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Ben Jonson’s “Alchemist” and Early Modern Laboratory Space
Author(s): John Shanahan
Source: Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies , Spring – Summer, 2008, Vol. 8, No.
1 (Spring – Summer, 2008), pp. 35-66
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40339589
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BEN JONSON’S ALCHEMIST AND EARLY
MODERN LABORATORY SPACE
John Shanahan
ABSTRACT
This essay argues that The Alchemist played an important but largely unrecognized part i
the formation of early modern science. It shows howjonsons innovative combination of a
chemical content and neoclassical form produced a model of space, time, and dexterity us
ful for the development of laboratory experience. At the same time, the play demonstrat
how new ideas about what a stage was and what it could do created a legacy of ambivalen
in the development of the (semi-) public laboratory. Reading Jonson’s play as exemplary, thi
essay will also indicate why we ought to consider early modern drama more generally as a
important conceptual source of the protocols of experimental natural philosophy.
[Y]et surely to Alcumy this right is due, that it maybe compared to the
Husband man wherof JEsope makes the Fable; that when he died, told his
Sonnes, that he had left unto them gold, buried under ground in his Vine-
yard; and they digged over all the ground, and gold they found none, but
by reason of their stirring and digging the mold about, the rootes of their
Vines, they had a great Vintage the yeare following: so assuredly the
search and stirre to make gold hath brought to light a great number of
good and fruitfull inventions and experiments, as well for the disclosing
of Nature; as for the use of mans life.
– Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605)
Alchemist (1610) would seem to have a trivial role at best in any history
of early modern natural philosophy. Other than a vaguely identified
“glass” Doll strikes from Subtles hands in the opening moments, the play
THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES
Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2008) © 2008
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36 & THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1
shows no experimental equipment and the alchemical laboratory behind a
back door on stage is entered and exited only by the con-men Subtle and Face.
From the perspective of the audience, Subtle’s “laboratory” is no more than the
words used to evoke it, as many studies have noted.1 We do not see any overtly
proto-scientific work on stage, though we hear a torrent of imposing jargon
and see a frenzy of action. We could add to this the fact that in performances
from the Restoration through the nineteenth century the alchemical theme
itself was often secondary- early modern and Enlightenment critics claimed
that alchemy was not an essential target of the play, but merely one convenient
vocabulary among others for a satire on general or topical themes.2 The trio
onstage are unequivocally cheats; the activity of gulling stupid people through
skilled performance recapitulates in miniature the experience of the audience;
in the final moments the (play) house is reclaimed from the realm of collective
delusion by its owner. Could this play be anything other than Jonson’s more or
less self-indicting meditation on his own business of public theater?
In this essay I will argue that The Alchemist does in fact have an integral
part to play in revisionist histories of the formation of early modern science.
The role of Jonson’s play in such a history has less to do with topical references
to alchemy or magic (though they abound and are significant, as will be made
clear) than it does with the manner in which its dramaturgy produces new im-
ages of space and time and models new kinds of relationships useful for the
conceptual development of laboratory experience. Jonsons play demonstrates
how new models of what a stage was and what it could do contributed to the
nascent figuration of the public laboratory. Reading Jonson’s important play as
an exemplary instance, I will show why we ought to consider early modern
drama, particularly when wrought by means of the evolving set of rules now
summarized in the term “neoclassical,” as an important conceptual source for
the development of the protocols of experimental natural philosophy. The Alchemist is virtually unique in early modern English drama for being set in one
unchanging room in accordance with the three dramatic unities that were to
coalesce into neoclassical orthodoxy in the following decades, particularly in
France.3 This essay will show the mediating influence of the unities, as theory
and practice, in the imagination of early modern laboratory spaces. In an age
before the creation of purpose-built public laboratories as such, and while
meditating on the nature of alchemy and dexterity, Jonson suggested new con-
ceptual possibilities in his innovative use of stage space. In so doing he mapped
out a corporate model of epistemology important for the creation of scientific
societies. Finally, my reading of The Alchemist contributes to ongoing work in
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SHANAHAN 37
science studies that analyzes how the “two cultures” of
related and shaped one another over the course of ear
will make a strong claim for the influence of artistic
tific discourse while at the same time acknowledging
distinctions themselves are in part a consequence of t
Using an analogy with scientific procedure, L.A. B
the form of Jonsons middle comedies as “a series of pe
number of constants and one variable” (200).4 But the
neoclassical plays such as The Alchemist is more than
semblance of two distinct and self-coherent discou
and drama. In early modern England, natural philoso
ciently distinct from other discourses (most import
chemy, demonology, and legerdemain) to serve as a m
son with drama. Drama was imbricated with these p
as well. What readers like Beaurline, who assume a
tures” divorce of arts and sciences, see as a briefly inte
a strong symptom of the pre-disciplinary fluidity in
losophy and drama, but also masques, anatomy dem
cabinet collecting and display, forensic rhetoric, and st
cal performance were in Jonson s lifetime all partially
of an older and broader realm perhaps best described
atricality.” Some recent studies have begun to recogn
conceptual ferment and its consequences for our mod
The world was indeed a stage in the early seventeenth
losophers, like princes and early capitalist entreprene
inherited associations of “playing” before patrons.6 Th
•reasons The Alchemist holds a central place in the tan
by which the first purpose-built permanent theaters a
laboratories evolved together and later grew apart as
neered new strategies to understand and sometimes d
ments of their experimental repertoires. The larger
tions of dexterity for early modern empiricism might
did it mean for natural philosophers to make deliber
were called “unobvious,” experiments, in a culture pr
cal work as spectacle? As late as the 1650s, for example
the Royal Society were meeting at Oxford to plan the
More mocked their work as that “Mechanical kind o
tumbling of and trying tricks with the Matter (which
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38 m THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1
merits)” (1: 36). How and when was an experimental trial not merely a perfor-
mance in the sense of theatrical playing, but also something potentially more
stable and significant intellectually? Jonson’s Alchemist had already raised this
question and sketched a solution to it at the same time.
Recent scholarship in science studies has shown the vital importance of
understanding the role of place in knowledge production.7 Laboratories8 are
spaces where purposive work is focused for processing outcomes: truth can be
apprehended within the boundaries of a laboratory because in a paradoxical
way the experimenter “withdraw[s] from the world for the purpose of attend-
ing better to it” (Alpers 405). Philosopher of science Joseph Rouse defines lab-
oratories as specially prepared loci for the manufacture of “phenomenal
microworlds” (71). Karin Knorr-Cetina calls laboratories “enhanced environments” for manipulating “natural and social orders” (26). At the same time it
is important to note that for the purposes of science laboratories need not be a
single room or a permanent structure. Indeed, a laboratory space at its most
abstract is little more than a flexible frame and attendant epistemological rules.
Rouse points out that labs can be simply a “context of equipment functioning
together” (107), and Knorr-Cetina reminds us that they are sometimes only
“virtual” and “coextensive with the experiment” as in computer simulations,
outdoor fieldwork, and psychological research (35). A single closed room, a series of computers linked via networks, a field or dig site, a desk, a particle accel-
erator-all these locations in different ways can become what sociologist
Thomas Gieryn has termed “truth spots” where, due to very human mediation
and protocol, facts are then deemed to manifest themselves.9
But stages are also, of course, special places where time, space, and dexterity are variously bundled together, and often in order to produce truths of
some kind. Although the history of theater seems overwhelmingly tied to a
few types of buildings and acting styles, a full account of drama as such
would need to include indoor and outdoor, impromptu and planned, small
and large works, and their correspondingly different spaces of performance.
As a cultural form, drama privileges “boundary effects,” the play of ontolog-
ical states and epistemological thresholds, where gestures, words, and things
are charged with a new energy and the very apprehension of reality is explic-
itly theorized.10 Laboratories and stages, then, share important physical and
conceptual features consequent on being boundaries both virtual and real.
By means of physical practices and mental representations, both labs and
stages can link together local and distant places and employ a mix of fixed
and mobile architectures. The stage can be considered one temporary knot
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SHANAHAN M 39
of time and space through which we encounter still others; even th
“local” of on-stage representations is tied inextricably to contiguou
(auditorium, dressing rooms, doors, windows), evoked “elsewheres,”
other times. This latter description of drama accords well with recent
studies models of how laboratories do their work. For example, accor
Bruno Latour’s influential actor-network theory (ANT), the power of
ratory lies in its linkage of formerly unconnected forces, objects, and
A lab is a dense passage-point through which, for instance, near an
places and strong and weak forces are made to interact and signify
ways together. Not only do the seemingly autonomous realms of the
tific and the socio-cultural come to interrelate in laboratory work, La
gues, but in these special places “the very difference between the ‘ins
the ‘outside,’ and the difference of scale between ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ l
precisely what laboratories are built to destabilize or undo” (“Give” 1
In his study of the prehistory of the English public theaters, Joel A
notes how early Tudor drama often served as a space of proto -aesthetic
ment from the world dedicated to the enhancement of forensic capab
William N. West has recently augmented this account by showing how
the pressure of the increasing number of live public performances as
teenth century progressed, inherited notions of what a theater was shift
the static tableau known to the Tudor humanists (modeled on encyclo
temples of fame, and the like, and known primarily from books) to
creasingly volatile live-action flutter of theater and meta-theater ass
with Elizabethan and Jacobean public playing. In what follows I will ar
a modification of these historical insights to emphasize that the pr
scientific use of a unified neoclassical knot of dramatic time-space by
and several others in the seventeenth century shows that the older, ”
notion of the theater as a largely indubitable space for the present
knowledge (on the model of legal forensics and oratorical display) did
appear. Instead, with the rise of the public companies and the vicissi
live performance, the inherited Tudor model moved to a new intell
venue- theories of “the unities”- a critical doctrine with a substantia
in England in the middle and late decades of the seventeenth century.13
We must first examine Jonson’s intricate fashioning of dramatic tim
space. Few plays have so consciously measured time and conveyed the
of its passage on characters as The Alchemist. Among others, Ian Don
has shown the extent to which in Jonson’s middle comedies time is a
commodity fought over and hoarded by characters (89-105). In The Al
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40 m THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1
time is cast as invariable and in that way mechanical, even terrifyingly transcendent. Time cannot stretch, it will not disappear in dances or masques, and
it barely weakens its hold in brief moments of psychological reverie. The unity
of time is so extreme and literal, and makes such demands on the characters,
that we can rightly liken Subtle, Face, and the others to parts in a clockwork or
cogs in a vast impersonal system. Because of this temporal contraction it is
easy to create a rigid timetable of the action.14 The entire play is a frenzy of ac-
tivity as cozeners and dupes come and go repeatedly through each act. A knock
at the door often propels the next scene or complication, culminating in act 5
with furious knocking at the front door first by the returned Lovewit, and then
by other dupes, neighbors, and officers. From the opening scene, the audience,
like the trio of cheats, wonders anxiously which knock will signal the return of
the master and the end of the illusion. The characters are never inactive save
for Dapper’s extended stint in the privy awaiting his visit from the “Queen of
Fairy.” At the end of act 2, Face must run in order to keep a meeting with Surly
he arranged just a few scenes before. When all exit at the close of act 2, the stage
is empty for the only time in the play. The only break in the represented time of
the action comes between acts 2 and 3 and covers less than an hour, as Subtle s
comments to the returned Ananias show (3.2.1-2). By the time we are in the
thick of the plot, scenes become fused completely; the instantaneous, farcical
transition of act 3 to 4 is marked only by Face pushing Dapper and his associ-
ates out of one door and letting Mammon in at another. Anxious improvisa-
tion and comic timing are conveyed simultaneously in the rapidity of the
change from a loud, full stage where the trio tickle and rob the blindfolded
Dapper to the calm, empty room Face opens to Mammon seconds later.
Like his work on stage time, Jonson’s work on stage space in The Alchemist is particularly complex and meta-theatrical. Lovewit ‘s “house” changes
to fit the imagination of those who enter it, despite the fact that we literally see
only one room on stage. Evoking boundlessness from within a quite limited
area, The Alchemist demonstrates the dynamic nature and epistemological
uses of the physical structures humans create and inhabit. Space is not an in-
flexible, static medium, nor is it a simple container. Space is produced and
shaped by human relationships with the built environment and with other be-
ings. As Henri Lefebvre argues in his classic study, The Production of Space,
space is a more or less pliable medium through which the contours of the social
self are negotiated: “[ijtself the outcome of past actions, social space is what
permits fresh actions to occur, while suggesting others and prohibiting yet oth-
ers” (73). 15 Stage space epitomizes this flexibility and emotional resonance, as
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SHANAHAN H 41
Jonson s self-conscious theatricality makes clear: stillness and mot
and cacophony, can engender feelings such as freedom and restra
Alchemist one mundane room at different times suggests a numbe
from Peru (2.1.2) to a brothel (2.3.226) or a labyrinth (2.3.308). F
calls Lovewit’s house a “dream factory” (lii); Donaldson groups the
Volpone as an exploration of “human expectation” (102).
In addition, the play’s “permanent interior setting” recognize
Chambers decades ago as unprecedented in Elizabethan and Jacob
ater does more than simply present London to a London audienc
The Alchemist is set in the same place and time as the initial perf
if it is the documentation of a single historical event or empirical
audience of the first performances walked into the Blackfriars thea
be reminded that they were watching alchemy “here in the friars”
make matters even more self-reflexive, the initial audience left t
empty or in the care of others while they viewed a play about the c
of a home while its owner is away. The play represents more than
London of its contemporary audience; it is a communal delusion t
cused, like the actual stage itself, upon one neighborhood room a
cent doorways. Jonson fashioned a means of audience self-place
increasingly diverse and sophisticated metropolis. According
Turner, in these city comedies the stage functions as “an
screen . . . through which viewers recognized themselves as part
lective civic entity, correlating a concept of citizenship not simp
sense of legal and institutional belonging but with physical plac
realistic urban topography” (195). The prologue’s request of
houres” (line 1) with which to show “Bawd, squire, impostor, man
more” (line 8), strives to be literally true in a way most plays d
scrupulous unity of place corresponds to the invariant passage of
both serve as laboratory controls for Jonson s epistemological age
In this unified time-space knot in the Blackfriars, remarkable tra
tions occur and new relationships are produced. For example, The Al
frenzy of speech during which all of the characters spin dense webs o
multiple purposes. In his influential reading of The Alchemist, Edwar
noted how in this play brimming with dialect, cant, and jargon, th
like the plot, rises only to explode in the end. Audiences of The A
engulfed by the torrent of speech; William West for instance not
languages of alchemy, kabbala, and other occult practices dazzle th
rather than escaping their notice; they are, to use the distinction Jo
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42 $ THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1
of masques, gazed at rather than read” (182). The play, in effect, stuns us by
opening with an obscene shouting match and never slackening its full sensory
barrage. Several scenes present Mammons long fantasy-soliloquies and his
cracked exegesis of alchemical lore. As Subtle, Mammon, and Face ply their jargon back and forth, Surly remarks that it reminds him of thieves’ cant (2.3.42).
