The Glasgow Review Issue 1

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Clockwork Comedy: Time and The Alchemist

Ian Donaldson

The Alchemist, as Coleridge recognized long ago, is one of the world's most brilliantly plotted plays.[1] Its design is cleverer, more intricate, more elegant, more surprising than that of any comedy of Shakespeare; it is as cunning as clockwork. The Alchemist may be compared with clockwork in another, more literal, sense too, for the time-scheme of the play is organized with extraordinary precision, plotted to the very moment. For most of the characters in the comedy, moreover, time itself is a matter of the deepest consequence, always at the forefront of their consciousness, shaping and sharpening their particular ambitions and visions of the world. Time impinges in The Alchemist, as characteristically in Jonson's comedies, with an urgency and precision rarely encountered in the world of Shakespearian comedy or romance. Even in those plays of Shakespeare in which time is felt to be a matter of great practical or psychological consequence, the formal organization of dramatic time may seem, by Jonsonian standards, to be curiously lax or wayward. Jonson himself was notoriously unimpressed by Shakespeare's seemingly more casual artistry, as his passing gibes at Shakespeare's late plays in the induction to Bartholomew Fair and the Conversations with William Drummond testify. These comments are sometimes taken as evidence of Jonson's pedantry or of his personal enmity towards Shakespeare. Yet it is worth reflecting on the deeper dramatic logic that may have prompted Jonson's responses, which ultimately reveal more about Jonson's own theatrical practices than about those of his great contemporary.


At the end of the first act of The Magnetic Lady the wretched critic Damplay, asked for his opinion on the play thus far, magisterially observes that its action appears to be inconclusive. The Boy who serves as the author's spokesman in these little symposia between the acts asks Damplay in some surprise whether he normally looks for conclusions in the first act of a play, rather than in the fifth? `But you would have all come together, it seemes: The Clock should strike five, at once, with the Acts.'[2] The well-made play (this analogy implies) runs like a well-regulated clock, moving with dependable exactitude to its patiently-awaited climax. Some writers, it is true - the Boy goes on, warming to the task of derision - seem to have abandoned the clock entirely as a measure of dramatic time, their plays representing the passage not of minutes and hours but of years and generations, grandly extending the accustomed boundaries of dramatic time and space:

So, if a Child could be borne, in a Play, and grow up to a man, i'the first Scene, before hee went off the Stage: and then after to come forth a Squire, and bee made a Knight: and that Knight to travell betweene the Acts, and doe wonders i'the holy land, or else where; kill Paynims, wild Boores, dun Cowes, and other Monsters, beget him a reputation, and marry an Emperours Daughter for his Mistris; convert her Fathers Countrey; and at last come home, lame, and all to be laden with miracles.

Chorus after Act I, 11-12

The kind of narrative which Jonson ridicules here contrasts sharply with his own dramatic invention, which was always precisely contained within what Jonson called `fit bounds' of time and space. `Now, in every Action it behooves the Poet to know which is his utmost bound,' Jonson wrote in the Discoveries (ll. 2735-7), `how farre with fitnesse, and a necessary proportion, he may produce, and determine it.' The writer first marks the dramatic territory, calculating the precise limits of the intended action before producing the narrative - drawing it out - and ultimately determining it, bringing about its conclusion.

For, as a body without proportion cannot be goodly, no more can the Action, either in Comedy, or Tragedy, without his fit bounds. And every bound, for the nature of the Subject, is esteem'd the best that is largest, till it can increase no more: so it behooves the Action in Tragedy, or Comedy, to be let grow, till the necessity aske a Conclusion: wherein two things are to be considered; First, that it exceed not the Compasse of one Day: Next, that there be place left for digression, and Art.

(ll. 2739-47)

The contrasts are worth noticing within this passage, which speaks of amplitude as well as compactness, of digression as well as linearity, of natural growth as well as artful control. Though Jonson is following Aristotle here (through the mediation of a Renaissance commentator) the passage perfectly describes the controlled narrative excitements and surprises of his own theatrical practice.

In Jonson's dramatic world, time, like territory, is strictly limited, fiercely competed for, precisely calibrated: the dramatic bounds are always carefully set. In The Devil is an Ass, for example, Fabian Fitzdottrel allows the young gallant Wittipol to pay court to his wife, Frances Fitzdottrel, for a period of fifteen minutes in exchange for the gift of a new cloak. As the interview begins, the two men carefully synchronize their watches, Fitzdottrel reminding Wittipol that he stay within

Your quarter of an houre, alwaies keeping
The measur'd distance of your yard, or more,
From my said Spouse: and in my sight and hearing.

