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The Alchemist: Textual Essay

William Sherman

On 3 October 1610, in the year of its first-known production, The Alchemist was entered in the Stationers’ Register:

Walter Burre.   Entred for his copy vnder thandes of Sir George Bucke

         and Th’wardens a Comœdy called, The Alchymist made

         by Ben: Johnson          vjd

              (Arber,1875-94, 3.201)

The play was not published until 1612, and the first quarto (Q), like the plot of the play, represents a 'venture tripartite' bringing together the publisher Walter Burre, the printer Thomas Snodham, and the bookseller John Stepneth, all of whom worked in and around St. Paul's Churchyard. The title page reads as follows:

THE ALCHEMIST./ VVritten/ by/ BEN. IONSON./ --Neque, me, vt miretur turba, laboro:/ Contentus paucis lectoribus./ LONDON,/ Printed by Thomas Snodham, for Walter Burre, and are to be sold by Iohn Stepneth, at the West-end of Paules./ 1612.

By 1612, Burre was well established in the London book trade. He had a strong reputation as a publisher of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama; and he had already developed a working relationship with Jonson, having issued the first quartos of Every Man In His Humour (1601), Cynthia's Revels (1601), and Catiline (1611). But Snodham was near the beginning of a long and varied career that would see him become Jacobean England's most prolific printer of music. Stepneth, for his part, can only be associated with seven surviving books, but he used Burre’s sign for his first publication in 1609 (Blayney, 1990, 27) and two of the others were plays printed by Snodham – Jonson's Alchemist and Cyril Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy (1611). There are signs that Stepneth may have been developing closer relations with Jonson since he entered the Epigrams in the Stationer's Register on 15 May 1612; but he died later that year, and if Jonson's unflattering portrait of his bookseller in Epigram 3 was directed at Stepneth it is unlikely that he would have continued to send business his way.

Careful comparison of the 1612 Alchemist and the 1611 Atheist's Tragedy, along with earlier printings of Jonson's plays, suggests that the appearance of Q owed something to both Jonson and Burre but little to Snodham or Stepneth. Tourneur's text looks like other standard dramatic quartos: the title page explains that the play 'in diuers places...hath often been Acted' and the stage action is described in separate, italicised directions, while (beyond a list of dramatis personae) there is no prefatory matter whatsoever. Jonson's more conspicuously literary production shares with Burre's Catiline a number of features, including the continuous printing of lines with speeches by multiple characters to create a full metrical unit (associated by Zachary Lesser, 2004, 66-70 with university and/or classical drama, which also tended to use massed entries at the beginning of scenes). And while the 1612 Quarto retains the list of roles, it removes virtually all signs of staging: the text itself contains next to nothing in the way of stage directions and there is no reference to a company or its performances on the title page. In their place we have a Latin epigram from Horace's Satires, and between the title page and the beginning of Act 1 we find Jonson's dedicatory epistle to Lady Mary (Sidney) Wroth (A2), a preface to the reader (A3), George Lucy's poem in praise of Jonson (A3v), a plot summary in acrostic verse (A4), and a prologue (A4v). The play itself occupies Sigs. B-M4. As with many of Jonson's dramatic publications, the printed page offers a new occasion for staging of a different kind in which author, reader, and patron all have starring roles.

The number and nature of press variants in surviving copies of Q has sometimes been taken as a sign of Jonson's active participation in the printing process, but whether or not this was the case it does suggest that someone noticed a fair number of errors and made a serious effort to correct them. Henry de Vocht’s 1950 edition of The Alchemist, Edited from the Quarto of 1612, contains a full list of variants discovered in re-collating the copies examined by Herford and Simpson (H&S, 5.275-7), including two copies from the Dyce Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Malone Copy at the Bodleian, Bryan Twyne's copy from Corpus Christi College Oxford, a copy at the British Library, and one in private hands. I offer a complete table of corrections at the end of this essay, incorporating de Vocht's additions to the list provided by Herford and Simpson, but cite here his brief overview:

...the changes brought about...consist of 42 introductions or alterations of punctuation marks, hyphens or apostrophes; of 21 changes of initials or of the type in which some words are set; and of 4 instances of placing some words differently, or of separating those which had been printed together. Those 67 technical alterations on the total of 78 variants leave eleven for the text proper: in two cases, one word is replaced by another; in four, an equivalent orthography is introduced, and in five a mistake is corrected... .

