1.1…

of Jonson’s The Alchemist is one of my favourite dramatic openings:

FACE. Believe ‘t, I will.
SUB. Thy worst. I fart at thee.
DOL. Have you your wits? why, gentlemen! for love —
FACE. Sirrah, I’ll strip you —
SUB. What to do? lick figs
Out at my —
FACE. Rogue, rogue! — out of all your sleights.
DOL. Nay, look ye, sovereign, general, are you madmen?
SUB. O, let the wild sheep loose. I’ll gum your silks
With good strong water, an you come.
DOL. Will you have
The neighbours hear you? will you betray all?
Hark! I hear somebody […]

Mostly I enjoy the contrast between the liveliness and ribaldry here and the moralising prologue which, in typical Ben fashion, “aim[s] to […]better men.” (The “Reader” of the play gets an additional lesson on distinguishing proper readers from ignorant ones.)  I also love Ben for conclusively demonstrating, here, that not everyone in 16th century England “just talked like that” (in rhyming iambic pentameter).

This is a fun play to reread.  It’s also useful in terms of my looming apocalypse paper: I forgot (or never realised) the extent to which the play emphasises apocalyptic themes.  I recalled a lot of mockery of Ananias and the Anabaptists (exiled from much of Europe, in part for their beliefs in an immenent apocalypse), but forgot about Tribulation’s desire to harness alchemy for the raising of the Saints (after which follows the seven year “Tribulation” — battle between Christ and the Antichrist — for which he is named).  I also forgot how long Doll’s “interpretation” of Daniel’s prophecy in 4.5 is.

Add in Dame Pliant’s mistrust of the “Spanish Don” in connection with the year of the Armada’s defeat (“ever since eighty-eight could I abide them, / And that was some three year afore I was born, in truth” 4.4; 1588 is the year that an “innocuous” xenophobia towards Spain developed into the belief that Spain might represent the Antichrist of Revelation), and the gulls’ various fears of venereal and bubonic diseases begin to take on a decidedly apocalyptic tone.  These fears are coupled with the hope and promise of eternal life (in the form of the Philosopher’s Stone): hopes which, like fear, are also typical of apocalyptic beliefs.

In 5.5 Lovewit reveals the fulfillment of these hopes is an illusion: the fantastical offerings of a con game.  Meanwhile plague remains a real disease that theatregoers (exposed at the play’s end) confront even in attending the play.  At least Ben provides a humourous show before the inevitable.

4 February 2009 ~ St. Catharines

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