A discussion of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist as an allegory is, in truth, a little difficult. The reason why this is so is that The Alchemist is in the genre of farce not that of allegory. However, while a work may not be definitively an allegory, through the process of allegoresis it may be critically read as an allegory in part or in whole.
Allegoresis is the process by which a work that is not written as an allegory–like for example the allegorical works The Faerie Queene and The Pilgrim’s Progress–may be critically and analytically read and understood as an allegory or as having parts that are allegorical. An allegory is a work (or a section, passage or line of a work) that has universally representative characters and experience.
For instance, if a folk fable that has the characters Tommy the Toad and Bobby the Billy Goat and in which they say, “We are creatures of the wild, aren’t we?” is modified so that Tommy the Toad becomes Toad the Teacher and Bobby the Billy Goat becomes Stubborn Student Bobby Billy and they talk about “We are creatures of rational reason, aren’t we?”, then the fable about individuals has become an allegory about all of humankind through the universality of character and experience.
In constructing The Alchemist, which some critics say is the most perfect play in English literature, Ben Jonson didn’t draw on old stories for his storyline and plot; he created the story and plot himself. To do so, he used character types, not allegorical characters. This is what classifies The Alchemist as farce instead of allegory.
Type, or “typical,” characters are standard characters or archetypal characters that everyone has experience with and therefore can understand even though a particular type may not be universally representative in the way allegorical characters are. For example, not everyone is the swindler type though many people have experience of that type of person.
Another example is that not everyone is the giddy girl type though many people have experience of that type of person. Which points out another difference between typical characters and allegorical characters: Character types lend themselves to humor, farce and satire while allegorical characters are serious characters meant to be taken in earnest.
So–this said–an allegoresis reading of The Alchemist could interpret the character types as universal allegorical representations portraying an underlying earnestly serious message.
Therefore in an allegoresis the characters would be The Puritan Ananias, The Law Clerk Dapper, The Rich Young Man Kastril, and The Master Lovwit, etc., and the themes might be woven together to teach a serious lesson, perhaps about Morality and Order in a Disordered world that requires vigilance against Victimization through right-minded Religion. Furthermore, in allgoresis, the satire that Jonson writes would undergird the delivery of the earnestly serious theme.
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