I need some background information on Volpone, including info about religious attitudes of the period.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ben Jonson, who wrote the comedy play Volpone, was a contemporary of William Shakespeare during the Renaissance Elizabethan literary period. Jonson's plays weren't popular like Shakespeare's plays were, although he was praised for originating his own story lines, whereas Shakespeare and other dramatists of the day derived their story lines from other stories or from histories or even fables. Jonson published Volpone in 1605, which is two years after the beginning of the reign of King James I. This means that as well as being a dramatist in the Elizabethan period, Jonson was also a dramatist in the early Jacobean (for the Latin word for James) period; James reigned from 1603 to 1625. Since Shakespeare produced some of his most famous plays in 1603, and his final ones in 1612, Shakespeare also wrote into the Jacobean period. This helps to set the social and cultural background of Jonson's writing and of Volpone in particular.

Volpone wasn't received as well as Jonson would have liked, as evidence in letters and diaries suggests; there were two known reasons for this. The first was Jonson's commitment to Classical dramatic models; the second was the competition from Shakespeare, although Jonson and Shakespeare are said to have been good friends. With Volpone following Shakespeare's 1603 productions of All's Well That Ends Well, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Measure for Measure, it is no wonder Jonson's play didn't garner the attention Jonson could have hoped for in 1605.
For one thing, Jonson wrote characters that were "types," not full-blown characters. What this means is that while Shakespeare's competing and overshadowing plays had characters that were fully developed with psychological and motivational aspects, Jonson's characters in Volpone were developed with broad strokes in which the audience could recognize types of individuals, such as the swindler and the religious person and the fair maiden etc. Philosophical, as a dramatist Jonson believed, against popular opinion, that even comedies should teach a moral; comedies should address the human question of how to live instead of just ending up in a marriage and happy prospects. This gives greater cultural background.

In the Elizabethan period, Elizabeth I attempted to weave an agreement between the extreme Puritan element that sought reform of the Church of England and the equally extreme Catholic element that supported the Pope. Elizabeth sought to create religious, political and economic stability and succeeded in doing so to a large degree. She established the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which legalized a moderate course toward religious differences.

Writers in this period, like Jonson, had to contend with new ideas on religion, such as those set forth in the Settlement, along with new ideas in science and philosophy that had an emphasis on individual responsibility. In addition, their plays had to be approved by the Master of the Revels who would censure plays that violated approved political ideology as well as approved religious ideology. So even though a stable peace existed between opposing Puritan reformist, the Church of England, and Roman Catholic ideologies, dramatists had to stay within bounds or see their play censured or refused release for production. This gives you religious background relevant to Volpone.

dodibar | Student

Jonson was a murderer! Along with Marlowe! Both were acquitted of the charge, due, in Marlowe's case, to lack of evidence, and in Jonson's, his ability to defend himself in Latin, much appreciated by the justices! Jonson also threw in his clerical learning, pleading right of clergy. Nevertheless, he was branded on the thumb with a 'T', so that should he re-offend, he would surely hang from Tyburn Tree!