Ben Jonson, Volpone (performed 1606/ 1st edition,1616)

Genre: Comic drama, but also a satire.

Form: blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) mixed with comic song.  Since the "plot" is a low criminal conspiracy (but what was the rebellion against Henry IV or Lear?), the "subplot" is a parody of criminal conspiracy set in Venice but involving an English traveler, an English nobleman and his wife, all of whom are "on tour."  While you were writing the midterm, somebody invented "the vacation."

Characters and Summary:   This plot closely parallels Horace's satire on legacy hunters (Book II.7) but dramatizes it with characters whose flattened, comic/satiric personas represent various types of human personality as they are distorted by greed, lust, and sheer perversity.   Jonson alerts us to the symbolic order of the action's meaning by means of the names he assigns the primary characters: Volpone (fox--deceiver), Mosca (fly--parasite), Voltore (vulture--scavenger/lawyer), Corbaccio (raven--wealthy, nearly deaf old, but still greedy man), and Corvino (crow, another scavenger--the wealthy, jealous merchant who can't get enough).  These characters all seek to be named Volpone's heir in order to gain his treasure, but they offer him gifts to achieve that honor, and he (though nowhere near death) strings them along, more in love with his delight in deceiving them than even his beloved gold.  A love plot is attached to this legacy-hunt, involving Corvino's wife (Celia) and Corbaccio's son (Bonario), but one of the play's puzzles is that they are such relatively lifeless, though moral, characters.  Below these levels, three more sets of characters populate the stage.  Nano (a dwarf), Castrone (an eunuch), and Androgyno (a hermaphrodite) join Mosca as Volpone's courtiers, Sir Poltic Would-be and his wife are deceived by Peregrine (the young English man on the Continental tour), and the elders of Venice alternately try to profit from and to bring justice to the confusion (Commendatori [sheriffs], Mercatori [merchants, brothers of Corvino], Avocatori [lawyers, brothers of Voltore], and Notario [the court's registrar]).

So the plot, in brief, is that the conspirators try to deceive Volpone, but he's really deceiving them, until his agent (Mosca) deceives him (and them) and they bring him to the court, which they all try to deceive, until they are unmasked (while Peregrine is being deceived by and deceiving Sir and Lady Politic Would-be).  Got it?   Click here for advice about "the mnemonic bookmark," a strategy for remembering characters' names and major plot and thematic issues!

