Places Discussed

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Volpone’s house

Volpone’s house (vohl-POH-nay). Home of the Venetian magnifico, whose name means “fox.” With an outer gallery or waiting room for dupes and a dazzling treasure cache, piles of gold, plate, and jewels hidden behind the rear-stage curtain, Volpone’s house is a handy location for storing the rich gifts of solicitous visitors. When guests are present, the drawn curtains hide this shrine to wealth, and the foxlike Volpone stretches out on his sickbed in gown, furs, and nightcap, as his servant, Mosca, ushers in the assorted base creatures.

Hiding places are important to this set, for Bonario must observe Volpone’s revelation of ardent passion unseen, just as Voltore must overhear Mosca and Corbaccio. Curtains close around Volpone on his couch as Mosca at a desk inventories the supposed inheritance of hopefuls.

Corvino’s house

Corvino’s house (kohr-VEE-noh). Home of a Venetian merchant, near St. Mark’s Place. The location attracts pickpockets, con artists, and schemers of every stripe. Corvino’s wife Cecelia looks down from a balcony, which opens into a room in Corvino’s house where he chides her. In front of the house, Mosca and a servant erect a stage for a medicine vendor to display his wares, and a disguised Volpone mounts the platform and haggles over high-priced quackery.

Historical Context

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The period from 1576 to 1642 is considered the Golden Age of English drama, although it was probably not golden for those who lived through it. For more than 100 years, farmers had been displaced by enclosure acts that fenced off agricultural land for pastures. This created severe unemployment in the countryside with accompanying high inflation. Crop failures, the threat of war abroad, and brutal religious strife had shaken English society by the time Elizabeth I assumed the throne in 1558. The reign of Elizabeth produced relative stability, but her failure to name a successor brought discontent and the threat of civil war even before her death. The rule of James I was greeted initially with enthusiasm in 1603, but religious, class, and political divisions soon intensified. In spite of this turmoil, or perhaps because of it, the most important drama in Western history was produced during this period. Rural unemployment drove many people to London, making it the largest city in Europe. However, attempts at civil order led to widespread disorder and the establishment of a capitalistic economy in place of the feudal agrarian social order. The writers of this period grappled with new ideas about science and philosophy, religion and politics. In addition, there was also a new emphasis on individual thought, action, and responsibility.

Playwrights thought of themselves as poets, but were not regarded as serious artists, much as we regard screenwriters today. In fact, playwrights turned out a commercial product. Once sold, plays became the property of acting companies and when published, were more likely to bear the name of the acting company than the author's name. It was not until the seventeenth century, when Jonson published his plays (in 1616) and a folio of Shakespeare's works were published (in 1623), did the idea that plays have literary merit occur. But because plays weren't regarded as serious literature, playwrights had the opportunity to deal with any subject that interested them. In 1576, the first permanent theatre was built. This led to greater social status for theatre people. The location was out of town, due to religious problems. Puritans thought actors were sinful, with substandard morals, because the social milieu of the playhouse was loose, and often libertine. There was also the philosophical argument that acting was lying, role-playing....

(This entire section contains 657 words.)

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In spite of these problems, plays brought large numbers of people together and correspondingly increased crime and disease, so city officials often sided with Puritans in wanting theatres outside town. Theatres also enticed people from their jobs and so affected trade.

Every script had to be reviewed by the Master of Revels, who could force revisions and censure. Most concerns were with religion and politics, not with sexual content. In a very real sense, religious theology governed politics. Topics that might offend the queen, such as the abdication scene in William Shakespeare's Richard II, or incite treason were banned. Some plays might be closed, or might never open for such offenses. In spite of this official censorship, the court and queen, and later king, were huge fans of theatre. Since actors could be arrested as vagrants, they needed the protection of the court and its patronage. Because theatre reached the illiterate, its influence was widely felt. The audience was mostly upper-class. Since there was no lighting, plays were presented in the afternoon, and thus, most working people were not able to attend. However, gentlemen attended, and for a penny (one pence), others could stand in front of the stage and watch. Respectable women could attend, if they were escorted by a male, but prostitutes also attended to increase trade. In spite of many obstacles, such as the open air and problems with English weather, stage presentation and performance overcame the shortcomings of the audience and their lack of a classical education. Although education was growing, its presence was still very limited. Still, even with a limited education, the feeling and ideas of the play could still be grasped and enjoyed by the audience.

Literary Style

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Act A major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama, from the Greeks to the Romans, and to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts can sometimes denote the structure of dramatic action, which are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen combined some of the acts. Volpone is a five-act play. The exposition occurs in the first act when the audience learns of Volpone's deception and meets his victims. By the end of Act II, the complication, the audience has learned that Mosca is expanding on Volpone's plans and that Celia is to be catalyst for the climax, which occurs in the next act. The climax occurs in the third act when Celia arrives, is attacked by Volpone, and then is rescued by Bonario. The trial provides the falling action, and the catastrophe occurs in the last act when all the plotting begins to unravel and the punishment is dispensed.

Character A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. "Characterization" is the process of creating a life-like person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. The characters in Volpone are stereotypes, since the characters are not well-defined and appear as little more than types. The audience does not really know or understand the character as an individual. For instance, Voltore is a dishonest lawyer, revealing all the stereotypes often associated with this career.

Genre Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means "kind" or "type." Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. Volpone is a comedy.

