Theoretical Approaches to Jonson's Volpone and Other C17 Works
By the midpoint of the semester in English 211, you have acquired a vocabulary of words with which to describe a drama's parts. You probably can read it well enough to get at least some of the comedy and satire. That enables you to take a seat at the scholarly table. Now let's listen to what they're saying in the ongoing scholarly conversation which English majors study formally in English 215 (Critical Methods). What do scholars do when they try to discover something new about this play? These are some current theoretically-supported approaches in addition to the New Critical "close reading" and thematic analysis you were taught in English 200:
Structural analysis--how do the play's acts work together to construct, bring to a crisis, and resolve the plot's situation? how do the characters set up oppositions of greed-generosity, powerfulness-powerlessness, insider-outsider, etc. etc. to dramatize Jonson's intentions? how does the Venice-London opposition play out in the Volpone/Sir Politic Would-be plots, and to what degree do they reflect different (and similar?) problems about identity, social values, gender roles, or what have you? One can apply Structuralism's analysis of deep structuring rules to explain the workings of similar plot binaries in Donne's lyric poems (sacred-profane, seducer-seduced), Paradise Lost (creation-destruction, Satan-Sin-Death vs. God-Adam-Eve, prohibition-temptation), Oroonoko (slave-free, love-hate, Africa-Guiana, rebellion-obedience), and The Way of the World (rakes vs. gulls, suitors vs. "bellles," wits vs. the witless, the elite vs. their servants). Sometimes you can find surprising parallels in more than one pair of binaries' structuring rules, and at other times the surprise comes from a sort of inverse relationship one might explain using Michel Foucault's concept of "the circulation of power by means of exchange" of goods, people, and/or ideas, and the discourses or ways of speaking that mediate them.
Historical analysis--what are the play's ancestors in Roman satire and more recent adaptations of that satire in English lit. (e.g., Wyatt "Mine Own John Poins"), and how does Jonson spin that tradition to create something new, original, yet connected to the great past? what was the English attitude toward the Italians at the turn of the C17, and how did the play's satire of contemporary English and Italian manners reflect the facts of life on the street in London or Venice? If your interests direct your curiosity toward women's lives and marriage customs in the C14-17, click here for some sources of evidence that would help you test the literature's representation of historical reality. If marriage and divorce law interest you specifically, as it might were you to write about Congreve's The Way of the World, click here for two scholarly articles about the topic. No matter what your interests, please contact me if a comparative historical approach to your topic sounds interesting and you want some help searching for and acquiring scholarly sources. The period has been intensively studied, so you can assume good sources are readily available.
Deconstruction--do any of the play's binary oppositions (see structural analysis above and feminist criticism below) break down because characters refuse to fit the categories or fit into both rather than only one? if so, what does that tell us about the values the binary opposition asserts to be "natural" or "normal"? Deconstruction also can make use of Michel Foucault's concept of "the circulation of power by means of exchange" of goods, people, and/or ideas, and the discourses or ways of speaking that mediate them.
Feminist analysis (also a subset of structuralism)--how does the play construct masculinity and femininity as a set of gestures and speech acts successfully (or unsuccessfully) performed? what role does reproduction (sexual, imitative, etc.) play in the plot and how does that reflect a view of the "female" biological role [and is that view typical of Jacobeans or particularly Jonsonian]? how are issues of legitimacy and illegitimacy raised as part of the inheritance plot, or the mountebank plot, as reflections of male anxieties about identity arising from the reproductive act? In Donne's and Herbert's lyrics, maleness and femaleness can be used metaphorically to structure spiritual or sexual relations. Paradise Lost is especially rich in both the obvious gendered spirituality Milton uses to create his Eden (see especially Book IV when Satan first sees Adam and Eve), but it also uses gender as a metaphor to explain Sin and Death. Oroonoko has two different societies (Africa and Guiana) in which gender rules are operating, and Behn's own ambiguous role in the plot (and as our narrator) set up important challenges to both social systems when she represents herself as a sort of "outsider" to each. For the feminist analyst, The Way of the World pairs naturally with Mary Astell's Some Reflections upon Marriage and the historical research on actual marriage customs and women's experience of English divorce law (se the historical analysis links above). Because of Congreve's title, one might suspect that he intentionally saw his satiric comedy as an analysis of his world's "ways," but we need not limit our conclusions to those he might sanction. For instance, why should we (or Millamant!) trust Mirabell to be a "reformed rake"? Consider what he has done to the women in his life, and what he does to them during the course of the play's action, and imagine what married life might be like with such a man for a partner. Again, Astell seems a sound guide--see her passage on "marrying for wit."
There are other ways to look at the literature, of course, but those are some of the critical moves available to experienced scholars, and it's our job to begin joining that society.