The Alchemist Jonson
The Importance of Money in The Alchemist.
Money is one of the key themes in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, with all of the characters appearing to be influenced by the promise of wealth in some way. The conmen, Face and Subtle, hold money as being greatly important, as they trick all of the other men into giving them money. The men who are tricked are paying Face and Subtle for the promise of more wealth via the Philosopher’s Stone. The most important characters in exploring the theme of the importance of money in the play are Sir Epicure Mammon, Subtle and Face. The greed of Subtle and Face acts as the driving force of the play, as they continue to delve deeper and deeper into a world of misdirection and lies to steal money from the willing victims. Sir Epicure Mammon is an elderly man deluded by illusions of grandeur and ideas of spectacular riches which he talks about incessantly. We also see money being vitally important to other characters, such as Dapper, who is willing to make a fool of himself for the, ‘Queen of fairy,’ so that he may possess a spirit which will allow him to cheat in gambling. This shows how he places the obtaining of money above his morals and dignity, as he embarrasses himself and is so willing to trick others, whilst ironically being tricked himself.
The importance of money to both Face and Subtle is apparent throughout the play, with the trouble they both go to being an accurate representation of the importance of money to them. They could easily con any of the men which they trick throughout the play, however they try and trick all of them, often at the same time, to make more and more money. There are constant situations which require Face and Subtle to think on his feet and improvise to keep the con going, such as when Dapper must be ushered, blindfolded and on his knees, into the toilet to avoid detection from Mammon. When they think where they should hide Dapper, Dol says very crudely, ‘In the privy,’ which is followed by Subtle quickly dressing it up to sound more glamorous, ‘Come along, sir, I must shew you Fortune’s privy lodgings.’ This shows who Subtle is able to continue the charade to get more money out of Dapper, whilst the reason for hiding him, that Mammon is entering and is giving him more money, shows the extent of his and Face’s greed. The prioritization of money over morality and a disregard for other people can be seen in Subtle and Face’s two line exchange after the talk of the, ‘privy,’ as Face asks Subtle, ‘Are they perfumed, and his bath ready?’ to which Subtle wittily replies, ‘All: Only the fumigation’s somewhat strong.’ This comedic line shows more than just the wit and quick-thinking of Subtle and Face, but the manipulative qualities which they possess and the total disregard for dignity they show all of the men whilst stealing from them.
The character of Sir Epicure Mammon shows the extent to which money can be important to the characters, as this is the key characteristic of Mammon. There are various examples throughout the play where he shows that the importance of money to him takes priority over other needs and influences his judgments. When Mammon is presented with Dol, whom he is told is a gracious woman of nobility, he compares her with noble figures known to be unattractive, ‘methinks you do resemble one of the Austriac princes.’ He continues this when he says, ‘The house of Valois just had such a nose, and such a forehead yet the Medici of Florence boast.’ The fact that Mammon compares her to these people is important in showing the importance of money and social status to him, as they are physically unattractive people but hold a high social standing and possess wealth, showing how the importance of money has corrupted his taste and opinion of what is attractive.
Another point on these comparisons is that all of the nobility which he mentions are foreign, ‘Austriac… Valois… Florence…’ as foreign things were contextually seen as more extravagant and expensive, as this was a time where international trade between European powers was developing and still fragile. There are many examples of Mammon demonstrating how money is one of his main priorities, as he talks frequently about his plans for the near future, all of which involve him having exorbitant amounts of money, especially gold. The fact that he is so enveloped in the idea of possessing, very specifically, gold, is a potential indication that money does not hold as high a place in his list of priorities as social status and ego. When Face tells him that his, ‘stuff will be all changed shortly,’ Mammon asks whether this will be, ‘into gold,’ to which Face replies, ‘To gold and silver, sir.’ Mammon then says very pompously, ‘Silver I care not for,’ which appears very elitist and conscious of the possession of gold being concordant with a higher social position. This idea of social status is supported by Face’s following line which reads, ‘Yes, sir, a little to give beggars,’ which supports Mammon’s exaggerated concept of the materials one possesses being synonymous with their social status. The possession of money can therefore, in this instance, be seen as more of a means to an end for Mammon, as the possession of money is very important, but only so that he can be seen as more noble, making his social position more important.