Within these imposed limitations, Wittipol chooses to speak to Frances Fitzdottrel about the limitations that are also imposed upon human beauty and human life. Obedient to her husband, Frances makes no reply.

Wittipol ... ere your spring be gone, injoy it. Flowers,
Though faire, are oft but of one morning. Thinke,
All beauty doth not last untill the autumne.
You grow old, while I tell you this. And such,
As cannot use the present, are not wise ...
What doe you answer, Lady?

Fitzdottrel Now the sport comes.
Let him still waite, waite, waite: while the watch goes,
And the time runs., 135-7

For Fitdottrel, time is a marketable commodity: every moment has its value. While Fitzdottrel narrowly contemplates the movements of the dial-plate, Wittipol urges Mrs Fitzdottrel to contemplate the larger movements, losses, and possibilities of their individual lives, prefigured within this segment of time: `You grow old, while I tell you this.' The time-scheme of the entire play is marked and bounded with equal care: within it, Jonson creates a complex and ironic pattern of conflicting hopes, expectations, and regrets concerning the passage of time.

Such exact control and `bounding' of the drama, such heightened awareness of the ticking of the clock, are characteristic of Jonson's methods. At the outset of The Staple of News the young heir Pennyboy Junior delightedly regards his chiming watch, waiting eagerly for the striking of the hour that signals the arrival of his majority. In The New Inn the chambermaid Prue is allowed to play for a single day the role of sovereign of sports at the inn, and in turn permits her mistress's lover, Lovel, a two-hour period within which to prosecute his courtship. As this period draws towards its close, Lady Frampul wishes that this period of licensed wooing would never stop: `O, for an engine to keepe backe all clocks!' (IV.iv.230). These clearly bounded periods of time within Jonson's drama resemble and are in turn contained by those clearly bounded periods of time for which his playgoers have consented to stay in the theatre: the `two short houres' mentioned in the prologue to The Alchemist, or the `two houres and an halfe, and somewhat more' set down in the Scrivener's Articles of Agreement with the audience in the Induction to Bartholomew Fair, during which they covenant to remain `with patience' `in the places, their money or friends have put them in' (77-80). For Jonson's theatre-goers as for the characters within his dramas, the clock is often seen as an ultimate arbiter, setting the temporal limits within which the action is to be played out, and signalling the manner in which success or failure is to be decided.

In 1652 Thomas Berney was aptly (if lavishly) to liken Jonson's dramatic powers to those of `th'hour telling Sun, the Rectifier / Of Clocks and Watches'.[3] Other dramatists, Berney implied, might set their watches by Jonson's models of dramatic practice. If there is one play above all that might warrant such hyperbolic praise, it is surely that masterpiece of comic timing and mistiming, Jonson's clockwork comedy, The Alchemist.


The action of The Alchemist is precisely delimited, and may be precisely dated. The play was first performed in 1610, and the action is supposed to occur in the same year. A mass of topical references gives a general sense of contemporaneity, and several further references invite us to make an even more exact dating. Dame Pliant, who is said to be nineteen years of age, admits that she could never endure a Spaniard since the Armada year of 1588, and that (she says) was three years before she was born: 1591 plus nineteen equals 1610. In the fifth act the indignant Ananias, robbed (as he believes) of his expected riches, tells Lovewit of the exact date upon which Subtle undertook to deliver the elixir to the Puritan brethren:

Were not the shillings numbred,
That made the pounds? Were not the pounds told out,
Upon the second day of the fourth weeke,
In the eight month, upon the table dormant,
The yeere, of the last patience of the Saints,
Sixe hundred and ten?

- that is to say, upon 23 October 1610. This is a strange way of computing time, in relation to the ending of the world that the millenarians anticipated would arrive in the year 2000 A.D. The `last patience of the Saints' of which Ananias now impatiently speaks is the patience that should enable them to endure the final millenium until the expected doomsday - or possibly the patience the Brethren must show until Subtle at last delivers the promised elixir. The same ambiguity flickers through the original transaction between Subtle, Ananias, and Tribulation Wholesome earlier in the play:

Tribulation But how long time,
Sir, must the Saints expect, yet?
Subtle Let me see,
How's the moone, now? Eight, nine, ten dayes hence
He will be silver potate; then, three dayes,
Before he citronise: some fifteene dayes,
The Magisterium will be perfected.
Ananias About the second day, of the third weeke,
In the ninth month?
Subtle Yes, my good Ananias.