Setting The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Jonson's play is Venice, which is significant because it automatically signals the audience that this play will deal with a vice. Venice was considered the center of depravity, according to most English thought of the day. The action occurs during the course of a day.

Compare and Contrast

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1605: The Gunpowder Plot is discovered. This is a plot to blow up the House of Parliament. The plot is attributed to Roman Catholics; and the English, who worry a great deal about the Catholic Pope's influence in their country, are reminded of the danger that Catholics and the Italian Pope present.

Today: Terrorism is still a part of British life, with random bombings remaining a principle means of the Irish Republican Army's method of warfare.

1605: Tobacco, a late sixteenth-century export to England, was the recent subject of a pamphlet published by James I, in which the king referred to the habit as dirty and unhealthy. He will change his mind in 1612, when the Virginia tobacco trade adds significant wealth to his coffers. The desire for wealth easily eclipses honor and duty.

Today: Tobacco continues to be a subject of much controversy. While the United States government pursues settlements with tobacco companies, the government collects huge revenues in taxes on tobacco, which it uses to subsidize tobacco growers.

1605: The forests of England have been severely diminished for several years, and imports of wood continue to escalate in price, thus contributing to inflation and economic hardship and to peasant unrest.

Today: The queen has been under increasing pressure to reduce her expenses and the cost of maintaining the royal presence. In response, she has agreed to pay taxes and to cover many of the expenses previously paid through taxation of the public.

1605: The plague continues to kill many in England, although the death toll is not as severe as two years earlier. A significant contributor to the reoccurrence of plague is the crowding and poverty of London, caused in large part by the forcing of peasants from the country and into the city.

Today: The plague still continues to threaten lives, but in smaller number. A more significant plague is to be found in HIV infections, which in spite of promising treatments, continues to infect many new victims each year.

1605: The English continue their exploration of the Americas, with the voyage of explorer George Waymouth, who lands off the coast of North America, an area he will call Nanticut.

Today: After nearly three hundred years of colonization, the English no longer seek to discover and colonize new lands, and are more focused on solving the social problems of their own country.

Media Adaptations

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Industrial Cinematográfica produced a Spanish version of Volpone, entitled Tiburón, in 1933. The film is distributed through Empressa (USA).

Ile de France Films produced a version of Volpone in 1940. The film has been distributed through A. Z. Distribution in France.

United Artists produced a version of Volpone, entitled The Honey Pot, in 1967.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Ford, Boris, ed., Seventeenth-Century Britain, Vol. 4, The Cambridge Cultural History of Britain, (Series), Cambridge, 1989. This book provides an easy way to understand the history of England in the seventeenth century. The book is divided into separate sections on literature, art, and music. An introductory section provides a historical context.

Herford, C. H., Percy Simpson and Evelyn Simpson, eds., Ben Jonson, Oxford, 1925-1952. This eleven-volume work includes a biography of Jonson and introductions to each of the plays. This text of the plays is a reprint of the 1616 folio that Jonson printed. There is also some information about the public's reception of the plays and a great deal of information dealing with almost any aspect of Jonson's life or work.

Hill, Christopher, The Century of Revolution 1603-1714, Norton, 1961. Hill is a well-known author of books which examine the cultural and historical background of English Renaissance literature. Hill has provided an well-organized examination of the economic, religious, and political issues of the seventeenth century. The events that led up to the English Revolution, the Revolution, and the Restoration that followed were crucial incidents that shaped the literature of this period and that which followed.

Hirsh, James E., ed., New Perspectives on Ben Jonson, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997. Hirsh has compiled a collection of essays on Jonson's work that reveals many of the current scholarly approaches to examining Jonson's texts.

Kay, David W., Ben Jonson: A Literary Life, St. Martin's Press, 1995. Kay has provided a concise biography of Jonson's life, which also explores the influences of Jonson's early life, his presence at court, and his relationships with other Renaissance playwrights.

Maclean, Hugh, ed., Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets, Norton, 1974. This text provides a good selection of Jonson's poetry. Because a selection of the poetry of Jonson's contemporaries is also included, Maclean offers readers an easy way to study and compare the poetry of the period.

Sanders, Julie, ed., Refashioning Ben Johnson: Gender Politics and the Jonsonian Canon, St. Martin's Press, 1998. This text contains a collection of essays by scholars in an examination of Jonson's work within their historical and political context.


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Barish, Jonas A. “The Double Plot in Volpone.” In Ben Jonson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jonas A. Barish. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Analyzes the play’s structure to defend the relevance of the subplot concerning Sir Politic and Lady Politic Would-Be, which he sees as a caricature of the main plot.

Cave, Richard Allen. Ben Jonson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Devotes a chapter of analysis to the play’s plot, themes, and characters. Includes some discussion of the play’s production history.

Dessen, Alan C. Jonson’s Moral Comedy. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971. Dessen devotes one chapter to a discussion of Volpone, which he sees as pivotal, marking a shift in Jonson’s perceptions away from the influences of the old morality plays such as Everyman and toward a satiric comedy that examines the moral implications of human failings.

Miles, Rosalind. Ben Jonson: His Craft and Art. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1990. Discusses Volpone with particular attention to the techniques of Jonson’s satire, noting that nothing is exempt from his dark vision of human beings as jungle animals, quick to prey on one another.

Summers, Claude J., and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Ben Jonson. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A general introduction to Jonson and his work. Includes a discussion of Volpone that concentrates on the play’s satiric themes and structure.


Critical Essays