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    I chose to read this book in the hopes of getting a good laugh, which I did, but I also unexpectedly, once again, experienced elements that certainly apply today, that are not so funny.
    Ben Jonson lived from 1572 to 1637, a contemporary of Shakespeare, who, according to the Note in this Dover edition, acted a part in Jonson's first successful play, Every Man in His Humour in 1598. According to Wikipedia, Jonson was "generally regarded as the second most important English dramatist, after William Shakespeare, during the reign of James I." The two rather long plays presented here are also two of his best known. Project Gutenberg offers quite a number of them as free eBooks. Of course, reading works from this era is not always easy. I found Volpone much more accessible, although, even with the footnotes, of which there should have been more, I am certain I missed many of the jokes, but still found it laugh-out-loud funny. The Alchemist is much more complex, not only in the language and phrases, but the plot. The Wikipedia link above also provides separate pages for these two plays and most of his others. Though I don't usually like spoilers, nor reading someone else's interpretation of a work before I have completed it, there are cases where it is necessary, and these two plays would be in that category. I really need to brush up on my Shakespeare. There was a time in my college days and later, when I was much more exposed to works of this period, and the flow of the language and archaic phrases became familiar. And one more comment about the way the physical page is set up. The characters names are abbreviated, and since, in both plays there are characters with similar names, (Volpone, Voltore) or (Dapper, Drugger) they became easily confused, especially since the plays were (purposely) confusing, which was part of the humor, of course. If one is familiar with these works, however, that would not be too much of a problem, I would think, but upon first reading, it is. And I looked them up at Project Gutenberg, because it is much easier to copy and paste quotes than to type them out, and the texts are identical, at least it appears that way in what I have used for quotes. However, the numbering of the scenes are different.
    Jonson was known for his acerbic satire which blatantly exposes the greed, hypocrisy, vanity, and complete lack of integrity in seventeenth century London (and most everywhere on the planet in any given era!!). He also exposes fools, dupes, swindlers and the swindled, and some who are just plain ridiculous. Lotsa them now, too, huh? The blurb on the back cover of this edition states, "Both plays offer sparking examples of their author's novel approach to satire and his distinctive blend of savagery, humor, moralism, and a powerful sense of the absurd. Indeed! Here, now, is a bit about the two plays.
    In this one, we meet the immensely greedy Volpone, with his even more immensely greedy servant, Mosca, the Fly or parasite. Most of the character names refer to an appropriate animal. Volpone is the Fox. The rest of his household consists of Nano, the dwarf, Castrone, the eunuch, and Androgyno, the hermaphrodite, It takes place in Venice, but is based on London society.
    Volpone, a wealthy miser, and in completely good health, fakes terminal illness in order to string along three fools who expect to be his heir. Each one showers gifts upon Volpone, assuming when he dies it will all be returned to them. Mosca is the truly conniving creature in this play, constantly thinking up ways for Volpone to benefit to ever greater extents from the ignorance of his grovelers. Ass-kissers might be a better term. Those who would throw their grandmother under a bus to get hold of Volpone's money. Yeah, we know lots of them, don't we?
    There's Voltore (Vulture), the advocate (attorney); Corbaccio (Raven) an old gentleman who is mostly deaf; and Corvino (Crow . . . hey, don't know if I like that!) the merchant, who basically does throw his wife under a bus. And there is the totally ridiculous English Knight, Sir Politic Would-Be, who is stationed in Venice, and fabricates all kinds of outlandish plots. His wife, Lady Politic Would-Be is equally ludicrous. Bonario, Corbaccio's son, and Celia, Corvino's wife are the two most "normal" characters, and both are disowned, publicly slandered, and the victims of false witnesses in court. However, in this play, the truth comes out and the liars, crooks and swindlers get their just rewards.
    And so, we observe the three expectant heirs to Volpone's fortunes pay him visits bearing gifts. But it is not until Mosca mentions the fact that Corvino's virtuous wife is also a knockout, that Volpone lusts after more than just money. He dresses up as a well-known peddler of quack medicine, and peddles under her window. Once he sees her, he must have her. So Mosca sets to work.
    Now, I also must mention that Mosca has convinced Corbaccio to make Volpone his heir, rather than his son. Corbaccio is a deaf and doddering old man who, like the others, does believe Volpone is on his death bed, so he agrees to change the will. And Corvino is enraged that his lady, whom he keeps under lock and key, has thrown down her handkerchief to the peddler, and calls her all sorts of vile names. However, Mosca once again has plans, and he visits Corvino, telling him Volpone, in his dying state would certainly benefit from the presence of his beautiful wife. Of course, nothing other could happen because Volpone is on his death bed. So suddenly Corvino flatters his wife, as if nothing has happened, and tells her they will pay a visit to Volpone, neither knowing, of course that he was actually the quack peddler. A time has been appointed for their visit. Mosca has also appointed a time for Bonario to visit and secretly witness his father changing the will. But Corvino comes too early, so Bonario must be temporarily hidden. Meanwhile Celia begins to guess what it is she must do, and begs for death or even torture rather than compromising her virtue. But Corvino makes her go into Volpone's room (alone) anyways. She finds, to her even greater horror, that he is not ill at all, but quite ready to function. When she does not submit, he tries to rape her. Bonario, in hiding, hears her cry and rescues her.
    Soon they all end up in court, with Voltore, the advocate, pressing charges against Celia and Bonario, claiming she is a well-known whore and they were lovers! But things quickly begin to unravel for Volpone and Mosca, because they cannot leave well enough alone!
    Here are some quotes to get you laughing. The first is spoken by Volpone, as Mosca goes to welcome his first sucker of the day, Voltore. He prepares himself to look near death.

