Volpone Essays and Criticism
by Ben Jonson

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Setting in Volpone

(Drama for Students)

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Metzger has a Ph.D., and specializes in literature and drama at The University of New Mexico, where she is a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department and an Adjunct Professor in the University Honors Program. In the following essay, she discusses the role of Venice in Ben Jonson's Volpone.

The setting for Ben Jonson's Volpone, is Venice. Many Renaissance playwrights, including William Shakespeare, used Venice as a setting for their plays, since this location represented, what many Englishmen considered to be the world's center of vice and debauchery. But, it can be argued that Jonson used Venice better than any other playwright because he depicted it in greater detail. This detail was essential, since Jonson used several of the myths associated with Venice—its sexuality, its wealth, and its corruption. Ralph Cohen, in his essay, ''The Setting of Volpone,'' points out that Venice is a setting that functions as symbol and theme, presenting a lurid atmosphere. It is this atmosphere that makes the machinations of Volpone and Mosca appear so believable, and which allows the audience to enjoy the plotting. If the setting had been moved to London, Volpone and Mosca's plots would lack any levity, appearing simply evil. But in Venice, the two easily fit into the city's reputation, where they are only performing as Venetian men are expected to perform. This setting is so essential to the performance of this play, that when Jonson published his Works, he left the setting of Volpone intact, although he changed the setting of Every Man in His Humour. Perhaps he realized that Volpone would not work in a London setting.

The audience is never allowed to forget that the setting of Volpone is Venice. Cohen points out that to remind the audience of the Venetian setting, Jonson creates two visiting Englishmen, who clearly are out of place in this Italian setting. Sir Politic Would-be and Peregrine represent the innocence of the Englishman abroad, and are juxtaposed with the duplicity of the Venetian men. This subplot is sometimes considered a distraction without purpose, as it was for some eighteenth-century critics. But as Cohen notes, the Englishmen's presence separates the Venetian setting from the London performance, and Sir Politic and Peregrine's meeting allows Jonson to ''flavor his play with topical comedy without compromising his setting.’’ London audiences can enjoy the antics and misunderstandings of the two innocent travelers and still imagine themselves as more sophisticated visitors should they visit Venice. The ending of the play, with its harsh punishments, can also serve to remind the audience of yet another of Venice's excesses, its reputation for severe punishment, as it makes the audience thankful, once again, to be Englishmen. Mosca, Volpone, and their three intended victims all receive harsh punishments, as the London audience would expect. This serves to contrast with Jonson's London setting for The Alchemist, in which the plotting servant is easily forgiven. Cohen states that London audiences would have known of Venice's harsh justice and would have anticipated a severe punishment. The justice dispensed in the last act, in keeping with reality, would have made the London audience grateful to be Englishmen and not citizens of Venice.

The English response to Venice as a place of great interest and excitement, balanced with a certain amount of trepidation, is based largely on the city's dual nature. Venice was both a city of great beauty, defined by its prominent reputation for art and wealth, and a city of sin, defined by an extensive population of courtesans and the lust associated with excessive sexual freedom. It is not as if there were no prostitutes in London; there were. But in Venice there was an openness, with women readily displayed in revealing gowns, that was missing from London society. Somehow, in the warmth of Venice, sexuality appeared more exciting than in the cold, drafty halls of the London court. Consequently,...

(The entire section is 20,617 words.)