(1950, 110-11)

While we do not share de Vocht's preference for this text over all others, for the reasons outlined below, we have found his textual collations to be extremely accurate and our own work on these and other copies (including those at the Folger and Huntington Libraries, Glasgow University, and Cambridge) did not yield any new variants. And none of these changes has any serious implications for our understanding of Jonson's intentions or effects.

The Alchemist was very popular from the outset as a play in performance but not, it seems, as a free-standing playbook. It remained in the repertory of the King's Men until the closing of the theatres and was revived and/or adapted in the Interregnum, Restoration and eighteenth century. But the 1612 quarto was never reissued and the play was not again printed on its own until Jacob Tonson published it in 1709 – the same year he produced Rowe's pioneering edition of Shakespeare:

The alchemist: a comedy. As it is now acted at the Theatre-Royal, by her Majesty's servants. Written by Ben. Johnson. London: printed for Jacob Tonson, and sold by William Lewis at the Dilphin next Tom's-Coffee-House in Russel-Street, Covent Garden, 1709.

There were a further twelve single-text editions before 1800, most of which involved Tonson in one way or another and the last three of which were connected with a new adaptation of the play at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane: these appeared in 1710, 1730, 1732, 1739 (twice), 1752 (in Glasgow), 1763, 1770, 1774 (in Edinburgh), 1777 and 1791 (twice). By the end of the eighteenth century, Jonson's play was appearing in collections and series, including Bell's British Theatre as well as selections from Jonson's most popular plays. In 1816 William Gifford included a carefully glossed text of The Alchemist in his landmark nine-volume edition of the plays, the precursor to the great Oxford edition prepared by C H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson in eleven volumes between 1925 and 1952, and (of course) to this Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson.

These collections build on Jonson's own much-studied efforts to publish his collected works during his lifetime, beginning with The Workes of Benjamin Ionson, printed in 1616 by William Stansby as a hefty folio (F1), where The Alchemist appears on Sigs. 3E1-3L3v. The text of The Alchemist found in F1 is clearly based on Q: the kinds of errors carried over in F1 (e.g. the omission of a speech heading for Face at 3.3.62, the assignment of Dapper's speech to Face at 5.4.60, and the persistence of spellings that Jonson would not have approved, such as stipstick for styptick, 2.5.10) suggest that it must have been printed from a copy of Q. There are surprisingly few meaningful changes in F1, either of wording or of layout; but there are a number of alterations that lead virtually all modern editors to believe that the later text represents Jonson's own revised version, and whether or not Jonson himself personally supervised the printing of the 1616 collection he seems to have taken the opportunity to modify the text in a number of ways.

The only dissenting voice from this editorial policy has been that of de Vocht, who led a long and lonely campaign to dislodge the authority attributed to F1 by Herford and Simpson. Between 1934 and 1937 he published four editions of--and/or commentaries on – Jonson's plays in the series Materials for the Study of the Old English Drama; and in each case he challenged the assumption that Jonson had a hand in the revisions for F1, accusing Stansby and his compositors of disfiguring and obscuring Jonson's original text. In 1950, Percy Simpson responded with a sweeping and largely successful critique of de Vocht's arguments and qualifications – see ‘Appendix 17: An Attack Upon the Folio’ (H&S, 9.74-84) – the same year de Vocht produced his edition of The Alchemist, once again based on Q, which Herford and Simpson had described as a piece of incompetent printing (5.275). This is a remarkable case where the same bibliographical evidence has led serious scholars to opposite conclusions (each espoused in the fiercest of terms). While Q was by no means as bad as Herford and Simpson suggest and F1 was hardly the textual travesty described by de Vocht, there is little evidence to support de Vocht's conviction that Q is more authoritative than F1 and we have therefore followed Mares (Revels edn., 1967, lxxvi) and all other modern editors in taking F1 rather than Q as our copy text.