Money is crucial to Jonson’s play, as the pursuit of wealth by both the conmen and the people being tricked drive the plot forward. For certain characters such as Sir Epicure Mammon, the possession of money can be seen as a means to an end as they strive for something which can only be achieved through the possession of money. Regardless of the reason for owning wealth, money is without doubt, the most vital of commodities in The Alchemist.
Gulls Onstage, and in the Audience: Perspective in The Alchemist
“The gulls in the alchemist do not deserve wealth so much as a perfected image of themselves.”
There are two groups of gulls in The Alchemist; on the evidence of Jonson’s commentary on his own work, he presented the image that the gulled characters deserved neither of two typical narrative rewards (namely, wealth and self-refinement) unless they would undergo significant changes. Naturally, we have our Dapper, Drugger, and Mammon in the early acts of the play as the standard “gulls” or dupes within Jonson’s satiric action. However, arguably the real gulls in The Alchemist are the paying audience members themselves, and Jonson encourages the audience’s mental participation in the venture of the play in a manner that creates exactly this ironic relationship.
Why are the audience members gulls? Surely they would think themselves intelligent enough not to be tricked – after all, the wealthy would have paid for their shilling seat in the Blackfriars theatre. But as Jonson relates to the audience in the prologue, ‘fortune favours fools,’ suggesting the wealthy audience to be fools themselves. As promoted in ‘To the Reader’ we may be the ‘reader,’ but we may not also be the ‘understander,’ of Jonson’s work. Material wealth does not equate to mental wealth. Jonson himself could be compared to Subtle, filling his dialogue with bombast in order to impress the listener, even if it is not understood. Recall Subtle’s speeches to the clients, especially those given to Mammon in Act 2 Scene 2, wherein we learn that Subtle (or rather Jonson) is acutely aware of the base principles of what was considered practical alchemy. ‘Hermaphrodity,’ of the elements and soul (for attachment to the genders of the physical would not result in the balance of mind required to discover the stone) and the hermaphroditic child from the ‘mercurial,’ water were theories produced by contemporary alchemists. Indeed, even when Subtle is unobserved in the first scene, he mentions with gravity his ‘philosopher’s work,’ and Face admits that Subtle conducts ‘alchemy and algebra,’ in addition to his cozening. Subtle merely adds aggrandizement to the doctrines to make up for his lack of specific expertise and impress the onlooker – can we not say Jonson does the same? His own interpretation and observation of low London society is given a mask and displayed as farce – because an interesting farce will drive in the most customers.
The comparison of Jonson to Subtle is key to this reading and hinted at by Jonson himself. Through writing The Alchemist, Jonson hopes to ‘better men,’ (Prologue) – one of the goals of the alchemist is for the audience to see some of their own qualities reflected in the characters present. Criticism of The Alchemist often highlights the familiar tropes to which the characters adhere. From the offset, as soon as we hear the name ‘Drugger,’ or ‘Face,’ we know what the role of these characters shall be. But these characters are perfected, purified versions of real human qualities. Oscar Wilde praised the use of what he called Jonson’s ‘ready-made,’ characters, writing of them ‘they are in no sense abstractions, they are types… true to nature.’ They are merely an extreme variant of individuals we might observe in London. By having the ready-made characters we are already familiar with, rather than more outlandish unimaginable ones, we are able to see some truth in their words, and relate their actions to our real-world experiences. Like an alchemist, Jonson in the prologue tells the audience he wishes to ‘cure,’ them of their vices, and calls his characters ‘fair correctives.’ Therefore, we could consider the conned gulls in the play the perfected, distilled image of the vices of the audience – the true gulls. In a way, this is Jonson’s Mousetrap, put on with characters of vice, used to force the audience to expose and contemplate upon their own follies. Yet Jonson knows that his goals may not be achieved, and ‘the doers may see, and yet not own,’ their black deeds.
