Jonson’s Comical Satire: The Alchemist

  • David Farley-Hills


The Alchemist is one of Jonson’s finest comedies, arguably the finest; it is also one of the funniest, and arguably the funniest. This is not mere coincidence. In merit its only rivals are Volpone and Bartholomew Fair and fortunately no judgement of Paris is needed between them. Perhaps the bedroom scene of the first act of Volpone is funnier than any single sequence in The Alchemist, but in no other play does Jonson sustain comic tension so continuously or so consistently until the whole concatenation explodes in Lovewit’s good-humoured denouement.1 Critics who see the ending as pessimistic and cynical are surely committing the fault Jonson himself implicitly acknowledged in Volpone in the address to the Universities,2 letting moral usurp the function of critical judgement. The tone of the ending is unmistakably tolerant and good-humoured, and, while this has important moral implications, it is principally the result of consistent comic logic, not of ethical theory. We must understand the comic consistency before we can draw the correct moral conclusions. If the comedy is tolerant, however, it is not celebratory. Jonson is writing satire, as he tells us clearly in the Prologue:

this pen Did never aime to grieve, but better men; How e’er the age he lives in doth endure The vices that she breeds, above their cure. But, when the wholsome remedies are sweet, And in their working, gaine, and profit meet, He hopes to find no spirit so much diseas’d But will, with such faire correctives, be pleas’d.3


Ultimate Reality Biblical Text Comic Tension Basic Contradiction Divine Image 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 11.
    J. A. Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (Cambridge, Mass., 1967) p. 80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 12.
    E. H. Duncan, ‘Jonson’s Alchemist and the Literature of Alchemy’, PMLA, LXI (1946)Google Scholar
  3. G. Salgado, The Elizabethan Underworld (London: Dent, 1977)Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    J. Enck, Jonson and the Comic Truth (Madison, Wis.: London, 1966) p. 168.Google Scholar
  5. 22.
    L. A. Beaurline, Jonson and Elizabethan Comedy (1978) ch. 1: ‘The Divided Audience’.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© David Farley-Hills 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Farley-Hills

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations