The Alchemist (Ben Jonson)
As a satire published later in his life and often considered one of his best dramatic works, The Alchemist (1610) signals Ben Jonson's departure from a critique of the portrayal of humoural science, to a critique of the follies of English society itself. Jonson’s over-drawn characters reflect a less playful and more sardonic mockery of the vices and cruelties he considered rampant in his time, and may also signal his ridicule of English society's continued fixation on the humours as a means to describe or explain behaviours or personas.
The fluctuating presentation of humoural science within dramatic work, between authors and even within a single author's body of works, seems to reflect a societal shift in theories of melancholy. As the seventeenth century progressed, a new dialogue developed around the concept of humoural science. If early dramatists envisioned melancholy on a personal level, Jonson in The Alchemist starts to contemplate: what are the implications of the humours to medicine, religion and nationhood?
A Look Inside
The Alchemist features a more simplistic design (minimal decoration and an emphasis on negative space) than the other arts books exhibited herein. The simplified style offers an interesting parallel to Jonson's non-decorative writing style.
To the left are a couple of the most decorated pages in the book, including the dedication and prologue. Even these pages are not perfect; note the slightly dropped "E" in ALCHEMIST.
The text itself reminds the reader of humoural science in its opening lines - it is the "sicknesse hot" (the plague) that leads the master to quit his house.
FULL TITLE: THE ALCHEMIST. A Comedy. Acted in the yeere 1610. By the Kings MAIESTIES SERVANTS. With the allowance of the Master of REVELLS. The Author B. J.
PUBLISHER: Printed by Richard Bishop, and are to be sold by Andrew Crooke in St. Paules Church-yard. An. D.
ITEM TYPE: Book
CALL NUMBER: VIC CRRS PR 2605.A1 1640
NOTE: STC records 10+ copies. ESTC records 40 copies. "Mostly in verse. The title page is engraved and signed 'Guliel[mus] Hole fecit.' The subsidiary plays each have separate dated title pages. That to 'Poetaster' has imprint 'London, printed by Robert Young. M. DC. XL.' 'Epigrammes' begins new pagination and register; otherwise pagination and register are continuous. The portrait is signed: Ro: Vaughan fecit" (EEBO). "Entered to R. Bishop 4 March 1639" (ESTC).
[2Y4]-[2Y6], 2Z6-3D6, 3E1-3E2. [$3].  525-590  pp. Boards measure 27.5 x 17.1 cm. Leaves measure 26.9 x 17.2 cm.
TYPE: Roman; Italic
LANGUAGES: English; Latin; Greek
DEDICATIONS: Various; individula dedications precede each play or set of poems; various dedicatory sonnets at the opening.
TABLES AND INDEXES: Catalogue of volume contents on A3.
ILLUSTRATIONS: Ornamented and historiated initials, head and tail pieces. Printer's devices: Every Man in His Humour, Every Man Out of His Humour, Cynthia's Revels, Sejanus His Fall, Volpone, Epicoene, The Alchemist, Cateline: his Conspiracy: McKerrow #379 (without initials; see note in Additions to McKerrow's Devices, Lavin). Every Man Out of His Humour: McKerrow #379.