A Comprehensive Review of the Alchemist, a Play by Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist was released in 1610 as a satirical, comedic play to be performed by the King’s Majesty’s Servants. Like many plays of the time, it was meant to appeal to a very broad audience, ranging from the royal and the rich sitting in the nicer, covered seats of the theater to the peasants of England sitting in the very front of the stage for a penny, rearing to throw tomatoes when the play wasn’t up to their standards. It is safe to assume that The Alchemist is a play the groundlings enjoyed as it’s still a reputable play in this day and age.

The Alchemist is a play that follows three con artists, Subtle, Face, and Dol, as they try to bamboozle people out of their money and goods, operating out of Face’s master’s house, who has left London in an attempt to escape the plague. Throughout the play, the cast meets a variety of people who they attempt to scam, including Sir Epicure Mammon, Drugger, and Dapper. Their scams involve Subtle, Face, and Dol playing a variety of different characters including a doctor, captain and a great lady. Their scams will sometimes prove successful, other times not so much. There is constant argument during the course of the play between Subtle and Face about who is the more pivotal figure within the group’s dynamic and Dol is the one to calm these two testosterone filled men down.

The play ends with Face being the most successful con man as Subtle and Dol get tricked by him and are forced to flee from the ones they’ve scammed, however they flee without any of their rewards and Face gets to keep it all. Much of the play focuses on analyzing the gullibility and greed of mankind, from all different spectrums of life, the average person, to a sir and even to supposed men of God with Tribulation and Ananias. Oddly enough, Sir Mammon and the men of God are the greediest of them all, with a strong thirst for wealth and power. The play features lots of rapid fire dialogue, ripe with proforms for analysis.

The first thing to note about the proforms within The Alchemist is that they are rather modern in comparison to pieces of literature a few centuries prior such as The Canterbury Tales. There are still a few “thy’s” and “thee’s”, but they pale in comparison to the number of the more modern and regular proforms of “your” and “you”. It’s not just the proforms that are modern, but much of the grammar and vocabulary also read as more modern than what one would expect for a piece of literature from the year 1610. It is very fair to say that The Alchemist is not far removed from what modern English is today, which makes it much more digestible and easier to understand.

“Thou” is used sparingly throughout the course of the play, making an appearance no more than 15 times. It is used in two scenarios, as a direct address noun or as a way to represent the subject. The direct address noun is best seen in line 64 of Act 1 Scene 1 when Subtle is ranting and raving at Face about how he is the more important figure within the con group’s dynamics. He uses “thou” as a way to directly address Face by saying “Thou vermin, have I ta’en thee out of dung” (Jonson). With this line, Subtle is using “thou” as a way to make himself appear stronger and more important than Face. Subtle only really uses “thou” in this one rant in which he is trying to express his dominance and skill over Face.

In his more normal vernacular, Subtle is much more prone to use the “you” proform. This makes it appear that the usage of “thou” is confined to moments in which Subtle is trying to appear bigger and more dominant than what he is by using “thou”, a word that was probably at this time fading out in usage aside from the more upper class citizens. By using “thou” Subtle is trying to assert the idea that he is intellectual and intelligent. In response, Face also starts to use “thou” to appear equal with Subtle. This makes the usage of “thou” a mixture of a social constraint and emotional constraint.

The social constraint idea continues with the fact that Sir Gammon is the major other character that utilizes the “thou” proform. He is using it more as a way to stand out amongst the crowd and show people that he is a “Sir” by using more presumably upper class words such as “thou”. The emotional constraint aspect stems from the testosterone battle of pride between Subtle and Face. The two men only use it when word sparring with each other, either as a direct address or subject.

The proforms “thy” and “thee” work in a similar way as to how they are used. “Thy” is always used as a possessive by Subtle and Face when they are arguing with each other. In all other instances of the two talking, they will use “your” as the possessive. The only other major character to use “thy” as the possessive is Mammon, most likely as he thinks it makes him sound more intellectual and royal, but even he uses it sparingly. It seems as if this play was released in a time when “thy” was used in a syntactic constraint, in that it alters the noun, to make it possessive.

On the whole though, “thy” was in a general transitional state on its way out, being replaced more or less entirely by “your” except in the certain instances when a character wanted to sound more intellectual and royal. The proform “thine” did not appear any in the play, thus making it appear as if “thine” was an obsolete word at this juncture in time. The lack of “thine” also further cements the idea that “thy” was used as a syntactic constraint in The Alchemist, as “thy” could only be used as pronominal determiner.

The proform “thee” could was used in three different ways throughout the course of the play. It was used as an object of preposition, direct object, and indirect object. The first instance of “thee” comes from Subtle’s first line from Act 1 Scene 1, “Thy worst! I fart at thee!” (Jonson) in which the “thee” is used as an object of preposition as it comes after an “at”. This is an outlier for the context in which Subtle usually uses “thy” and “thee” as he used the words in a very lowly manner involving a vile joke involving a fart, which would roughly translate to something along the lines of “I shit on you”, in modern terms.

