My next column for The Sunday Guardian.
I spend so much time reading and writing about Shakespeare, as most readers of the Renaissance period do, that I forget to set the context, sometimes. Shakespeare wrote at a time when the English stage was just getting accustomed to commericialisation. He was the earliest writer of mass-market appeal, a writer who was as adored by intellectuals as he was by the masses. And of course, he had rivals, foremost among whom was Ben Jonon, who famously referred to him as an ‘upstart crow’ – which also makes for the title of this column. Jonson, though, later went on to swallow his words and refer to Shakespeare as the ‘Soul of the age! / The applause, delight, and wonder of our stage’.
Jonson too was a writer of critical acclaim, well-loved by the court. He was a clever writer and although he is often remembered as one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, his plays are rarely read or performed – with, perhaps, one exception.
Volpone by Ben Jonson is often considered his masterpiece. The play is set in Venice and is centred around Volpone, an elderly, cunning ‘magnifico’, and his latest exploit. Its stark humour exposes qualities of greed, corruption, artificiality and contradiction as perceived by Jonson in Renaissance society. Volpone means fox in Italian. Jonson based his story around medieval and Aesopian tales in which a fox pretends to be dead in order to catch the carrion birds that come to feed on its carcass. Jonson cleverly uses names that mean vulture, raven and crow in Italian for the victims of Volpone the fox, and the one who manages to undo Volpone is called Mosca, meaning fly in Italian. These names are a part of Jonson’s technique in propagating his clinical, physiological and psychological theories of humour. In the comedy, these names are indicative of the inhuman, and often carnal, nature of the characters in the play. The animal imagery emphasises the theme of parasitism in the play, where one life form feeds off another.
The play is generally cathartic in nature: Jonson makes the audience sympathetic towards Volpone and supportive of his evil machinations. Volpone’s enthusiasm is infectious and, through Volpone, the audience is indirectly immoral. In identifying with Volpone’s wickedness, the audience is also able to distance itself from these negative emotions, if not always from the character. Thereby, the audience can be triumphantly free of immoral desires, which is exactly what Aristotle would have wanted. It is Volpone’s immediate and obvious success that is most inviting: when he exults in his own wickedness and the success of his operations, the audience cannot help but celebrate with him. The audience is meant to thoroughly enjoy the debauchery of the play’s eponymous protagonist, one of our earliest anti-heroes.
It is Jonson, however, who has the last laugh when he springs the ending upon an unsuspecting audience. Through the condemnatory conclusion of the play, Jonson, who has thus far manipulated the audience into sympathising with his anti-hero, suddenly makes the audience aware that it has hitherto sided with malevolence and sin.
With such an ending, the audience must first question itself and its own depravity; more importantly, the audience must now estrange itself from the plot of the play and pass judgement on Volpone with an objective eye, thereby assessing Jonson’s own judgement in the play. There is a sense of uncertainty with which an audience must leave any play of Jonson’s. The ending makes the audience conscious of its own collaboration with vice. At the same time, Jonson advocates a certain submission and orthodoxy. Despite the creation of characters of such obvious immorality and decadence, Jonson is both a didactic storyteller and a medium of spreading awareness. Jonson’s plays are acutely aware of the influence they have on the society that Jonson catered to, always couched with morals and messages. This sense conformity is transferred to the sphere of family relations, as in the case of Celia’s loyalty to her husband and Bonario’s loyalty to his father.
While outwardly a non-problematic play with regard to gender controversy, the inward thematic, character-driven nature of Volpone suggests a conformity and adherence to the intellectual and theological morality of the time. The final scene of the play is an example of this adherence in Volpone. In this scene, Jonson is uncompromisingly severe to Volpone and punishes him for his wickedness through the character of Scrutineo (another example of wordplay in Jonson through names). He now asks the audience for an opinion on the judgement of Volpone, thrusting them into a dubious and uncomfortable situation.
Alongside such plays did Shakespeare write brilliant and unusual tales with extraordinary themes. Although originally looked upon with suspicion, it was Shakespeare who survived: so much so that Jonson, Marlowe and the other intellectual elite of his time will have to be remembered now as the other writers of Shakespeare’s time.