In one scene, Surly ‘s Spanish is not understood by Face and Subtle, in another an
alchemical catechism is recited (2.5.22ff). Later, Doll portrays a mad noblewoman who torments Mammon with rambling apocalyptic genealogies. Finally, as Mammon and Face try to calm the raving Doll who is shouting in the
background (4.5.25-33), the “laboratory” in the back room explodes (4.5.54).
Prior to the explosion, as dupes continue to be taken in, Lovewit ‘s house
fills with new economic potential and the trio s titles inflate with euphemism
and pretension. Subtle becomes “Doctor” and “Sovereign”; Jeremy the butler,
sometimes Face, becomes “Captain”; punk Doll Common presents among other
personae the Queen of Fairy and “Royall” Doll (1.1.74). The enraptured Mammon sees in Doll a likeness to “Austriack princes” (4.1.56). Through their skill in
langdage, the “venter tripartite’ (1.1.135) generates a dynamic space of possibility that Partridge nicely describes as “simultaneous existence on multiple levels”
(120). Through their labor, the plain room in Lovewit s house becomes a factory
for new social value, and one small locality a portal to the far away and unseen.
Each character makes of Lovewit’s house what he or she desires: “You may be any
thing,” Subtle confides to the excited Anabaptist brethren as they contemplate
their future with the Philosophers stone (3.2.53). No character is satisfied with
himself or herself and each expects Nature to be transformed by artifice. The
dupes who frequent Lovewit s house, despite their variety of professions and
ambitions, ultimately “possess one common denominator, a susceptibility to the
wiles of Subtle, Face, and Doll.”17 The truths produced by Jonson’s stagelaboratory will be informed by and relevant to society as a whole.
Sir Epicure Mammon, the most extravagant of the dupes and, not surprisingly, the most deeply versed in alchemy, finds Subtle’s garret a space of
wonder and infinite potential. When he arrives with Surly, Mammon crosses
the doorway into the domestic, but only to imagine the place more expansive
than any building:
MAMMON. Come on, sir. Now, you set your foot on shore
In novo orbe; Here’s the rich Peru:
And there within, sir, are the golden mines,
Great SALOMON’S Ophirl He was sayling to’t
Three yeeres, but we have reach’d it in ten months. (2.1.1-5)
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SHANAHAN M 43
Both time and space appear elastic in this breathless but ultimate
rhetoric; Mammon fuses the language of epic romance with the que
of hermetic magic.18 Jonson, like his contemporary Francis Bacon
attacked this slippery rhetoric of secrecy and accomplishment. Baco
timistic about empirical experimentation, but Mammons boast that
compressed to ten months the three years the biblical Solomon need
the renewable riches of Ophir (I Kings 10:22) is a perfect example o
in magical shortcuts that Bacon criticized repeatedly. In the New Org
instance, Bacon argues that instead of a patient accumulation of ex
and axioms by method, magicians, alchemists, and Aristotelians sh
mon defects of thought that led them prematurely to establish abstr
laws and build “a fantastic philosophy on a few furnace experiment
11: 89). Because of such intellectual defects, which Bacon terms th
men produce what he calls “Ad quod vult Scientias? or “As-you-like-it
For man would rather believe what he wishes to be true” (11: 87). B
it took cooperative and painstaking effort to properly ground res
true pattern of the world as we actually find it and not as someone’s
vate reason hands it down to him” (11: 187). From Subtle s work Ma
pects universal power and the gratification of his ever-unfolding d
piety he presents to Subtle in desiring the philosopher’s stone is all pr
of course, is Subtle’s profession of piety in creating it). Echoing co
images of imperial excess, Mammon’s “voluptuous mind” (4.5.174)
most exclusively at personal satisfaction, and his fantasies spin out of
he speculates on his impending powers. William W. E. Slights is co
the fantasies of Mammon and his fellow dupes create a “mystification
in the play (1 16). In an imagined oval room of pleasure, for example,
fects will enhance Mammon’s senses with virtual reality. No longe
with simple appearances, his bedchamber will have mirrors
Cut in more subtill angles, to disperse,
And multiply the figures, as I walke
Naked betweene my succubae. My mists
Tie have of purfume, vapor’d ’bout the roome,
To loose our selves in; and my t>aths, like pits
To fall into: from whence, we will come forth,
And rowle us drie in gossamour, and roses. (2.2.45-52)
Mammon’s fantasy room, like the one in which he stands as he de
this to the audience, is a web of illusion and reality, art and artif
spaces and discovered depths.
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44 m THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1
Though Mammons alchemically inspired aims are the most blasphe-
mous, he is not alone in his projects to reconfigure space. Abel Drugger
wishes to charge the environment with new potential and force by hiring
Subtle to magically align his new apothecary shop:
DRUGGER. . . . (Here’s the plot on’t.)
And I would know, by art, sir, of your worship,
Which way I should make my dore, by necromancie.
And, where my shelves. And, which should be for boxes.
And, which for the pots. (1.3.9-13)
Drugger is given directions with which to reconfigure the spatial outlay of
the shop. He is encouraged to bury a magnet under the threshold “to draw in
gallants, that weare spurres” (1.3.70), and is given a “hieroglyphick” sign to
place out front (2.4.24).19 The young law clerk Dapper inflates with new de-
sire as well. His initial goal is modest, simply a magic familiar (a “rifling
flye”) to help him win at occasional gambling (1.2.84). When the possibility
of greater power is hinted at, however, Dapper’s goals change quickly: “I
would have it for all games
emphasis added). When later the “Queen of Fairy” blindfo
Dapper recapitulates in miniature the experience of the
spectators he is immobilized physically and his senses ob
experience temporarily a realm peopled with preternatu
ordinary human reality (3.5.15-82).
Subtle, Face, and Doll are by far the most adept proje
environment, true masters at producing social space by
mundane rooms with dexterity and desire.20 By usurpin
house, they create new roles in the urban underworld of
the opening scene, the trio fights over precedence, and t
vided with some perspective on where these cozeners hav
ting up house. As Subtle and Face argue back and forth, th
lives is epitomized in the alchemical jargon:
FACE: Why! Who Am I, my mungrill? Who am I?
SUBTLE: I’ll tell you,
Since you know not your selfe Thou vermine, have I tane thee, out of dung,
Sublim’d thee, and exalted thee, and fix’d thee
F the third region, call’d our state of grace?
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SHANAHAN 45
Wrought thee to spirit, to quintessence y with paines
Would twise have won me the philosophers worke? (1.1.12-
Although Subtle argues that he has created “Face” from
named Jeremy, Face maintains that he has invested the m
the effort. Face also reminds Subtle of his part in obtai
house for the common enterprise:
I ga’ you count ‘nance, credit for your coales,
Your stills, your glasses, your materialise
Built you a fornace, drew you customers,
Advanc’d all your black arts; lent you, beside,
A house to practice in. (1.1.43-47)
According to Face, they are now capable of new projects b
lar location and prey he supplies. Part of alchemy ‘s trad
source of its rampant abuse in Jonson’s eyes, was how ea
bled as a discourse of social mobility. Face, Subtle, and D
perverse example of early modern corporate affiliation.
household are not a family, but instead colleagues or a
contemporary with the emerging economy of early Stu
Haynes has shown how The Alchemist gives a great dea
criminal underworld s nature and causes, dramatizing an
in which dupes and cons, economy and crime, are mutu
structuring. According to Haynes, Jonson “sees not only
breaking up, but the form and presence of a new economy
both society and the underworld” (29-30). He rightly no
tivity is an example of emergent corporate identity and
terminology of business, incorporation, and trade permea
based, self-determining, more and less skilled, and mo
technicians like Subtle, Face, and Doll were different in
from the tradesmen and virtuosi who rivaled university
chanical work in early modern England. Christopher Hil
early virtuosi depended on the domestic or semi-domestic
knowledge for their materials and routines. Following
neering work, Hill claims, “[t]he nearest that sixteenth an
century scientists could get to a laboratory . . . was in the
workers, glass-makers, paper-makers, dyers, brewers,
industries or industries in which new processes had been
One well-known enterprise, which Jonson glances at direc
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46 M THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1
and 4.1.90), was that of the magus, mathematician, and sometime courtier
John Dee who, with his associate “scryer” Edward Kelly, oversaw a household
complex of more than twenty persons in the 1580s and 1590s. As Deborah
Harkness has shown, several of the servants in Dee s alchemical household had
criminal backgrounds, and with Dee they undertook experimental work, astrological speculation, and conversations with angels as means to fashion live-
lihoods at a time when natural and supernatural knowledge had no settled
place in the culture. The new, skill-based bonds forged by Jonson s trio repre-
sent a haunting negative example of virtuoso collaboration, in a home and
around a furnace, where the experimental activity of seventeenth-century nat-
ural philosophy would often take place.