VOLP: Loving Mosca!
'Tis well: my pillow now, and let him enter.
Now, my fain'd cough, my pthisic, and my gout,
My apoplexy, palsy, and catarrhs,
Help, with your forced functions, this my posture,
Wherein, this three year, I have milk'd their hopes.
He comes; I hear him—Uh! [COUGHING.] uh! uh! uh! O—

    The second is spoken by the ridiculous Englishman in Venice, Sir Politic Would-Be, to the English traveler, Peregrine (who knows he's a fool). Peregrine has just told the knight about the death of a certain spy, and Sir Politic explains how he used to hide secret messages in food.

SIR P: While he lived, in action.
He has received weekly intelligence,
Upon my knowledge, out of the Low Countries,
For all parts of the world, in cabbages;
And those dispensed again to ambassadors,
In oranges, musk-melons, apricocks,
Lemons, pome-citrons, and such-like: sometimes
In Colchester oysters, and your Selsey cockles.
PER: You make me wonder.
SIR P: Sir, upon my knowledge.
Nay, I've observed him, at your public ordinary,
Take his advertisement from a traveller
A conceal'd statesman, in a trencher of meat;
And instantly, before the meal was done,
Convey an answer in a tooth-pick.

    And the last is when Sir Politic's wife pays Volpone and unwanted visit. She is a non-stop talker and he begs Mosca to get rid of her.

Rid me of this my torture, quickly, there;
My madam, with the everlasting voice:
The bells, in time of pestilence, ne'er made
Like noise, or were in that perpetual motion!
The Cock-pit comes not near it. All my house,
But now, steam'd like a bath with her thick breath.
A lawyer could not have been heard; nor scarce
Another woman, such a hail of words
She has let fall. For hell's sake, rid her hence.

    And with that, let us move on to The Alchemist.
    After I finished reading it, I went back and re-read the Wikipedia synopsis, and I realized I pretty much "got it," and perhaps was not as confused as I originally thought. But the one thing to understand in this play is that it is truly built on nonsense. So don't try too hard to make sense out of it! And it helps to know terminology of alchemy, astrology, and other types of "metaphysical" activities that were popular at the time, and some still are, but hopefully less goofy. According to Wikipedia, this play "is generally considered Jonson's best and most characteristic comedy."
    It seems like quite a bit of what I've been reading lately deals with the plague, and so does this one. The master of the house, Lovewit, has gone to the country while the plague rages in London. (But it doesn't seem to be raging all that bad.) He leaves his butler, Jeremy, whose real name we do not know until the end, in charge of the house. But upon his exit, Jeremy is transformed into Captain Face, and teams up with a prostitute, Dol Common, and the alchemist, Subtle. When the play opens the two men are at each other's throats for greed, and Dol calms them, down, reminding them they must all work together if they are to make their fortune. And what they do is promise people all kinds of impossible feats, according to their wishes. Dapper, the lawyer's clerk, is a gambler and wants to be guaranteed to win. Drugger is a tobacconist and he needs information on the best way to set up shop to draw in the most wealth. Then we get to Sir Epicure Mammon, a knight who wants the Philosopher's Stone, which legend says will turn base metals to gold. He wants all kind of other things, too, like the ability to perform fantastic acts of sex . . . . Yeah, well.
    He arrives with Surly, who probably is one of the few people here that is not a fool and he can see right through the lies and fraud, although Sir Mammon swears he will be convinced. Then there are the Anabaptists, (whom we would recognize today as evangelicals, such as the Amish and Mennonites or Puritans), and, with whom Jonson truly held a grudge, as they were active in trying to close down the theatres. We also have a young and wealthy newly widowed woman, Dame Pliant and her brother Kastrill. Of course, there are lots of takers for the wealthy widow.
    And so, Lovewit's quiet house soon becomes an ongoing stream of "clients," which the neighbors are noting and we do not realize. As in Volpone, the greedier the swindlers become, the more tightly they back themselves into a corner, especially when clients begin showing up not at their appointed times. It takes smoother talking, more outrageous lying, some incredible disguises and an explosion to keep things under control, and all the while they are racking up huge amounts of booty. But alas, they are done in when Lovewit unexpectedly arrives home surrounded by neighbors with the police on the way. And I will not give away the ending, but I will share some quotes.
    Perhaps one of the most foolish of the clients is Dapper, the clerk, whom subtle convinces is the relative of a Fairy Queen. He is given instructions to perform an absurd rite.

