VOLPONE BY BEN JONSON
Volpone or The Fox is a very famous play written by Ben Jonson. This play is a comedy and is often called Ben Jonson’s darkest comedy. The emerging capitalism in the Jacobian England of James I could be seen as the playwright’s immediate focus, directing merciless moral scrutiny on the values and customs of contemporary English society. Jonson’s choice of the Venetian setting is also not without significance since Renaissance Italy was the centre of trade in Europe with all the attendant problems of an acquisitive society with moral degradation. After you finish reading this unit, you will note that the subject of Volpone is money or greed for money, and the corruption it breeds in man. The unit thus seeks to analyse this great play in terms of its theme, dramatic structure, characterisation and style.
ACT WISE SUMMARY OF THE PLAY
Act I of the play revolves around the central character Volpone who is a rich Venetian nobleman, childless and without an heir. He feigns sickness to play tricks with the help of his trusted and capable assistant Mosca on the greedy legacy hunters who present gifts to Volpone in order to inherit his vast wealth. The three major gulls are Corbaccio, Corvino and Voltore – all birds of prey – who rival one another in their ambition to be appointed as Volpone’s heir. Voltore is a lawyer; Corbaccio is an old miser whose one foot is in the grave and Corvino is a rich merchant with a beautiful wife. Besides these three, there is another legacy hunter Lady Politic Would-be, wife of Sir Politic Would-be who is an English knight. As the play opens, Volpone is seen worshipping gold as “the best of things” but he does not use the ordinary means like trade, agriculture, industry, money lending etc. to get rich; he rather uses the clever tricks of extracting rich gifts from the gullible legacy hunters. Each of them harbours the hope of being Volpone’s successor to inherit his wealth. Nano (‘dwarf’ in Italian), Androgyno (hermaphrodite) and Castrone (eunuch), the natural or deformed fools, entertain Volpone. Nano and Androgyno describe the transmigration of the soul of the Greek philosopher Pythagorus entering the body of Androgyno. Nano and Castrone sing a song in praise of fools. The fools are described when Volpone and Mosca hear a knocking at the door by Voltore (vulture) who bring up Volpone a gold plate. Voltore is followed by Corbaccio, an old man with insatiable greed, bringing a sleeping medicine for Volpone. But Mosca suggests that he should his property to Volpone by disinheriting his son Bonario. Since Volpone is going to make him his heir, Corbaccio, sure to survive Volpone, would get the money back as well as that of Volpone. The gullible old man loses no time to hurry home to propose the will in favour of Volpone. Corvino, the rich merchant, comes next, whom Mosca tells that he has been made the heir. The visit of Lady Politic Would-be is announced but Volpone has no mood to receive her. Mosca mentions Corvino’s beautiful wife Celia whom the jealous husband keeps shut up at home. Volpone’s interest for Celia is instantly aroused and he plans to see her even at her window by disguise.
In Act II Scene I Sir Politic Would-be is introduced. He wants news about England from Peregrine, a fellow Englishman visiting Venice as a tourist. Sir Politic confesses that he has been living in Venice in compliance with the wishes of his wife. The English knight is shown as foolish in his insistence on Stone, the fool as a Machiavellian secret agent. As they were engaged in conversation Mosca and Nano came to set up a platform for Volpone, disguised as Mountback ‘Scoto of Montana’ to deliver a speech apparently to the crowd but actually to attract Corvino’s wife Celia’s attention appearing at the window. Volpone offers her not only oil but also powder for maintaining her beauty and keeping herself young forever. Corvino’s sudden entry interrupted Volpone’s description of the virtues of power. The jealous merchant beats away Volpone. In scene II, Volpone confesses to Mosca how he has been smitten by the beauty of Celia. In the next scene (III), Celia is severely rebuked by Corvino for having encouraged
