Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
Written during a period in which Ben Jonson had turned his hand largely to the making of entertaining masques and satirical antimasques, Volpone’s success did something to make up for the failure of his tragedy, Sejanus His Fall (1603). Volpone was performed by the King’s Men in London, and at the two universities to which Jonson later dedicated the play in his prologue. The play also led to Jonson’s most fertile dramatic period, that of the great comedies, which include Epicne: Or, The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614), and The Devil Is an Ass (1616). Jonson was preeminent among the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans as that rare combination of the academic and the creative genius. He was a serious classicist who criticized William Shakespeare’s “little Latin and less Greek,” modeling his own plays on the Romans. As a humanist he brought classical control and purity to English forms. More than anyone else at the time, Jonson followed critical prescriptions of his own time and of the classical era. Jonson believed that the poet had a moral function in society; he viewed drama as a means of social education. This attitude paved the way for the great English satirists of the eighteenth century. His diverse artistic character makes Jonson both representative of his own age and a predecessor of the more rigorous classicism of the Augustans.
Jonson’s style, as might be expected, is disciplined, formal, balanced, classically simple, and unembellished—a style that foreshadows the Cavalier School (who called themselves the sons of Ben). His dramatic verse is highly stylized, vibrant, and fast-moving; readers are hardly aware they are reading poetry. Rarely does Jonson allow himself the lyrical excursions of Shakespeare or the rhetorical complexity of Christopher Marlowe, although he was capable of both. There is a solidity, firmness, and straightforward clarity in his comedies equaled only by the classical French comic theater of Molière. In Volpone Jonson follows the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. The action of the play takes only one day (the unity of time); it occurs entirely in Venice (place); and, with the exception of some of the exchanges between Peregrine and Sir Politic Would-Be, the action is unified structurally, all centered on the machinations of Volpone, his follower, and the greedy dupes.
The theme of the play is greed, the vice that dominates the actions of all the characters. Family bonds, marriage, and legal justice are not merely disregarded by Corbaccio, Corvino, and Voltore; they are also made the means by which the characters’ inhuman avarice destroys them. Jonson implies that their greed is all too human; these characters may be exaggerations but they are not aberrations. It is ironic that the Politic Would-Bes, though they, too, want Volpone’s money, seem less offensive and morally corrupt simply because they do not sell their souls for a hope of lucre. They are idiotic but they are not vicious. The passages in which they appear are a kind of relief. Although Volpone is a comedy, it is so serious that it is almost equally tragic; as a satire, it accomplishes the difficult feat of being funny and morally incisive at the same time. Volpone may be a comedy insofar as it deals with particular figures in a particular situation, but its social moral is earnest. Jonson succeeds brilliantly in combining the stereotyped characters of Latin comedy, the Renaissance characters of humors (which he himself used in his first comedy, Every Man in His Humour, 1598), the popular tradition of beast fables (from which he derived the names of his characters), and astute psychological insight to make them all come alive onstage. Although the plot of Volpone is original, it is based on a common Roman fortune-hunting theme dealt with by Horace, Juvenal, Pliny, Lucian, and Petronius. Jonson turns his fortune hunters loose in contemporary Venice—chosen, no doubt, because the English of the time regarded Italy as a country of crime and rampant passions. By using a setting roughly contemporary to that of his original audience, Jonson makes the point that con artists and greedy dupes are part of every age. Such is the high moral purpose of comic satire, which Jonson points out in his preface to the play.
Another important theme is that of imitation, as a distortion of normal reality. Sir Politic Would-Be seeks to ape Volpone, an imitation of a dying man. Characters are constantly assuming either literal or figurative disguises; Mosca, for example, fascinates the audience with his ability to make what his dupes see before their eyes conform to whatever fabrication he leads them to accept. Lady Would-Be attempts to cover her mental deformities with physical cosmetics, and her dressing scene is one of the most pathetic in the play. Carrying imitation even further, Volpone pretends to be a mountebank (something he actually is) in a complicated and convincing scene that leads to the question of how one can distinguish between a real imitator and an imitation imitator. Volpone and Mosca are actors throughout. They are also directors, leading the fortune hunters, one by one, to give their best performances; in the process, they reveal how close to the surface lies the actor’s instinct in all people. Any strong desire, such as greed, can activate the attempt at deception. Gilded lies and rampant desires create chaos, confusing notions of species, class, sex, and morals.
Volpone is the exuberant guiding spirit of misrule who takes constant pleasure in his mental agility and showmanship. Mosca is equally forceful; his only motive seems to be a delight in perpetrating perversities, and he accepts his inheritance only because it allows him to continue to be perverse. The three birds of prey, Corbaccio, Corvino, and Voltore, stumble over one another in their haste to devour the supposed carcass. They are hideous caricatures, and they are, ironically, caricatures of themselves—as the development of the play from the first scene demonstrates. Mosca and Volpone simply bring out the worst in them; they do not plant it. The sham trial in act 4 is the dramatic triumph of Jonson’s career. When Corvino calls Voltore “mad” at the very point at which the old man becomes sane again, the audience sees that it, too, was beguiled by the terrible logic of greed.