The changes between the two texts do not, at any rate, involve as many substantive alterations as we might expect from the wholesale revision found in some of Jonson's other plays. There is some evidence for Jonson's common practice of toning down passages that had caused offence: in response to the strictures of the Act of 1606 against the abuse of God's name on stage, or perhaps reflecting a change of sensibility found elsewhere in Jonson's work, Jonson adjusts the wording of blasphemous oaths and Biblical references at 1.1.148, 1.2.56-7, 1.2.135, 4.3.11, 5.3.44, 5.5.23-4, and 5.5.99. There was no need, in this case, to use the printed page to recuperate a text that had failed on the stage--though Lesser has argued that the 1612 Quarto fits the typographical and marketing strategies established by Burre for capitalising on texts that had (24-5, 76-80). The most striking difference between Q and F1 is, in fact, the addition of references to theatrical performance. These changes are visible from the outset, on the new title page prepared for the play (3E1):

THE ALCHEMIST./ A Comoedie./ Acted in the yeere 1610. By the/ Kings MAIESTIES/ Seruants./ The Author B. I./ LVCRET./ --petere inde coronam,/ Vnde prius nulli velarint tempora Musae./ LONDON,/ Printed by VVILLIAM STANSBY/ M.DC.XVI.

They are also visible on the extra page added after the end of the play [3L3v, mis-signed 3K3v]:

This Comoedie vvas first/ acted, in the yeere 1610./ By the Kings Maiesties/ SERVANTS./ The principall Comoedians were,/ RIC. BVRBADGE [and so on]./ With the allowance of the Master of REVELLS.

The remaining paratext was carried over from the 1612 quarto, with a few exceptions: the preface to the reader was cut entirely, the prefatory verse by George Lucy was removed and replaced with a cluster of poetic tributes at the beginning of the collection, and a new epigraph from Lucretius was added in place of the original epigraph from Horace (since it was used on the title page for the whole volume). The letter to Lady Mary Wroth (3E2) appears in slightly edited form, and it is followed by the list of ‘Persons of the Play’ (3E2v), the acrostic ‘Argument’ and the ‘Prologue’ (3E3).

The theatrical nature of the Folio text is also signaled by the inclusion of stage directions throughout the play. These generally appear in the margins of the text and sometimes (as in the case of Catiline discussed in David Bevington's textual essay) look more like notes to the reader than instructions for an acting company. Along with the massed entries at the beginnings of scenes, and the classical convention of starting a new scene when a character enters or leaves the stage, the overall impression is perhaps closer to the ancient models Jonson was eager to revive than to contemporary theatrical practice. There were many ways, then as now, to bring Jonson's script to life: we have followed the general cues of F1 and left many of the details of actual stage-business open to interpretation and reinvention, discussing specific options and historic examples in our commentary.

Jonson's unusual attention to punctuation (as discussed in the Guidelines to this edition, available to readers in the Electronic Edition) also left its mark on the revision of the play. The pointing in F1 has been thoroughly modified and achieves, on the whole, a clearer balance between logical distinction and rhetorical emphasis--the two concurrent, and often competing, systems in play during the period. Editions that translate these marks into modern forms find Jonson's original pointing too heavy and quirky for modern eyes and ears, as is apparent if we set a typical passage from Q alongside the text as we have printed it:

If you, my Sonne, should, now, preuaricate,
And, to your owne particular lusts, employ
So great, and catholique a blisse; Be sure,
A curse will follow, yea, and ouertake
Your subtle, and most secret wayes. (D3v)
If you, my son, should now prevaricate
And to your own particular lusts employ
So great and catholic a bliss, be sure
A curse will follow, yea, and overtake
Your subtle and most secret ways. (2.3.18-23)

But Jonson thought (and wrote) carefully about the placement of commas, colons and full stops, and there may be places where modernization effaces syntactic or stylistic effects that Jonson intended us to see and hear. We would strongly encourage readers to examine Q and F1 (reproduced elsewhere in the Electronic Edition) and consider for themselves the kinds of differences we have silently imposed.

One of the jobs of punctuation was to mediate between the oral and the written, to put the voice on paper. There were several new features in the Folio text that work only on the page and constitute typographical strategies that we are sorry to lose in the modern presentation here. While we have followed F1's italicization of many foreign words, we have not been able to reproduce the black letter (or Gothic) type used in Act 2 Scene 3, when Subtle refers to Face as 'Ulen Spiegel' (2.3.18, 315) and in Act 2 Scene 4, when Subtle instructs Doll to bear herself 'statelich' (2.4.7). We have also sacrificed one of the most interesting pieces of printing in the entire Jonsonian canon, the scene at the beginning of Act 4 Scene 5 where Doll goes into her 'fit of talking': as Face and Mammon desperately try to get a word in edgewise, the concurrent passages are printed alongside each other in two columns joined--or is it separated?--by a bracket, an effect we have tried to convey with the more limited resources of the dash.

