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The promise of alchemy

  • 01 November 2021
Ben Jonson is one of the great English Renaissance playwrights but he can also be challenging for the modern reader. When I first came to Jonson some years ago, I attempted a comedy from 1610, The Alchemist. I soon felt out of my depth. Conceding defeat, I put the book aside and told myself that there would be some ‘other time’. This year in Melbourne, with the theatres closed, the streets largely deserted, and travel restrictions firmly in place, that ‘other time’ arrived.

Jonson’s play follows the misadventures of three confidence-tricksters who commandeer a house in the well-to-do Blackfriars district of London. One of these opportunists is ‘the alchemist’ who, donning a ‘doctor’s cap and gown’, professes to understand the process whereby base metals are transmuted into gold.

The claim attracts a number of interested visitors to the house, such as the memorably named Sir Epicure Mammon, and the intrigues that ensue build inevitably towards convergence. Jonson is known for his masterful plotting, and in The Alchemist he displays his talent to full effect. The characters are comic creations and not obvious candidates for sympathy, but neither are they entirely one-dimensional. Sir Epicure Mammon may be gullible, but he is also well-intentioned when he vows ‘to fright the plague / Out o’ the kingdom in three months’. 

The way books transform themselves in our absence is one of literature’s own alchemical tricks and, when I returned to Jonson’s play, this detail about the plague struck me as if for the first time. The house where the ‘venture tripartite’ are plying their trade is empty only because the master has fled to the country to escape the outbreak. It is here that the fictional and the actual merge because 1610, the year that Jonson’s play was written and first performed, was indeed a plague year. The London playhouses where Jonson and his contemporary Shakespeare plied their trade were closed from mid-July to late November.

This understanding of a city in the grip of epidemic informs the atmosphere of the play. Jonson, a classicist, might have likened the situation to the Greek myth of Persephone. When Persephone is condemned to the Underworld, she inadvertently throws the world into desolation. Time passes, but a state of dormancy descends and the once fertile fields lie barren. There is no prospect of change until Persephone is able to make her escape, and then all appears to be right again.