Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811

Volpone is Ben Jonson's most popular comedy. The con or swindle was a familiar theme, and one which Jonson found to be a natural topic for comedy, since he also used the swindle in The Alchemist. There is little information about how Ben Jonson's Volpone was received by the public, since plays were not reviewed during the period in which this play was composed. Instead, response to a play may be determined by examining how often it has been produced in the years since its creation. Yet another way to gauge a play's popularity is through anecdotal evidence: letters, diaries, and journal entries from the period. Most Jonson scholars acknowledge that Jonson's plays were not generally well-received. The audience was often loudly critical, and several of Jonson's plays were hissed from the stage. This is not necessarily because the plays were not entertaining or topical, but rather, the play's reception reflected the audience's attitudes toward the author. Jonson is often described as arrogant and difficult. Unfortunately, in the case of Volpone, there is little evidence of letters or diaries that reveal the play's initial reception. There is also little information about how long any play remained in production and on the stage during the early part of the seventeenth century. Although all plays were licensed by a government official, the Master of Revels, his original records have not survived, although collected passages were published in 1917. The details of performance that are so readily available in the twentieth century, length and dates of performance and the theatre in which a production played, are not available for the period during which Ben Jonson wrote.

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Although there were no critical reviews early in the seventeenth century, within a hundred years, reviews, via letters and other correspondence began to appear. When theatres re-opened after the Restoration in 1660, Volpone was being staged regularly enough to be noted in correspondence of the late seventeenth century. Among the comments is one by Samuel Pepys, the diarist, who observed that a 1665 production of Volpone was a ‘‘most excellent play; the best I ever saw, and well acted.'' However, there are few compliments for Jonson, since many of these writers were intent on dissecting the plot of Jonson's work, looking for inconsistencies and flaws. A 1696 production moved John Dennis to complain that the plot made no sense to him and that Mosca and Bonario's movements, which set up the action of Act III, ''seems to me, to be very unreasonable.'' Dennis's additional complaints deal with characterization and Volpone's actions, which Dennis argues, are inconsistent. In 1709, Richard Steele felt so strongly about Jonson's play that he wondered ''why the modern writers do not use their interest in the house to suppress such representations.’’ Since many playwrights owned the theatres in which their plays were staged, Steele contends that they should simply ban some plays, rather than take a chance on boring and turning away the audience. Steele continues by saying that after seeing Jonson's comedy the audience will no longer have any interest in attending comedy, since the audience is required to constantly question the characters and plot, and thus these questions, ‘‘will rob us of all our pleasure.’’ These questions on characterization continued to plague Volpone throughout the eighteenth century. Peter Whalley noted in 1756 that the character of Sir Politic Would-be ''seems to be brought in merely to lengthen out the play,’’ since his character appears to serve no purpose. However, Whalley differs from many other writers in that he does admire the characters of Volpone and Mosca and finds that their actions in the final act lend themselves to ''true comic humour.'' An anonymous theatre reviewer of 1771 also admired the plot, which he says ‘‘is perfectly original," but the writer goes on to say that that play is best suited to ''afford pleasure in the Closet, than on the Stage,’’ since Volpone fails to elicit the passion and genius that Shakespeare's plays offer the audience. Jonson was unable to escape Shakespeare's shadow while they both lived, and it appears that 150 years later, the comparisons continued. Certainly, if there had been no Shakespeare, Jonson might be remembered as a greater playwright. But the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras provided some of the greatest dramatic works the Western world has ever known. With competition, such as that offered by William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Ford, John Webster, and Cyril Tourneur, Ben Jonson almost becomes lost in a plethora of great dramatists. Of this group, only Shakespeare has emerged with the timelessness of a great playwright. Today, Jonson is staged infrequently, as is the case for all these playwrights except Shakespeare. Frequently, audiences must travel to England to see the great Renaissance plays on stage, while Shakespeare is readily available at theatres or on videos worldwide. Jonson would be even more envious than he was nearly four hundred years ago.

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