Andrew Pickering has used the term “mangling” to describe the manner
in which scientific experimentation involves the open-ended evolution together of material and human agency as each is tuned to the other over time.
Instruments and tools are developed, calibrated, and recalibrated; new tech-
nologies make new data possible; behavioral and mental protocols accommodate ‘themselves to new technological necessities. Because of this mutual
tuning – a “dialectic of resistance and accommodation” (xi) as Pickering summarizes it – the very contours of human action and natural force change as new
potentials and limits emerge and with them new kinds of causal explanation.
Amounts and kinds of agency are not necessarily constants, Pickering argues:
new funding arrives or disappears; new skill-sets are realized by tinkering; and
finally, “[n]o one knows in advance the shape of future machines and what
they will do” (14). One of Pickering’s central goals is a history of science that
will enable us to understand comprehensively the real-time creation and stabilization of knowledge. When new routines and instruments are used in experiments, it can be difficult to decide what constitutes a factual signal and what is
artifactual “noise.” The concepts of “tuning” and the “mangle of practice” capture effectively the way different factors (sociological, legal, natural, personal,
and the like) are themselves provisional and subject to change during the unpredictable and often improvisatory evolution of an experimental trial. With
materials such as clothes, a furnace, and chemical instruments, with verbal
acuity, and sometimes with routines as ordinary as spying out a window, Jon-
son’s trio of cheats draw many resources together to make themselves more
powerful than their victims. In Lovewit s house mundane objects become new
and more efficient tools for future cheating, while physical acting routines –
some rehearsed, others to be improvised ad hoc- are shaped for new ends. A
good deal of the effort is linguistic, as we have seen above; words stun and un-
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SHANAHAN M 47
settle the dupes and the audience. But a more important, and n
authority in The Alchemist, one crucial for the future of natura
skill with instrumentation as a means of making the natural wor
behavior increasingly predictable, and perhaps even to an exten
Early modern alchemy and natural magic, like their successor s
ioned new phenomena by way of innovative performances wit
and techniques.22 Jonson the playwright and one-time actor en
dynamic firsthand through experience with props in the playhou
The Alchemist stresses the repulsiveness of alchemy ‘s constit
rials – onstage and ultimately offstage too – and the operatio
with them. As alchemy works to raise base material from the
form of exaltation and value, so it promises to do with human
the skeptic or “heretique” (2.3.3) to the alchemical faith, not
objects most forcefully to the sordidness of the entire business. F
chemy should stay hidden and domestic, for it is made only of th
ordinary fallen existence and, despite a rhetoric of sublimatio
and “states of grace,” Subtle and Mammon’s object is no differ
folk medicines of the local cunning- woman or rustic. He asks
What else are all your termes,
[YJour broths, your menstrues, and materialise
Of pisse, and egge-shells, womens termes, mans bloud,
Haire o’ the head, burnt clouts, chalke, merds, and clay,
Poulder of bones, scalings of iron, glasse,
And worlds of other strange ingredients.
Would burst a man to name? (2.3.182, 193-98)
‘The seemingly esoteric ingredients used in this sublime art cou
any home and by gleaning the cast-off pieces of London’s nascent
chemy here seems at best an impertinent redescription of the ord
fane. The precision and force of Surly ‘s description of the trio
rogues” (4.6.16) lies in his recognition that the latter s activity ha
soned a social space already under pressure from, among other
ing gender roles and the growth of capitalist economic forces in th
alchemy is tied to sordid home-based objects, it can also be tied
low- status, private inhabitants: women, children, and servants. O
of the seventeenth century, women were actively excluded from t
public spaces of medicine and science, and natural philosophers st
their newly established laboratories apart from the domestic real
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48 m THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1
construct early modern science’s ideal “world without women.”23 The Alchemist
in its form and setting crystallizes this very “problem” self-consciously – there
is a crucial tangling together of alchemy, charlatanry, and the home. The play
makes clear that Subtle could not possibly produce anything really effective or
edifying in Lovewit s house (unless it is a moral lesson for the audience), and
this is why we do not see an actual laboratory behind the back door: there are
beakers and liquids and even a furnace, we are told, but it is only for magical
sleight of hand. In The Alchemist such spaces are illusory and deceitful, like the
theater that both fascinated and repelled Jonson.
And yet despite Jonson’s overt satire of rogues and their playing, The
Alchemist does in fact valorize creativity and dexterity. Anne Barton is certainly correct that The Alchemist “places a premium on amoral intelligence”
(147). Over the course of the play, the stage is filled with secrecy and strategic
revelation, with temporary truces and battles of one-upmanship, and with
the labor of cheating, both linguistic and physical. Mary Thomas Crane has
pointed out how The Alchemist’s focus “is on the practice of performance,
[but] from the perspective of the actors rather than of the audience” (181).
Every character in the play, except perhaps Dame Pliant, has some knowledge or skill with which to create an advantage over others. Doll, for example,
repeatedly holds secrets over her victims, appearing as the Queen of Fairy
and as a rich woman, in addition to her more mundane role of lookout at the
window. Even the rival and potential spoiler of the trio, Mammon’s friend
Surly, is no moral exemplar, for he is a card-sharp, pimp, and sometime
blackmailer (2.1.9-14). Surly even recognizes the similarity of the trio’s work
to his own, exclaiming during his philosophical arguments with Subtle, “Alchemie is a pretty kind of game,/ Somewhat like tricks o’ the cards, to cheat a
man,/ With charming” (2.3.180-82). Subtle considers it a kind of challenge
to fool Surly, since he recognizes that the latter is also a cheat: “O, but to ha’
gull’d him,/ Had been a maistry” (3.3.7-8). Surly ‘s later disguise as a Span-
iard and his ability with the Spanish language are just the advantage in
knowledge necessary to begin collapsing the trio’s swindle. Though at a truce
for much of the play, Subtle, Face, and Doll struggle among themselves for
precedence too, keeping pieces of information away from one another when
it is convenient.24 When the situations become increasingly complicated after
act 3, the double-dealing heightens and the venture begins to fall apart, turn-
ing the play into a demonstration of domestic anarchy and immorality.
