My next two columns for The Sunday Guardian are a two-part essay on Volpone by Ben Jonson. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.
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.
Someone told me, that Volpone did not sound very much like a comedy at all. I imagine this is true of any work of art taken out of its immediate context. No comedy can be as funny to a future audience as it is to its contemporary audience. And in the case of Jonson’s work, this is particularly true. There is a certain imbalance in his work which does not entirely meet the generic expectations of a comedy. Once again, it could be Jonson’s way of asking the audience to forget the type of comedy they have been conditioned to watching and to transgress the boundaries of labels and genres.
The modern tendency to classify it as a drama, not a comedy, springs from the contemporary trend of humanising villains and providing context for their villainy in order to project sympathy and understanding towards every sort of human being. The play has been sentimentalized to the extent of treating Volpone as a noble and tragic figure. But by creating, in the character of Volpone, any sort of candour, sincerity or tragic misunderstanding, we rob Jonson of one of his greatest desperados.
Jonson also greatly favoured the ancient Greek theory of humours. The theory, which can be traced to ancient times, is that there are four distinct bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. An imbalance of these fluids, or humours, causes a personality disturbance. Although never validated as a psychoanalytical theory, it was frequently referred to in literature and widely championed by Jonson, especially in plays such as Every Man in his Humour and Every Man out of his Humour. Jonson explains in one of his introductions that each humour has its own function: blood makes one excessively optimistic; phlegm makes one excessively cowardly; yellow bile makes one excessively violent; and black bile makes one excessively sad. Jonson’s characters, then, were defined by the proportions of their bodily humours.
While Volpone could fall under the category of dark or black comedy, there is still an aspect particularly disturbing about Jonson’s sardonic approach to the genre, his depiction of wantonness and his ruthless verdict. Even if we could confidently categorise most part the play as a comedy, there is still the debatable conclusion of the play. On the one hand, the ending could provide satisfaction that good has won and that evil has been punished; on the other hand, it could leave a certain distasteful atmosphere, to know that the protagonist has been dealt with most brutally.
Although Volpone’s undoing satisfies the Elizabethan taste for seeing the cheater cheated, the harsh sentences meted out by the court darken the comic tone. Volpone’s appeal in the epilogue for the audience to distinguish between the legal punishment he deserves as a character and the delight he has given them as an actor does not fully right the balance, but the play’s rich ironies have kept it on stage continually for four centuries. That the play has been received well through the ages is apparent enough. We can never be fully certain of how exactly the play was received during the Elizabethan age, although we know that it had several successful runs. We can only guess, from this fact, that audiences were enthralled by the novelty of the play, its unashamed crudeness and its unusual humour.
While the question must have been asked even then as to whether the play was a comedy or a tragedy, something in Jonson’s acerbic wit must have made its comic undertone apparent. The milieu then was different, and different jokes were well-received and understood. For example, the Elizabethan audience must have known what we as a modern audience are not always aware of: that the play is a stylistic parody of the doggerel verse used by the early Tudor playwrights whom Jonson loved to mock. Throughout the play, in fact, Jonson mocks all earlier forms of theatre; the Elizabethan audience must have also thoroughly relished the rivalry that existed between the various playwrights of the court, each trying to outdo the other and be the luminary of the new Renaissance that had taken England over.
Certainly a comedy, Volpone is also simultaneously a fable, a morality tale and a satire. Jonson’s plays challenged the audience to examine the impact of a society governed by deceit and subterfuge. His strength lay in his ability to confront his audience. In his ability to recreate theatrically the contemporary world and identify both general and specific aspects of the human experience, he was opening new ground that would be further explored in the ensuing centuries.