Quacks and Conmen

  • Nicholas Grene


The Tempest is concerned with illusion … Jonsonian comedy is concerned with the theory and practice of delusion’, as Harry Levin points out in his essay on The Tempest and The Alchemist.1 The distinction is a useful one. Though Prospero finally steps back from the images of his conjuring and acknowledges them to be illusion, yet throughout the play the audience is prepared to believe in his magic as magic. We share with him the knowledge of how and why the visitors to the island are hallucinated, but we accept that his powers to enchant are real. To Prospero’s art itself we lend willing suspension of disbelief, and we may remind ourselves that disbelief would have been less hard to suspend in 1611, when benevolent white magic was considered to be distinctly possible. Subtle, the alchemist, a year before Prospero, also claimed power over winds and waves:

No, you scarab,

I’ll thunder you in pieces. I will teach you

How to beware to tempt a Fury again

That carries tempest in his hand and voice. I i 59–62


Seventeenth Century Comic Contract Racter Actor Thoughtful Common Sense Fantastic Character 
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  1. 1.
    Harry Levin, ‘Two Magian comedies: The Tempest and The Alchemist’, Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969), 51.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Edgar Hill Duncan ‘Jonson’s Alchemist and the literature of Alchemy’, PMLA 61 (1946), 669 – 710.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 4.
    Frances Yates, ‘Did Newton connect his maths and alchemy?’ Times Higher Educational Supplement, 18 March 1977.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    John Palmer, Molière: his life and works (London 1930), p. 348.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    See Joseph Girard, A propos de L’Amour Médecin, Molière et Louis-Henry Daquin(Paris 1948).Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    The principle behind the frequent use of bleeding was the idea that the body created fresh new blood to replace the old stagnant blood removed, as a well produces all the more clean water the more dirty water is taken from it. See Francois Millepierres, La Vie Quotidienne des Médecins au temps de Molière (Paris 1964).Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    See L. Chauvois ‘Molière, Boileau, La Fontaine et la circulation du sang’, La Presse Medicale 62 (1954), 1219 – 20.Google Scholar
  8. 22.
    See John Cairncross ‘Impie en Médecine’, Cahiers de L’Association Internationales des Etudes Françaises 16 (1965), 269–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 23.
    J. D. Hubert, Molière and the comedy of intellect (Berkeley & Los Angeles 1962), p. 255. The same idea is pursued to absurd lengths by Carlo François who detects a parody of the nativity in the pastoral prologue to Le Malade Imaginaire — ‘Médecine et religion chez Molière: deux facettes d’un mê me absurdité’, French Review 42 (1969), 665 – 72.Google Scholar

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© Nicholas Grene 1980

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  • Nicholas Grene

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