Stuff that Happens
stuff that happens before the play
- Lovewit has gone to his country house to escape the plauge and has left his home – in the Blackfriars neighborhood of London – in the keeping of his servant, “Face.”
- Face has gone into partnership with a whore named Dol Common and a con man named Subtle; using Lovewit’s house as their headquarters, the three are fleecing all the gulls (suckers) in town who want to get rich quick.
- Face lures in the customers, Dol does whatever is needed to keep them happy, while Subtle pretends to be a sorcerer and alchemist who can produce the “philosopher’s stone” – a magical material that can turn base materials into gold.
Stuff that happens in the play
- Face and Subtle (the alchemist) are in a fight over who is more important to the operation. Dol (the whore) stops the fight just as their customers begin to appear. An ever-quickening series of con games played on the “customers” follows.
- Dapper, a lawyer’s clerk, wants a “familiar” – a magic spirit – to help him win at gambling. The alchemist tells Dapper that he might earn help from the Queen of Fairies if he submits himself to humiliating rituals.
- Abel Drugger, an apothecary and tobacco seller, wants to know by necromancy how to arrange his shop for maximum success. Later he will want to marry a young widow.
- Sir Epicure Mammon, a knight who believes passionately in alchemy, wants to have the philosopher’s stone itself, not only for the wealth it will bestow but also because it will make him eternally young for a life of erotic adventures.
- Pertinax Surly, a skeptical friend of Sir Epicure, wants mainly to expose the fraud he suspects is going on. He later will return disguised as the Spanish Don.
- Ananias, an eager and argumentative young Puritan, wants to turn the property of orphans and widows into great wealth so that he and his fellow Puritans might bribe their way into political influence.
- Tribulation Wholesome, a Puritan elder, wants the same thing as Ananias and comes to repair the damage done by his young friend’s lack of diplomacy.
- Kastril, a rich young man from the country, wants to be sophisticated, which, to him, means learning to quarrel and trade insults like the gallants of London.
- Dame Pliant, Kastril’s sister and a rich young widow, wants a husband.
- Insults, confessions of true identity, and denunciations ensue.
Dr. Ralph's Brief
1. When was the play first performed?
2. Where was the play first performed?
First at Oxford, later at the Blackfriars Playhouse in London.
3. Who wrote it?
A poet, essayist, and playwright, Ben Jonson (1573-1637) was perhaps the most famous writer of his day. Famous equally for his genius and his self-regard (he was the first writer to publish his plays as “Works”), Jonson was revered enough to be the center of the “Tribe of Ben,” perhaps the earliest English literary club.
4. How is this playwright like Shakespeare?
Like Shakespeare, Jonson was a master of verse and of prose, and, like Shakespeare, he wanted his art to mirror life. There the similarities end.
5. How is this playwright unlike Shakespeare?
Jonson’s work is the diametric opposite of Shakespeare’s. His characters have the carefully drawn sharp outlines of dynamic cartoons rather than the organic ambiguity of Shakespeare’s characters. His plots cohere by virtue of a central location to which people are drawn by their foibles, not, as in Shakespeare, because of relationships. He frequently criticized Shakespeare’s disdain for verisimilitude and classical correctness.
6. What do scholars think about this play?
Scholars universally admire the play for its intricate construction and its remarkable characters. Coleridge praised the plot as one of the three greatest ever written (the other two are Sophocles’ Oedipus and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones).
7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?
No controversy, but Andrew Gurr thinks that Lovewit, who owns the house, stands for Shakespeare and that the play is about Shakespeare’s company finally taking back for the Blackfriars Playhouse from the boy’s company who had been there since 1610. I think it is the one play in the period in which the setting never changes – the stage always stands for the same space.
8. What characters should I especially look for?
They are all one-person shows, but Sir Epicure Mammon’s glorification of the pleasures of the body is unforgettable.
9. What scene should I especially look for?
Again, every scene is a gem, but my vote would go to the scene with the “Queen of Fairy.”
10. What is the language like?
The play is a banquet of language, from alchemical flim-flamming to Bible thumping.