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The Journal of English Language and Literature , Vol.66, No.2, 285 ~ 304, 2020
Education in Deception: Ben Jonson’s Advocacy of Theatre in The Alchemist
Sunghee Pak
During the early seventeenth century, adversaries of theatre, including religious and political authorities, condemned it as an immoral and sinful activity. Ben Jonson, who occasionally was admonished for the content of his plays, advocated the educational benefit of theatre through his play The Alchemist (1610). In this play, Jonson demonstrates that theatre can perform a socially positive function by educating the audience through pleasant entertainment. In this paper, I view Jonson’s The Alchemist as his advocacy of theatre: the work teaches about the characteristics of harmful deceptions, showcasing the deceptive use of language and the danger of excessive greed. By providing these as examples, the playwright familiarizes the audience with common deceptions and expects them to learn how to discern lies and ultimately to protect themselves against ill-intended deceptions in their real lives. In so doing, a capable audience can transform Jonson’s play into a profitable disguise. In order to investigate Jonson’s argument and strategy, I first evaluate the objections to theatre put forward by the anti-theatrical parties, particularly in relation to their religious ideas, before analyzing Jonson’s response to such criticism. Then, I will turn to The Alchemist to discuss how Jonson displays language as a tool for trickery, while demonstrating greed and ignorance as characteristics of the gullible. I will also examine Jonson’s argument, which promotes theatre as a profitable disguise in fluctuating early modern London society, along with his vision for an ideal audience.
Key Words
Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, deception, language, theatre
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