the Mountback. Mosca comes to Corvino’s house to inform him that Volpone’s health has improved with Scotto’s oil brought by Corbaccio and Voltore and that the doctors attending on Volpone suggested that his best cure lies in the company of a young woman ‘lusty and full of juice’. Corvino, to outdo the rivals in providing such as a woman to Volpone, offers his Celia and convinces her to accompany him to Volpone’s house in her “best attire and choicest jewels.”Act IIIAct III opens with Mosca telling Bonario, Corbaccio’s son, about his father’s plan to disinherit him as a bastard. He asks him to come to Volpone’s house to see for himself. Bonario follows Mosca to Volpone’s house where Volpone, waiting anxiously for Mosca’s news of Celia, is being entertained by Nano and Androgyno. Lady Politic Would-be comes and inflicts verbal torture on Volpone whom, Mosca, at last rescues by telling the lady that her husband has been seen “rowing upon the water in a gondola with the most cunning courtesan of Venice”. The Lady leaves the scene at once provoking Mosca to comment that “they that use themselves most licenses are still more jealous”. Mosca keeps Bonario in hiding so that he could see his father’s transaction. Instead of Corbaccio, Corvino comes with his wife before Mosca sends for him. Celia is shocked to know the intention of her husband to bring her there. When Celia is left alone in Volpone’s chamber, Volpone leaps from his bed and after having failed to woo her he ventures to seduce her but Bonario appears from his hiding and rescues Celia and leads her away. Corbaccio knocks at the door and is told by Mosca that his son Bonario had threatened to kill him and Volpone for the will. Voltore, following Corbaccio, overhears this talk of will but the wily Mosca has no problem in convincing the lawyer that Corbaccio’s will is in fact in his own interest as he will inherit both Corbaccio and Volpone’s wealth. The gullible lawyer is also convinced about Bonario’s plan to frame Volpone in an attempted rape case against Celia and agrees to defend Volpone in the court.
This act begins with Lady Politic Would-be confronting her husband and Peregrine taking the latter to be the courtesan in disguise. The Knight at once leaves the scene making Peregrine suspicious of the plan. Mosca, however, clears the Lady’s doubt about Peregrine being the street woman, following which the Lady offers her apology to Peregrine in the most ambiguous language-” Pray you, Sir, use me. In faith/the more you see me the more I shall conceive”. Peregrine decides to avenge his insult. In the court scene that follows when the three gulls and Mosca appear before the Venetian officers of justice, Voltore defends Volpone against the charges of Bonario and Celia by saying about the adulterous relationship of Celia with Bonario who has been disinherited by his father for the same reason. Corvino calls his wife a whore and Lady Politic Would-be claims to have seen her with her husband. Volpone is carried to the courtroom. He is seen to be too sick to be able to commit rape. The court punished Celia and Bonario by sending them to jail. On returning home Volpone and Mosca celebrate their success in the court. They now devise a new plan to ‘vex’ the clients. Nano and Castrone are sent to spread the news of Volpone’s death. Volpone makes Mosca his heir and stands behind the curtain to see the disappointment of his victims. Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino and Lady Would-be arrive one by one and discover that Mosca has been made the heir. In the meantime, Peregrine, in order to take revenge on Sir Politic, comes to Sir Politic’s house in the guise of a merchant to inform Sir Politic about Peregrine being a Venetian agent who has reported that Sir Politic is plotting against the Duke. As Sir Politic hears a knock he hides in a tortoise shell and some merchants disguised as search officers pull off the shell and Peregrine took off his disguise. Sir Politic and Lady Politic decide to leave Venice. Mosca inheriting Volpone’s wealth now decides to become the master of the house. Volpone goes to the street to tease all the legacy hunters.
In the second court scene, Voltore confesses to the court that his earlier story was false. The judges are convinced that Volpone is dead and Mosca is the true heir. They regard Mosca as truly respectable now and regret sending their messenger to fetch him. The messenger is Volpone in disguise and in the street, on his way to fetch Mosca, he meets Nano, Androgyno and Castrone and sends them to tell Mosca to see him in the court. In the third court scene, the judges reject Volpone’s plea of impotence while Volpone himself (still in disguise) asks Voltore to tell the court that Mosca is coming. Voltore confesses to the court that Volpone is alive. On Mosca’s entering the court, dressed as a Magnifico, the judges show their respect to him and one of them even offers him his daughter for marriage. Despite Volpone’s asking Mosca to tell the court that he is alive; Mosca refuses to recognise him and tells the court that he came from his patron’s funeral. In a whisper to Volpone, he demands half of his wealth and then goes on increasing his demand. On Mosca’s complaint, the court orders the ‘messenger’ (Volpone) to be whipped. Finding him in the most hopeless situation of being whipped and of losing all his wealth, Volpone decides to reveal himself as well as Mosca, to expose all other villains and asks the court to pass sentence. The judge’s order different punishment for the offenders: Mosca to be whipped and sent to jail for life; Volpone’s wealth to be given to a hospital and he is to spend the rest of his life in prison to become really “sick”; Voltore to be debarred from his profession; Corbaccio’s property is to go to his son Bonario and he himself has to go to a monastery and Corvino is to be rowed around Venice wearing ass’s ears. Celia would go to her father with her dowry trebled.
Jonson is commonly acknowledged as the master of dramatic structure in English drama. He allows a complex pattern of events to dominate his plays with classical Unities complied with some minor departure here and there. Aristotle prescribed a straightforward progression of events with direct evolution from one to the other; but in Jonson’s plays, particularly in Volpone, the parts do not automatically grow in a sequence. These are separate scenes with each of the legacy hunters in the first act in Volpone, which can be seen only as a succession. The play begins with the dedication made to the two Famous Universities namely Oxford and Cambridge where the play was staged and applauded. The Dedication throws light on Jonson’s own views on the state of poetry and drama in the days. Jonson says that the poetasters of his time had too much license and thereby they have degraded poetry. He maintained that a good poet must be a good man, “A teacher of things divine no less than human, master in manners”. His own satire, which was sharp and at times merciless, especially in Volpone, was directed not against individuals but at vice in general. According to Dedication, Jonson’s aim was to reform the stage by restoring the virtues of classical drama. The dedication is followed by the Prologue, which is spoken by an actor mediating between the author and the audience. Possibly the speaker was Nano, the dwarf. The author wants to mix “profit with pleasure”. The play is written according to “the taste of our time” and there is nothing of the “low taste which pleases the mob so much”. He presents “a living refined comedy according to the rules laid down by the best critics”. The “Prologue” also makes it clear that it is free from “personal rancour” but it is “only a little witty”. Besides the Dedication and the “Prologue “, there is the “Argument” coming before the “Prologue” which briefly states the theme of the play to be developed by the plot and characters. It tells the story of Volpone the principal character who is rich and childless and attracts the people to covet his riches. Each of the candidates hopes to inherit Volpone’s wealth but finally, the play ends with the undoing of both the victimiser and the victims.
LET US KNOW
The argument is in the form of an acrostic. An acrostic is a word arrangement of the first, last or some central letters, (usually the first letters) can be read down words. Acrostics are fashionable in French literature from the time of Francis I to Louis XIV, and in the Elizabethan period in English. Here in the play, the first letters of the lines in the argument spell out VOLPONE.
Jonson constructed his plot based on the classical theory, which emphasised the following of the unities of Time, Place and Action. Volpone’s plot is tightly constructed complying with these unities, though there is some criticism about the Unity of Action because of his introduction of the subplot involving Sir Politic, Lady Politic and Peregrine. The action occurs in a single day. Thus, the Unity of Time is observed as Aristotle prescribes in his Poetics. However, the action is compressed into a single day so that Jonson can give his undoing with his action speed and inevitability. Though Act I moves slowly with the opening scene when Volpone worships gold and the legacy hunters appear in succession in Act II, there is the quickened pace of the play with Volpone changing from a passive invalid into the Mountback. Act III brings the culmination of Volpone’s renewed vigour and makes the beginning of his attempted rape of Celia. Act IV shows Volpone and Mosca at the peak of their success. The Act takes place in the late afternoon. But, in the last Act (Act V), evil is defeated. This also presents one of the main problems of the play—it’s ending. In the dedicatory epistle, Jonson himself anticipated it and admits that he has not been able to gain a happy ending. The five criminals – Volpone, Mosca, Corbaccio, Voltore and Corvinohave been punished in different ways. John Dryden found this act excellent becausese in it Jonson gained the proper end of comedy – the punishment of vice. But, the play’s structure looks uneasy after the end of the 4th Act. Dryden feels the presence of two actions in the play-the first action coming to an end in Act IV and the second being forced from it in Act V. Dryden found “the unity of design…not exactly observed in it.”