Jonson highlights the very real dilemma of Jacobeans facing a proliferat-
ing urban culture and working to understand the effects of novel empirical
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SHAN AH AN < 49 philosophies and technologies. In the world of early modern natu edge, instruments and skilled personnel were usually found outs cuits of elite education. At the same time, there was what could be plosion of instrumental virtuosity in the decades when Jonson was on dramatic form and intellectual power. The historian of scient ments Maurice Daumas identifies the early seventeenth century as a period when "gradual advance gave way to a sudden outburst of which abruptly changed the rhythm of progress" (3; cf. J.A. Benn Wolfe claims, similarly, that "[t]he recreative dimensions of reach[ed] a pinnacle in the first third of the seventeenth centur newest stage props, masque technologies, and natural magic mate medicines and oddities of all sorts to become parts of a culture-w ment for the creation and collection of wonderful objects.25 Robe himself a kind of encyclopedic collector, noted caustically in The Melancholy (1621) that "[t]here be many Mountebanks, Quacksalv icks, in every street almost, and in every village" (2: 11). New instru new materials circulated for decades in various social contexts be disciplined for use in natural philosophy. The first thermometers a ters created in the decades around 1600 had little scientific accura eled widely as intellectual wonders; we might note, for instance, th scope mentioned in Jonson's masque News from the New World i (presented at court in 1620) appears as little more than a curiosity among tradesmen.26 Instruments made famous by Galileo and oth years been a part of the natural magic of Gianbattista Delia Porta (d ly's most well-known virtuoso before Galileo. Dutch engineer a Cornelius Drebbel arrived in London around 1605 to show mechan ders and subsequently became a valued entertainer at the Stuart cou edly demonstrating, among other things, a perpetual motion ma and light shows, air conditioning, and a submarine.27 In this culture of wonderful display, the potential for trickery authorization was marked since gentlemen-amateurs were often a of social inferiors for their materials and skill sets. The meaning the skills involved in firing a furnace, contemplating a meteor or wound, or playing in borrowed clothes on a stage relies on contex cance. Those activities can be categorized as cheats or revelation depending on their place in a web of assumptions. We should re Peter Dear's Kuhnian argument about how cognitive expectations the apprehension of data: This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 50 M THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1 [ejven with novel deployments of apparatus and technique to bring about hitherto unknown behaviors, no knowledge can be created unless those new human practices and new natural appearances are rendered conceptually in an appropriate way. Indeed, even to identify a technical practice as new rather than as an unimportant variant upon an old practice, or to identify the resultant appearances as new kinds of natural phenomena rather than variants of previously known ones- or pathological instances-requires particular conceptual and cognitive expectations on the part of the knower. (12) Face's many abilities, like Subtle 's knowledge of alchemical terminology, are potentially valuable in a number of ways. In valorizing craft knowledge learned not at university and in books but from physical experience (such as Face stating how to blow on coals "to keep your heat even" [2.2.24]), the new natural philosophy created a dilemma for a hierarchical culture that both depended on and despised manual skill. Some examples can convey the kind of intellectual and social vulnerability that Jonson thematizes in The Alchemist. In 1579 the collector Bernardo Castelletti wrote to his friend and fellow collector Ulisse Aldrovandi (the latter's museum of natural and preternatural objects was the most famous in Europe at the time) about new specimens of fish, but also warned that the fisherman who sold them had tricked him before with a homemade monster-fish.28 In the early modern period, the self- interest of "mechanicals" was proverbial: Burton's Anatomy^ for instance, in a passage listing common prejudices about different professions, notes "a Mechanitian, [is thought] base" and "A Tradesman, [is thought] a Her" (1: 278). In Jonson's late play, The New Inny Prudence laments, "[t]hese base Mechanicks never keepe their word,/ In any thing they promise" (6: 423). Similarly, in 1659, John Evelyn wrote to Robert Boyle to explain that he was giving up writing a Baconian history of trades because of "the many subjec- tions, which I cannot support, of conversing with mechanical capricious persons" (qtd. in Houghton, "Virtuoso" 204). As late as 1726, it took several weeks for London physicians and virtuosi to evaluate the reality of plebeian Mary Toft's claim to have given birth to seventeen rabbits.29 It is illuminating at this point to compare Jonson with Bacon. The Lord Chancellor was having his own difficulties evaluating the ethical significance of dexterity in early Stuart London and also sought novel conceptual means to imagine lab space. While Jonson was writing what we now call his middle comedies, Bacon was analyzing the lack of serious purpose-built spaces for experimentation. He lamented in his Filum Labyrinthi (c. 1607) that since This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms SHANAHAN I? 51 the technical accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and Roman philosophy was never any profession, nor never possessed any w except perchance some monk in a cloister, or some gentleman in th and that very rarely" (Works 3: 499). Almost twenty years later, in h sketch of a state-funded and proto-professional "Salomon's Hous was still working to imagine such a dedicated space. Because of a la posive place and time, he argued, virtuosi hit upon progress only not by method. In contrast, Bacon's lifelong project for the refor philosophy was based on the studied recruitment of intelligence an ciplining of potentially wayward dexterity. Bacon never ruled out or's potential for adding to human betterment; for example, his show that he was of two minds about alchemy. "The world has b abused by the opinion of making of gold," he wrote in Sylva Sylva but "the work I judge to be possible; [only] the means (hitherto p to effect it are, in the practice, full of error and imposture" (Works an Aesopian fable, which appears as the epigraph to this article, B gested that alchemical desire at the very least spurred activity that m to unintended positive consequences.30 Bacon found ideas and tools among natural magicians and leg artists such as John Dee, Cornelius Drebbel, and William Vincen James Is court magician "Hocus Pocus").31 Baconian "natural hist histories of trades would search out the useful knowledge em things and in people and begin to catalogue it. It was a radical soci the time in England, when folk knowledge of medicines (often piricks") and trade knowledge were both economically valuable t people and often unappreciated by gentlemen schooled in the hum 'riculum. Practical knowledge of almost any sort, including geome metic, and bookkeeping techniques, had little interest for elite m women before the seventeenth century.32 In contrast, Bacon's proj pile histories of phenomena would involve the collection and acc of knowledge, at first indiscriminately, to determine by consciou and not by accident what was known and what was not. For this r Advancement of Learning (1605) has been called an encyclopedia precedented kind, "an Encyclopedia' of work needed, of not yet knowledge, an encyclopedia of lacunae, as it were, which a new p would fill in."33 Bacon's project for reform took as its objects hig culture, ancient and modern sources, written and physical know other words, among his many sources, Bacon wanted to learn fr This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 52 m THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1 exactly like Subtle, Face, and Doll. The Advancement of Learning sounded the call just a few years before The Alchemist was first performed: Another defect [in traditional education] I note, wherein I shall neede some Alchimist to helpe me, who call upon men to sell their Bookes, and to build furnaces, quitting and forsaking Minerva, and the Muses, as barreyne virgins, and relying upon Vulcan of Princes and States bring in Bills for Intelligence; so you mus Spyalls and Intelligencers of Nature, to bring in their Billes, or e be ill advertised [i.e. advised]. (Bacon, Oxfords 58-59) Jonson s alchemical satire could not be more precise. Subtle, certainly ambitious "Spyalls and Intellegencers," willing to b Vulcan when opportunities presented themselves. Doll Comm courage the Baconian seeker s turn away from "Minerva, and t "barreyne virgins," toward a much more voluptuous brand o ity. In short, as