Metatheatricality was one of Jonson’s favoured techniques – especially the cozening of a critical audience. Take the great reveal in Epicene – if a viewer was fooled, and never guessed Epicene to be male it shows they would be so willing to believe in the constructed norms of society, rather than what was clearly in front of their face. The Alchemist is no different, it forces the audience to question their own conduct through observing a perfected image of their own potential follies. My only query would be the of reception in regard to these techniques in the 17th Century, where there was but a small market for subtle plays. They were seen as low enough to be performed mostly outside the London police’s jurisdiction and drama was usually banned in Oxford (although observer Henry Jackson there noted that the Oxford premiere of The Alchemist was packed).I wonder whether most of the viewers were not ‘understanders,’ and took The Alchemist at face value.
Let us contemplate Jonson’s fictional gulls and ask what they, in the view of the ‘judging audience,’ deserve, and whether we ought to feel sympathetic towards them. Indeed, because the characters are ready-made and often generalised visions of a type of human, we are able to see ourselves in them. However, this can work two ways. Not only can it incite a feeling of guilt at our own vices, but it gives us a greater propensity for sympathy towards them, and there is one universal desire that any viewer of The Alchemist shares with the gulls: the lust for escapism. Dapper tells Face he ‘shall leave the law,’ once he has the stone, and throws his life into gaming. Can it not be said this man is deeply unsatisfied with his life, and only wishes for a second chance to leave a hastily-chosen profession? Drugger claims to be ‘a young beginner,’ and is clueless as what to do with his new shop. Does he not seek to utilise Subtle’s service in order to avoid the heavy responsibility of owning the store? And before these characters, the audience sit. They have paid to engage themselves in witnessing an imagined world forged with words in order to to forget about their own sufferings.
Epicure Mammon may especially be hard to direct sympathy towards, ‘covetous,’ and full of desire for ‘a list of wives and concubines.’ Arguably, however, within all of Mammon’s listed ‘lusts,’ it is easiest to see one of our own. Within Mammon’s monologues to Face in Act II Scene II, he touches upon each one of the seven deadly sins in turn. Unlike the other gulls, his desire is not singular, and the more numerous his fantasies, the more likely one is to strike a chord within an audience member. The envy of another man’s ‘sublim’d pure wife,’ or the feeling of inferiority towards the ‘town stallions,’ could potentially be real conundrums that cause the viewer to reconsider their sinful thoughts. Most of all, I believe it important to consider the purpose of Mammon’s dreams. These are plans that he has clearly spent much of his free time contriving, with such intricate details as the exact jewels he wishes to have (‘emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths and rubies’) right down to the fans he would like to be cooled with (‘of ostrich tails… made of plume’). But why does Mammon want all this? It is because he needs a place ‘to loose our selves in.’ To forget who he really is. To escape from the real world and live in a realm of pleasure. What man, besides one at unease, would attend to his fantasies with such alacrity, unless he required these imaginings to cope with the burdens of the real world? From his desire to make men ‘eunuchs,’ and bed ‘fifty a night,’ evidently we infer Mammon feels despair and dissatisfaction in romance. Just like Mammon, the audience attends the theatre to find a place to lose themselves in, and fix their minds on a distracting tale.