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. You have seen, in Marlowe and Shakespeare, the strategies of pitting a subplot's comic agenda against that of a tragic main plot.
    • How would you discuss sub-plot and main plot in this play?
    • What does that tell you about Volpone's basic strategy regarding the play's goals and his manipulation of the audience's sympathies?  For instance, compare the characters of Volpone and Henry IV or Lear, and try to argue for which is the more attractive title character.)
  2. Jonson argues, elsewhere, that drama should be evaluated with respect to some special forms of truth.  For instance, he considers "truth to type" as a good test of characters, asking whether that sort of person would have done what the character did.
    • What kinds of normative judgments does this require, and how does that affect the play's socio-political agendas?
  3. Jonson parodies many classical lyric forms (see below re: Catullus) but his most outrageous is his first, a satire on the aubade or dawn song usually sung by a lover to the beloved (and answered by her) upon their seeing the first rays of light which end their illicit night of passion.
  4. A typical measure of dramatic structure is the relationship between chaos and order.  As the comedy unwinds, chaos increases, and as it approaches its end, the chaos ought either to increase to a catastrophe (duck blows up hunter, dog, hunter's house, doghouse) or to a restoration of order (duck returned to wild, hunter to home, dog to doghouse).  Generally speaking, many comedies approach an apex of their disorder around the third act.
    • What's happening when Mosca walks on stage in III.i?
    • Especially, how does his soliloquy illustrate the dangers of Count Canossa's prescription for a courtier's development in Hoby's translation of The Courtier?
    • How might this relate to Jonson's politics in the Jacobean period, especially to the rise of new courtiers to power in James I's reign?
    • This play ends with the "Volpone" character coming to the edge of the stage to deliver a curious apology for the play's bad behavior and to ask the audience for forgiving applause.  What does this suggest about Jonson's view of the play's "moral center" vs. the astonishing success of immorality for most of the play's acts?
  5. The play's content and style draw upon an aesthetic trend called neoclassicism, a set of rules and habits of composition based on imitation of Greek and Roman classical models for literature.  You can see this in the prologue's boast about following the so-called "Aristotelian unities" of place, time and action.  Volpone's paen to Celia (III.7) is sung in a voice borrowed from Catullus (#5), the song to "Lesbia" which dares her to defy convention and old men's jealousy to seek the plenitude of pleasure her lover promises.  Compare the two.  To read a Roman poem Jonson may have had in mind re: "legacy hunting," check out a translation of Horace's satire on the topic (Book II, number 5).  (Horace imagines a satiric/comic addition to the scene in Homer's Odyssey Book 11 when Odysseus, in the Underworld, asks the spirit of the prophet Teiresias to tell him how to return home to Ithaka where young bachelors are devouring his household while waiting for his wife to choose one of them.  The short answer--get some rich old man to make you his heir!)
  6. In addition to the play's allusions to and borrowings from classical literature, it makes many references to recent European vernacular authors like Bembo, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and (twice) Pietro Aretino.  How should readers interpret such allusions?  Hint: it's always safer to look them up rather than to ignore them.
  7. Note the play's date of performance (1606) vs. that for King Lear (1604/5).  Yet these two plays could hardly be more different in style.  Only the Fool produces something like Jonson's quick, dazzling dialogue.  But look behind the apparent comedy to the satiric foundation of the play, and you will see some of the same treachery and familial dysfunction that marked Shakespeare's play, and at the heart of both, heirs in pursuit of an inheritance.  WS distanced his drama by locating it in the deep pagan past.  Jonson situates his characters' bad behaviors in "Venice," a city known to the English as famously licentious and corrupt.  Just as Shakespeare gave individual characters to Albany Cornwall, Burgundy, Kent, and Gloucester, rather than presenting them as stock "nobleman" characters, Jonson also creates individual personas for his legacy hunters, Voltore, Corbacccio, Corvino, and Lady Politic Would-be, but these are closer to "stock" or "type" characters, in keeping with Jonson's view of humanity as governed by "humors" or overpowering personal traits.  If each legacy hunter were introduced in a joke, what would s/he be called?  With so much bad behavior afoot, how does Jonson anchor his good and bad values, something Shakespeare does via the Fool, Kent, Edgar and Cordelia?    And do you see the emergence of a subplot about good and bad servants and courtiers that might be part of the same public discourse we saw re: Kent and the Fool vs. Oswald and Edmund?
  8. Those of you who have taken English 215 (Critical Methods) and those who have discovered something of literary criticism's theoretical bases on their own may be ready to start thinking about final papers even now.  Imagine how good a paper you could write if you started working on it with six weeks left to go in the semester!  Imagine how thoroughly you could think through the argument and polish your own prose.  The final paper assignment stipulates only that the topic should be based mainly on one text we've read since the midterm exam and that it also should deal with at least one text from the first half of the semester.  (Exceptions might be two sections from a very large work we read after the midterm, like Volpone,  Paradise Lost, Oroonoko, or The Way of the World .)  You can center your analysis on one text, using the other for comparison and contrast, or you can do a balanced analysis of both.  You also could refer to more than one subordinate text to help unpack your argument about the main, post-midterm text.  Though you may have "hunches" or even full-blown insights about the play that typical audiences would not detect, those hunches and insights all depend on some basic assumptions about how to read plays which you probably have unconsciously absorbed from your previous teachers.  Rather than charging at the play's evidence without being aware of your theoretical approach's assumptions, you may benefit from approaching the task of writing with a theory of interpretation in mind.  Click here for some ways theories help you write a literary analysis of some aspect of Volpone.

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