Ben Jonson, Volpone (performed 1606/
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
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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?
- 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
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!)