Explain why Volpone is a comedy of humours.

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his earlier play, Every Man Out of His Humour, Jonson offers his own definition of humours as follows:

"Some one peculiar quality Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw All his affects, his spirits, and his powers, In their confluctions, all to run one way."

It is not hard to see that one peculiar quality, greed, possesses many of the characters in the play, who are then motivated by it to behave in destructive ways. "Humour" refers to the concept, still current in Jonson's day, that a person's health and personality were determined by a dominant humor. Blood, to give one example, was a humor that led a person to be sanguine, meaning optimistic but given to hotheadedness or what we might call being hotblooded. 

Volpone harkens back to medieval allegorical plays in presenting characters that are types representing a humor (or virtue or vice) rather than fully developed personalities. Volpone uses his characters to explore aspects of greed that put people so out of balance that they behave foolishly or immorally. This then provides the humor or comedy of the play. Corbaccio, for example, is willing to risk his son's inheritance in the hopes of greater gain and to allow Mosca to poison Volpone, while Corvino, to gain Volpone's supposed inheritance, is willing to give Volpone his wife, Celia. These characters show excessive greed, which blinds them to Volpone's deceptions.

renelane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Volpone's humours include greed, lust, and deceitfulness. They define his character, and in trying to succeed in his quest for material and lustful desires, it becomes a comedy of errors.

His deceptions in trying to attain the wealth of others by having them believe they will actually gain his, is but one example.

The ruse in which Celia is used as a bartering tool, all in the belief that Volpone is incapable of acting on his desire is another.

elsi343 | Student

The comedy of humours is comedy based on the exaggeration of the greek explantaion for health -the body was balance by the four humours black bile, yellow bile/cholor, blood and phlegm. If any of these were out of balance, the body and the personality were influenced.

Volpone is lustful - sin of meloncholia (too much black bile)

and decietful - sin of sanguine (too much blood)

Mosca is covetous - sin of choloric (too much cholor/yellow bile) reference 1

the characters also draw from beast characters, and the italian commedia del arte (italian commedia del art reference

T.F. Heck, 1988, Commedia dell’arte: a guide to the primary and secondary literature, IUniverse, New York, p155)

Ben Jonson does move away from the strict comedy of humours after 1603, but they still remain a basis for his characters - refence . O. Brockett and F. Hildy, 2008, History of the Theatre, 10th edition, Allyn & Bacon, Boston , p110

elsi343 | Student

see below