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It does not seem a viable course of action to try to apply our modern developed ethics to a 16th Century mindset such as that which yielded Jonson’s The Alchemist. For example, as a civilisation would all at the very least, feel uncomfortable taking Kastril’s lighthearted oaths to violently ‘touse,’ his sister as a mere comedic off-hand comment. It is safe to say that such themes of abuse are no longer a valid market for 21st Century comedic material. As The Alchemist contains material so blatantly ethically problematic such as Mammon’s genuine desire to have other men’s wives as his ‘cuckholds,’ or Dol being forced to ‘suckle,’ men at Face’s behest, the matter appears very black and white. If produced in the 21st Century, it would contain unacceptable themes.
The Alchemist could be easily considered an amoral work in any period. From the offset, anyone watching The Alchemist would come expecting to witness despicable cruelty. Jonson writes that his characters are ‘diseased,’ fully admitting them to be morally reprehensible. Furthermore, Jonson himself insists that the reader find their own message within it in the Prologue, hoping the ‘doers,’ shall recognise their own ‘natural follies,’ rather than make any attempt himself to promote an underlying moral. Consequently, it is arguable that trying to read morality into The Alchemist is counterintuitive to Jonson’s own intentions – only through demonstrating unadulterated realistic immorality would we be able to recognise and apply ‘fair correctives,’ to our own vices. However the sins of the gulls are punished in such an extreme and comedic way, it seems more probable that The Alchemist is a parody of the moralising tragedy or fable, rather than having a primary directive as a moral work itself. Therefore, in this essay, instead of considering The Alchemist too cruel to be a comedy, I shall argue that it is rather too cruel not to be a comedy.
When one considers a few of Jonson’s contemporaries, multiple plays labelled at the time as tragedies have a strong potential for a comedic telling. Doctor Faustus was promoted as a tragedy; however, many of the scenes especially in the first half of the play are presented in a lighthearted tone at odds to their subject matter. Recall the personification of the relatively pleasant Seven Deadly Sins, Gluttony asking Faustus: ‘bid me to supper?’ or the absurd Lechery proudly stating: ‘the first letter of my name begins with L.’ This atmosphere which is akin to a circus of sins, combined with the free way Faustus exclaims ‘Great thanks, mighty Lucifer!’ in the same scene places this play at odds with the values of the Christian audience. There is no chance that there will be a satanist in the 16th Century audience, and anyone who is not a satanist can easily laugh at how foolish and inconceivable Faustus’s attitudes are. Indeed, this scene could be comparable to Mammon’s monologue in Act II Scene II, elucidating how he would revel in each of the Seven Deadly Sins if he had the stone, from desiring to eat the ‘unctuous paps of a fat pregnant sow,’ to castrating the ‘town-stallions,’ he envies. Similarly, the intense violence of Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy is such a far cry from the possible ethical values of the audience that it is easy to view it as a black comedy. The bastard son Spurio has to but open his mouth and speech along the lines of ‘adultery is my nature,’ or claim that the ‘best side’ of the world is the ‘worst side to heaven,’ renouncing any attempts to reach salvation in a faustian manner. Mammon, Faust and Spurio have such a casual attitude towards sin, they are a safe target for comedy which could be considered cruel or violent, as one would be hard-pressed to find an Elizabethan or Jacobean who would defend their actions.
Hamlet is remembered as a tragedy because its messages of suffering contain universal appeal and the protagonist’s doubt could be applied to a majority of any given audience. We have all felt the ‘calamity,’ of life, the ‘pangs of despised love,’ or indeed any of the wide range of torments Hamlet highlights in his famous third soliloquy. In short, we can conclude that it is easy to laugh at the sufferings of characters we hold no personal sympathy towards, and easy to empathise with characters like us, and the more vice and cruelty a play contains, the more likely there is to be a discrepancy between the values of the readers, and the values of the characters within. Unlike Hamlet, and like Doctor Faustus and The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Alchemist contains protagonists whom the rich Blackfriars audience would have difficulty relating to. From the very first scene we learn the social status of the venture tripartite – Dol as a ‘bawd,’ Face ‘so poor, so wretched,’ with only ‘a spider,’ for company, and Subtle as a miscreant from ‘Pie Corner,’ a location in the poorest ward of London outside the city walls. Subsequently the Blackfriars audience would fail to extrapolate a personal connection to the cozeners, and this safe social distance between the audience and venture tripartite would allow the audience to laugh at their exploits without any personal issues being touched.