Subtle's promise is for delivery on 16 November, which is `some fifteene dayes' hence: thus the action of the play must be supposed to occur on 1 November, a week after Tribulation Wholesome first `told out' the pounds in expectation of an imminent fortune.[4] The Puritans' business-like insistence upon the exact dates of contractual promise, payment, and delivery contrasts and blends bizarrely with their larger computation of the time remaining until the arrival of the Last Judgement. Their lives are governed entirely by expectation, both commercial and apocalyptic.

To its earliest audiences, the action of The Alchemist would therefore have appeared to have been occurring in the immediate present: right now. The very immediacy of the play, its precise contemporary dating, carries, perhaps, its own gently satirical implications, like Swift's ironical reference to `the taste of wit calculated for this present month of August, 1697' in the Preface to his Tale of a Tub, or the mock-topical titles of Fielding's play The Historical Register for the Year 1736 and of Pope's poem `One Thousand Seven Hundred and Forty'. In each of these works a writer with a powerful sense of the historical past and some confidence in a future readership gravely imitates the manner of those who are locked within the consciousness of their own times, unable to look before or after, victims of fashion and hence of the relentless and exposing movement of time.

1610 was a plague year in London. At its height that year, the plague brought thirty to forty deaths per week.[5] At the opening of the second act of The Alchemist, Mammon promises Surly that, armed with the elixir, he'll `undertake, withall, to fright the plague / Out o' the kingdome, in three months' (II.i.69-70), and Surly replies that the actors will be grateful to him; for during 1610 the theatres had been closed for five months in order to curb the spread of infection. This sharp reminder of the risks attendant upon theatre-going cannot have been altogether comforting to the London audiences of 1610.

Lovewit, the master of the house in which Face and Subtle have chosen to operate, has sensibly chosen to leave London altogether, and is at present enjoying the safer air of Kent. At his unexpected return towards the end of the play, Face - hastily improvising a reason why the legitimate master may not enter his own house - tells him that the house has been visited by the plague: an infected cat has crept in. He intended, he says, to have aired the house:

T'have burnt rose-vinegar, triackle, and tarre,
And, ha' made it sweet, that you should ne'er ha' knowne it:
Because I knew the newes would but afflict you, sir.
Lovewit Breath lesse, and farder off.

Breath less, and farder off: as one might also say to a neighbour in the playhouse. Lovewit's house has indeed been `visited', not by the plague but by the eager customers of the pretended alchemist, whose activities have left it full of noisome vapours. For Ananias, these vapours are suggestive of infernal practices, the brimstone of hell itself:

Come forth, you seed of sulphure, sonnes of fire,
Your stench, it is broke forth: abomination
Is in the house.

When the play opens, both Face and Subtle know that there is a limit to the period of time for which they can occupy Lovewit's house, but do not know precisely when that limit will be reached. Face seems not to be anxious about Lovewit's return.

O, feare him not. While there dyes one, a weeke,
O' the plague, hee's safe, from thinking toward London.
Beside, he's busie at his hop-yards, now:
I had a letter from him. If he doe,
Hee'll send such word, for ayring o' the house
As you shall have sufficient time, to quit it:
Though we breake up a fortnight, 'tis no matter.

On this false reckoning about the amount of time available to them, the entire operation of Face, Subtle, and Dol is based. When Lovewit unexpectedly returns, they anxiously squabble over the cause of their mistake.

Subtle You said he would not come,
While there dyed one a weeke, within the liberties.
Face No: 'twas within the walls.
Subtle Was't so? Cry' you mercy:
I thought the liberties. What shall we doe now, Face?

Neither the `liberties' (the wider, suburban area of London) nor the `walls' (the stricter city limits) have in fact been mentioned by Face in the original exchange, yet it is characteristic of Jonson's dramaturgy that time and territory - chronological and geographical bounds - should here be so intimately and critically linked.

At the outset of the play, Face, Subtle, and Dol know they must move fast, but don't know how fast: their tenure of the house is temporary, the period of their `festivall dayes' or `holy-day' (III.iii.53, V.iii.9) unknown. Their deceptions and counter-deceptions are depen-dent entirely upon speed. In the fourth act of the play, Subtle, unable to win Dame Pliant for himself, decides to let the importunate Spanish Count have a private assignation with her before Face sweeps her off.

