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The promise of alchemy


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. However, there is a twist: Persephone has been tricked into eating the seed of a pomegranate, and for a period each year, she must return to the underworld. The cycle of darkness and illumination will continue to hold sway.


'It’s another resonance for the modern reader, who may have cause to consider how the pandemic coincided with an increase in just the kind of fraud that preys on vulnerability.' 


Jonson, who displays his fascination for chicanery throughout The Alchemist, would surely have found this trick a convincing climax. But the works of Renaissance playwrights display a tendency to prosecute both sides of an argument and, as Jonson observes in his preface, ‘lights are more discerned in a thick darkness than a faint shadow’. A kind of trick too perhaps, but it is true that contrasts produce a magic of their own. The story of Persephone suggests that even extremes, like despair and joy, are not mutually exclusive but instead rely on each other.

The effects produced by the play of contrasts may be startling but they are also everyday. In fields of human endeavor, moments of revelation strike with force because they follow periods of frustration. Artists feel beleaguered by the difficulties inherent within the creative process, but also concede that their breakthroughs are dependent on the trials incurred at this stage. And the same is true in sport. Melbourne footballers, attempting to convey the joy of their grand final victory, referenced the ‘fifty-seven years of pain’ that had preceded it.

One of the deprivations faced this year was a reduced sense of possibility. With people largely confined to their homes, there were fewer opportunities to meet others, and the exchanges that can prompt unexpected shifts in feeling were absent from daily lives. The possibility of change seemed to recede, and there was a sense of sameness and of the interminable. The play of contrasts was missing.

Those who visit the Blackfriars house in Jonson’s play are in search of possibility and beset by the promise of change. But if they have been rendered credulous by circumstance, the same caveat does not apply to the trio doing the embezzling. The alchemical cohort, smooth talkers but otherwise bereft of qualifications, are the real pretenders in Jonson’s satire. It’s another resonance for the modern reader, who may have cause to consider how the pandemic coincided with an increase in just the kind of fraud that preys on vulnerability. Admittedly, the visitors to the Blackfriars house are transfixed by the promise of riches, but each is also vulnerable in another way. Each is looking for a transformation of the self. Unfortunately, they are looking for this in the wrong place.

As Melburnians emerge from their longest lockdown and engage again with the world outside their homes, there will be new opportunities to experience those shifts in feeling that can arise unexpectedly in the most everyday of situations. Catching up with friends, resuming a long-postponed activity, reuniting with family . . . these are the situations that will still carry the promise of alchemy.



David Rowland is a Melbourne teacher with a doctorate in English Renaissance drama.

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnson

Topic tags: David Rowland, Ben Jonson, play, alchemy, lockdown



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Existing comments

It seems that Ben Jonson can be not only challenging for the modern reader but also for Alfred, Lord Tennyson who wrote that "I can't read Ben Jonson, especially his comedies. To me he appears to move in a wide sea of glue." (From my Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Quotations). Even as we celebrate our new freedoms of being able to travel and to meet family and friends after longish separations, lockdown did encourage a focus on pursuits not normally prioritised such as reading texts we may put into the 'too hard' basket.

Pam | 02 November 2021  

Psychology and Alchemy, volume 12 in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, is Carl Jung's study of the analogies between alchemy, Christian dogma, and psychological symbolism. Alchemy is central to Jung's hypothesis of the collective unconscious. Wikipedia

Douglas Clifford | 02 November 2021  

Lucky the school to have David Rowland! Unique use of Jonson to sift through the mixed emotions of Lockdown Blues. For my 'A-levels' I played 'Dol Common' but secretly coveted Sir Epicure's & Ananias' roles. Thanks for sharing your writerly gift!

Michael Furtado | 02 November 2021  

A brilliant analysis of a lockdown induced task and its contemporary relevance in what are unique circumstances for all of us, but not so for those living at the time Johnson penned this work. A strong message there in itself.

alan roberts | 02 November 2021  

I think Jonson's plays are best seen, rather than interrogated as academic texts, David. There is much low farce in 'The Alchemist' but so was there in Shakespeare. To use a phrase, Jonson 'takes the piss' out of both the potential fraudsters and their potential victims. Alchemy was regarded with grave suspicion by the Church in Catholic Europe and almost as much in Protestant Europe. In both instances it was regarded as close to Witchcraft and Magic. There were some orthodox Christian alchemists like Nicholas Flamel, but John Dee was very strange indeed. There was never conclusive proof anyone ever turned base metals into gold. Jung saw Alchemy as being a sort of underground precursor to Modern Psychology. That is putative. I think it was a pseudo-science, like so many modern pseudo-sciences like iridology. Perhaps someone like David Williamson could write a play about that?

Edward Fido | 04 November 2021  
Show Responses

Although I think Williamson wouldn't touch the suggestion, ending as it does with a question mark; no? ;)

Michael Furtado | 05 November 2021  

‘Williamson wouldn't touch the suggestion, ending as it does with a question mark….’ ‘What if you died tomorrow?’ (1973).

roy chen yee | 05 November 2021  

.....Although one of the many terrific things about Eddie is that, whatever his broadsides, he always ends on the upbeat. Advent being just around the corner, how about a smile from you, Roy, instead of the incessant drumbeat of a dirge?

Michael Furtado | 06 November 2021  

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