Aside from this one instance, the characters in the play tend to use “thee” in a very similar manner to “thou” and “thy”, in that they will use it when they are trying to impress or better each other in intellect. Many of the usages of “thee” come in Subtle’s long rant about how he is better than Face and then Face retaliates with a similar speech involving many of these proforms as opposed to the more prevalent “you” and “your”. Mammon also utilizes the proform “thee”. Twice as an object of preposition and twice as an indirect object. When used as an indirect object, “thee” basically acts as a less modern way to say “you”, which makes sense as “thee” was eventually replaced by “you” as the preferred second person pronoun for much of the English language and this play.

Again, “thee”, “thou” and “thy” are primarily employed by Jonson as a method to make the characters who use these words sound more intellectual and superior, thus meaning that when a character wants to appear in a certain intellectual or superior fashion, they will be more prone to use the proforms of “thee”, “thou”, and “thy”. With this in mind, one could assume that much of what Jonson wrote in was the common day vernacular of England at the time to appeal to the groundlings of the theater.

The least used proform would be “ye”, which made one appearance in the first 5 lines of the poem with Dol’s line “Nay, look, ye! Sovereign, General, are you madmen?” (Jonson) as a plural subject. She is talking to Subtle and Face, trying to get them to calm down as she can sense the fact that another verbal fight is about to take place. This is the only instance of the usage of the word “ye”. One could assume that Dol’s usage of “ye” is Jonson implementing eye dialect to make Dol look slightly lesser than her men compatriots, as she was a prostitute. England, being a fairly religious place at the time, probably looked down upon prostitutes, especially ones who were also con artists. However, it doesn’t appear that Dol’s usage of “ye” was meant to make her lesser, but more as a way to make her endearing to the audience as she is often the voice of reason when the two men bicker with each other.

The two most commonly used proforms in the play would have to be “your” and “you”. To count all of the “you’s” utilized in the play would be tedious work as it popped up a lot. “Your” was used for anytime a character needed to use a possessive, save for the few times Subtle, Face and Mammon used it for their intellect. “Your” could be used as either in the singular or the plural. It was much more common for it be used in the singular. The only time that “your” was used as a plural was a line in which Dol was getting angry with the men and said “I’ll cut your throats”. It is inferred that the “your” here is referring to both Subtle and Face, thus giving it the plural form. It does not seem overly common for there to be a plural possessive in this time as there was probably not a “y’all” yet.

By far the most commonly used proform in The Alchemist is “you”, which could be used in a variety of ways including a direct object, indirect object, subject, and even a direct address. Again, it was much more common to find “you” used in the singular, but from time to time it would be utilized in the plural, mainly by Dol attempting to calm down Subtle and Face. One such example is line 82 in Act 1, scene 1 where Dol says “Will you undo yourselves with civil war?” (Jonson).

Here she is referring to both Subtle and Face, the subjects of the line, as they won’t stop bickering. It is easy to tell that the “you” is in the plural because of the “yourselves” which gives it away with the plural of self, “selves”. One of the difficult things about the “you” pronoun is determining whether or not it is an object or subject. Sometimes it can be pretty apparent such as in Act 1 Scene 1 line 50 with Subtle’s line “You and the rats here kept possession” (Jonson). Here, it is obvious that he is referring to Face and that Face is the subject of the sentence, being the one that keeps possession of the master’s house. Six lines down, things

get a little more difficult with Subtle’s line “Made you a pretty stock, some twenty marks” (Jonson), here one can only assume that “you” is referring to Face, but as he is the recipient of something, it would have to make him the indirect object of the line. There can even be a case made “you” as a direct address in Act 1 Scene 1 line from Subtle, “Away, you trencher-rascal!” (Jonson). Here he is addressing Face directly by resorting to the lowly insult form of name calling. It is no surprise that “you” is the most commonly used proform throughout the play as it is the most versatile, being that it can be used in a singular or plural sense, but most likely only in the plural state when Dol is reprimanding Subtle and Face. It can also play a pivotal part in the construction of sentences as it can be a subject or object.

As a whole, it would be fair to make the blanket statement that a reasonable prediction for which proform the characters are going to use at any given point in the play revolve around the more modern proforms of “you” and “your”. This can be chalked up to the fact that this play was written sometime in the beginning of the 1600’s, which was the around the advent of early Modern English. With this in mind, it makes sense that “thou”, “thy” and “thee” are used sparingly and only in certain situations that require for the characters to appear a certain way i.e. intellectual and superior to those around them. For “ancient” literature, The Alchemist feels very modern in that it is readable and utilizes a lot of grammar structure and vocabulary that is reminiscent of the literature of today.

Works Cited

  1. Jonson, Ben. The Alchemist. Ed. Helen Ostovich. London: Longman, 1997. Print. Ben Jonson: Four Comedies.

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