I will the heartilier goe about it now,
And make the widdow a punke, so much the sooner,
To be reveng'd on this impetuous Face:
The quickly doing of it is the grace.

The quickly doing of it is the grace: this sentiment underlies much of the action of the three tricksters. Speed is the secret of their survival, as it is of their deceptions; a speed which paradoxically converts the most low-minded of actions - prostituting your closest colleague's intended bride - into a `grace', an act worthy almost of admiration. Those who suffer defeat in this play do so not because they are less virtuous or even necessarily because they are less intelligent - Surly has his own moral values, and is shrewd enough after his own manner - but rather because they are ultimately too slow. Lovewit, who shares his servant Face's quickness of mind and action, is finally to turn mischievously upon Surly and tell him that Dame Pliant could not bring herself to care for someone who moves as slowly as Surly does. True, Surly darkened his face, dyed his beard, dressed as a Spaniard, protested his love for Dame Pliant,

And then did nothing. What an over-sight,
And want of putting forward, sir, was this!
Well fare an old Hargubuzier, yet,
Could prime his poulder, and give fire, and hit,
All in a twinkling.

Abel Drugger, equally hopeful of gaining Dame Pliant's hand, is even slower: `He stay'd too long a washing of his face' (V.v.120).

This delight in celerity, in `the quickly doing of it', is a central impulse in the play: for the tricksters, it becomes almost an end in itself, a game, a competition. The quarrel between Face and Subtle that opens the play eventually reaches a truce, and is shifted into another mode, when they agree to compete against each other to see `who shall sharke best' that day (I.i.160). Within the already limited period of time that is at their disposal, they set themselves this narrower limit, deliberately creating another reason to race the clock. The day thus takes on a special significance for Face and Subtle, as it will for certain of their victims; in the course of the play, they will come to characterize it as `lucky', `good', or `ill', gambling with fortune in a manner not unlike that of those whom they set out to deceive (III.iii.27, IV.vii.113).

Thus the comedy's time-scale begins to acquire its gradations: a particular year, a particular month, a particular (but cavalierly and approximately reckoned) period of occupancy for the house, a particular day upon which Face and Subtle decide to compete against each other. And within that day, as the comedy proceeds, finer gradations of time begin to be established. The events of the play are organized with extraordinary precision: `organized' by Jonson, and organized, too, up to a point, by Subtle, Face, and Dol, who watch the clock sharply throughout. Yet these three are capable of making their mistakes; their concentration sometimes lapses; and unforeseen events erupt, throwing their careful plans awry, and demanding of them ever quicker and more ingenious thought and action. The comedy presents a wonderful counterpoint of control and randomness, of planned action and spontaneous improvisation, of discipline and anarchy. From the mistimings that occur within the highly regulated pro-gramme of the day, the fun begins.

The Alchemist opens in the morning (Jonson's Oxford editors, who draw up an hour-by-hour timetable of events, guess at 9 a.m.) and runs through until the early afternoon; `'tis not yet deepe i'the after-noone', says Face towards the end of the play (V.ii.30).[6] The organization of time within the first two acts of the play gives some indication of the careful construction of the whole. Scarcely is the quarrel between Face and Subtle patched up when the first customer of the day arrives, Dapper the lawyer's clerk. Dapper made his appointment to visit `the cunning-man' this morning while drinking with Face at the Dagger in Holborn the night before. A normally punctual and fastidious man, Dapper is now unsure whether he is late or early for the appointment, as he has lent his watch to an acquaintance with an even more pressing engagement, `and so was rob'd / Of my passe-time' (I.ii.7-8). (`Passe-time' suggests the harmless pleasure that Dapper habitually derives from this toy. `Watches, at this time, were scarce and dear, and seem to have conferred some kind of distinction upon their possessors', Jonson's nineteenth-century editor William Gifford explains.)[7] It suits Face to pretend that Dapper is late, and that he himself was therefore just leaving the house, having tired of waiting. Face bustles like a brisk receptionist with a patient whose late arrival has thrown the doctor's morning's time-table awry; he can insist that Dapper will just have to wait his turn. Dapper will do so eventually in the privy, his mouth stuffed with a gag of gingerbread, until he can endure no longer. Face introduces Dapper now to Subtle, who promises in turn to introduce him to the Queen of Fairy, but not yet; for the Queen herself does not rise until noon. Dapper must go away now, apply some drops of vinegar at suitable orifices, fast, and perform other solemn rites of preparation. At one o'clock he may come again. `Can you remember this? - I warrant you.' (I.ii.171). Exit Dapper. Already at the door is the next client, the tobacconist Abel Drugger, but contending with Drugger for entry are several `good wives', equally anxious for a consultation with Subtle; they are fobbed off by Face `till after-noone' (I.iii.2).

