Discuss The Alchemist Has A Topical Interest

The satire upon alchemy and Puritanism gives a topical interest to The Alchemist. In the days of Elizabeth the alchemists and astrologers were very active, and people were so credulous that they became early dupes of these tricksters. Queen Elizabeth herself and many of her courtiers and ladies believed in alchemy and astrology. We hear of the activities of John Dee and Simon Forman, upon whom Subtle seems to have been modelled. Jonson gives us a realistic picture of the tricksters and their dupes. There is an element of exaggeration, as there should be in a comedy like this to produce the necessary effect. The Puritans are represented with their sanctimonious self-righteousness, with their anting phrases, with their scheme of bribing the civil magistrates and hiring armies from abroad which may appear to be fantastic- and they resort to the alchemist to accomplish their purpose. The alchemists and the Puritans are satirized in the play. It is with contemporary events that Jonson deals, and people could not but be interested in them. There are again references to the plague which lately visited the country. It is contemporary London which is pictured in the play. There are references to eating housed (ordinaries) and gambling dens, which must have been familiar to the audience of the time. Some of the well-known gamblers of the time are referred to by names in the play, for example, Holland and Isaac. There were some who made their liking by gambling-and they are called sons of Sword and Hazard. There was the commodity swindled which is also referred to. In this transaction the borrower was made to take the whole or part of the loan in goods, and had to resell them to the agents of the lender. Dueling was then in vogue, and there was a formal procedure for it, and there was a set of elaborate rules for concluding it. Thus the play is rich in topical allusion. Jonson sketches the life of the times-at least its seamy side.

R.J.L. Kingsford writes, “……in Queen Elizabeth’s reign the country was alive with alchemists, the cause being no doubt supported by the fact that the Queen herself was believer, and band in hand with astrologers. palmists and other dealers in magic. This was the state of affairs which Jonson found in 1610; and in drawing the characters of Subtle and Face there can be little doubt that he had in mind three well-known names of the period, John Dee and Simon Forman, to both of whom Subtle bears some resemblance; and Edward Kelley, the proto- type of Face.” We need look into the careers of these men. John Dee (1527-1608) was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, but soon earned the reputation of sorcerer. Between 1548 and 1578 he had paid frequent visits to the Continent. He was imprisoned under Queen Mary on suspicion of compassing her death by magic, but Edward VI conferred two church livings on him, and Elizabeth showed him considerable favour, making him warden of Manchester College in 1595. He claimed in have found in the ruins of Glastonbury a quantity of the Elixir, by which he converted a piece of a warming-pan into gold. Edward Kelley was his assistant from 1582 to 1589. Kelley, who had suffered the loss of his ears in the pillory, claimed to confer with angels by means of Dee’s magic crystal, and talked his master into consenting to a community of wives. Simon Forman (1552-1611) was an astrologer and claimed miraculous powers. Though frequently arrested, he worked, among the poor, but had a large and far less honourable practice among court ladies. His aid was sought by Lady Essex to alienate the love of her husband and influence the affection in her favour of Somerset. Now it is not improbable that the doings of Dee, Kelley, and Forman may have colored Jonson’s conception of the two characters-Subtle and Face. The Alchemist is rich in topical allusion, and the questionable activities of Dee and Kelley seem to have been projected into the play.

