Opening Acts, Opening Scenes
Jonson's Volpone, Acts I and II--Opening acts are useful to compare. In Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, Act I, Scene 1 establishes the protagonist's glorious vision of powers and places that he thinks magic will make available to him. Shakespeare's King Lear uses Act I to establish Kent's steadfast loyalty, Gloucester's gullibility, Cordelia's mute honesty, and the courtly sophistication of Edmund, Goneril and Regan. For the astute C16 theater audience, Marlowe also used his first act's first scene to let his protagonist fire off gorgeous soliloquies to reveal Faustus' value system, that megalomaniacal pursuit of power to the exclusion of all other studies. Shakespeare also used King Lear I.1 to reveal some of the play's poetic themes, like thoughtless cruelty ("there was good sport at his getting"), vision ("See better Lear!"), truth ("Let truth be thy dowry."), disguise ("what plaited cunning hides"), and social climbing ("I shall study deserving"). What interpretive clues are being laid down for early C17 audiences when Jonson the play with Volpone's ironic "dawn song" and "hymn of praise" to his hoarded gold?
This is a quick way to learn (or review) some English 215 critical theory while also thinking about how competitive poets, such as Ben Jonson surely was, might build their works from the stealthily borrowed and transformed pieces of their predecessors' works. First the subtle and authoritative theft: Jonson uses his first act differently from the way Everyman used its opening speeches, but rather like Marlowe and Shakespeare used their opening scenes. In early theater, audiences are not so well-schooled in "how to be an audience for a play," so you have to tell them more directly what the heck is going on. Jonson could learn from the way audiences responded to Marlowe's and Shakespeare's plays that later theater audiences knew how to interpret what they saw "on the fly," without so many formal announcements that were alien to the action. These well-educated theater goers also could teach the novices among them how to do it. So in Jonson's drama, although the opening prologue and the printed acrostic poem certainly beat the audience over the head with didactic "help," in the rest of the play, the "show don't tell" rule is usually respected, even though the plot becomes wonderfully complicated as plot and counterplot tangle with each other. Though occasionally a character will deliver some helpful hints in an aside or soliloquy, no more characters named "Angelus" or "Messenger" will come to tell us, like the escapee in Job or the shepherds in Oedipus, what the plot is about while we watch the play. We have to interpret the plot on the fly, from the way characters disport themselves before us, creating and violating "reader rules" which audiences are expected to bring, fully formed, to the performance. For instance, when Volpone addresses his treasure in a speech that parodies a medieval love poem, wise theater-goers in the audience, for whom the "aubade" was still a familiar genre, nudge each other and share an understanding of how this play probably will end. That understanding may be confirmed or disconfirmed, or surprisingly both, by the last scene. That's "Reader-Response Criticism" talking. You can use this interpretive theory to write papers and exam essays if you help modern readers recover now-lost/forgotten reader-rules that would have been familiar to audiences for whom the author was writing. What "reader-rules" does Jonson establish with the speeches in this scene, and what do they predict will happen in Acts II-V?