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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

I. Ben Jonson

§ 15. The Alchemist

In The Alchemist, Jonson essays another large canvas of tricksters and gulls. Subtle, the alchemist, Dol Common and Face, a housekeeper, have set up their snares in the house of Face’s master. Hither come an extraordinary procession of gulls, whose very names are enough to recall the lifelike characters—Dapper, a lawyer’s clerk; Abel Drugger, a credulous tobacco man; Sir Epicure Mammon, a voluptuary with a Micawber-like gift of eloquent anticipation; Pertinax Surly, a doubting Thomas; Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias, two brethren of Amsterdam, who make an effort to serve both God and Mammon, without forgetting the weaker brethren; Kastrill, a foolish heir and Dame Pliant, his sister, a widow. One after another, they expose their folly and greed, and add to the fun and entanglement, until the master of the house returns and joins with Face to keep the spoils, including the widow, and to lock the doors on dupers and duped. Perhaps in no other play has Jonson so completely succeeded in accomplishing what he intended as he has in this. There are no tiresome excursuses, as in Volpone and Bartholomew Fayre; in everything, he uses “election and a mean.” The entire play is in blank verse, which is most skilfully adapted to the rapid dialogue or to the orations of Tribulation and Sir Epicure. The language is varied, idiomatic and precise; the style, finished and animated. The ingenuity of the plot, which Coleridge ranked among the three most perfect in literature, the liveliness of the action and the delineation of manners, harmonise in a work which, of its kind, could hardly be bettered. The satire on alchemy, which was not without daring in the days of Simon Forman, flavours the fun without destroying it; and the picture of Elizabethan London is without an equal, unless it be in Bartholomew Fayre.