Controversies, #6 (Fall 1999)

"Dramatic Justice in Volpone"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #6: What do we expect to happen to obviously good or evil characters by the end of a drama?  Should the evil always be punished and the good rewarded?   Historians might tell us that these kinds of neatly wrapped up ethical states don't last long in real life, though Sidney's "Defense" will perhaps give us a counter-argument to this "reality-based" dramatic criticism.  (It's also called "verisimilitude," or "life-like-ness".)  Remember that plays are intended to set up powerful emotional dynamics in their audiences, and perhaps the playwrights might want to send us out of the theater with a sort of "charge" pent up inside us.  Particpants: Beth Allee, Heather Baron, Nicole Barnabee,   Marjorie Bliss, and Arnie.

What about "victims' rights"?--Beth Allee, 10/29/99

        Celia is accused by Voltore of committing adultery with Bonario (4.5.37), yet neither is given any sort of compensation when the truth is found out. Celia is given back to her father with her dowry tripled, yet what compensation is this for her? She will not get any of that dowry and will either be married off to another husband or live the rest of her life alone in her fathers house. Bonario is given his fathers estate, but he would have gotten it anyway if not for the treachery and greed of Corbaccio. The perpetrators are punished, but no real compensation is given to the victims. The accusation of adultery and the lack of a follow up may lead the reader to assume Celia and Bonario hook up in the future. After all, he's got the money and estate and she no longer belongs to Corvino.

Whacking the crooks (while the good suffer)--Heather Baron, 11/1/99

        It seems to me that the point is more that the bad guys were punished. Throughout the play I don't really get the message that it necessarily pays to be good, but rather that it definitely does not pay to be evil. It was actually Celia's and Bonario's goodness which got them into trouble in the first place. If Celia had been bad and gone along with Corvino's plan for her to sleep with Volpone, and if Bonario had not had the decent urge to rescue her, they would never have been in court in the first place because Mosca would not have had to accuse them of adultery to cover up the failure of his plans. I wonder if anyone else sees this as paradoxical – you can't be evil because you'll inevitably be punished, but just because you're doesn't necessarily mean you won't be!

Rewards are in Heaven?--Nicole Barnabee, 11/1/99

        Perhaps the point of being good is not that you won't necessarily receive unjust punishment ('cause it's a cruel, unfair world, with a lot of Volpones and Moscas running about), but that it will all turn out right in the end--even if that end is your death (at which point you, being good, would go on to heaven, a "better place," and also a place where, according to the Bible, those who were downtrodden and persecuted in this world hold places of honor). The bad guys--Mosca, Volpone, Faustus, and friends--have their fun for a time, but eventually they all get what's coming to them, again, even if only in death. (No matter what Volpone says about even Hell being tolerable if you're just rich enough, we all know you can't take Goods with you.) Nicole Barnabee, 11/1/99

Mosca's "energia"--Marjorie Bliss, 11/1/99

        I agree with Heather that the play is paradoxical. I found that her statement..."you can't be evil because you'll inevitably be punished, but just because you're doesn't necessarily mean you won't be!" is extremely true throughout the piece. I also found that it seems as if everyone is out for themsleves and does not care what happens to the other guy. Mosca, it seems, is trying to get everybody to turn against each other while trying to convince them they are the heir to Volpone's fortune. Volpone just like to tease everyone by pretending to be ill and dying but in actuality just wants to people to think that he is, trying to play with their minds. But I truly agree with Heather in that respect.

Low-Norm Satire?--Arnie Sanders, 11/7/99

        The paradox Heather and Marjorie have discovered at work in Jonson's Volpone is not uncommon in satires that involved the Juvenalian indictment of a society awash in crime (vs. Horatian jabs at human folly). What we're looking for is sometimes called a "moral center" from which to judge the bad characters' behaviors, but when the "moral center" is founded on such weak stuff as Celia and Bonario, there's not much leverage in it. Their heroism is so thinly developed that they seem like mere foils for the greater ambitions of the vice-ridden characters. The failure of the moral center leads some critics to call such works "low norm" satires because the works operate upon the premise that the normal expectations for the entire species is naturally low, and only fools are so weak as to attempt to erect a moral system to raise it. One of the most famous "low norm" satires is Erasmus' "Praise of Folly" (first published in Latin as Moriae Encomium, which also is a punning way to say "Praise of More," Erasmus' dear friend and fellow humanist). In it, Folly addresses the world like an academician defending a thesis, and her proposition is that the entire world runs on folly because only folly could explain how things got to be this way. Erasmus turns the tables on the satire, however, when Folly puts on an ass's skin and ascends to the higher podium to proclaim Christians the biggest fools of all because they are said to practice love of their neighbors for their neighbors' sake, and to reject earthly delights in hope of divine rewards. Like Volpone, this satire is dangerous stuff, depending always upon our realization that we're hearing the words of Folly, herself, so we have to read them "backwards" to get at Erasmus' truth. (Compare Chaucer-the-pilgrim on the Miller's drunken tale in Miller's Prologue?) Volpone adds an additional layer of "fire insurance" by setting its satire in Venice, appealing to the common Early Modern English prejudice against Italian culture (that backlash against the "Italianate Englishman" and Machiavelli). Keep this in mind when we get to Congreve's The Way of the World in the last reading. It represents a low-norm view of London high-society on the London stage--how do you think it fared with the audiences?