Jonson's metrical apostrophe gave the printers trouble, more so in F1 than Q. But they did surprisingly well with the exotic vocabulary bandied about by virtually all of the characters: the sequence of scenes involves not only an increasingly frantic change of personnel and costume but also of profession and discipline, each with its own arcane lingo (including astrology and chiromancy, Puritan theology, Biblical chronology, rhetoric, gambling, and above all alchemy). The printer(s) had not prepared texts on these subjects before, and the accuracy with which they did so here is almost as remarkable as the depth and breadth of Jonson's own discursive mastery--and it may, indeed, add support to the common assumption that Jonson was closely involved in the printing of F1. Those responsible for both Q and F1 did not do so well with the Spanish spoken by the disguised Surly in the second half of the play--but it is probably Surly himself who garbles the language (often to comic effect). We have therefore followed Mares in correcting obvious typographical errors but leaving the eccentricities of grammar and orthography intact.


State 1 State 2
A2v 6 thatremembers that remembers
A3 4 Age, Age)
6 Iigges, and Daunces, Daunces, and Antickes,
15 Multitude Many
B1v 16 coales Coales
25 -hahch -hatch
27 Vailes vailes
B2 5 Sublim'd...exalted...fix'd Sublim'd...exalted...fix'd
6 third region, the high state of grace third region, the high state of grace
7 spirit...quintessence spirit...quintessence
8 Philosophers worke Philosophers worke
14 great Art great Art
16 proiection proiection
20 Equi clibanum Equi Clibanum
B3v 29-30 ...I thinke, (Doctor.
...In truth, (Doctor ...I think,
...In truth,
B4 10 you you.
23 Turque Turke
25 Doe Doe,
29 Sr, Sir
C4v 4 Ophyr Ophir
7 word. word,
9 die Die
10 card Card
D1v 9 water, water?
21 wood wood,
25 Pythagora[turned ']s Pythagora's
D2 19 complexion complexion,
D2v 6 be, be
D4 2 degrees degrees,
D4v 10 Sir Sir,
E2 11 Elizir Elixir
E2v 20 'Hart 'Hart,
36 to hear her; Sir, to hear her, Sir,
E4v 1 sanguine sanguine [or] Sanguine
20 exilde exil'd
32 dulcefie, dulcefie?
F2v 5 impart impart--
9 yet, yet;
12 deale. deale,
14 here here,
F3 4 Quarrells Quarrells,
11 And And,
15 Say Stay
28 he...fayles he,...fayles,
F3v 29 so. so;
F4v 17 Friend, Friend.
H3v 34 Want want
H4 18 court, court
19 Art...words Art,...words,
L3 13 Mei. i. Nei. i.
14 deceiu'd deceiu'd,
14 keyes, keyes:
L3v 9 Officers! Officers,
M2v 9 Braine? Braine.
M3 24 buthe but he
M3v 13 they, are they 'are


1. Victoria and Albert Museum, Dyce Collection Copy A, Dyce 25.A.93

2. Victoria and Albert Museum, Dyce Collection Copy B, Dyce 25.A.94

3. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Mal.213(3)

4. Oxford, Corpus Christi College (examined by Herford and Simpson)

5. Cambridge, King's College, GF JON, ZAL 3XP 1

6. British Library (examined by Herford and Simpson)

7. Glasgow University Library, Sp Coll Hunterian Co.3.27

8. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 14755 (cs755)

9. Huntington Library, RB 62097


3E1:6 (outer)
3E1r [601] 12 Stansby. ~ .
3E2:5 (outer)
3E5r 609 34 ma∫tiffe, ~?
3F2:5 (inner)
3F2v 616 43 too .Drv. too. Drv.
3f3:4 (inner)
3F4r 619 9 me-/(d'cine! med'-/(cine!
3G1:6 (outer)
3G1r 625 2 ∫erret ferret
8 councell coun∫ell
38 Y[wrong font 'o']ur Your
3G6v 636 10 oft-times. ~,
3G3:4 (outer)
3G3r 629 13 treacherou'∫t techerou'∫t
27 lutum sapientis [reset]
3G4v 632 10 [swash 'M']alleation, ~.
3H3:4 (outer) STATE 1 STATE 2 STATE 3
3H4v 644 30 long( ~) ---
38 without. --- ~,
3I3:4 (outer) STATE 1 STATE 2
3I3r 653 16 2I, ~.
3I4v 656 rt 665 656
18 all ~.
3I2:5 (inner)
3I2v 652 4 clear . ~.
3K2:5 (outer)
3K2r 663 33 fiend. ~)
3K2:5 (inner)
3K2v 664 rt T[inverted 'he'] Alchemi∫t The Alchemi∫t
3K3:4 (inner)
3K3v 666 rt 652 666
30 to too
3K4r 667 rt 657 667
3L1:6 (outer)
3L6v 684 rt 682 684
3L3:4 (outer)
3L3r 677 sig. Kkk3 Lll3
3L3:4 (inner)
3L3v 678 1 vvas was
4 Maiesties Maie∫ties
c1.10 Cooke. ~ .


