How significant is the subplot in Volpone?

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One could argue that the subplot of Ben Jonson's Volpone lies in its existence as comic relief. Typically, comic relief, something used by many Elizabethan playwrights (like Shakespeare), is used to lighten the mood of a play (in one scene). Typically, the action has been revolving around sinister actions, deceit, and/or death, and comic relief allows the reader or viewer to take an emotional break from the seriousness of what is going on.

Prior to the introduction of the subplot, the play focuses upon Volpone's dishonest actions in amassing his fortunes. His latest con is convincing others that he is extremely ill in order to have extravagant gifts bestowed upon him.

The subplot happens in the following act—act 2. It is here that readers/viewers meet some of the secondary characters. For some, the second act illuminates the corruptible nature of society as a whole. Given that the vices of mankind are, essentially, split up between numerous different characters, their "flaws" do not seem as damning as Volpone's (since he possesses many). Instead, we are allowed to find humor in the behaviors of these characters because they seem to be more of a character flaw than anything.

We are not necessarily supposed to like the characters, but they seem to be far less intrusive and sinful as Volpone. Given this, many find that as the scene plays out, a little humor lightens the overall mood.

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Like much Elizabethan drama (King Lear being a prime example) the subplot of Volpone was quite important. The subplot often reintroduces themes previously addressed and casts them in a new light, allowing the audience to reflect on their importance.

Things are a bit different in Johnson's play, as typically main characters in the earlier portions are also involved in the subplot: not so here. In Act II's introduction of the subplot, the audience is introduced to Sir Politic, Lady Politic and Peregrine. These now-key players have had almost nothing to do with the earlier Act.

One thing the two acts do have in common is the emphasis on gullibility and greed. The subplot also satirizes vanity. Without the subplot, these vices may not have been as fully realized, for one bounces off the other and reflects, like a mirror, brightly lit and showing every flaw.

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