Jonson demonstrates in his play, to create B and with them the future of natural philosophy, one had to like Lovewit's house in order to learn. The domestic setting of nology was the norm, not the exception, for the entire earl Consequently, Jonson's comic theatrical setting is highly re play portrays a scenario where the next person to knock at house looking for advice or materials could be Bacon himself Since Jonson's trio are charlatan-alchemists, it is ironi indeed wrought gold by the end of the play. Face goes unpuni he is celebrated by his returned master in the closing scene the material spoils of the trio s enterprise, and Face provide young widow who will make him feel "seven yeeres yonger" trast, all of the dupes are cheated, Surly is beaten away in Subtle and Doll, now abandoned by Face, must scurry over presumably back to poverty. John Dryden was obviously not t tify the troubling lack of poetic justice in a denouement ous" in 1671 (Works 10: 208). As Crane and others have point very form and focus give an implicit sanction to the con-m audience to identify with their vitality and their genius at disguise and his master, also appropriately named to recognize a good opportunity when it presents itself. " thee in any thing, Jeremie," Lovewit says cheerfully to his partner-in-crime (5.5.143).34 More troubling still for conve This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms SHANAHAN • 53 Face seems to invite the audience to partake of the spoils as we both confides in us and challenges us: . . . And though I am cleane Got off, from SUBTLE, SURLY, MAMMON, DOL, Hot ANANIAS, DAPPER, DRUGGER, all With whom I traded; yet I put my selfe On you, that are my countrey: and this pelfe, Which I have got, if you doe quit me, rests To feast you often, and invite new ghests. (5.5.159-65) The epilogue's ambiguity teases by forcing us to consider sim notion that we are partners with Face, who has at last taken off the possibility that we are being mocked as fools whom he ha After all, we have paid admission to watch him do his work, a home again with nothing but the memory of words and action him, are we also cheats, or are we among the "new ghests" to be c ture date? Face and his allies, first Subtle and Doll, later Lovew suspect effort into worldly success for reasons they clearly unde others do not- namely, superior skill. So The Alchemist illust Bacon's fable of alchemy: the very aim of producing gold can in but in a different form and by different means. And if Face and ultimately turned their dexterity and wit into gold, then so has The acrostic "Argument" to the play serves as an early warning t playwrights, and actors all resemble one another: the trio of "Co wanting some/ House to set up, with [Face] they here contrac share, and all begin to act" (lines 6-8). In the words of John Go the play provided in its content "the chance to project onto the vengence whatever sense of imposture and insubstantiality [Jons his own professional role" (146). The alchemist and experimente title is Jonson as much as it is Subtle.35 But the tangling together of the alchemist's work with th stronger and more important ideological force, for it provided creative position from which to make sense of his own ambiva tion making on stage. It is here that the dramaturgy of the three cally becomes a proto-scientific solution to the crucial problem vent fictions and/or manipulate material and still tell effective t world. It is here, too, that we see most clearly how natural ph drama were but two tangled strands in an older and larger, b unstable, shared discourse. Well read in the new classicist crit This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 54 & THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1 from the Continent, Jonson worked within a model of poesis as "worldmaking" that Elizabeth Spiller has shown spans poetics and natural philosophy in the Renaissance. Whether on a small scale as in magnetic globes and wondercabinets, or on a large one as in dramatic and epic poetry, to fashion new worlds wholesale was not necessarily associated with deception. Of Philip Sidney and William Gilbert, for example, Spiller notes "[wjhereas for us worldmaking often seems hypothetical or counterfactual, [they] insist that worldmaking is not an escape but a more powerful and more meaningful engagement with re- ality than can be found in the world at large. For them, art (fiction, experi- ments) grounds their ability to claim to produce knowledge" (16). And this poetic making is empirical, practical, and proto-scientific. As Turner reminds us, Sidney s version of "poetic making can be seen as 'experimental' in the spe- cific medieval and early modern sense of the term: artificially constructed conditions in which knowledge might be produced" (109). He continues, [f]or Sidney. . .poesy does more than 'imitate,' 'assist,' or supplement nature: it departs from nature and improves upon it ... [in ways] typical of other instrumental arts such as alchemy or natural magic power of the poet lies partly in his capacity to repro processes and apply them to things that nature never i lies in his ability to 'invent' an iconic model in which t ture might be studied, a set of artificial or hypothetic correspond [to] or 'imitate' reality but which have been structed to reveal causes and general principles. (109- Jonson's model of poesis is, to be sure, less Platonic torical presentation. But his practice of unified dram is absolutely of a piece with Sidney s theory in feeling cal grounding of creativity and finding it in part in t Italianate poetic "rules." In theory and in practice, then, Jonson, like Sidney the pre-disciplinary ferment of early modern England paradox for the traditional Aristotelian but was to bec the new science: human mediation, whether in a wel perimental trial, is in fact a means for revealing what na mediated. Jonson s clock-like drama conveys his strate ining the boundaries of truth and artifice, and is his ultimately very scientific concept of truth-through- dramaturgy of the three neoclassical unities, Jonson c also maintain that his effort was wrought with self This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms SHANAHAN 9k 55 poets are fundamentally makers, as Jonson argues in the Discoveries, la artifice are often the truest measures of the lasting value of a work: things, wrote with labour, deserve to be so read, and will last their Age" Against what could be called a naive inspiration model of poetics, J stresses control and education: a poet must "not thinke, hee can leape for denly a Poet, by dreaming hee hath been in Parnassus, or, having washt (as they say) in Helicon. There goes more to his making, then so. For to Exercise, Imitation, and Studie, Art must bee added, to make all these p (8: 639). This means that Jonson differentiates various kinds of impostu were- crafting internal and external ones- by foregrounding his own the unities in The Alchemist. Invariant controls for his stage-laborat three unities are artificial, mechanical, and for that very reason to be t stable and in large part indubitable. As a playwright but also a critic, J multaneously immersed himself in and held' himself apart from the ex tial vicissitudes of live theater. In Jonson s drama, then, elaborate metho cial mediation; it is the ability to transcend the smaller closed horizon dupes' fantasies (and the audience s as well) in order to work upon them raw material for deliberate and controlled experimentation. In The Al internal illusions, for instance the dupes' predictably profane self-fashi the trio of cheats' skills at promising, are ultimately hollow, no matter h pelling the physical routines they perform or transcendent the rheto employ. At the same time, with the three unities Jonson fashioned his own an external illusion, based on highly artificial controls of theatrical exp Jonson does this, ultimately, to redeem parts of theater from theatricality ground real truths while acknowledging his artifice. This means that there is after all a laboratory present in perfor of The Alchemist, but it is not the one that remains unseen in the back The laboratory Jonson actually produces is the environmental ense setting and skill, including the stage and the audience. The invisibl the back room is a playful distraction from the true experimental work on in the playhouse, including the audience, ticking off like clockwo ripening its results. This is how Jonson anticipates the phenomeno laboratory experience at a time when few purpose-built scientific sp isted and the latter had yet to be rigorously distinguishable from d and theatrical practices and spaces. The Alchemist in its performed t functions as a proleptic portrayal of empirical experimentation in la ries: first, scripted control of a few elements at the outset; then, conce of space, time, and dexterity in one special area where natural and This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 56 '& THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1 qualities come to seem not essential