Aristotle dominated the intellectual thought of the Middle Ages. The logic and philosophy of the schoolmen drew much from Aristotle. The Renaissance was a challenge to Aristotle’s authority, What the Renaissance did was to liberate the intellect and senses, and there was a demand now for a more positive and practical form of scientific learning. In his Anatomy of the World (1611) Donne writes, “new philosophy calls all in doubt.” it means how the whole conception of the world was soon to be altered and readjusted. The Copernican theory heliocentric as opposed to geocentric-was long contested by the divines and theologians. They were not ready to give up their position that the earth was the center of the universe, and therefore the special object of divine solicitude. The Copernican theory was not accepted until it was confirmed by further researches of Kepler and Galileo. The age was encrusted over with belief in alchemy, in magic and witchcraft. There were learned people who defended alchemy to which Neo-Platonism came to be allied. Raleigh, for example, recommended the study of alchemy in place of the babblings of the Aristotelians’ and believed that it could lay bare the secrets of nature. Against these drawbacks positive advance was recorded in science. First we may refer to the discovery of logarithms by Baron Napier of Murchison in 1614. Thomas Harriot, the astronomer discovered the solar sports and the satellites of Jupiter simultaneously with Galileo. Another astronomer, Samuel Horrocks, who died at the age of twenty-two, saw the planet Venus on the body of the Sun and anticipated Newton in the theory of humour motions In 1619, Dr. William Harvey made his announcement of the discovery of the circulation of the blood. At first it was received with almost universal disbelief and ridicule.

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We cannot overlook the superstition in which the age was still sunk. Theologians of all sects believed in witchcraft and in the active interference of the devil. Erasmus and Luther believed in witches, and King James wrote on witches. Persecution of old women, accused of being witches, went on throughout the seventeenth century, in the eastern countries, which were mainly Puritans, we have a frightful record of cruelty and superstition. The Puritans were inspired by what the Book of Exodus said: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” “In London, however, there were few cases on record of the actual persecution of witches. Then again people in that age believed in lucky and unlucky days. Cromwell’s lucky day was the 3rd of September. Thursday was an unlucky day for Henry VIII and his children. Almanacs containing lists of lucky and unlucky days were in great request, and were consulted everyday by everybody before entering upon any kind of work. The crystal ball was used for the purpose of divination. The ball was held in the hand by those who had ‘the sight’. There was one Sarah Skel horn who had a perfect ‘sight’, She could see in the ball what any persons were doing at any time or in any place. The autobiography of William Lilly is an unconscious exposure of the fraud, impudence, credulity and superstition of the age. He claimed to be able to command spirits and angels, by means of the crystal ball, to do his biddings. The Alchemist is particularly interesting as a direct exposure of the quackery of the age.

Against such a background it is easily understandable why whatever scientific discoveries were made in those days, were slow of recognition. “The general state of physical science was still, however, sufficiently miserable till after the middle of the 17th century, and the most obvious discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Torricelli, Descartes, and our own countrymen were still occasionally treated as gross absurdities, and that by men of acknowledged station and presumed attainments. Better nations, however, began to prevail through the influence of the Royal Society, the origin of which may be traced to one Theodore Haak, a German Gentleman, who about the year 1645, faced a number of persons interested in the new philosophy to meet once or twice a week in different places in London.”

The stages of social and economic development after the breakup of feudalism may be briefly noted here. The landowning classes came to the fore. They made for the rapid development of capitalism. “By 1590, it was said that the shift of property since the Reformation had made of yeomen and artificers gentlemen, and of gentlemen knights and so forth upward, and of the poorest stark beggars.” There was a rise of speculators in land, starting with the dissolution of monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. The disbanded armed retainers of feudal chiefs on the one hand, and the homeless monks on the other, swelled the ranks of the landless poor. Much of the church-land was seized by the Crown and sold to nobles, courtiers, merchants and groups of speculators. A class of the nouveau riche was created, and soon began to have political dominance. Faction and place-hunting were ripe in the new class of the gentry. “James refers to the ‘factions and deadly feuds which are the motives of great mischief in great families’ in a pronouncement against dueling about 1601.” The monopolies, issued by the Crown to court favorites, had a disruptive effect on economic life and also on the trade and commerce of England. “Although many patents of monopoly had been called in after 1601, James multiplied them again by scores; and these, with the sale of lands and titles, made a harvest time for ‘projectors’ (one of whom wrote to another in 1607, proposing to ‘join together faithfully to raise our fortunes by such casualties as this stirring age shall afford’) But the general reaction-as in Jonson’s satires-was nearer to disgust. The most important monopoly Alderman Cocaine’s project for the export of dyed cloth, lavished bribes on Somerset and the Howards in 1613, only to lead three years later to a major crisis with thousands unemployed, and hence to the hostile Parliament of 1621.”

