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TALK: Christopher Foley, “‘Breathe Less, and Farther Off’:The Hazardous Proximity of Other Bodies in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610)”
February 5, 2016 @ 12:00 PM - 1:00 PM
Although the threat of the plague is placed front and center in Jonson’s The Alchemist, I demonstrate in this presentation that the persistent threat of bodily vulnerability also informs the logic of the play in less obvious, yet profound, ways: from the promises of the philosopher’s stone to cure bodily ailments to the constant threat that the unexpected arrival of characters pose to the rogues’ precarious control of Lovewit’s house in the Blackfriars. This latter aspect of Jonson’s site-specific dramaturgy would have been an especially salient consideration for the audience attending the London premiere of the play at the Blackfriars indoor theater in November 1610. After demonstrating the more subtle and profound ways in which vulnerability to the plague ironically informs the logic of Jonson’s play, I turn my attention to the class-based tensions inherent in the uneven distribution of exposure to the plague in early modern London. Not only did this mass exodus of ‘rich runaways’ such as Lovewit leave the city economically and socially in ruin; in the wake of such an exodus, the remaining population in London became susceptible to charlatans like Subtle, Dol, and Face. Ultimately, I read Jonson’s ironic satire—especially its concluding scenes—alongside the moralizing plague pamphlets of fellow playwright Thomas Dekker to suggest that both writers critique the uneven social distribution of environmental hazard in early modern London.
Christopher Foley received his Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara in December 2015.