but rather negotiated over time; and finally, attention to the more or less predictable results. For all these reasons it seems to me that Jonson's innovative dramaturgy in The Alchemist can be seen as a relevant cultural pretext- a means of conceiving the very possibility of the space- for the Royal Society's later synthesis of fact production and social decorum. And in this special case it means as well that Jonson s middle comedies and masques share some formal features and ideological consequences. In Mercury Vindicated From the Alchemists at Court, for instance, performed before James I in January 1616 and set in "a laboratory, or al- chemist's workhouse," a personified Mercury emerges from a large furnace and is pursued by alchemists wearing beakers and alembics for hats (213). Like The Alchemist, linking alchemy and fantasies of social mobility, Jonson's Mercury seeks King James's intervention against "the sooty tribe" that seems to have access to everyone in the culture. According to Mercury, self-made alchemists now range from the "child o' the scullery" to wenches, officers, gamesters, courtiers, and fine ladies (216). Detailing his sad trials as an antimasque, Mercury notes he is the alchemists' "crude and their sublimate, . . . corroded and exalted and sublim'd and reduc'd and fetch'd over and filtered and washed, and wip'd ... my whole life with 'hem hath bene an exercise of torture" (215). Vulcan is chastised for preferring unruly fire and foul materials to the "excellence of the sun and Nature," and then Mercury initiates a change to a "glorious bower" where per- sonified Nature ends the masque with a dance (221). Like Lovewit returned home to claim the spoils at the close oi The Alchemist, the King's presence at the masque moves all from chaos to harmonious concord. Functioning something like a Utopian idyll to The Alchemist's gritty realism, the Mercury Vindicated masque also portrays a scenario of unauthorized empirical work redeemed by a choice of dramatic form and a more sophisticated audience. As a private criminal endeavor struggling to go public and threatening (recall Face's closing words) to replicate itself, The Alchemist is a perverted an- ticipation of the Mercury Vindicated masque. On his return home Lovewit is wise enough to recognize the value of co-opting this potentially self-directing empirical activity, and by doing so authorizes it on his own terms and for his own ends. The Face-Lovewit alliance may not last forever, but for the immedi- ate future it has constructed a system of mutual protection and reward. The Mercury Vindicated masque ends likewise with a royally established concord of dexterity and natural truth. The new Royal Society, founded in 1660 when an- other absent master, Charles II, had returned home, would similarly co-opt such potentially unruly and semi-public experimental endeavors. Perhaps be- This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms SHANAHAN - 57 cause of such symbolic legacies, leading Royal Society fellow Rob sure to disavow the traits of drama, court masque, and natura the work of the new virtuosi. In his apologetic Usefulness of Exp ral Philosophy (1663), for example, he argued "the [natural] w not like the tricks of jugglers, or the pageants, that entertain prin cealment is requisite to wonder" (Works 2: 30). Instances of suc could be multiplied indefinitely; during the middle and late deca enteenth century the experimental community anxiously ana matic resonances of their work, consciously and unconsciously r ter of Jonson's play in the course of doing so.36 The Restoration Shapin and Schaffer have influentially shown, was a double e epistemology and in politics. This essay would add to their impo a reminder that both parts of that double establishment had con the discourse of theater. The founding members of the Royal Soc learned lessons from Jonson as well as from Bacon, though they only the latter. Indeed, Charles II's new scientific society, "truly 1: 84) as Dryden lauded it in 1666, ought rightly to be seen as in simultaneously Lovewit s opportunism and Bacon s optimism. NOTES This essay has benefited from the insights of Anne Cotterill, Helen Marlborough, Mi- chael McKeon, members of the University of Chicago Renaissance Workshop, and readers for JEMCS. For editorial suggestions I would like to thank Miranda Lukatch. 1. Smallwood claims that through magisterial verbal manipulation "we fall into the same trap as Sir Epicure and his fellows. For, after all, there is no laboratory" (154). Cf. Partridge, who argues, "the explosion of the furnace in the fourth act is *an objectification of what happens in the plot" (114). All quotations from Jonson's works will be from Herford, Simpson, and Simpson's Ben Jonson and cited parenthetically in the text. 2. In 1709, Steele commented on a performance he had recently seen, explaining that The Alchemist "is an Example of Ben's extensive Genius and Penetration of the Passions and Follies of Mankind" (1: 125-26). For Steele, the satiric object of the play was "Coveteousness," and no mention of alchemy or natural philosophy was made. Noyes notes that The Alchemist was revised to mock various contemporary examples of "projecting" and cheating, for example after the South Sea Bubble of August 1720 (112, 115-18). There are many studies of Jonson s knowledge of alchemy and of the sources he used in the dense passages of jargon. The most complete studies are those of Duncan and Linden. This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 58 $ THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 3. The doctrine of three dramatic unities (of action, place, and time) was codified in Ludovico Castlevetro's mid-sixteenth-century synthesis of Aristotle and Horace. On Castlevetro, see Burnley Jones and Nicol 27-34, and Weinberg. 4. Cf. Auerbach, who likens Racine's neoclassical dramatic forms to scientific experiments (383), and Baridon, who describes the goal of the tableau favored by neoclassicists from Jonson to Racine this way: "Once the three unities were complied with, once the passions were placed in the best possible light, this [dramatic] mechanism acted with the precision of a time-bomb and the compelling power of a demonstration. Hence Rymer's [1674] remark on the moderns following Aristotle for 'reasons clear and convincing as any demonstration in mathematics"' (782). 5. In his important study, Turner notes, for example, that "one of the most im- portant developments in sixteenth- century English poetics lies in the way that the field of dramatic poesy comes to constitute itself first by borrowing techniques, vocabulary, and basic epistemological assumptions from several fields of early scientific practice and then by gradually distinguishing itself from them" (21). For other recent studies of the drama of the period informed by the history of early modern natural philosophy, see Bruce R. Smith; West; Wolfe; Sokol; Bruckner and Poole; Spiller. 6. For recent studies of how patronage shaped early modern science, see Biagioli; Smith, Business of Alchemy; Findlen, Possessing Nature, especially part 3; Moran. Pumfrey and Dawbarn provide an overview for England from 1570 to 1625, and they note how display-rhetoric differed in England and on the Continent. For a seminal account of how the discourses of the market and the theater separated in early modernity, see Agnew. 7. Shapin pioneered such research on early modern England (see bhapin, "House;" Shapin and Schaffer). For a wider overview and useful bibliographic survey of the topic, see Livingstone. For important studies of the settings and spatial dynamics of early modern science, see Golinski, especially chapter 4; Hannaway; Harkness; Findlen, "Masculine Prerogatives." 8. The etymology of "laboratory" and "elaboratory" (both forms of the word were used throughout the seventeenth century) derives from the Latin "laboritorium," a room for work, combined with the iterative connotations of "elaboration." For early modern usages, see Shapin and Schaffer 57n66; Hankins and Silverman 3; OEDy s.v. "laboratory;" Smith, "Laboratories." 9. Cf. Livingstone, who notes the "monumental efforts [that] have gone into constructing 'placeless places' for the pursuit of science, spaces that aspire to ubiquity" (3). 10. For a lucid theoretical treatment of "boundary effects" in drama, see Benjamin Bennett, especially the introduction and chapter 7. 