Monopolies, indeed. tended to increase the price of commodities, to shut out new merchants. and to dispossess the craftsmen already established. And there arose a general demand for freedom of trade. The Bill for Free Trade was brought in by Sir Edward Sandy in 1604. Now was the beginning of the phase of economic individualism. The Puritans with their natural drive and initiative had the best of chance now. “The Puritans have been considered the prime agents in creating a capitalist mentality. But their doctrines developed gradually from their setting; and a recent historian has described Elizabethan Puritanism as a movement of intellectuals who tried unsuccessfully, to impose a theological (and essentially conservative) social outlook on the lawyers and business-men with whom they found themselves conjoined.” Both these views seem to be reflected in The Alchemist. Puritan William Perkins preached thrift and industry as the divinely ordained condition of human existence. He condemned the idleness of monks and beggars, of nobles and their serving-men. He insisted that ‘every man must choose a fit calling to walk in; that is, every calling must be fitted to the man, and every man be fitted to his calling.” “The main end of life.’ as he said, ‘is to save God in serving men in the works of our calling.’ The Puritan cant is obvious here-they could serve God and men in their calling by their unfailing drive for profit in trade and business.

In fact, the Puritans reflected the middle class views and outlook on life. I.G. Salinger writes, “Playwrights like Dekker and Heywood- and even the satirist Middleton-shared the moral attitude of Perkins, and wrote primarily for the London middle classes. The treatment of family relationships on the stage, Romeo and Juliet to Women Beware Women reflects middle-class opinion in the playwright’s emphasis on the sanctity of marriage, in their criticism of the tyranny of parents, and their plea for a moderate liberty in the choice of a wife or husband. Again the middle-class desire for the rule of law and fear of a recrudescence of feudalism are leading motives in Shakespeare’s history plays, and in the series of revenge tragedies from Kyd onwards. And, with all his respect for degree, priority and place, Shakespeare gives more weight to personal merit and the loyalties founded on it than to bare prerogative of the idol ceremony.”

“On the other hand, the Puritans were hostile to the actors, and backed the London Council in their efforts to suppress them- so that the theatres came to be built outside the council’s jurisdiction (though remaining within the metropolitan area).

The attack on plays was part of the general Puritan campaign for moral discipline, and especially the discipline of labour. Theatres led to riot and infection; they had, in fact, to be closed when deaths from. plague in London exceeded thirty, a week. Theatre-going profaned the Sabbath and damaged trade; above all, it was ‘very hurtful in corruption of youth….and also great wasting both of the time and thrift of many poor people.

We may conclude with a picture of Jonson’s London, as drawn by the same writer: “The city where the conflict over play-acting was chiefly waged was now a great European capital. It was a major center for credit and navigation. And, though less important in numbers than in wealth-perhaps on in twenty Elizabeth’s subjects its population was increasing rapidly, with an additional influx during the legal term-times referred to The Alchemist. Noblemen settled in the bishop’s palaces along the Strand or crowded into lodgings,; former ecclesiastical property was sub-let for tenements. Despite the government’s efforts to stop new building, and send the gentlemen home the numbers-and the ground rents-continued to rise. A new world of fashion arose, with its varied hangers on: the ‘gulls’, or would-be gallants, airing themselves in ordinaries and playhouses (this being pictured in The Alchemist), visiting the sight of the Tower and the new Royal Exchange, or mixing with the crowds on business at St. Paul’s the mercers, fencing-instructors, hackney coachmen; the ‘cony-catchers’ and other rogues depicted by satirists. And mixing with these again were the alien immigrants and the craftsmen who had lost their custom in other towns; the growing numbers of watermen, sailors, porters; the vagabonds from the country. The contrasts of an age of rapid transition were concentrated in the surroundings of the new profession of letters.”



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