Essay: “Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist: Shaping Behavior in the Shadow of the Apocalypse”
by M. Steven Neal

As portrayed in The Alchemist, Ben Jonson’s London grappled with the challenges of a burgeoning urban life and its effects on morality and consumption. While using his authorship as lectern was not unique, Jonson’s message, that the order of improving one’s status stood to be perverted, was; and in featuring the local preoccupation with alchemy and the apocalypse, he revealed the corrupt and toxic relationship between the city’s economic and religious zeal. Martin Luther’s sixteenth century idea of a new religion called for man’s return to his covenant with God and to simple faith. By Jonson’s time however, London faced an additional battle from within, as extreme religion gained ground. Because the play was coterminous with Jonson’s audience’s lives, they were well-aware that pure-Protestants provoked anxieties to gather believers. In straining to escape their present and to a future marked by heavenly expectations, Jonson’s characters evoked his contemporaries’ desires to address their own exigencies. By capturing his audience’s attention referencing popular current events, Jonson created a stage for his greater concern, that faith in economic as well as religious transcendence exposed his milieu to divisive radicalism and victimization.

An Excerpt from “Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist: Shaping Behavior in the Shadow of the Apocalypse”