LET US KNOW
T.S. Eliot commented that Jonson’s dramatic skill does not lie in writing a good plot but in doing without a plot. The plot in Volpone, he says, should rather be called ‘action’ than a ‘plot.’ The action takes place on a single day at Volpone’s house. Unities of time and place have been observed in accordance with classical theory but the unity of action is violated with the introduction of the subplot comprising the English knight, his wife and the English traveller Peregrine.
The subplot consists of three characters – Sir Politic Would-be, Lady Politic Would-be and Peregrine. Because of its loose connection with the main plot, it is often dismissed as irrelevant and discordant. Like the characters in the main plot, these three characters also have a place in the beast fable with the Politic Would-be couple being seen as chattering parrots and Peregrine as a hawk. Besides the use of the common beast fable that binds the two plots, there is Lady Would-be who has a role in the main plot as one of the legacy hunters. In addition, Jonson wishes to draw a contrast between Italian vices and English folly. Professor Jonas A Barish (“The Double Plot in Volpone”) does not find the Sir Politic Would-be subplot irrelevant and discordant and states that:
• “Sir Politic Would-be and Lady Politic Would-be function as a mimic of the actions of the main characters and thereby the subplot performs the function of burlesque traditional to the comic subplot in English drama.”
• “The Politic Would-be couple caricature the actors of the main plot,particularly Sir Politic figures as a comic distortion of Volpone.”
• “Lady Would-be is one of the legacy hunters. Her antics caricature the more sinister gestures of Corvino, Voltore and Corbaccio. Her behaviour contrasts sharply with that of Celia.
Volpone is called a ‘rouge comedy’ or a ‘dark comedy’ considering the nature of its comic action, which disturbs rather than pleases its audience. T.S. Eliot in his essay on Jonson in 1919 offers the terms ‘burlesque’ or ‘farce’ for the play conceding however that neither term will define Jonson in the play. In the harshness of the catastrophe and the criminal nature of the main characters, the play is nearer to Sejanus than to any other comedy of the playwright. Coleridge thought that ‘there is no goodness of heart in any of the prominent characters’ and the play, after Act III, became “a painful weight on the feelings” (Literary Remains, 1836). The major themes of the play have much to do with the implacability of the play. The major themes can be summarised as follows:
Folly and Crime
In the “Prologue” to the revised version of Every Man in His Humour, Jonson rejected larger matters like the “Wars of the Roses” as subjects of his comedies in favour of everyday realities and advocated that while presenting characters the comedy should “sport with human follies, not with crimes”. However, in Volpone, he deals mainly with crime rather than folly. The central theme of the play is the degeneration of human beings into beasts. Characters are accordingly broadly divided as belonging to two categories-the knaves and the fools. He uses the beast fable in the manner of Aesop. But, while in the beast fable the animals behave like human beings, Jonson shows in Volpone how humans behave like animals. By presenting Lady Would-be in the company of the criminals Jonson shows that the dividing line between crime and folly is rather thin and it takes no time for folly to graduate into crime.
Jonson found in the old Roman institution of legacy hunting an easy material for his comedy whose basis is shown to be human greed. He
chose Venice as the right place for his setting because it was a city based on trade and moneymaking. L.C. Knight in his stimulating work Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson writes about the rise of capitalism in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period and its relationship with gold. Wishing to dramatise the dangers of greed and individualism Jonson turned to the beast fable in which the fox, growing too old to catch his prey, pretends to be dying and attracts birds. A fly (Mosca) hovers over the body of the fox. Jonson presents the gold centred universe in the first scene, where Volpone worships gold. It represents the degradation of all moral, ethical and human values as ideals of life.