Drugger is seeking specialist advice from Subtle concerning the lay-out of his shop, and the interpretation of his almanack. He asks that Subtle look over the almanack, `And crosse out my ill-dayes, that I may neither / Bargaine, nor trust upon them' (I.iii.95-6). This very day is actually to prove an ill one for Drugger, if he only knew it, but then it is also to prove an ill day for the sage whom he now so trustingly consults. Drugger is told to leave the almanack for Subtle to study, is sent away, and bidden to return in the afternoon. As Drugger leaves, the women are still clamouring for admission, along with another client, `your giantesse, / The bawd of Lambeth'. `Not afore night', Dol tells them through the speaking tube (I.iv.2-4), casting forward to a period that actually lies beyond the time-span of the play. By nightfall - though Dol does not yet know it - the master of the house will have returned, the conspiracy will have collapsed, and Dol and Subtle will have vanished over the back fence; and the women, no doubt, will call again, pleading ever more loudly for admittance.

At the end of Act One, Sir Epicure Mammon is seen,
Comming along, at far end of the lane,
Slow of his feet, but earnest of his tongue,
To one that's with him.

Subtle has looked for him `With the sunnes rising: `Marvaile, he could sleepe!' (I.iv.12). For this is a special day for Mammon, too: the day upon which, after ten months' apparent labour, Subtle has promised that the elixir will at last be ready. In Jonson's day an epicure was commonly thought of as a person who made pleasure his chief good, and who disbelieved in a future life; the here and now was all that mattered.[8] And it is about the here and now that Sir Epicure at first appears to be talking, his thoughts being seemingly focussed entirely upon the present: `Now', `This is the day', `This day', `This night' are his characteristic phrases (II.i.1, 6, 8, 29). On closer scrutiny, however, it will be seen that it is not the present moment about which Mammon speaks, but the moment that is about to arrive: he lives in a state of perpetual excited anticipation; `shall' and `will' are the commonest and most eloquent words upon his lips. Mammon is a like a comic version of Macbeth, so haunted by a vision of the future that the present ceases to have any validity or significance: `Nothing is but what is not' (Macbeth, I.iii.141). He inhabits a world of prophecy and dream; and `If his dreame last', says Subtle, `hee'll turne the age, to gold' (I.iv.29).

Mammon's imagination fastens upon the nature of time, and the way it can be manipulated once he is possessed of the elixir. He believes that he will have the power to defy and to collapse time, moving with unimaginable speed to reverse its normal destructive processes:

In eight, and twentie dayes,
I'll make an old man, of fourscore, a childe. . . .
'Tis the secret
Of nature, naturiz'd 'gainst all infections,
Cures all diseases, comming of all causes,
A month's griefe, in a day; a yeeres, in twelve:
And, of what age soever, in a month.
Past all the doses, of your drugging Doctors.
I'll undertake, withall, to fright the plague
Out o' the kingdome, in three months.
I.i.52-3, 63-70

Mammon believes that with the elixir one may live for ever, liberated from common fears and apprehensions. `I see no end of his labours', says Subtle of Mammon (I.iv.25), and Mammon himself sees no ends of any kind: no end to his sexual and gastronomical delights, no end to his powers, no end to his life. Mammon is in this respect quite unlike his philosophical namesake Epicurus, who was acutely interested in the necessary limits of human pleasure and of human life. True pleasure, Epicurus argued, depends upon a calm recognition of these limits: `Infinite time contains no greater pleasure than limited time, if one measures by reason the limits of pleasure'.[9] Unthinking pleasure, on the other hand, cannot succeed in dispelling the fears and pains which a consciousness of these limits will impose:

If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky and death and its pains, and also teach the limits of desire and of pains, we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full with pleasures from every source and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life.[10]

With more irony than he knows, Mammon speaks to Subtle of the task of Sisyphus, `dam'd / To roule the ceaselesse stone' (II.iii.208-9). Mammon himself seeks the hedonist's counterpart to this instrument of torment: a stone that will bring ceaseless pleasure. Yet the task of finding that stone will itself be ceaseless, for Subtle's strategy is perpetually to promise, and perpetually to delay.