Conversely, it is against Jonson’s desire that we fall into the seductive throes of the dreaming escapist. Indeed, it is not his objective to have us ‘wish away,’ our fortunes during this play (prologue). Because if we utilise The Alchemist to fulfil our urges for a flight from reality, we are no better than the gulls who come to Lovewit’s house asking for a brewed solution to their troubles. By acting as our Subtle, Jonson tries to take our destiny into his hands, and instead of fooling us, he tries to correct us by example. Concerning the gulls themselves, the discussed statement is less illuminating. One could argue that the desires the gulls deserve least would be wealth and a perfected image of themselves, as if we are to agree with Jonson’s own sentiments in the prologue. Fortune only ‘favours fools,’ and is hardly a blessing to be deserved. And as for the perfected image? one must achieve a perfected image of oneself through the recognition of one’s own flaws as opposed to a transformation brought about by another.
The Alchemist is an inversion of the traditional fable as it does not contain omniscient moralisation to remind us of what behaviours are undesirable and should be corrected – instead Jonson challenges us to seek out and observe our own flaws within his characters. This could indeed only work if the characters are ready-made and do not have traits far-removed from the realm of plausibility. Therefore, if Jonson were not to use stock characters, it could undermine the moralising potential of his work. Evidently, the audience, as gulls deserve above all a chance to strive towards a more perfected, ethical version of themselves.
The Alchemist: Too Cruel to Be a Comedy?
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.
Can Identity Be Self-Created?: Characterization in ‘The Alchemist’ and ‘Marriage-a-la-Mode’
Identity is critical for our understanding of our everyday interactions with others. It refers to who we are and how we appear in a society. Who we fundamentally are, our personal identity, is based on intrinsic qualities that define us, such as facts about us, our genetics and personality, involving our actions and what we say. Our identity is also defined by the perceptions that other people have from ourselves. I believe identity is multiple, it refers to what define us as a person, and is therefore inseparable from how we are seen by others. Identity is dual: it is our personal identity, what we fundamentally are and cannot be detached from how we appear in society, our social identity.By considering the concept of identity’s dual characteristics, its multiplicity and relative stableness as well as its social implications, I will present the extent of control we have over creating our own identity. Asking if identity can be self created is tantamount to asking whether we have control over who we are and how people see us. While exploring how identities are created by characters in The Alchemist, and Marriage-a-la-mode, I will argue that if we can partially create and control our own identity, it cannot be created without others. Finally, we find ourselves with very few control over who we are and how we are socially perceived. Our identity is characterized by how we look and present ourselves to the world. Thus, we do have some control over how we appear to the world since we choose our looks, clothes and accessories that can become our trademark. In that way, we influence people’s perception of us and therefore create our own identity.
In the Alchemist, Face, Subtle, Dol Common and Surly have a relative control over their identities since they decide to adopt new ones. They disguise themselves, changing temporarily their original identity, presenting themselves to have control over who they are and how they appear to others. Other characters are totally fooled by their new appearances and are easily deceived. Subtle becomes Doctor Subtle and Face a captain or a servant as Lungs ‘[Enter Face, in a Captain’s uniform]’.Face was once ‘the good, honest, plain livery-three-pound-thrum that kept [his] master lodgings’. Dapper, along with Mammon, and Drugger are tricked into believing these are their true identities and are easily conned. Dol Common also takes up the absurd identity of The Queen of Faery with Dapper, and the one of a mad scholar with Mammon. She modifies her appearance by adopting corresponding disguises necessitating ‘a tire’ for one and to be ‘richly dressed’ for the other. Likewise, Surly adopts the identity of a Spaniard to discover the truth behind the conmen’s system [Enter Surly, in his Spanish costume]. In Dryden’s Marriage-à-la-mode, characters also adopt disguises in order to hide and therefore control their identities. Doralice and Palamede, along with Rodophil and Melantha, take advantage of a masquerade to disguise themselves in order to enjoy their