—Conduct him forth by the back way.—
Sir, against one o'clock prepare yourself;
Till when you must be fasting; only take
Three drops of vinegar in at your nose,
Two at your mouth, and one at either ear;
Then bathe your fingers' ends and wash your eyes,
To sharpen your five senses, and cry "hum"
Thrice, and then "buz" as often; and then come.

    And we enter even deeper into the absurd when Mammon tries to convince Surly that Adam wrote the treatise on the Philosopher's Stone.

MAM. Pertinax Surly,
Will you believe antiquity? records?
I'll shew you a book where Moses and his sister,
And Solomon have written of the art;
Ay, and a treatise penn'd by Adam—
SUR. How!
MAM. Of the philosopher's stone, and in High Dutch.
SUR. Did Adam write, sir, in High Dutch?
MAM. He did;
Which proves it was the primitive tongue.
SUR. What paper?
MAM. On cedar board.
SUR. O that, indeed, they say,
Will last 'gainst worms.

    And here, Subtle is trying to prove to Ananias, the Anabaptist Deacon, that they are not Heathens, but learned in Greek knowledge. He has Face answer his complicated questions.

ANA. All's heathen but the Hebrew.
SUB. Sirrah, my varlet, stand you forth and speak to him,
Like a philosopher: answer in the language.
Name the vexations, and the martyrisations
Of metals in the work.
FACE. Sir, putrefaction, Solution, ablution, sublimation,
Cohobation, calcination, ceration, and
SUB. This is heathen Greek to you, now!—
And when comes vivification?
FACE. After mortification.
SUB. What's cohobation?
FACE. 'Tis the pouring on
Your aqua regis, and then drawing him off,
To the trine circle of the seven spheres.
SUB. What's the proper passion of metals?
FACE. Malleation.
SUB. What's your ultimum supplicium auri?
FACE. Antimonium.
SUB. This is heathen Greek to you!—And what's your mercury?
FACE. A very fugitive, he will be gone, sir.
SUB. How know you him?
FACE. By his viscosity,
His oleosity, and his suscitability.
SUB. How do you sublime him?
FACE. With the calce of egg-shells,
White marble, talc.
SUB. Your magisterium now,
What's that?
FACE. Shifting, sir, your elements,
Dry into cold, cold into moist, moist into hot,
Hot into dry.
SUB. This is heathen Greek to you still!
Your lapis philosophicus?
FACE. 'Tis a stone,
And not a stone; a spirit, a soul, and a body:
Which if you do dissolve, it is dissolved;
If you coagulate, it is coagulated;
If you make it to fly, it flieth.

    While they are humiliating Dapper with his "fairy rite" in order to purify him so he may meet his Fairy Queen, unexpected clients show up. So they gag him with gingerbread and lock him in the privy. But meanwhile, it is Surly who has appeared, disguised as a Spanish Noble in order to rescue Dame Pliant from the conniving trio. Drugger shows up, expecting to win the widow (and subtle and Face are already vying for her). And Dapper has eaten his gag. And Lovewit has arrived home!
    Whew! Quite a busy play, and I agree it is a masterpiece. A second reading should probably be undertaken. Incidentally, the illustration on the cover is of Volpone Adoring His Treasure, by the well-know artist/illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley.


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