Jonson allows us to glimpse a curious affinity between Mammon's attitude to time and that of the Puritan brethren. With one part of his mind, Mammon believes in a world of unending pleasure. With another part of his mind, however, he believes - as Ananias and Tribulation believe - in a coming apocalypse. In conversation with Dol Common, Mammon reveals himself to be a Fifth Monarchy Man, awaiting the millenium.[11] At the end of the play, frustrated of all his hopes, he dramatically revises the probable date of the ending of the world:[12]

I will goe mount a turnep-cart, and preach
The end o'the world, within these two months.

When Subtle meets Mammon in the second act he rebukes him for his excessive eagerness to view the results of Subtle's still uncon-cluded labours:

Sonne, I doubt
Yo'are covetous, that thus you meet your time
I'the just point: prevent your day, at morning.

Through his `ungovern'd hast', Mammon may ruin the entire experiment; more `patience' is required: so Mammon, too, is sent away, and bidden to return in two hours' time. Mammon is anxious to see not only the elixir but also Dol Common, whom he believes to be the insane and sexually available sister of a lord; spurred by this double incentive, he will arrive once more at the opening of the fourth act with characteristic punctuality, `i'the onely, finest time' (IV.i.1).

The day's time-table is now growing more crowded. Mammon's suspicious companion Surly is informed - by Face himself, in the guise of Subtle's laboratory assistant, Lungs - that Captain Face wishes to see him `i'the Temple-church, / Some half houre hence, and upon earnest businesse' (II.iii.289-90). As these various appointments accumulate, Face, Subtle, and Dol, begin to lose perfect control over the order of events. Before Face can get away to keep his appointment in the Temple Church, other visitors arrive. Ananias comes first, and is sent away at once to fetch his elders and return within `threescore minutes' (II.v.84). (He and the elders are to arrive with supreme punctuality in the third act. `O, Are you come?', Subtle is to ask; `'Twas time. Your threescore minutes / Were at the last thred, you see...', III.ii.1-2.)[13] Drugger comes next, bringing news of Kastril and his sister, the delectable Dame Pliant. Kastril is a man whose deepest wish is to keep up with contemporary fashion, to live for the present moment:

a gentleman, newly warme in his land, sir,
Scarse cold in his one and twentie; that do's governe
His sister, here: and is a man himselfe
Of some three thousand a yeere, and is come up
To learne to quarrell, and to live by his wits,
And will goe downe againe, and dye i'the countrey.

Kastril has journeyed from the safety of the country to plague-infested London at a time when sensible Londoners like Lovewit have been prudently heading in the opposite direction. Nothing is so important to him than to catch the fashion of the moment; after that he can return to the country, and, like a mayfly, die.

Always at the back of these busy comings and goings is our consciousness of Face's impending appointment with Surly in the Temple Church. At last Face makes his escape, but in Act III he is to return to the house and confess that he has missed Surly. Face and Subtle have been temporarily outwitted: for the suspicious Surly is to return soon to the house in his Spanish disguise in an attempt to discover what is really going on. Like every other visitor to the house, Surly will be sent away, having been given a new time at which to return. Surly's next visit is to cause a different kind of disruption to the carefully-managed timetable of the day, for it has been forgotten that Mammon has been told to return at exactly the same hour, and that both men are determined to enjoy an assignation with the same woman, Dol Common.

The temporal organization of the remaining acts of The Alchemist might be examined with equal minuteness, but the superlative technical precision with which the events of the play are plotted, timed, and set in motion will by now be fully apparent. Jonson's dramaturgy is, at the lowest level, a rich source of humour. So complex does the programming of events become in The Alchemist that the audience, like the characters themselves, are capable of forgetting that certain arrangements have been agreed upon. It is a wonderful moment in the theatre when Face at last believes that he has explained everything satisfactorily to Lovewit and has brought events once again under his control, and a stifled cry is suddenly heard: Dapper, desperately thrust into the privy long ago in a moment of crisis, has now eaten through his gag of gingerbread and can hold out no longer: `For gods sake, when wil her Grace be at leisure?' (V.iii.65).