respective lovers in secrecy though ‘I believe it was invented first by some jealous lover, to discover the haunts of his jilting mistress’. While Rodophil and Palamede comically wear visor masks, Melantha and Doralice disguised as boys, create their identity themselves to fulfil their goal while successfully tricking others. As Palamede remarks ‘to go unknown is the next degree to going invisible’ (III.i.129). Doralice and Melantha’s disguises are so elaborate that even their lovers do not recognize them at first ‘Doralice in man’s habit’ (IV.i.190). ‘Now must I be troubled with this young rogue’ (IV.i.210). Similarly, as clothes, jewels are insightful about their owner’s identity. Thus, some jewels permitted Polymadas to recognize the letter left by his runaway wife as hers ‘[…] some jewel of a vast price […] he knew had been his wife’s’ (I.i289). Likewise, Argaeleon recognizes Palmyra by her outfit ’I cannot be deceived; that is the princess; One of her maids betrayed the habit to me’ (IV.ii.40). Through disguise, one is able to control the image people have of us. Indeed, Leonidas chose to disguise himself to hide from others his true identity as Palmyra’s lover ‘My dear Palmyra, many eyes observe me, / And I have thoughts so tender, that I cannot In public speak them to you’ (I.i.455). Thus, by controlling one’s appearance through looks or disguises, we are able to control and create our identity which is malleable and can be multiple. Moreover, our identity can be self-created through the language we decide to use. Thus, to sustain his invented identity as a doctor, Subtle use a scientific language that is not usually his. Indeed, the opening presents Subtle’s usual language ‘I fart at thee’, contrasting with the erudite language he uses as a doctor ‘By a rule, captain, in metoposcopy, which I do work by’.Subtle’s language is adjusted according to the persons he finds himself with. He presents his doubtful knowledge through a logorrhea aiming at disturbing his clients. Indeed, he frightens Ananias with a shower of unintelligible words ‘Heathen! You knipper-doling? Is Ars sacra, Or chrysopeia, or spagyrica, Or the pamphysic, or panarchic knowledge, A heathen language?’.He wisely warns Mammon in order to sustain his legitimacy as an eminent doctor ‘[t]his argues something, worthy of a fear / Of importune and carnal appetite. / Take heed you do not cause the blessing leave you, / with your ungovern’d haste’.Similarly, Surly adopts a new language in order to perfect his identity as a Spaniard ‘Por el amor de dios, que es esto que se tarda?’.Through his ironical interventions, Surly creates his identity as ‘the self-proclaimed skeptical’ and doubtful comic character who ‘would not willingly be gulled’ and finds the conmen promises ‘somewhat costive of belief’.Dol creates her identity by acting as a scholar ‘[b]lood we boast none, sir, a poor baron’s daughter’,and using a language that she does not use normally ‘That Perdiccas and Antigonus were slain, / the two that stood, Seleuc’ and Ptolomy’. Kaastrill, also sustain his identity as a quarrelling boy by using a certain insulting or threatening language ‘Or by this hand I’ll maul you’.Language is at the heart of the construction of one’s identity in Marriage-à-la mode as well. Indeed, Melantha, though a ‘town-lady’, creates her identity as a fashionable lady of the court by using French words. Her personality is shaped by her language ‘Amour sounds better’ (II.i.16). As Subtle, she uses extensively a special idiom in order to impress others. Moreover, lovers’ identities are sustained by the use of courtly words. Indeed, Palamede courts Doralice by flattering her in an attempt to seduce her ‘you look so killingly that I should be mute with wonder’ (I.i.32). Here, the lack of words that Palamede would suffer supports his identity as a sincere lover. Moreover, Polymadas notices in Hermogene’s use of language some indication about his true identity ‘He talks too like a man that knew the world to have been long a peasant’ (I.i.355). Thus, language and identity are closely related. By having control over one’s language, we have control over who we are and how we appear in society. Some interpretations of human nature and identity asserts that our actions determine significantly what we are. Indeed, the characters’ identities in The Alchemistare closely related to what they do. Subtle, Dol Common and Face’s identities are shaped by their activities as conmen. Though controlling their identity through disguise, their true nature is disclosed at the end of the play by the gulls ‘Rogues, Cozeners, imposters, bawds!’