Ben Jonson’s 1610 comedy The Alchemist is a satire- but as with all good satire, must have been grounded enough in reality to make the satire work. All the more interesting, then, to reflect that The Alchemist satirizes a London in the early 17th century obsessed with Alchemy, Wizardry, Magick-Working, Fortune-Telling, Astrology, and the Occult Arts in general. The play opens with an outbreak of plague in the city, causing a wealthy gentleman to escape to his country-house, leaving a single servant behind. This servant (Face) has pulled in an accomplice (Subtle) to pretend to be the prosperous Cunning-Man of this gracious home; together with their prostitute-friend Dol, they intend to fleece dupes who consult the Cunning-Man for advice. A bit like Upstairs, Downstairs with the “Upstairs” element removed, the play is very preoccupied with the earthy, lower orders of Jacobean society (the second line in the play is “I fart at thee!”) For all that Subtle is a con-artist, he is apparently something of a devotee of the Magickal Arts: Face refers to Subtle’s “alchemy and algebra, minerals, vegetals, and animals, your conjuring and cozening,” noting that he (Face) has fronted the money necessary to purchase Subtle’s “coals, stills, glasses, materials, [in other words, the necessities for alchemy], built you a furnace, drew you customers, advanced all your black arts-” (Act I, scene i, lines 38-46)
One client they intend to swindle by promising to summon the Faerie Queen, to grant him a familiar-spirit that will help the man win at gambling (this is a familiar-spirit very like those that figure in the English Witch-Cases). The Faerie Queen (famously referenced by Shakespeare, Spenser, and Thomas the Rhymer) represents pretty clearly an example of the original Celtic Goddesses of Europe, morphed into 16th/ 17th century popular-mythology; pamphlet-accounts from the period record con-artists defrauding people by pretending to summon the Queen of Fays for various reasons (one of them was whipped out of town when her fraud was busted). Face and Subtle play the man up, telling him that a “rare star reigned” at his birth, and that he is “allied” to the “Queen of Faery” for being born with a “caul o’ your head,” that is, born with the amniotic membrane covering his face, a deep source of superstition and signal of predestination for the Middle Ages. The two assure the man that his “aunt of Faery” is a “lone woman, and very rich, and if she take a fancy, she will do strange things.” (Act I, scene ii)
However- eager though he is for the excitement and fortune that will come from being introduced to his Faerey-Godmother: Subtle protests that, “There must a world of ceremonies pass; you must be bathed and fumigated first- Sir, against one o’clock prepare yourself; till when, you must be fasting; only take three drops of vinegar in at your nose, two at your mouth, and one at either ear; then bathe your fingers’ ends, and wash your eyes, to sharpen your five sense, and cry ‘hum’ thrice, and then ‘buzz’ as often. And put on a clean shirt. You do not know what grace her Grace may do you in clean linen.” (Act I, scene ii)
Two things here are interesting. One is the direction to cry “buzz and hum”- effectively creating a heightened consciousness through generating vibrations in one’s skull (it suggests a curiously ritualistic sensibility). The other thing is that this list of instructions parallels so closely the directions to be followed prior to Magickal Ceremony, given in The Key of Solomon; so closely that it seems that Jonson must have read the Key himself, or read something by someone who had read the Key, or at least had talked to someone who read the Key, or knew someone who had. In any number of ways, The Alchemist suggests a period very, very fascinated with Occultism.