Golden Daze

by John B. Judis | October 12, 2009

I hesitate to recommend a play that only those who live in or are visiting Washington D.C. can see. Be that as it may, if you are here, consider a trip to the Shakespeare Theater to see Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. Jonson is my favorite of the Elizabethans. He is less Olympian than Shakespeare and his language – perhaps because it is somewhat less cluttered with allusions – is easier for a peasant like me to understand. He wrote, as did Shakespeare, at the beginning of English capitalism in late 16th and early 17th centuries, when the ethics and practices of merchants and urban craftsmen were beginning to erode the bonds of agrarian feudalism – when the quest for wealth had begun to displace pursuit of honor. 

In The Alchemist, as in Volpone (my favorite Jonson play), the dramatist lampoons this spirit of early capitalism, which gave rise to the miser, the con-man, and, above all, to  the alchemist, who could short-circuit the accumulation of capitalism by turning base metals into gold. In The Alchemist,  three con-artists drawn from London’s under and servant classes gull a succession of more prominent Londoners out of their wealth and reputation. It’s a comic romp, brilliantly directed by Michael Kahn, and also curiously contemporary. Alchemy, of course, gave way to chemistry in the eighteenth century, if not earlier, but it stands in the same relationship to early capitalism as the present speculative excesses (e.g. derivatives, credit default swaps) do to modern global industrial capitalism. In both cases, the activity is parasitic, claiming to contribute to the accumulation of wealth, but merely living off its spirit and its legitimate successes. 

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