.This ambivalence between the conmen’s created identity and their true identity is revealed in Surly’s exclamation ‘This is a new Face’.Indeed, Captain Face is the created identity of Jeremy Butler. By a metonymy, ‘Face’ stands as Jeremy’s true identity, since our identity is also defined by our ’visage’. There is a triple meaning in his remark. If Face’s oldest and original identity is the one of Jeremy Butler, Jeremy Butler’s recovered identity replace his constructed one as Captain Face. This remark is particularly significant since Face’s true identity, and therefore the oldest one rather than the newest, was defined by his occupation as Lovewit’s servant. Thus, Surly reveals that ambivalence between Face’s real identity and his constructed one. The conmen true identity is finally revealed through the discovery of the criminal nature of their actions ‘That are birding in men’s purses’.Moreover, Surly’s creates his own identity as the ‘self-proclaimed skeptic’ through his actions.He tried to unveil the criminal nature of the conmen’s action through disguise ‘I am a gentleman come here disguised / Only to find the knaveries of this citadel;’.As a picaresque character, his noble motives are ridiculously dismissed by a reversal of situation. In Marriage-à-la-mode, Polymadas’ identity is defined by his past actions as the usurper of the rightful King. Though ruling his kingdom, his actions cannot be detached from his actual identity. His wife, fled with Eubulus during the ‘coup’. Her action, significant for her identity as a virtuous lady, is praised by Artemis ‘how I admire her virtue!’ (I.i.284). Thus, character’s actions influence significantly the image that other characters have of them. Character’s actions shape their respective identities in a way that is fully controllable by themselves. If characters can ‘self-create’ their identities through control over their appearances, language and actions, they still rely on each other to create such identities: they do not have control over other characters’ opinion and cannot fully create alone their identities. The three conmen in The Alchemist, sustain their identities thank to each other’s help. Doing the actions which contribute to their activities as conmen require organization and team work. Hence the conflict between Face and Subtle over who is the most important to their business. This quarrel reveals that their constructed and multiple identities rely on each other, but also presents the personal identities of the three conmen. Thus, Face met Subtle in the liberties at ‘Pie-corner [while he] went pinned up in the several rags’.It is thank to Face, who ‘advanced all [his] black arts; lent [him], beside, a house to practice in’ if Subtle can practice his conning activities and adopt his new identity as the Doctor Subtle.Similarly, Face, the former ‘Honest’ housekeeper, could not have become Captain Face, or Lungs without Subtle’s help, who ‘Raised [him] from brooms and dust and wat’ring pots’.Dol Common is also of a prior importance to the conning business since she mediates between Subtle and Face conflict as she urges them to ‘work close and friendly’.. They need the gulls to create such identities, and they need each other’s help to sustain those identities. Hence Subtle orders to Dol to throw herself ‘in a down-bed, as dark as any dungeon’.She must ‘Firk, like a flounder, kiss, like a scallop’. Subtle and Face’s injunctions as managers in a regular business permits their constructed identities work efficiently toward a common goal ‘on with your tire. / And, Doctor, with your robes’.‘You must go tune your virginal, no losing O’ the least time, and (do you hear?) good action!’ urges Face to Dol.Similarly, Face manage to rescue Subtle’s endangered identity since Surly discovered the true nature of their actions ‘Don Bawd and Pick-purse? [Knocking him down]’.Thus, Subtle created identity as the doctor is saved thank to team work. Throughout the play, each character’s identity is efficiently sustained thank to others’ help in order to succeed in their conning business ‘help me off, first, with my gown’,‘Dol, get his suit’.Character’s identity in Marriage-à-la mode do rely on other characters as well.Indeed, Leonidas and Palmyra’s identities are created thank to Hermogenes’ help. First, Leonidas, the rightful heir, is designated by Hermogenes as Polymada’s son while Palmyra is in fact Polymada’s only offspring ‘Sir, he is yours’ (l.i.373). This paradox is hinted through Leonidas’ remark ‘Either I am, or will deserve to be your son’ (I.i.412). Indeed, if Leonidas true identity is not the one of Polymada’s son, it is nonetheless the one of the rightful and unique heir. This complex identity could not exist without Hermogenes help. Thus, characters in The Alchemist and Marriage-a-la-modecannot totally create their own identity without each other’s help. To the extent that we need help from other persons to create one’s identity, it becomes plain that no one can actually fully control his own identity alone. Indeed, we are the product of one’s social environment which influence us. Hence characters’ attempts to follow fashion in order to create their identity. Melantha strives to create her identity as a respectable lady from the court. She relies on Philotis, who provides her in French words ‘you know you are paid so well for furnishing me with new words for my daily conversation?’ (III.i.189). As Rodophil remarks ‘No lady can be so curious of a new fashion, as she is of a new french word’ (I.i.196). She follows a fashion that is significant for the 17thcentury corroborating with the french title of the play, Marriage-à-la-mode. Indeed, Louis XIV’s court at the end of the XVIIthcentury had a strong political and cultural influence in Europe. Rodophil highlights that fashion: ‘I find my mistress is one of those that run mad in new French words’ (II.i.48). Thus, Melantha is subject to her social context’s influences, over which she has no control as her frenetic use of French words attests. Thus, characters have ultimately no control over who they are and how they appear to the world. Indeed, Palmyra’s royal blood betray her disguise during the masquerade. ‘She cannot hide so much divinity. Disguised, and silent, yest some graceful motion breaks from her and shines round her like a glory’ (IV.ii.12). Even while attempting to hide her true identity, Palmyra finds herself betrayed by her nobility. Hence her remark attesting of the uncontrollable nature of identity. ‘I am content to be what heaven has made me’ (l.i.436). In the same way, Argaleon notices that ‘a virgin of so excellent beauty’ could not have peasant parents (I.i.344). If identity in comic characters can be controlled, it cannot in tragic or royal ones. Thus, Palamede is fooled by Doralice disguise, while Leonidas recognizes his royal lover instantly. One’s identity is determined by birth, and social context. It is therefore not controllable by anyone. Hence Hermogenes’ remark ‘I was born with humble thoughts and lowly, like my birth’ to justify his scheme that deceived Polymadas (III.i.391). Polymadas also recognizes in Leonidas his royal blood ‘He has I know not what / Of greatness in his looks, and of high fate’ (IV.iv.9). In the Alchemist,Mammon comically claims to recognize in Dol, a prostitute, her identity as a noble scholar. Once again, her face familiar to him would betray her high birth ‘There is a strange nobility i’your eye / […] Methinks you do resemble One o’the Austriac princes’.Thus, identity cannot be self-created since it is ultimately not controllable by anyone, but is rather determined by birth or social context’s influences. Furthermore, one’s identity cannot be totally self-created since it relies on other’s judgement. If one is able to self-create his identity by influencing other’s opinion through disguises or language use, it is nonetheless partially determined by how we are seen by others. Melantha’s attempt to control her identity through the use of French words is ridiculed by other characters. Indeed, Rodophil describes her as ‘a town lady, without any relation to the court’ (I.i.190). As other ladies, she ‘ran mad’ in her ambitions to be a respected courtier. Though ‘nothing can be so ridicule as a mere town-lady’ she exposes herself to the ‘railleries’ of other characters since it is ridiculous ‘especially at court’ (III.v.108-11). She is eventually called ‘an impertinent lady’ by Artemis and Palmyra (V.i.94). Although she strives to manage her reputation, she cannot uphold the identity of a court-lady she wishes to have since she eventually have no control over people’s opinion. In the same way, Polymadas’ social identity cannot be controlled though he is the king. His reputation as the usurper follows him as gossips at court between Artemis and Amalthea attests ‘then false Polymadas betrayed [Theagenes] trust?’ (I.i.265). He therefore have no control over his identity, since his reputation in the eyes of his courtier’s cannot be sustained. In the Alchemist, though characters prove themselves to control their diverse identities, their true and original identity is eventually revealed. Mammon rejoins other characters in insulting the discovered conmens ‘What rogues, bawds, slaves […] Punk, cockatrice’.Subtle, formerly called ‘your worship’ or ‘master’, becomes ‘The bawdy doctor’.His social identities are eventually dismissed by the discovery of his actions. His personal original identity is the one of a low-class swindler living in the liberties.Face ‘the cozening captain’ recovers his identity as the ‘honest’ Jeremy Butler. Dol Common, the Queen of Faery, eventually turns out to be ‘Madam suppository’ and flees with Subtle.Thus, one cannot totally control his identity since it ultimately depends on other people’s opinion. If identity can be self-created to the extent that one has control over many aspects that define who we are, including appearances, language and our actions, it remains ultimately uncontrollable.