(Note: Copies 15 and 19 lack everything after 3E.)

3E 1:6 (o)
State 1: 2, 7, 8, 18, 22, 33, 36, 42, 48
State 2: the rest

3E 2:5 (o)
State 1: 5
State 2: the rest

3F 2:5 (i)
State 1: 1, 11, 33, 46
State 2: the rest

3F 3:4 (i)
State 1: 29
State 2: the rest

3G 1:6 (o)
State 1: 5
State 2: the rest

3G 3:4 (o)
State 1: 21, 28, 30, 34
State 2:

3H 3:4 (o)
State 1: the rest
State 2: 8, 9, 11, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 32, 33, 36, 37, 39, 40, 45, 46, 49, 50
State 3: 5, 18, 21, 22, 24, 26, 35, 48

3I 3:4 (o)
State 1: 4, 8, 14, 16, 29, 48, 50
State 2: the rest

3I 2:5 (i)
State 1: 22, 24, 26, 27, 33
State 2: the rest

3K 2:5 (o)
State 1: 5, 18, 21, 22, 26, 32, 38, 39, 40, 42, 43, 48, 50
State 2: the rest

3K 2:5 (i)
State 1: 20
State 2: the rest

3K 3:4 (i)
State 1: 21, 40
State 2: the rest

3L 1:6 (o)
State 1: 16, 24, 28, 29, 33, 47
State 2: the rest

3L 3:4 (o)
State 1: the rest
State 2: 14

3L 3:4 (i)
State 1: the rest
State 2: 14


1. Huntington Library, 62100

2. Huntington Library, 62101

3. Huntington Library, 62104

4. Huntington Library, 62105

5. Huntington Library, 495467 (Ford Copy ‘A’)

6. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 14751, Copy 1

7. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 14751, Copy 2

8. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 14751, Copy 3

9. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 14751, Copy 4

10. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 14751, Copy 5

11. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 14751, Copy 6

12. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 14751.2, copy 1

13. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 14751.2, copy 2

14. Library of Congress, Yorke W.4.4

15. Gants Personal Copy, Fenton bookplate

16. Gants Personal Copy, Everard Home bookplate

17. British Library, G. 11630 (Grenville copy)

18. Boston Public Library, XfG .3811 .5

19. Boston Public Library, XfG .3811 .5A

20. Boston University, YPR 2600 .C16

21. Wellesley College, qx - English Poetry

22. Bodleian Library, Douce I. 302

23. Huntington Library, 499968

24. Huntington Library, 499967

25. Huntington Library, 499971

26. Huntington Library, 606199

27. Huntington Library, 606202

28. Huntington Library, 606200

29. Huntington Library, 606574

30. Huntington Library, 606576

31. Huntington Library, 606599

32. Huntington Library, 606579

33. Huntington Library, 606582

34. Huntington Library, 606583

35. Brown University, Providence, PR 2600 - 1616

36. Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Lewis PR2600 1616

37. University of Texas, Austin, Ah/ J738/ +B616a

38. University of Texas, Austin, Ah/ J738/ +B616ab

39. University of Texas, Austin, Ah/ J738/ +B616ad

40. University of Texas, Austin, Ah/ J738/ +B616af

41. University of Texas, Austin, Ah/ J738/ +B616ah

42. University of Texas, Austin, Ah/ J738/ +B616ak

43. University of Texas, Austin, Ah/ J738/ +B616am

44. University of Texas, Austin, AH/ J738/ +B616an

45. University of Texas, Austin, Wh/ J738/ +B616a

46. University of Texas, Austin, Pforz. 559

47. University of Texas, Austin, Woodward-Ruth 181

48. University of Texas, Austin, Stark 6431

49. University of Virginia, E 1616 .J64

50. William and Mary College, PR 2605 A1 1616

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