Disease and Transformation
Disease along with abnormality is another theme. Similarly, transformation is also an important thematic strand in the play. Volpone pretends to be terminally sick. His pretended sickness becomes the metaphor of spiritual and moral decline. Jonson shows three deformed characters in the play-Nano, Castrone and Androgyno. The dwarf, the eunuch and the hermaphrodite are symbols of moral deformity of Volpone and others. The theme of transformation is shown first in the transmigration of the soul of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras that finally entered the body of Androgyno, thereby suggesting the gradual degradation of man. Volpone illustrates the other kind of transformation. He plays a number of roles-from the magnifico to the sick man to Mountback doctor to a virile lover to a dying man brought to the court and to the commentator. Finally, he changes himself into the fox. In suggesting a link between his characters and their animal identities, Jonson has a moral purpose to serve the undoing of the criminals.
Jonson’s method of characterisation is opposite to that of Shakespeare. Where Shakespeare’s characters are human beings, objectively drawn ‘round’ characters, those of Jonson are flat and types. As Shakespeare’s characters can come out of the world of the play to our midst, Jonson’s are incapable of existing outside the play. Hazlitt says that they are more “like machines, governed by mere routine, or by the convenience of the poet whose property they are.” Coleridge is another early critic to call Jonson’s characters ‘abstractions’. The Jonsonian method was to take some prominent features from the whole man and ‘that single feature or humour’ is made the basis upon which the entire character is built up. Jonson’s characters in Volpone cannot be labelled merely as types or mere “abstractions” (as Coleridge says) but are sharply individualised as the behaviour of Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino and the Lady Would-be would show. The characters fall into two broad categories-knaves and fools. All the major characters in the main plot like Volpone, Mosca, Corbaccio, Voltore and Corvino belong to the group called knaves while Sir Politic and Lady Politic of the subplot are fools. But, in presenting Lady Would-be as crossing over to the knaves group Jonson shows that the line separating them is very thin. However, harsher punishment has been reserved for the criminals at the end of the play while the Would-be couple has been allowed to sneak away from Venice. But, Bonario and Celia also represent the third category of the virtuous which are, however, too timid and ineffectual to face the menace of avarice and self-aggrandisement of the morally crippled legacy-hunters. Jonson uses four types of imagery – religious, classical, animal, and love. The images are used to present the values implicit in the culture of an emerging capitalist society. According to Eliot, the verse appears to be in the manner of Marlowe, but Marlowe’s inspiration is missing. Coleridge was an early critic to comment on Jonson’s “sterling English diction” though “his style is rarely sweet or harmonious.” Volpone illustrates Jonson’s great skill in using a style that can be manipulated as situation demands. The style in the opening scene with Volpone opening his chest and offering prayer to gold. The language is elevated and the style is largely mock epical. E.B. Patridge (in “The Broken Compass”) observes four kinds of imagery in the verse in the opening scene. These are religious, classical, animal, and love. He suggests that Jonson uses these images to present values that dominated the culture of his times and in contrast with the past, which is ideal. The religious imagery serves as a powerful irony of Volpone’s travesty of religious ideals. The love imagery recalls the great love affairs only to confirm the absence of love in present-day Venice.1. W.B. Yeats saw Jonson’s version of the play in 1921. He went on to grasp both the difficulty and greatness of Volpone by observing that “this excites us because it makes us share in Jonson’s cold implacability.”2. Hazlitt calls Volpone Jonson’s best play—” prolix and improbable, but intense and powerful.” However, he found the whole “worked up mechanically, and our credulity overstretched at last revolts into suspicion, and our attention flags into drowsiness.”In this post, we have tried to offer an analysis of Jonson’s great play Volpone. The play centres on the protagonist Volpone, a Venetian aristocrat who amasses wealth through gulling the avaricious legacy-hunters. Jonson uses the Italian beast fable of the fox and the birds. A fox (Volpe in Italian) that is too old to catch his prey pretends to be terminally sick and lures the birds while a fly (Mosca in Italian) hovers over the body. Volpone (derived from Volpe) pretends to be dying and the legacy – hunters—Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino and Lady Politic Would-be come to his house with rich gifts, each of them expecting to be made his heir. All three have their place in the beast fable with Sir Politic and Lady Politic representing parrots and Peregrine the hawk. The subplot is considered irrelevant and discordant by some critics but others (like James A. Barish) find it thematically integral to the main plot. In order to represent Jonson’s society in the fullest possible sense, attempts have been made to make this unit an interesting reading experience. You will find that the capitalistic greed as represented by the legacy hunters in the play strikes at the root of the older system of social unity, which valued human relationships. Johnson has made the most scathing assault on the new ethos resulting from the Renaissance individualism.