Indeed, one finds himself unable to control the opinions people have from himself. Individuals have agency or free will in deciding what to think of someone else. If their judgment can be influenced, it cannot be controlled. Moreover, we need each other to create one’s identity. First, we rely on other people to help us create who we want to be through imitation or team work. Second, we need interactions with other people to influence their opinions since our social identity rests on their judgment. If heroic characters like Leonidas have no or few control over who they are since they are determined by fate and birth, comic characters like Face seem to control perfectly their diverse and constructed identities. Thus, the disguises they use are efficient, while Palmyra’s disguise cannot veil her high birth. Identity is therefore a complex concept, which can be partially controlled and created by ourselves.
Boehrer, Bruce, ‘The Alchemist and the Lower Bodily Stratum’, in The Alchemist: A Critical Reader, ed. By Erin Julian (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 150-170 Dryden, John, Marriage-a-la-mode, ed.by David Crane, New Mermaids (London: Methuen Drama, 2014) Jonson, Ben, ‘The Alchemist’, in Volpone and other plays,ed. by Michael Jamieson (Penguin Group: London, 2004) Kaplan, Carla, ‘Identity’, in Keywords for American Cultural Studies(New York: NYU Press, 2007) Ross, Cheryl L., ‘The Plague of The Alchemist’, Renaissance Quarterly,41.3 (1988), 439-458Carla Kaplan, ‘Identity’, in Keywords for American Cultural Studies(New York: NYU Press, 2007), p. 123. Ben Jonson, ‘The Alchemist’, in Volpone and other plays,ed. by Michael Jamieson (Penguin Group: London, 2004), I.i.1.Jonson, I.i.16-17.Jonson, IV.vi.1.John Dryden, Marriage-a-la-mode, ed.by David Crane, New Mermaids (London: Methuen Drama, 2014), IV.i.123. ‘All further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text’.  Jonson, I.iii.45.  Jonson, II.iv.13.  Jonson, II.iii.8.  Jonson, IV.iv.74. Jonson, II.iii.27.Jonson, IV.I.44.Jonson, IV.v.6.Jonson, IV.ii.35.Jonson, V.i.10. Jonson, V.i.21. Jonson, V.ii.14.Bruce Boehrer, ‘The Alchemist and the Lower Bodily Stratum’, in The Alchemist: A Critical Reader, ed. By Erin Julian (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 150-170, p. 156.Jonson, IV.iv.8. Jonson, I.i.25-32. Jonson, I.i.44.Jonson, l.i.67. Jonson, I.i.161.Jonson, III.iii.42.Jonson, III.iii.76.Jonson, III.iii.67Jonson, IV.iv.27. Jonson, II.iv.24.Jonson, III.v.53.Jonson, IV.i.50. Jonson, V.iii.33.Jonson, V.iii.37.Cheryl Lynn Ross, ‘The Plague of The Alchemist’, Renaissance Quarterly,41.3 (1988), 439-458 (p. 442).Jonson V.ii.15.