In none of Ben Jonson’s plays is Renaissance heroic humanism converted to comic reality more obviously and successfully than in The Alchemist. Here the aspiration of the Renaissance to control and remake the world is imaged as a great swindle, alchemy. Jonson parodies philosophers, scientists, the new Protestantism, the great Renaissance merchant adventurers, and the ages’ ideals of military valor and impassioned love. His characters are comic versions of the ways in which the Renaissance sought power, knowledge, and pleasure—they are also a remarkably realistic cross section, ranging from servant through knight, of London’s life. One of the most popular of Jonson’s plays during his lifetime and a favorite throughout the seventeenth century, The Alchemist, was first produced in 1610.
In his introduction, Alvin B. Kernan skillfully conveys the vitality and ultimate power of this difficult play. The glosses and explanatory notes clarify Jonson’s language, with all its references to classical and alchemical literature and the contemporary London underworld. In Appendix I, Mr. Kernan discusses Jonson’s use of alchemy and provides a glossary of alchemical terms. Appendix II includes a discussion of the text, sources, and stage history of the play.