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The Plague of The Alchemist

  • Cheryl Lynn Ross (a1)


In 1610, the plague hit London with unusual force. Ever since the Black Death more than a century earlier, bubonic plague had been endemic to Britain, and city dwellers were accustomed to the loss often or fifteen lives each year. But when the number of plague deaths exceeded thirty or forty, panic threatened. Then public gathering-places, such as theaters, were closed, since the disease was thought to spread directly through human contact. A predictable exodus from the city began: anyone with money and access to a country house fled for the duration of the epidemic, leaving the less fortunate in the grip of “the Poor's Plague.“’ When members of the dominant social classes decamped, they delegated household authority to their servants. These temporary aristocrats shared the city with quack doctors who sold unicorn's horn and patent nostrums guaranteed to cure the disease. The city took on a macabre carnival atmosphere of license, at least for those who were still healthy.



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1 Mortality records testify to the fact that the wealthy purchased virtual immunity from the disease: the extant bill of 1665, reporting the deaths of 100,000 Londoners, lists not one notable name. For a review of plague in Renaissance London and later, see Bell, Walter G., The Great Plague in London in 1665 (London, 1924), hereafter cited as Great Plague, and Hodges, Nathanael, Loimologia (London, 1720).

2 Jonson, Ben, The Alchemist, ed. Kernan, Alvin (New Haven, 1974). Further references to The Alchemist will be cited in the tex

3 Face alludes to this measure in V, 2, 11-14: “Purposing then, sir, / T'have burnt rose-vinegar, treacle, and tar, /And hai'made it sweet, that you/Should ne'er ha'known it …“—He rs attempting to hide Suhtlfe's presence in the house from Lovewit.

4 See, for example, Hodges, , Loimologia, 32 .

5 Anon., Orders for Health (London, 1630), rpt. in Anon., A Col lection of Very Valuable and Scarce Pieces relating to the Last Plague in the year 1665 (London, 1721) 10.

6 See Thomas Lodge, A Short Treatise of the Plague (1603), in his Works (Glasgow, 1883), 4:23-24 for nostrums; Bell, Great Plague 236-38 for descriptions of London fires; Hodges, Loimologia 27 for the problem of disposing of corpses.

7 Fernand Braudel describes the general pattern in “Pre-Modern Towns,” in The Early Modern Town, ed. Peter Clark (London, 1976) 61,66.

8 Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger (New York, 1966) 48 .

9 The significance of Subtle's excremental and effluvial images becomes clear as Douglas describes the link between social threats and the symbolism of bodily orifices: “All margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins. We should expect the orifices of the body to symbolize its specially vulnerable points. Matter issuing from them is marginal stuff of the most obvious kind.” (144-45) Douglas’ insight allows us to interpret the pervasive connection of Subtle with rheum, phlegm, “humid exhalations” and excrement of all descriptions.

10 Ibid., 12, 101.

11 Temkin, Oswei, The Double Face of Janus and Other Essays in the History of Medicine (Baltimore, 1976) 426, 461.

12 For further discussion of this identification, see my study, The Plague and the Figures of Power (diss., Stanford University, 1985) ch. 2.

13 See Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage (diss., Stanford University 1982) for a provocative discussion of this quality of the Elizabethan theater.

14 See The Alchemist, II, I, 71 and editor Kernan's note on the line, p. 59.

15 Aydelotte, Frank, Elizabethan Rogues and Vagabonds (Oxford, 1913) 113

16 Edward I, Statuta Wallia (1284), in Statutes of the Realm, 1:47. I owe this reference to Steven Mullaney, who describes such rehearsals of alien cultures in his study, The Place of the Stage, 111-12 et passim.

17 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish, trans. Sheridan Smith, A. M. (New York, 1973) passim.

18 The conny-catching pamphlets present the criminal underworld as the moral inversion, but structural mirror, of the legitimate culture. Most pamphlets describe elaborate social hierarchies within the underworld, with the “upright man” as king and those newly “stalled to the rogue,” or initiated, as peasants in this society. See, for example, Thomas Harman, A Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566), rpt. in The Elizabethan Underworld, ed. A. V. Judges (London, Limited, 1930) 671F.

19 See, for example, Gee, John, New Shreds of the Old Snare (London, 1624) 22 .

20 Anon., The Several Notorious and Lewd Cosenages of John West and Alice West, Falsely Called the King and Queen of Faeries (London, 1613) sig. B1.

21 Salgado, Gamini, The Elizabethan Underworld (London, 1977) 98, 109.

22 William Harrison, Description of England (London, 1577; rpt. London, 1877-81) 218.

23 Keman, notes to The Alchemist, 223.

24 Ibid.

25 For a review of these developments, see Hill, Christopher, God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (New York, 1970) ch. 1.

26 F. J. Fisher comments on the contemporary resentment of London by the surrounding counties and outports, at whose expense the city seemed to grow fat. See F. J. Fisher, “The Development of London as a Centre of Conspicuous Consumption in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Ser. 4, 30 (1948): 37-50 and “London as an ‘Engine of Economic Growth,’ “ in Clark, ed, The Early Modern Town 205-15.

27 Many contemporary plague pamphlets attest to this antipathy between the two locales; see, for example, Spenser, Benjamin, Vox Civitatis, or London's Complaint against Her Children in the Country (London, 1636); Rusticus, Notarius, Vox Ruris:Reverberating Vox Civitatis (London, 1636); and Brewer, Thomas, A Dialogue between a Citizen and a Poor Country-man (London, 1636).

28 Stubbes, Philip, Anatomy of the Abuses in England in Shakespeare's Youth, A.D. 1583, ed. Furnivall, Frederick (London, 1877-79) pt- 1, 185.

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The Plague of The Alchemist

  • Cheryl Lynn Ross (a1)


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