The Alchemist is one of Ben Jonson's four great comedies. The earliest recorded performance of the play occurred in Oxford in 1610. It was also entered into the Stationers' Register in this year, though it might have been written and performed earlier than this date. Critics talk of the play as being written and performed in 1610. It was first printed in quarto in 1612, and it was included in the folio of Jonson's works in 1616.
A second folio edition of Jonson's works came out in 1640. This version included some emendations, many of which had to do with the tightening of regulations about uttering religious material on the stage. "God's will" (1612), for example, became "Death on me" (1640). Jonson's meticulous preparation of his own folio version was unusual, but it gives us greater confidence in the actual text of the play (no similar source history for Shakespeare, for instance, survives). Thus we have a stronger opportunity for insight into the playwright’s sense of humor on the page and on the stage. For example, we infer that it was Jonson who had all the German and Dutch in the play ("Ulen Spiegel," for example) set in black-letter type.
To Jonson's audiences, The Alchemist would have been a modern play, set in Blackfriars in his own day—a town where there also was a famous theatre in which Shakespeare's late plays were performed.
The Folio edition lists as its principal comedians the actors of the King's men, many of whom were also the stars of Shakespeare's comedies. We know that Burbage, Heminges, Condell, and Armin, all lead actors in Shakespeare's company, were also in The Alchemist, and contextual evidence suggests that the Globe company had begun to use Blackfriars (an indoor theatre) as a winter alternative to the Globe (an outdoor theatre) in 1609.
The play is extensively informed by Jonson's wide-ranging learning and reading. It abounds with quotes from other plays and the Old Testament. Dol's "fit of talking" is itself an extensive quotation from A Concent of Scripture by Hugh Broughton. There are also quotations and references to a myriad of other works, such as Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, whose lead character Hieronymo is also winkingly referenced. (Hieronymo is a part, some evidence suggests, that Jonson himself might have played.) There is so much unusual or archaic language, especially in the alchemism scenes, that it could ruin one's enjoyment of the play by repeatedly returning to a glossary--part of the point is to be bowled over by the strange diction of the alchemist.
The play can seem fantastical to a modern audience, and it is often read as a cynical play that argues that even the most obvious illusions are believed by stupid people. Yet there is evidence to suggest that people in Jonson's time really were taken by cons such as that in the play. One man, Goodwin Wharton, was tricked at length into believing he was to be visited by the Fairy Queen some seventy years after the play was published and performed. See the excellent biography of Wharton, a real-life case of Alchemy-conmanship, in the citations for this ClassicNote.
As Jonson has risen to greater prominence, The Alchemist has shaken its reputation as being densely Elizabethan and unfunny, and critics have bolstered its rise into being known as one of the key texts of the Renaissance. Coleridge thought it, along with Oedipus Rex / Oedipus the King and Tom Jones, one of the three "most perfect plots ever planned." Note, though, that the play's plot is linear, with the stories of the seven gulls cleverly intersected to keep tension at the maximum.
Kenneth Tynan thought it a "good episodic play ... bead after bead, the episodes click together upon the connecting string, which is chicanery and chiselry." F. H. Mares led many modern commentators by beginning his essay with the observation that "All through the play there is a disparity between what people are and what they say they are." Such readings have culminated with Anne Barton's excellent chapter in Ben Jonson: Dramatist, which pronounces it "a play about transformation, as it affects not metals, but human beings."
Without doubt, The Alchemist has been restored to prominence since Victorian times. Often in the company of Jonson's other "great comedy," Volpone, it is analyzed with regard to Jonson's cynical and darkly comic views of London in 1610, legality (since justice in Jonson's plays is always an important question), belief, faith, and the sort of people who believe that they will one day secure infinite wealth.