In his comic drama Volpone, does Ben Jonson subscribe to the humanistic ideal? In what way does he rebel against the idea of "the chain of being"?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Ben Jonson overtly places his satiric drama Volpone within the tradition of classical drama, observing the unities, and generally attempting to follow strict classical form, especially in contrast to the freer forms followed by his compatriot William Shakespeare. Both his classicism and his view of human nature exhibit radical departures from the medieval worldview of which the "chain of being" is a part, and exemplify humanist literary traditions.

The medieval world view combined Aristotelianism, Platonism, and Roman Catholicism into a unified whole in which all elements of nature existed in fixed, static relationships with each other and their Creator. Beings in the world could be classified into different categories, connected hierarchically in a great chain extending up to God and down to inanimate objects, but also linked by correspondences among elements of different classes:

Divine Kingdom: God and the angels were divine, with angels excelling in the attribute of adoration.

Human Kingdom: Humans excel in the attribute of reason, and are organized hierarchically into three estates, nobility, clergy and peasants, with the King being at the top of the nobility and the Pope at the top of the clergy.

Animal: Animals excel at sensing, and the greatest of animals is the lion (thus in the system of correspondences, kings and lions are associated as being at the top of their respective hierarchies).

Vegetable: Plants excel at taking in nourishment, and the best of plants is the rose.

Mineral: Minerals excel at durability, and the most noble is gold.

Ben Jonson rejects the medieval consensus in two ways in Volpone. First, we encounter an odd blending of human and animal, especially in the characters' names and behavior ("Volpone" means "Fox" and "Mosca" means "fly"), and Volpone's human menagerie of a dwarf, a eunuch, and a hermaphrodite, all of whom break the neat categorizations of the system found in the concept of a chain of being. Secondly, the characters in the play, especially as they assume false identities, break with many of the conventions of fixed roles and estates.

On an aesthetic level, Jonson's satire follows the humanistic mandate of a return ad fontes, to classical traditions in literary technique, language, and ethical norms. Its satire is directed at the corruption of "modern" Roman Catholic Venice (and to a lesser extent at the foolishness of the English).

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