Quiz #7: Ben Jonson, Volpone, Acts I & II
1) Even after the first act of Volpone we can tell that characters are concerned with the outcome of a single legal process. The nature of this process has to do with the reason why all those people keep visiting Volpone and giving him gifts. What is it?
Inheritance of his estate. The plot is as old as the Romans, and the poet Horace (Virgil's contemporary) wrote a satire on this subject in which the homeward-bound Ulysses, complaining that his household had been eaten up by the suitors, is advised by the prophet Teiresias that he ought to get into the inheritance racket to rebuild his fortunes. This kind of satire represents an attack on the "monied interests" by a representative of the "landed interests" (see the C17 introduction in the Norton, 1072), because the latter represented the older, established court nobles whose power was endangered by the rise of the (as they saw it) grasping, upstart new-comers. Horace and Jonson both thrived on the patronage of nobles, though they were not themselves nobles, and represent an old style of poet-apologist for the aristocracy that was becoming more unfashionable by the end of the seventeenth century. (Also compare Spenser vs. Shakespeare.) This is not to say that, apart from politics, the play's basic point about greed and human nature is not an excellent one.
2) Several of the characters in Volpone are named for animals who represent characteristics detested in humans. Name one character, identify the character s/he represents, and identify the vice the character represents.
Hey, Volpone, the trickster = a fox! Talk about giving away the answer in the question! Also, most of the rest associated with the inheritance plot also are named for "animals." They also are fused with "type charactes" from the so-called "New Comedy" that satirized types of social beings like "the jealous husband," "the tricky servant," or "the old man." Mosca, the parasite or "tricky servant" type = a carrion fly. Voltore, the predatory lawyer = a vulture. Corbaccio, the "Senex" or "old man," greedy though already-wealthy = a raven. Corvino, our "jealous husband" = a crow. Peregrine, the young English traveler = a falcon. This is part of the play's Ovidian subtext. Ovid's Metamorphoses was a famous collection of tales about humans transformed into animals, plants, trees, rivers, etc., usually by their interaction with gods. That "downward" transformation suggests that our "progress" actually is devolutionary, rather than evolutinoary, and that the only safe position is that of the political conservative who resists change as corrupting (see #1 above). You can see this "downward progress" theme acted out in Nano's song about the transmigration of Androgyno's soul, from Pythagoras (who was famous for the doctrine of transmigration of souls) down through various unsavory classical persons, animals, modern (C17) personalities, and finally into a hermaphrodite fool. Note the footnote to Androgyno's claim that his current state as a fool is the "only one creature I can call blessed" (I.ii: 57).
3) Volpone disguises himself in order to seduce someone. Tell me either how he disguises himself and who he is trying to seduce (identify by name, or by a significant relationship or action].
He becomes "Doctor Scotto, the mountebank" (seller of quack medicines) and he is trying to seduce Corbaccio's wife, Celia. This comic transformation (see #2 above) reduces Volpone to a street entertainer but also produces some of the play's most brilliant comic patter. Note especially the bragging speech with which he introduces himself and his product, "oglio del Scoto" (II.ii. page 1154). Hmmm..."oglio del Scoto"? Sounds like this guy Scoto is an oily character, indeed, and sort of squeezes it out of himself. This turning of words into fraudulent, true-seeming phenomena is yet another of the play's use of the theme of debasing transformations. It would not be too far fetched to suggest that, bad as the characters are who pursue Volpone's inheritance, their contact with him (like a sort of anti-philosopher's stone that turns gold into base metals) degrades their formerly foolish characters until they become capable of great crimes. That is truely the greatest trick of the good Doctor.
Extra Credit: To what is Volpone referring in the following exclamation?--
"Hail the world's soul, and mine! more glad than is
The teeming earth to see the longed-for sun
Peep through the horns of the celestial ram,
Am I, to view thy spendor darkening his,
That lying here, . . . ,
Show'st like a flame by night, or like the day
Struck out of chaos, when all darkness fled
Unto the center.
Gold, moolah, argent, bucks, capital, simoleans, plate, what the foolish student becomes obsessed with obtaining as the end result of a Goucher education, what the foolish Goucher faculty member becomes obsessed with obtaining as the end result of teaching, what the Trustees sometimes apparently believe is more important than the college they hold the Endowment in trust for, perhaps the only thing the President and Congress believe to be more important to the election than "spin" and scandal, etc., etc., etc. Thomas More would have laughed heartily at this one. But what's so foolish about needing to pay off our loans and find a way to live productive adult lives? What's so funny about getting paid for what one does? What's so crazy about wanting the college to survive to teach other students, and employ other professors? What's the matter with a sound economy that supports you and me? Why nothing at all. That's not what Volpone was talking about--money fetishized, money made a god, money which turns human beings into mere vehicles for carrying it about and heaping it up, money which makes puppets of us by robbing us of our freedom to make moral choices. That's what's funny. (Or not--that's the problem with satire. You never are sure whether you are laughing at it, or at yourself.)
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