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Metatheatre is a term that is used to convey how certain dramas are able to combine simultaneously elements of tragedy and comedy. The impact of this is that the audience can both feel empathy and sadness at the plight of a character whilst also laugh at what is happening to them. Arguably, metatheatre is something that can be seen in Act V scene 12, which is when Volpone and Mosca go head to head in the trial. On the one hand, it is possible to see the immense humour as Volpone stands back as Mosca unleashes his strategy against him. Volpone, it appears, has been out-tricked 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 that he tricks and deceives, and so it gives the audience great pleasure and is a source of great humour to see Volpone tricked in turn and tricked by somebody who he does not expect to be tricked by.
However, at the same time, 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.
The issue is that 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?
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