Jonson and the alchemical economy of desire: creation defacement and castration in the 'Alchemist'
Behind images of Ben Jonson as the virtuous centred stoic writer lie the traces of a morbid fear concerning the fate of the poet's creation and name. The Jonsonian oeuvre reveals a fear of the ultimate defacement and effacement of the writer's ephemeral text. A prophylactic strategy of auto-critique as well as borrowing and even plagiarism from established literary sources point to the desire to control the critical reception of the writer's works and guarantee the terms of his own posterity. In The Alchemist this urge to control literary inheritance is reflected in the struggle between a 'father' alchemist and his apprentice 'son' for claims to authority: it is played out as a family romance in what might be called a 'maidenheadless' plot as opposed to the romantic courtship plot perfected by the father and rival Shakespeare. The son's struggle for authority may be seen in terms of the writer's fantasy of acquiring the virile power of the literary antecedent as talisman against the power of envy to deface poetic creation and name. The need to 'save face' in the complicated and tricky game of inheriting the mantle of the father is literally figured in Face's attempt to steal the playhouse cloak of Hieronimo of Kyd's The Spanish tragedy in an extraordinary example of literary mise en abime.