BEN Jonson’s satirical plays seek to reveal not only the uncontrolled appetites of their characters, but also the brilliant wit of their protagonists and their author himself. The plots of such plays as Volpone and The Alchemist feature frauds grounded in convincing practical psychology. The power of Jonson’s best plays can be attributed partly to his ability to exceed his own deep fascination with Galenic humouralism. Jonson’s innovative capacity to grasp the mechanisms which structure social interaction is especially well illustrated in The Alchemist. Here Jonson utilizes his understanding of a specific kind of social influence technique, termed the emotional see-saw in modern psychological literature, to enhance the comic effect of his plot and to credit the ‘teeming wit’ of con-artist protagonists and playwright alike.1 The emotional see-saw owes its name to Dariusz Doliński, who studied the dynamics of interrogations carried out by Soviet officers trying to make political prisoners confess. The cases of dissidents heroically refusing to answer any question while being tortured, only to confess after the officer hid the instruments of torture and simply asked his questions again, seemed especially interesting. Unlike the old bad cop–good cop trick, well known to anybody familiar with American police procedurals, these stories seemed counterintuitive. Prisoners confessed to the very interrogator who had already tortured them. Doliński’s experiments demonstrated that these two strategies of interrogation were based on the same psychological mechanism. This mechanism is simple: after experiencing fear, a person suddenly offered relief becomes very compliant for a short period of time. The mind concentrates on the source of fear; sudden relief prompts the frightened mind to switch from the alert mode back to its regular mode. During the switching process, the ability to think rationally and critically is significantly diminished. A frightened and then relieved person is thus likely to agree to any propositions presented just after perceiving the disappearance of the source of fear. This period of compliance is likely to last for no more than a quarter of an hour.2 In The Alchemist, Jonson allows Face, among the most energetic and successful confidence tricksters in any of his plays, to use the emotional see-saw on three occasions in order to generate the easy—and comic—compliance of his dupes. In each case, Face first makes the dupes fear the loss of their opportunity to profit, then offers them relief. Invariably, when the frightened dupes learn that hope remains to secure profit from the alchemist, they readily agree to reach even more deeply into their purses. The first occasion occurs during the act one dialogue between Face, Subtle—Face’s fellow trickster performing the role of the alchemist—and the young clerk Dapper. Seemingly engaged in brokering with Subtle on Dapper’s behalf, Face becomes increasingly angry at Subtle’s performed hesitation to magically conjure a familiar to assist Dapper’s petty gambling ventures. The two con-men stage a quarrel, leading Dapper to believe that his request will not be granted. Dapper interjects increasingly desperately as Face insults Subtle, attempting to reverse the trajectory of Face’s rant: ‘Nay, good Captain’, ‘Captain—’, ‘Nay, dear Captain’. When Dapper reaches a state of panic, Subtle suddenly suggests that he is ready to negotiate. Dapper jumps at what appears to be his last opportunity: Dapper: His worship calls you, Captain. Face: I am sorry I e’er embarked myself in such a business. Dapper: Nay, good sir, he did call you. Face: Will he take, then? Subtle: First, hear me. Face: (He offers money.) Not a syllable, unless you take. Subtle: Pray ye, sir— Face: Upon no terms but an assumpsit. Subtle: Your humour must be law. He takes the money. The staged quarrel frightens Dapper, seemingly reducing his chances of gaining his request. As Subtle agrees to take Dapper’s money from Face, Dapper feels hope and relief. Dapper’s period of compliance is then marked over the remainder of the scene by his willingness ‘To add consideration’ to the money he has already given, and then by his uncritical acceptance of the story that he is ‘Allied to the Queen of Fairy’ (I.ii.43–126). The second occasion in which Face exploits the ‘fear-then-relief’ mechanism occurs across the end of act two and into act three. Face affects irritation with the evident hypocrisy displayed by another customer, puritan Ananias, acting on behalf of his pastor Tribulation Wholesome. When Ananias refuses to hand over more money, Face threatens to terminate the alchemical works currently underway, and reminds Ananias that this will mean the end of ‘All hope of rooting out the bishops / Or the’antichristian hierarchy’. Ananias is frightened enough to bring Tribulation to the house. Subtle immediately ensures that Tribulation is as frightened as Ananias by suggesting that the alchemical equipment is on the brink of obliteration. As Tribulation tries to appease Subtle, the con-man offers relief to the frightened puritans by interjecting ‘Why, this doth qualify!’ and then ‘This qualifies more!’ Tribulation’s period of compliance ensues, marked by his declaration: ‘Here, by me, the saints / Throw down their purse before you’ (III.ii.4–18). In the middle of the process, immediately after having terrorized Ananias, Face soliloquizes: This will fetch ’em And make ’em haste towards their gulling more. A man must deal like a rough nurse, and fright Those that are froward to an appetite. (II.v.87–90) Face’s speech indicates that he (and Jonson) understand the value of provoking fear for the generation of a dupe’s desire for compliance. Finally, the emotional see-saw contributes to the scene of Epicure Mammon’s final torment. Mammon, who has invested heavily in an alchemical scheme, is informed by Subtle that his immoral intentions with the disguised Doll–Common have brought about ‘check’ in the ‘great work’ of alchemy underway for him. Moments later, after the stage direction ‘A great crack and noise within’ Face delivers the news that the works below have indeed blown up—but then he offers a hint of relief. If Mammon contributes ‘A hundred pound to the box at Bedlam’ then ‘It may be’ that he will ‘ha’it yet’. Within seconds, Mammon agrees to deliver another hundred pounds to Face and Subtle (IV.v.33–88). Fear of the complete loss of investment has preceded the relief of knowing that some value may yet be salvaged, and this relief is immediately followed by willingness to offer up even more money. The fear-then-relief-then-compliance sequence appears once again. There is no way to know exactly how Jonson came to knowledge of this mechanism. He was certainly capable of carefully observing human behaviour, and may simply have noticed that in the world of frauds and tricksters in which he was profoundly interested such a strategy was routinely deployed. Nonetheless, we would like to offer yet another intriguing possibility. Jonson was and is, of course, famed as an avid classicist. One of the most popular classical texts in the English Renaissance was Xenophon’s Cyropaedia.3Cyropaedia is the only ancient text in which the emotional see-saw mechanism is demonstrated as an effective strategy of manipulation. In Book III of this semi-fictional work, its main protagonist, the wily Cyrus the Great, uses this mechanism to make the defeated king of Armenia confess to the extent of his wealth and military resources. Having defeated his uncle’s rebellious vassal, the king of Armenia, Cyrus brings the hapless man to a humiliating trial and makes him believe that he should expect to be executed. Then suddenly Cyrus suggests that he might spare the king and allow him to remain on the throne. Immediately after, he questions the king about the actual extent of his financial and military resources. The king is eager to confess this information, and to assure Cyrus that he would be welcome to use all of those resources himself.4 Evidence in The Alchemist suggests that Xenophon may provide a model for Jonson’s use of the see-saw mechanism. In the original 1612 quarto, Jonson has Face tell Subtle that Dapper would be willing to ‘take his oth o’ the Greeke Testament,/ If need be, in his pocket’.5 In the 1616 folio Workes, however, ‘the Greek Testament’ is replaced by ‘the Greek Xenophon’ (I.ii.56). Jonson’s editors have long wondered about this ‘ludicrous’ substitution.6 A variety of reasonable explanations have been offered over the years.7 What has not been appreciated, however, is that after Cyropaedia was republished in Greek in 1613 it was likely on Jonson’s mind as he began revising The Alchemist for inclusion in his 1616 Workes.8Cyropaedia was a text highly favoured by King James, and so Jonson would almost certainly have been aware of and interested in its republication.9 The fact that Jonson includes a reference to Xenophon in the midst of the scene in which Face exploits the see-saw mechanism in Dapper suggests that Jonson is using the reference as a citation of a classical writer as aware of this social influence technique as Jonson was himself. Jonson enhances the classical authority of his comic plot just as he is about to include The Alchemist in the magnum opus which he felt would most consolidate his own authority and reputation. Footnotes 1 The Alchemist, ed. Peter Holland and William Sherman, The Cambridge Edition of The Works of Ben Jonson, ed. David Bevington, Martin Butler, and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge, 2012), III, V.i.16. All citations of The Alchemist will be to this edition, unless otherwise noted. 2 Dariusz Doliński, ‘Emotional See-saw’, in Anthony Pratkanis (ed.), The Science of Social Influence (New York, 2007), 137–54; Dariusz Doliński and Richard Nawrat, ‘“Fear-Then-Relief”’ Procedure for Producing Compliance: Beware When the Danger Is Over’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, xxxiv (1998), 27–50. 3 Jane Grogan, ‘“Many Cyruses”: Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and English Renaissance Humanism’, Hermathena, clxxxiii (2007), 67–9. 4 Xenophon, Cyropaedia, trans. W. Miller (London, 1914), I, 219–41 (Bk. 3, Ch.1, Paras 4–33). 5 See Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson (Oxford, 1937), V, 279. 6 Ben Jonson, X, 62. 7 Holland and Sherman write: ‘the change could have been a toning-down to avoid any risk of accusations of profanity. But Coleridge suggests that “meaning to give false evidence, [Dapper] carried a Greek Xenophon to pass it off for a Greek Testament, and so avoid perjury”. … Dapper’s possession of a Greek book, whether he could read Greek or not, suggests possible aspirations to appear learned.’ The Alchemist, 576. Herford and Simpson write: ‘Some topical allusion may have given point to the joke’, Ben Jonson, V, 279. 8 ‘Many Cyruses’, 66. 9 ‘Many Cyruses’, 71–4. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 5, 2018
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