The Alchemist is a Realistic Play.


Although ‘realism’ in the Literary innovation and inclination of 20th century, Ben Jonson in the Jecobean Era had planted this germ in the perspective of comedy. ‘The Alchemist’ as a social comedy is not simply a satiric banter and fun of the tendency and tenacity of the Jecobean people but also a realistic, live commentary of the darker perspectives of human persona, that is termed as Seven Deadly Sins in the Holy Bible. The reliability of The Alchemist in the present scenario is because of the solid realism, containing human greed and Lust. Jonson’s sense of Realism in broader sense is a revolt against Elizabethan Romanticism. Whether in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the attention in laid to discover the unknown sector of the human mind. Such psychological proforma in exchanged with sociological inclination in Ben Jonson’s plays Like ‘The Alchemist’ or ‘Volpone, the Fox’. This sociological bias is the foundation of realism, in Jonsonian plays. In this play, the characters like Face, Subtle and Dol Common belonged to the lower stratum of the realistic society. Other characters such as Epicure Mammon, Love-wit, Surly etc., are under the category, elite class in the social scale. Finally, with close association with the sense of realism, Ben Jonson has employed the characters like Dapper, Drugger etc., who really belonged to the middle class in the social staircase. Ben Jonson’s favour towards realism is exposed in his purpose of highlighting the social factors as he has stated marvelously in his ‘Every Man in His Humours’ –

“.. deeds an language, such as men do use

And person such as comedy would choose

When she would show an image of the times

And sport with human follies with crimes.”

It is to show ‘an image of the times’ that propels Ben Jonson to introduce the realistic characters belonging to almost every class of society. Not only in characterisation but also in plot accentuation, the proponent of the Comedy of Humour in English literature has applied the virtues of realism. It must be said that in the process of presenting the social realism, Ben Jonson has given the searchlight upon the vices, rather than upon virtues. In this connective juncture, he differs defiantly from the Elizabethan practice, where. The flavour lies in glorifying the virtues. It is for such glorification, in spite of committing several murders it can unhesitatingly be stated that Macbeth is the hero of Shakespeare’s golden delivery “Macbeth”. In the contextual level of ‘The Alchemist’ the realism is the foster child of socialism. It is because the characters are socially recognisable, the events are socially valid, the manner at presentation is flavoured with the aspect of conversation in which people of the society give indulgence.

‘The Alchemist’ as a comedy, is up graded in terms of realism for its excellent treatment of human desires. Here, all the characters are opportunistic. They search the shortest way to get the passport of prosperity. The situation in which the drama is occurred is realistically sound as it is the time when England in the reign of Kind Jacob, is under the threat of plague, a real crisis. Especially London, the heart of England, is badly affected by this killer disease, if this moment the trio – Face Subtle and Dol Common have made a real conspiracy to cheat the people in the name of providing alchemy and to squeeze maximum benefit out of using the materialistic desires of their clients. So far the plan is concerned, Jeremy, the Butler, will display the role of collecting the clients and Subtle will assume the role of the alchemist who can transmute the base metal into gold. According to the oratorical bonanza of Subtle, he has convinced realistically the clients about the miraculous power of the medieval legendary, the alchemy. By the possession of alchemical stone, the clients not only have the opportunity to become rich but also it can cure the incurable diseases, can make an old man sexually energetic as that of a young guy. Besides, by realistic version, Subtle, the disguised alchemist has convinced that the alchemical stone possesses the plaintive power to win in gambles, to bring frame and fortune to their clients. Among the clients, Dapper is the first person to be victimised. As a lawyer’s clerk, Dapper is not satisfied with his meager income. He wants to win in all the gambles as well in all the horse races. Subtle, the alchemist has given him the fall assurance of the transmission of his dream into solid reality by the following lines –

“To tempt my art and love, sir, to peril

B’Fore heav’n, I scarce can think you are my friend.”

Drugger, the tobacconist is the next to face the gullibility because of his greed to become a prosperous promoter of tobacco by the virtue of keeping alchemical stone in possession. Here, too, Subtle has given the ready recipe coloured face of Drugger gives the glimpse that he is a man of the winner and he has the potentiality to procure profit. In a very realistic note the alchemist has prescribed to write ‘Mathlai’, ‘Tarmiel’ and ‘Baraborate’ in the east side of his proposed shop- Whereas, in the north side he will write “Rael’, ‘Velel’ “Thiel’. In short, Subtle has taken the opportunity of Drugger’s sense of greed, which has been reveal by his apparently kind words-

“I am a young beginner and am building Of a new shop,………………………………

……..And I would know by art, sir, of your worship,”.

Among the others, clients who are gullied with realistic spirit in the thematic strain of this comedy Sir Epicure Mammon is sharper and heavier than anyone else. Being really an epicurean in sexual desires and material gains, the Old Knight has come to the laboratory of alchemy with his dream to possess unlimited wealth and extraordinary sexual craze which can permit him to have intercourse with fifty in a single night. In his romantic exclamation –

“With the elixir that shall be as tough

As Hercules to encounter fifty a night.”

The realistic approach is also delivered in Ben Jonson’s satirical attack through Subtle against the religious fellows like Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome. Like the other material pursuers, these two figures are also hankering after the post and prestige. They are disillusioned of not getting promotion for the church – politic and so are in dire need of alchemy which can fill up their desire. Subtle, like a realist, has understood the malpractices for which the priests are involved. Time to time, he has not lagged behind against the misuses of religion by the priest as revealed in his following speech –


“….Nor, of necessity

Rails against plays, to please the alderman

Whose daily custard you devour.”


Realism in ‘The Alchemist’, is intimately related with Jacobean culture, where prosperity is the only measurement of judging a character. Hence, the characters are madly pursuing the mundane benefits. The trio – Face Subtle, and Dol Common have certainly, understood this realistic pulse of the clients. The desire is not abstract as Shelley has said, “The desire of the moth for the star”, but a concrete one like physical satisfaction or mundane profits. The expectation has gone to such an extent that Surly, the angry young man, has been determined to give the marriage of his widow sister with a man who must not be below than the rank of a knight. Jonsonian realism is evident in plot analysis also. The unity of action is found out in the proforma that it begins with the appearance of plague in London and ends when the city is free from plague. The sense of realism in this comedy is relevant by the unity of place also. The sophistication of urban London is the uniformed activated place of action of this hilarious play. The sense of morality in ‘The Alchemist’ is the resultant of the display of realistic action. Except Face and Love-wit, all the characters are deceived. Such deception is the inevitable outcome of their Himalayan greed.

In the history of English comedy, Ben Jonson is unique because of his realistic assessment of the society. ‘The Alchemist’ in a solid telecast of Jacobean England. So far realism in comedy is to be considered, Ben Jonson is the heraldry of anti- sentimental comedies as Goldsmith’s ‘She stoops to Conquer’, or anti-romantic comedies of the 20th century as Bernard Shaw’s ‘Candida’, ‘Man and Superman’ etc.







Work Citation:

  • Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2015, April 9). The Alchemist. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • Rosewall, Kim. “The Alchemist Plot Summary.” LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 21 Feb 2020. Web. 7 Aug 2021.

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