lungs” and dresses as a servant of Subtle’s; to Lovewit, he is “Jeremy,” Lovewit’s housekeeper who was supposed to oversee the estate when Lovewit went to the countryside. Between himself, Subtle, and Dol, however, he remains “Face,” an appropriate title not only for how the character so easily disguises himself around customers, but also for how he deceives others in order to succeed in his own ulterior motives beyond the Subtle and Dol con (Jonson 43-317). In her article “The Game of Wits in The Alchemist,” Joyce Van Dyke analyzes Face as being simultaneously a complement and adversary to Subtle (252). Referring to Face’s character, Van Dyke views him as “totally unscrupulous. He is a perfect utilitarian and will use and abuse anything and anyone, even himself, to gain his end” (257). Van Dyke also comments on Face’s shifting role, or rather, exchange of masters: “In reassuming his status as Lovewit’s butler, we can see Face taking the kind of subservient role which so chafed him in his relations with Subtle” even though, Van Dyke argues, Face does indeed exhibit at least as much (if not more) control in his relations with Subtle and Lovewit (269). In the last act of the play Lovewit even remarks, “I will be ruled by thee in anything, Jeremy” (Jonson 316). Looking at Face’s character from an alchemical warning standpoint, and taking into consideration Van Dyke’s analysis, it appears that Face does not succeed in attaining a personal alchemical transformation. Although he frequently changes his name, character, and even whom he chooses to serve, he does not grow as an individual; he merely changes the “master” through whom he can reveal his true manipulative authority.
In his dedication of The Alchemist to Lady Mary Wroth, Jonson speaks to a theme that highlights and underlines the play’s warning about false, cheap social and personal elevation. In this letter he begins, “In the age of sacrifices, the truth of religion was not in the greatness and fat of the offerings, but in the devotion and zeal of the sacrificers” and concludes with “This, yet, safe in your judgement . . . is forbidden to speak more, lest it talk or look like one of the ambitious faces of the time, who, the more they paint, are the less themselves” (Jonson 40). The letter clearly points out the foibles of false elevation, as does the note to the reader: “If thou art one that takest up, and but a pretender, beware of what hands thou receivest thy commodity; for thou wert never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age” (Jonson 42). Jonson exemplifies this warning to Lady Mary Wroth and the reader not only through the failure of characters such as Surly, Lovewit, and Face to succeed in a personal transformative process, but also through the fast-paced and complex development of the play.
Flachmann argues that the alchemical process is seen in the interrelations between the characters. Specifically, he asserts, “as the source of the heat which distills the fools in the author’s seething dramatic cauldron, it also provides a well-known system of belief through which Jonson can metaphorically illustrate the exposure of his flawed characters,” later adding that “viewed in this manner, Jonson’s use of alchemy in the play creates an effect exactly opposite to the claims made by ‘true practitioners’ of the science. . . In The Alchemist, the process is just the reverse: the fools are all distilled, through the language and action of the play, to the level of their most base desires” (279). Flachmann’s argument is based on the idea that Jonson’s viewpoint was that the “purest state” of the dupes was the moral and humanistic equivalent to the “basest” metal, lead. However, when seeing The Alchemist as a moral warning about cheaply-attained elevation, the dupes in the play do not seem so much to be “distilled” into their basest state (Flachmann 279), but corrupted – not by Subtle, Dol, and Face, but by the dupes’ own greedy drive to acquire the gold, immortality, and status which they believe will make them perfect.
Jonson’s warning about the dangers of seeking quick, empty fixes still very much remains relevant today. In a world where most people are subject to some form of consumerism, it requires a very discerning mind not to begin believing that one product, job, diet, etc., will somehow make that person worthier, happier, or safer. As the victims of Subtle, Dol, and Face continuously strive to attain the ultimate cure of all struggles and hardships, they fall steadily deeper into the trap laid by those who can exploit their desperation. This is a struggle made even more difficult by each character’s will to maintain a pious and generous exterior, while being truly motivated by their greed and their belief that the elixir will fix everything – and all they must do is pay an alchemist to make it for them.
Further, if one were to look at the humanistic metaphor of alchemy, and the “purest state” of a human being that of ultimate knowledge of the self and the world, there is a strong connection between the fast-paced workings of social media websites and The Alchemist. On social media, people often attempt to appear more knowledgeable and accomplished than they truly are, taking on more authority than what they have in reality. In Jonson’s “Note to the Reader” he states, “I give thee this warning, that there is a great difference between those, that, to gain the opinion of copy, utter all they can, however unfitly; and those that use election and a mean. For it is only the disease of the unskillful, to think rude things greater than polished; or scattered more numerous than composed” (42). In the actual script of The Alchemist, there is also much related with the structure of social media. As each victim in The Alchemistattempts to possess a fictitious ultimate cure for supposedly virtuous reasons, many people on social media sites today, and in the real world, struggle to find the easiest solution to their desperation for betterment, however unreliable and impermanent the solution may be.
Ultimately, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is a comedic representation of a much more tragic struggle for perfection. Jonson uses the basic characteristics of the alchemical process, as well as the possible metaphors behind the structure of the pseudo-science, to offer a warning to his audience about the consequences of seeking perfection without transforming and building one’s character. Because of the basic alchemical process that, in theory, ultimately turns lead into gold, the metaphor for personal growth and self-knowledge could easily be lost on those who wish to escape the ills of mankind without experiencing the transformation on a more internal level (Oseman 73). There are many characters in The Alchemist who exclude themselves from the normal arc of character transformation. Surly, for example, ultimately fails in his vendetta against the con artists, even though he sees the true nature of their business (Jonson 43-317). Lovewit also never transforms or grows as a character, although he is the only character in the play whose wealth or status increases in any way. Face may change his role from “assistant of Subtle” to “Lovewit’s housekeeper,” but he never takes advantage of this shift by advancing and instilling in himself any kind of moral lesson. Each of these characters, however, fail to complete a metaphorical alchemical transformation because each one of them is “but a pretender” who while seeming noble, just, or humble, is actually manipulative and opportunistic, each in his own way (Jonson 42). Jonson’s warning, unfortunately, has at least as much relevance today as it did in the 1600s because, in the age of usernames, comments sections, and advertisements selling false, unreachable perfection, seeking out true personal transformation while maintaining even the slightest degree of authenticity has become more elusive than ever.
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Oseman, Arlene. “Going Round in Circles with Jonson and Shakespeare.” Shakespeare in Southern Africa 15 (2003): 71-82. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.
Van Dyke, Joyce. “The Game of Wits in The Alchemist.” Studies in English Literature (Rice) 19.2 (1979): 253. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.