How are the courtroom scenes in Volpone metatheatrical? 

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Metatheatre (or metadrama) is a type of play, or part of a play, that draws attention to itself as a play. Plays which are metatheatrical or contain aspects of metatheatre break down the concept of the imaginary "fourth wall" through which an audiences watches a play, and they compromise the...

Read
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Metatheatre (or metadrama) is a type of play, or part of a play, that draws attention to itself as a play. Plays which are metatheatrical or contain aspects of metatheatre break down the concept of the imaginary "fourth wall" through which an audiences watches a play, and they compromise the "willing suspension of disbelief" that the audience experiences while watching a play.

The soliloquies and "asides" in Shakespeare's and other playwright's plays are metatheatrical, as are the "play-within-a-play" in Hamlet, the courtroom scenes in The Merchant of Venice and in Ben Jonson's Volpone, and the stand-up comedy routine of Launce (and his dog, Crab) in Two Gentlemen of Verona, all of which remind the audience that they're watching a play.

The Chorus in Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, and other Shakespeare plays, and the Prologue in Volpone and Jonson's Every Man In His Humor speak directly to the audience and invite the audience into the world of the play as a play. Epilogues remind the audience that they've just watched a play.

Courtroom scenes, particularly, like the ones in Volpone, remind the audience that they're watching a play. Courtroom scenes are small dramas (or comedies) in their own right, with their own characters, themes, and plot, and are played out in within the larger framework of the play as a whole.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the courtroom scene in Volpone, the heightened elements of tragicomedy force viewers out of the scene, creating metatheater. The audience can both feel empathy and sadness at the plight of a character and laugh at what is happening to them, creating a jarring disconnect and disrupting the cohesion of the scene.

On the one hand, it is possible to see the immense humor as Volpone stands back as Mosca unleashes his strategy against him. Volpone, it appears, has been outfoxed by his servant, who is obviously far cleverer and more devious than he ever imagined. Volpone has shown himself to be far more intelligent than the other characters he tricks and deceives, so it gives the audience great pleasure and is a source of great humor to see Volpone tricked in turn.

However, on the other hand, this scene also helps expose the rather pitiful position of Volpone. He has placed all his eggs in one basket, and now that Mosca has turned against him, he must either accept being whipped and losing his wealth or revealing who he really is and taking his punishment. He therefore determines to reveal who he is:

I must be resolute;
The fox shall here uncase.

Volpone reveals himself with the words "I am Volpone" after divesting himself of his disguise. Yet the audience wonders whether Volpone has any sense of who he really is. They have seen him act a variety of different figures and, therefore, any sense of Volpone's own identity has become diluted, if not lost all together. Tragedy is present here alongside the comedy because of the speculation of the audience concerning Volpone's real self. Finally, when he strips himself of all pretense and all disguise, what is left over for a character who has assumed an endless procession of disguises?

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team