What vision of morality and justice is presented in Ben Jonson's Volpone?

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In Ben Jonson's Volpone, morality and justice are presented through a comedic lens that reflects the corrupt society of Jacobean London. Jonson's characters, driven by greed and deceit, are ultimately subjected to poetic justice. For example, the manipulative Mosca and the greedy Volpone receive harsh punishments for their actions. Jonson's vision of justice is thus a form of poetic justice, where characters reap what they sow. The play, while showcasing immoral behavior, ultimately supports conventional morality as the wrongdoers are punished.

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Ben Jonson sets the tone for Volpone; Or, The Fox in his "Dedication" to the play:

wherein I have laboured...to reduce not only the ancient forms, but manners of the scene, the easiness, the propriety, the innocence, and last, the doctrine, which is the principal end of poesie, to inform men in the best reason of living.

In other words, Jonson intended to write a morality play, in the "ancient" sense, derived from classic Greek tragic plays (and not unmindful of medieval morality plays)—plays that were written to teach a moral lesson to the audience. Rather than write a tragic play in "the ancient form," however, Jonson writes his morality play in the form of a comedy (a form that Aristotle found far inferior to Greek tragedy) and which the leaders of the medieval Church certainly frowned upon.

In Poetics, Aristotle writes that comedy imitates "the action of men worse than ourselves" and that comic plays lack pathos (suffering) through which the audience can experience catharsis (i.e., an emotional release of pity and fear at the suffering of the tragic hero). Aristotle conceded, however, that a comic play can teach a moral lesson, and Jonson addresses this issue in the "Prologue" of the play:

In all his poems still hath been this measure,
To mix profit with your pleasure.

Jonson's purpose in writing Volpone was to expose the immorality, greed, and corruption of Jacobean London. He hoped to enlighten and educate his audience about the corruption while at the same time entertain them. Jonson's idea of justice is poetic justice—the "tables are turned"—and characters reap the punishment they deserve. What they did to others happens to themselves.

Voltore is representative of the corrupt Venetian justice system. He personifies hypocrisy and deceit, and Jonson uses him to show that the people in a society who should be the most trustworthy can often be the most corrupt. The ruthless deceiver Voltore is deceived by the even more ruthless and malicious Mosca, banished from Venice, and sent to the monastery of San Spirito.

Mosca is a master manipulator, overconfident and greedy, who manipulates Volpone. Mosca underestimates Volpone and is, in turn, manipulated by him. Mosca is exposed for who and what he is, dragged out to be whipped, and then sent to row in the galleys for the rest of his life for acting as Volpone's trickster.

Volpone's money is confiscated and given to a hospital for incurables, and Volpone is sent to prison to suffer the same illnesses he feigned to cheat people out of their money:

AVOCATORI, 1:
And, since the most was gotten by imposture,
By feigning lame, gout, palsy, and such diseases,
Thou art to lie in prison, cramp'd with irons,
Till thou be'st sick, and lame indeed.

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The amoral environment in which Ben Jonson’s characters enact their shady deals for their own selfish gratification undergirds a vision of humanity that often seems totally bleak. The premise of the play, to fool all and sundry into bribing Volpone for his future legacy, bears out such a dismal worldview. But not only do Volpone and his wily servant Mosca try to trick everyone else, the others are simultaneously developing their own, equally reprehensible schemes to defraud him. Turnabout is always fair play in Jonson’s world.

Part of the audience’s enjoyment derives from watching these devious exploits, but another part comes from the expectation that the worst offenders will receive their come-uppance, in the classic theme of the trickster tricked. Jonson’s play does, at bottom, support conventional morality but has a lot of fun playing with bad behavior along the way.

Justice, in the formal sense of a court and judge, plays a role in the play’s resolution. Following a complicated set of plot twists involving adultery, sexual assault, and lewdness, Celia and Bonario—both totally innocent—are charged and taken to court. Once the deceptions are exposed, the duplicitous Mosca in turned is charged and must defend himself before the judge, where Volpone removes his disguise and confesses his plot.

The judge imposes sentences that are harsh and, to some extent, appropriate: Mosca will be whipped and sentenced to the galleys, while Volpone must give his fortune to charity, as well as serve time in prison. Thus, Jonson ties up the story’s ends and satisfies the audience’s desire to see evil-doers punished.

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In depicting these characters, acting inside their “humours,” Jonson is subtlety contending that despite any “foxiness” of humans, Nature will put things right, because one’s vices will eventually cause the character’s downfall.  The greedy character Volpone, for all his cleverness, cannot escape his own vice.  This is the major “lesson” in all of Jonson’s “humour” plays, probably brought on by Jonson’s familiarity with the classics (Horace), in which the “gods” make human imbalances balanced again.  While dramatizing universal imperfections in all mankind, Jonson is at the same time making critical comments on his own (17th century) society, and many of his characters are recognizable portraits (at least in his eyes, but also in the eyes of his audience and fellow-playwrights) of his contemporaries.  His “vision of morality and Justice” in this play and throughout his canon is one of self-corrective Nature.  Just as Corvino’s greed eventually makes him the victim of Volpone’s ruse, so the other characters are eventually exposed (Mosca here is an outward symbol of the small, irritating truth that will eventually bring human tricksters to their just ends.)  That Jonson put his comedy in Venice lends some “distance” to the real exposure of his peers’ shortcomings.

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