“Nature Naturized”: Plague, Contagious Atheism, and The Alchemist

  • John Charles EstabilloEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine book series (PLSM)


Estabillo situates Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist in the literary context of polemical religious prose, an association that invokes both atheism and contagion as mutually constitutive ideas in the plague-ridden environment of Renaissance England. Locating this pairing at the intersection of material and spiritual senses of causality, Estabillo finds that explanations of atheism often echo the language of contagion. The religious imagination of the period describes unbelief spreading through the terms of embodied pathology and causal chains of relation between corrupted states even as it asserts the divine inscrutability of pathological phenomena. The effusion of writing surrounding the spread of contagious disease thus confronts the incommensurable divide between divine and material causalities with a rhetoric that risks reproducing the very positions that suggest materialist atheism. This contradiction, Estabillo contends, motivates Jonson’s satirical appropriation of religious language in The Alchemist.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Records of Early English Drama (REED), University of TorontoTorontoCanada

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