Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ben Jonson's The Alchemist: A Closer Inspection of The Great Plague

(Picture: Ben Jonson, after Abraham van Blyenberch)

Cheryl Lynn Ross’s “The Plague of The Alchemist” goes some way to explain how the social fabric of London was transformed with the arrival of the plague in the early 1700s. She explains geographically how the rogues and swindlers, who normally “haunted the margins of London” (445) in the liberties, were able to penetrate London’s boundaries and take dominion as a “temporary aristocracy” (439). Members of the original ruling class could afford to decamp during the plague, leaving the city to metamorphose into a “macabre carnival” of “license” (439) teeming with cozeners and vagabonds who enjoyed the freedom the plague granted them. Similarly, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist shows in microcosm the kind of metamorphosis that was taking shape throughout London. From the view inside Lovewit’s house, we can see the plague is the primary agent for change to the collective livelihood of Subtle, Face and Dol. We know, for example, that Subtle previously had no secure position in London’s social hierarchy. The arrival of the plague gives him temporary access to Lovewit’s house so he can pretend to a higher social standing, and make even more money from cheating clueless aristocrats such as Mammon and Kastril. The reversal of the venture tripartite’s fortune in the final act coincides with Face’s return to his original identity (Jeremy the servant), as he hands over the rich Dame Pliant to the propertied Lovewit. This symbolises the reassertion of the dominance of the ruling elite, rendering the temporary metamorphosis of Face and his criminal cronies as fleeting and powerless against the secure hegemony of the aristocracy that Lovewit represents.

Ross, Cheryl Lyn. “The Plague of The Alchemist”. Renaissance Quarterly 41.3 (1988): 439-458.

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