Fiction > Harvard Classics > Ben Jonson > The Alchemist
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Ben Jonson (1572–1637).  The Alchemist.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
Introductory Note
 
 
BEN JONSON was born of poor parents at Westminster in 1573. Through the influence of Camden, the antiquary, he got a good education at Westminster School; but he does not seem to have gone to a University, though later both Oxford and Cambridge gave him degrees. In his youth he practised for a time his stepfather’s trade of bricklaying, and he served as a soldier in Flanders.  1
  It was probably about 1595 that he began to write for the stage, and within a few years he was recognized as a distinguished playwright. His comedy of “Every Man in His Humour” was not only a great immediate success, but founded a school of satirical drama in England. “Sejanus” and “Catiline” were less popular, but are impressive pictures of Roman life, less interesting but more accurate than the Roman plays of Shakespeare.  2
  For the court of James I, Jonson wrote a large number of masques, which procured him substantial rewards in the form of pensions.  3
  But it was between 1605 and 1614 that Jonson’s greatest work was done. “Volpone,” “Epicœne,” “The Alchemist,” and “Bartholomew Fair” belong to this period, and are all masterpieces.  4
  After the accession of Charles I, Jonson fell into adversity. His plays were less successful and he had enemies at court; but he continued to hold his position of leadership among his fellow authors.  5
  Jonson died in 1637, and was celebrated in a volume of elegies to which all the chief poets of the day contributed.  6
  “The Alchemist” is perhaps the most perfect technically of Jonson’s plays, and is an admirable satire on the quacks and humbugs of the day. It contains, at the same time so much universal human nature, and is so excellent in art, that it holds a place among the first of those Elizabethan works that have held the interest of posterity.  7
 

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