The issues with The Alchemist’s cruelty for the Blackfriars audience would be most noticeable in the treatment of the gulls, whose characteristics could potentially cut closer to the bone for the wealthy theatre-goers. Each one of the gulls is well-to-do – even the poorest, Drugger, can afford to spend a ‘portague,’ for Subtle’s services. Referencing the prologue again, Jonson outlines that he hopes to ‘better men,’ who recognise their own follies in these characters, and the tone of ‘to the reader,’ highlights a clear difference between ‘reader,’ and ‘understander.’ Which one of the gulls one could potentially see oneself in is a personal matter, but each theatregoer can at least comprehend Mammon’s desire for escapism in his fantasy universe highlighted in Act II, seeing Face as his ‘Zephyrus,’ who will blow him into a better world. If one were to recognise a vice in one of Jonson’s characters and subsequently in oneself, what would the consequence be? It is conceivable that one would still find the events surrounding this character comic, because their punishments for their vices are often disproportionate to the offense.
Read as black comedies or not, The Revenger’s Tragedy and Doctor Faustus are certainly tragedies in their ending, wherein the sinners are punished. Vindice, having murdered, accepts that he must die too. Faustus not only is carried away to Hell, but also faces crippling mental torment, wishing that he could live in Hell ‘a hundred thousand,’ years if there was still the chance he might ‘at last be sav’d.’ These punishments feel proportionate to the offenses committed by the transcendent sinners. However, in The Alchemist, all characters other than Face and Lovewit receive fairly large punishments for relatively small offences. For merely feeling dissatisfaction with his work and a desire to win at games, Dapper is locked naked (save for the ‘petticoat of fortune’) in ‘Fortune’s privy lodgings,’ for a good fifth of the play. Cruellest of all is perhaps Act IV Scene I, in which Mammon is presented with Dol as a genuine love interest. This man who is so pitiful and lonely he believes his only path to success in the world of romance would be to make ‘eunuchs’ of all other young men, and yet Face convinces him that Dol is ‘nobility’ and encouraging his delusions by exclaiming that Dol is ‘very like,’ the ‘Austriac princes.’ Although Mammon does not have a tasteful vision, he has not committed any morally punishable offence. He even gives her his diamond ring, wishing to make her the ‘lady of the philosopher’s stone’ in a genuine wedding, showing he is capable of acting in a manner which passes as honourable. Kastril especially is not guilty of anything besides countryside naievety, and has his sister stolen from him. The gulls in The Alchemist are the victims of psychological cruelty that far exceeds a just punishment for their undesirable characteristics. Such disproportionate punishments make The Alchemist ethically unrealistic. We can laugh at the extremity of the gulls’ sufferings, because no matter how many vices we might share with a particular gull, their grief is so elaborately constructed by the venture tripartite, it is implausible such events could happen to us. Easily can we laugh at the suffering of characters we cannot relate to.
The Alchemist could be considered a farce of a moral tale, wherein the consequences of the smallest vice are extreme. The moment Mammon starts to feel lust for Dol, Face arranges for ‘thunder’ to come and destroy his rooms ‘in fumo.’ Therefore I argue that if the cruelty was lessened, the humiliation of the gulls any less ludicrous, The Alchemist would resemble more strongly a moral tale in which characters meet a divinely predetermined fate for their sins. If Kastril was defeated in a humiliating duel, if Mammon caught a disease from a bawd, it could seem a similar cruel inevitability of fate to the damnation of Faustus. instead they are caught up in the fantastical web of alchemy, and receive harsh punishments ungrounded in reality and different from any Pardoner’s Tale-style of traditional divine cruelty tailored to the individual sin. Therefore it is the wanton, burlesque cruelty itself which separates The Alchemist from a fable or tragedy and safely establishes it as a comedy.
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