But if this were all that could be said of Jonson's `clockwork' skills, then his achievement might seem more nearly comparable to that of Feydeau than to that of Shakespeare. An examination of the organization of time in The Alchemist does more, however, than reveal Jonson's great cleverness in dramatic engineering; for it will also be evident that time, and the attitudes which people show towards time, are a central preoccupation of the play. The formal structure of the play of the comedy elegantly bears and enacts a central theme. As in Volpone, Jonson explores the nature of human expectation, and the various ways in which people hope, `Each greedy minute' (I.i.80), to have their most covetous dreams fulfilled. In Shakespearian comedy, time often operates as a benign and clarifying force, dispelling error, rewarding devotion, and restoring that which is lost. It is to this property in time that the characters, at their most bewildered, often make appeal:

O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me t'untie.
Twelfth Night, II.ii.38-9
Well, Time is the old justice that examines all such offenders, and let Time try.

As You Like It , IV.i.178-80

In The Alchemist, time is viewed in other ways. For many of the characters, time is a commodity in which it is profitable to invest. Expectation may be governed by self-interest, while couched in the language of devotion: `But how long time, / Sir, must the Saints expect, yet?' (III.ii.125-6). The comedy reveals bizarre cor-respondences between the views of time taken by characters of apparently contrary temperament and disposition: between the Puritans' apocalyptic habits of mind, and the sensuous expectations of Sir Epicure Mammon; between the gambling instincts of Dapper, and those of Face and Subtle; between Kastril's manner of living to the moment, and that of the rogues with whom he finds himself allied. To examine the time-scheme of The Alchemist is to discover more fully what the play is centrally about.


The scorn which Jonson expressed for those loosely constructed dramas about knights wandering in the holy land, like Sir Philip Sidney's earlier strictures against similar contemporary breaches of the classical unities, may look like a rearguard action mounted in defence of a hopeless cause.[14] The logic of common experience, the ultimate verdict of theatrical history, seem to stand against him.: `Time is, of all modes of existence, most obsequious to the imagination', Samuel Johnson persuasively reasoned a century later in defence of Shakespeare's more elastic dramaturgy; `a lapse of years is as easily conceived as a passage of hours. In contemplation we easily contract the time of real actions, and therefore willingly permit it to be contracted when we only see their imitation.'[15] By Victorian times, these arguments would seem self-evidently true, and the very principles of Ben Jonson's classical dramaturgy, as admiringly anatomized by Dryden (for example) in The Essay of Dramatic Poesy, were to look profoundly dated and questionable. `Dryden's praise is based on grounds which to me are naught', wrote Trollope dismissively in the margins of his copy of Cunningham and Gifford's Ben Jonson after re-reading The Silent Woman in 1876.

I never think of asking how many days are taken in `As You Like It', or even quarrel with `A Winter's Tale' because of the lapse of time. Who really now loves a play the better because the scenes are laid in two contiguous houses, - except the proprietor who has to furnish the properties? That feeling is over.[16]

To Victorian readers nurtured on the three-decker novel and the long poem, the formal constraints of the classical theatre as represented by a dramatist such as Ben Jonson were to seem intolerable. `Five acts to make a play?' wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning questioningly in Aurora Leigh,

And why not fifteen? why not ten? or seven?
What matters for the number of the leaves,
Supposing the tree lives and grows? ...
I will write no plays.[17]

An organic image, the tree, replaces the mechanical image of the clock, a time-bound art being re-conceived in terms of vegetable growth whose movement is imperceptible to the human eye.

The distant reverberations of such questions are still to be felt in the modern theatre, where the humorously eccentric clocks of Samuel Beckett sound, in a different register, a similar protest against the tyranny of classical assumptions concerning the proper regulation of theatrical time. In an early piece by Beckett entitled Le Kid, a parody of Corneille's Le Cid, an elderly gentleman with a long white beard named Don Diegue (originally played in performance by Beckett himself) enters anxiously clutching a small alarm clock; as he embarks upon a lengthy soliloquy, the hands of another huge alarm clock painted on the backdrop are seen - first by the audience, then by Don Diegue himself - to turn at ever-accelerating speed, while the small clock in his hands begins agitatedly to sound its alarm, gradually drowning the increasingly nonsensical words of the soliloquy.[18] The energetic alarm clock of Endgame to whose clamorous peal Hamm and Clov listen so intently randomly punctuates their general consciousness of a formless time which enfolds them, stretching ever onward, always promising the end which seemingly never comes.