QUESTION ANSWERS TO CHECK YOUR PROGRESS (HINTS ONLY)
Q 1: What are some of the sources of the play Volpone?
Ans. The idea of legacy hunting is derived from works like Horace’s Satires, Parts of Petronius’s Satiricon, and Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead. The Predatory world of Legacy hunters marks the influence of the Medieval beast epic – The History of Reynard and the Fox marks influence of the Commedia Dell’arte most importantly, the Renaissance acts of overreaching, greed, deception, and self-deception.
Q 2: Who are the main characters in the subplot?
Ans. The main characters in the subplot are Sir Politic Would-be, Lady Politic Would-be and Peregrine. The subplot deals with folly and it is tied to the main plot by Lady Would-be. The dividing line between crime and folly could be very easily graduate into crime.
Q 3: Why do we sympathise with Volpone rather than the legacy-hunters?
Ans . Our admiration for him is enhanced by his virtuous performance in the Mountback scene with his great rhetorical skill. Although Volpone’s tricks are criminal, the dupes are equally foolish and criminal in their greed but by attempting rape on the virtuous Celia he overstretched himself and forfeits our sympathy and admiration.
Q 4: How does Jonson present Bonario and Celia?
Ans. Jonson presents Bonario and Celia as helpless in the face of the corrupt world dominated by the knaves and fools. They are the two virtuous characters. They are helpless because they cannot change or adapt to the emerging circumstance yet they retain
some faith in truth and justice.
Q 5: What is the significance of the religious language in Volpone’s
Ans. By using religious imagery Jonson exposes the perversion of values. Volpone chants hymns to gold. He reminds the readers and the audience that in his world of insatiable greed gold replaces the sun as the centre and the source of life.
Q 6: Write a note on the ‘Dedication’ with which the play Volpone
Ans. The dedication is made to the two famous Universities— Oxford and Cambridge. The Dedication throws light on Jonson’s own views on the state of poetry and drama in the days. In the dedication, Jonson’s aim was to reform the stage by restoring the virtues of classical drama. The dedication is followed by the Prologue which is spoken by an actor mediating between the author and the audience.
Q 7: How does Volpone express the degradation of human beings into beasts?
Ans. The central theme of the play is the degeneration of human beings into beasts. Characters are accordingly broadly divided as belonging to two categories-the knaves and the fools. He uses the beast fable in the manner of Aesop. But, while in the beast fable the animals behave like human beings, Jonson shows in Volpone how
humans behave like animals.
Q 8: Why does Jonson present a gold – centred universe in the first
scene of the play?
Ans. Jonson presents the gold centred universe in the first scene, where gold is worshipped by Volpone. It represents the degradation of all moral, ethical and human values as ideals of life.
Q 9: What is the difference between Jonson and Shakespeare in terms of characterisation?
Ans. Jonson’s method of characterisation is opposite to that of Shakespeare. Where Shakespeare’s characters are human beings, objectively drawn ‘round’ characters, those of Jonson are flat and types.
Check Your Progress
Q 1: Discuss the dramatic significance of the animal names of Volpone, Mosca and the three birds of prey in Jonson’s Volpone.
Q 2: Do you consider the Politic Would-be subplot is irrelevant and discordant? Discuss.
Q 3: Attempt an analysis of the character of Volpone. In what ways, does the play centre on the character of Volpone?
Q 4: Comment on Dryden’s criticism of the structure of the play. Is the fifth act extraneous to the structure of the play?
Q 5: Discuss Volpone as a satire on greed.
Q 6: How far does Volpone conform to Jonson’s theory that comedy should sport with human follies, not with crim es.
7: Describe the different sources Jonson makes use of while writing the play Volpone.