11. My reading of Jonson is indebted to Latour's insights, but I find Pickering's related, post-ANT, notion of the "tuning" or "mangle" together of human and machinic agency in experimentation more satisfactory for examining early modern drama. Pickering's work avoids the theoretical weaknesses of Latour's "hybrid" model while preserving its strongest insights concerning temporal change and improvisatory agency (dynamics particularly important in the action of The Alchemist). Trenchant critiques of Latour's work can be found in Kenshur; Lee and Brown; Cohen. Lee and Brown are correct that Latour's rhetorical insistence on maximal extension of democratic inclusion and representation for all things (human and non- This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms SHANAHAN M 59 human) becomes so vaguely metaphoric as to be useless as a realistic cri vention: "If we follow the ANT trajectory, we must conclude that no topic or area of inquiry, can escape redescription or assimilation within it. In ot ANT is so liberal and so democratic that it has no Other ... it has made itself into a 'final' final vocabulary (774) time a bid to be recognized as the only proper representative o rightly note that to challenge the ANT vocabulary of inclusion in that it implies an objection to democratic values. Kenshur ar proposed a new master narrative that reduces the complexity o by insisting on treating all phenomena the same way, as "hybri "[Latour] seems to feel the need to reject any modes of explan are beliefs that are not taken seriously. Thus, paradoxically, reductive or one-sided explanations results in his refusal to phenomena require the same sort of explanation. . . . Every sci view, appears to be, in essence, half ideology and half science" 12. Quigley makes a parallel argument for modern theater quently the stage has been used for "improved means of inquir 13. For more on the proto-scientific use of the unities in endish, Davenant, and Flecknoe, see Shanahan, "Indecorous V 224-26, 236-39. 14. For instance, editors Herford, Simpson, and Simpson set the opening of the play at 9 a.m. when Dapper arrives and conjecture that it is around 3 p.m. when Lovewit returns home (10: 49-50). 15. Cf. Bachelard. Johnson has recently shown that Jonson was intimately familiar with new architectural theory and annotated heavily his copies of Vitruvius and Colonna. 16. The setting of The Alchemist has been dated to November 1610 using internal remarks by Dame Pliant (4.4.29-30 with 2.6.31) and calculations by Ananias (3.3.131-32; 5.5.102-03). The play was definitely staged at the Blackfriars in early November 1610, when the theaters reopened after a four-month closure due to plague. On the evidence of a September 1610 performance at Oxford, Mares tentatively suggests that the premiere was in London in July just before the closings (lxiii). On the doubling of place, see Turner 272. On dates in the play, see Smallwood 146-47. 17. See Dessen 109. 18. Among the new experimenters associated with the Royal Society, such romance discourse was quickly losing its appeal, and we can take Robert Boyle as an example of the shift: in 1649, the young Boyle wrote to his sister of his growing sense of vocation around the (al)chemical furnace this way: "Vulcan has so transported and bewitched me, that as the delight I taste in it [experimenting] make[s] me fancy my laboratory a kind of Elysium, so as if the threshold of it possessed the quality the poets ascribed to that Lethe, their fictions made men taste of before their entrance into those seats of bliss. I there forget my Standish and my books, and almost all things but the unchangeable resolution I have made of continuing till death" (Works 6: 49-50). In The Sceptical Chemist (1670) and later works, however, Boyle argued for a public and verifiable chemistry, and largely avoided romance figuration and This content downloaded from 104.198.4.142 on Mon, 25 Jul 2022 02:49:03 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 60 m THE JOURNAL FOR EARLY MODERN CULTURAL STUDIES 8: 1 hermetic secrecy. On Boyle's early alchemy, see Principe; for his later methods, see Shapin and Schaffer; Sargent. 19. Drugger might seem a marginal character to modern readers, but he was a centerpiece of early modern performances. In the eighteenth century the plot centered on his farcical fights with Kastril. Noyes notes that over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries "the history of The Alchemist was virtually the history of the role of Abel Drugger, about whom . . . more was written up to Garrick's death [1779] than about any other comic character except Falstaff" (103). 20. Jonson's choice of name for his rogue-alchemist is important. For an illuminating discussion of the etymology of the word "subtle" and the richness of Renaissance discourses of "subtlety," see Wolfe 11-12. 21. E.g. 1.1.110, 1.1.156, 5.4.71-72, 1.3.105-09. Cf. Partridge 139-44. 22. For an overview of the debates about instrumental mediation and the extent to which science constructs its object, see Hacking; Latour and Woolgar; Latour, Science in Action; Shapin and Schaffer; Golinski chapters 4 and 5. 23. The phrase is Noble's. We should note, however, Findlen's caveat in "Masculine Prerogatives" that because of the domestic setting of so many museums and cabinets of curiosities before 1700, and despite engravings invariably showing only men in them, "the early modern scientific world was nonetheless a world filled with women" (46). Relevant too is Shapin's analysis of the manner in which technicians' labor was largely written out of seventeenth-century laboratory reports ("Invisible Technicians"). On the growing differentiation of "scientific" from other types of do- mestic space, see McKeon 212-68, especially 212-18. 24. For example, Subtle and Face keep their plans for Dame Pliant from Doll (2.6.92), and Face pretends that he sent for Lovewit in order to scare off his former partners (5.4.131). 25. On wonder-cabinets and other modes of Renaissance collecting, see the essays in Kenseth. 26. Printer: Oh, by a trunk! I know it, a thing no bigger than a flute case. A neighbor of mine, a spectacle maker, has drawn the moon through it at the bore of a whistle and made it as great as a drumhead twenty times and brought it within the length of this room to me I know not how often. Chronicler: Tut, that's no news; your perplexive glasses are common" (Jonson, Complete Masques 295). Future references to the masques will be to this edition, and parenthetical in the text. 27. For Drebbel s perpetual motion display, see Harris 137, 140-41; for his 1608 lightshow for James I, see Colie 254; for his submarine journey in the Thames in 1620, see Harris 161-70. Jonson mentioned natural magic wonders several times in his works, e.g. Epicoene 5.3.55 (Drebbel's perpetual motion machine) and 4.1.132 (Simon Forman), News From the New World, lines 77-81 (telescope) and 320-23 (perpetual motion). 28. See Findlen, Possessing 176-77. 29. See Todd 1-105. 30. Bacon used this fable and moral again in The New Organon> part 1, aphorism 85. The edition and translation by Jardine and Silverthorne has “daughters” for
“sons” in the passage (71).
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SHANAHAN K 61
31. On Bacon’s debt to natural magic, see Rossi, Francis Bacon chapte
On natural magic generally, see Eamon; Clark 214-32. On the court-en
Pocus,” officially licensed by James I “to exercise and practize the Arte o
see Mowat 298-99. Mowat has Vincent and Hocus Pocus as two differ
Bawcutt has recently identified the formerly anonymous “Hocus Pocus”
32. Mathematician and Royal Society fellow John Wallis descri
of mathematical learning at Cambridge in the 1630s this way: suc
scarce looked upon as Academical Studies, but rather Mechanical, a
Traders, Seamen, Carpenters, Surveyers of Lands, or the Like, and p
manack-Makers in London” (qtd. in Heilbron 2). On Bacon’s novelt
trade-knowledge, see Rossi, Philosophy. On the place of mathematics
England generally, see Feingold.
33. See Vickers 54n34; cf. West chapter 6.
34. Gurr has recently suggested that Lovewit is in part a represent
speare.
35. Thayer 102. Cf. Flachmann 280; Donaldson 82-83.
36. Warned by Thomas Hobbes to be wary of a solicitation for funds to support
a new optical project by Walter Warner, William Cavendish wrote to his cousin, the
third earl of Devonshire, in 1637: “My service to Mr. Hobbes. Pray tell him Mr. Warner would make us believe miracles by a glass he can make. I doubt he will prove Ben’s
Doctor Subtle” (qtd. in Sarasohn 723n20). William Johnson, official chemist to the
College of Physicians, echoed The Alchemist (4.5.66) when he attacked the works of
unlicensed Helmontian and Paracelsan chemists in 1665: the latter are “Pretenders
to Pyrotechny . . . [who] will, like their own false Preparatives, vanish infumo” (qtd.
in Mendelsohn 71). Fellows of the Royal Society were well aware of their perception
in some eyes as a kind of third theater in Restoration London: Pepys recorded in
his diary that Charles II laughed at the Royal Society for weighing air (5: 32-33 [1
Feb 1664]). The King was known to call his virtuosi “jugglers” and “court jesters,”
and to lay bets on the outcome of experiments (Knowles-Middleton). Robert Hooke
objected to fellows who came to Society meetings “only as to a Play to amuse themselves for an hour or so” (qtd. in Hunter and Wood 62), and Hobbes mocked the new
‘philosophers as those who “display new machines, to show their vacuum and trifling
wonders, in the way that they behave who deal in exotic animals, which are not to be
seen without payment” (qtd. in Shapin and Schaffer 348).
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