Beckett's dramatic world is one from which the notion of `fit bounds' has vanished, and the divine watchmaker mysteriously taken his leave. While Jonson's The Alchemist may seem to present an entirely secular and even cynical view of human behaviour - the very Puritans in this play are greedy and self-interested, the Temple Church itself has become a mere place for business assignations, the returning master of the house readily enters into the dubious practices of his deceitful servant - the formal structure of the play embodies a more regular, orderly, faithful view of the operation of human affairs, depicting a world amenable to explanation, in which events move more or less rationally through various stages of crisis and denouement to a given end; a world aptly realized in the great figure of a clock.[19]

Jonson's preference for working theatrically within the `fit bounds' of time and place did not derive from pedantry, or blind adherence to classical practice, or failure to understand the more variable ways in which the dramatic imagination might be called into play. Such `bounds' worked rather as a powerful stimulus to his comic invention, and his wry and complex vision of the world; a world that ran - almost, yet significantly for the comic dramatist, not quite - like a perfect clock.


[1] S. T. Coleridge, Table Talk, 1835, recording his comment, made c. 1823, on the `perfect' plot of The Alchemist.
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[2] All quotations from Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1925-52); i/j, u/v spellings regularized.
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[3] Quoted by G. E. Bentley, Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared (Chicago and London, 1945), ii.83.
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[4] Herford and Simpson, followed by later editors of the play, see a discrepancy between the dates indicated in V.v and in III.ii, failing to observe that 23 October is the date on which the Brethren's money was `told out', and that on the present date of 1 November the Brethren are impatient, and `will not venter any more' (II.v.65). Jonson's own calculations are in fact perfect.
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[5] See F. P. Wilson, The Plague in Shakespeare's London (Oxfxord, 1927); Paul Slack, The Impact of the Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1985); Cheryl Ross, `The Plague of The Alchemist', Renaissance Quarterly,
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[6] Herford and Simpson, Ben Jonson, x. 49-50.
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[7] The Works of Ben Jonson, ed. William Gifford and Francis Cunningham, 3 vols. (London 1904), ii.10-11. Cf. the fussing of Asotus over his watch in Cynthia's Revels, IV.iii.
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[8] See George A. Panichas, Epicurus (New York, 1967); N. W. De Witt, Epicurus and His Philosophy (Minneapolis, 1954). Cf. Carlo Buffone, the `incomprehensible epicure' of Every Man Out of His Humour (Grex, 338). Sir Epicure Mammon's vision of solitary feasting (II.ii.72ff.) is contrary to the spirit of Epicurus, who maintained that `To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf': quoted by Carlo Diano, `Epicureanism', Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, vol. 6, 911-14.
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[9] Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, xix, in The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York, 1940), p. 36.
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[10] Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, x, in Oates, pp. 35-6.
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[11] See P. G. Rogers, The Fifth Monarchy Men (London, New York, Toronto, 1966); B. S. Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men: A Study in Seventeenth-Century English Millenarianism (London, 1972); Theodore Olson, Millenialism, Utopianism, and Progress (Toronto, Buffalo, and London, 1982); E. L. Tuveson, Millenium and Utopia: A Study of the Background of the Idea of Progress (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1949).
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[12] Millenarians, like other apocalyptic sects, have always been ready to revise the likely date of the ending of the world if disappointed in their first prediction, as Frank Kermode points out in The Sense of an Ending (Oxford, 1966).
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[13] F. H. Mares in his Revels edition of The Alchemist (London, 1967) plausibly suggests that Subtle may produce an hour-glass at this moment.
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[14] Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London, 1965).
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[15] Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare.
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[16] Trollope's annotated copy of the Gifford/Cunningham Ben Jonson is now in the possession of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.
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[17] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
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[18] Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (New York and London, 1980), pp. 127-8.
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[19] Thomas Burnet in his Theory of the Earth (IV.9) interestingly conflated the analogy of the world-as-theatre with that of the world-as-clock: see Tuveson, Millenium and Utopia, chapter 4, `Nature's Simple Plot'. On the clockwork analogy, see Ian Donaldson, `The Clockwork Novel: Three Notes on an Eighteenth-Century Analogy', The Review of English Studies, n.s. xxi, 81 (1970), 14-22.
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