31 August 2014


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.

03 August 2014

Mother and Motherland

My next two columns for The Sunday Guardian are a two-part essay on Volumnia from Shakespeare's Coriolanus. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

In my arguments against Freudian interpretations of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude, I always bring up another complex mother-son dynamic from Shakespeare: Coriolanus and Volumnia. In Coriolanus is a tragic hero almost entirely in the hands of his mother. The play presents an archetypal case for Freudian analysis. Coriolanus has been brought up by his mother and has been trained to be a warrior with honour and fortitude – except where his mother is concerned. Volumnia teaches her son to stand up to anyone but herself. He is, from the very beginning, at his mother’s mercy. Volumnia lives vicariously through her son’s exploits, thrilling to the dangers he is caught in and the injuries that are done to him. In fact, she even goes so far as to say, ‘O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for’t’ when Coriolanus returns from war, bloody and injured.

For Volumnia, there is glory only in war and grace only in victory. Many reasons can be cited for Volumnia’s attitude: her desire to see her son as glorious as his father, her own need to go into battle and command an army, her desire to serve her country by giving her men up to it and perhaps a need to control and dominate the people around her. But looking specifically at her motivation when she ruins her son’s plans of revenge, it seems as though she is almost entirely driven by patriotism and the loyalty she feels to Rome. Her actions are as powerful a sacrifice for her country as any. In destroying her son, Volumnia saves her country.

When Volumnia hears that Coriolanus has joined forces with Aufidius and is marching against Rome, she must be aware that, in some ways, she is the cause: it was she who brought him up with a fierce pride that would retaliate when wounded; it was she who instilled in him a misplaced sense of honour; it was she who made him believe he was destined for greatness. When Rome turns its back on Coriolanus, all his mother’s lessons drive him to a violent vengeance that would ruin the country that she loves. Volumnia knows that she is not just the cause – she is also the only solution.

Coriolanus is arrogant and intolerant, but it is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus who is so. Shakespeare amends freely from his sources, Plutarch and Livy, in writing about Coriolanus’ march against Rome with Aufidius. Plutarch’s Coriolanus returns to Rome with a carefully plotted plan to massacre the Plebeians and forge a bond with the Patricians, i.e., not so arrogant that he wishes to destroy the Patricians, but rather so entrenched in his roots that he wishes to rejoin them. No such return to roots is suggested in Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus returns with one objective: to wipe everyone out of Rome. He determines to sever all ties with the Patricians and anything to do with his earlier life. Thus it is that when he falls prey to familial bonds, his capitulation seems all the more wretched.

Coriolanus’ conflict with himself has one obvious resolution. Coriolanus knew this even before Volumnia made her demands. When she enters, he says: ‘Desire not / T’allay my rages and revenges with / Your colder reasons’. Even as he says this, Coriolanus knows that this is exactly what Volumnia will ask and exactly what he must give her.

Volumnia, for her part, comes well-prepared for the showdown. She knows what arguments she must use to win him over. She callously uses Coriolanus’ son and wife as part of her rhetoric. She calls upon her country to evoke a sense of patriotism in him. She accuses him of not caring about his son, his wife or his mother. Volumnia knows, probably better than anyone else, that Coriolanus loves, and loves deeply, his family. She is unashamed to use that fact in her favour. By kneeling before him and begging, she further embarrasses him and drives him to acquiesce to her wishes. Indeed, she does everything in her power to make him feel guilty about avenging his dishonour. Volumnia knows exactly how to push the right buttons with her son.

I go back to Coriolanus as a political text frequently. For me, no work of Shakespeare describes the politics of our lives as well as this one does. Leaders are nurtured by this country the way Coriolanus is nurtured by Volumnia: they are taught to be glorious, to be ambitious, to be self-righteous. They are reared to be heroes and leaders; aggression becomes their grammar, polemic becomes their style.

And that’s when we have painted ourselves into a corner. When things go wrong, they wreak havoc and chase avengement. Volumnia shows her real strength when she chooses her country over her son. He is her Frankenstein’s monster, and she quietly destroys him as easily as she created him, just as we must destroy the monsters we create.

In writing about Gertrude and Volumnia, powerful mother figures from Shakespeare’s canon, I realized how underrepresented older women are in the Renaissance stage. Protestant sexual discourse in the form of treatises and tracts show the lack of authority of maternal figures. Religious texts routinely undermine the role of the mother within the household. Another reason is the potential representational problem of fully grown women being portrayed by boys onstage at a time when women were not allowed to perform in plays. In such a scenario, Volumnia and Gertrude become especially important, considering the powerful impact they have on the world around them and how profoundly they alter destiny.

Shakespeare creates, through Volumnia and Gertrude, mother figures who are extremely different, but who both care very deeply about their sons. More than his other mother characters, such as Lady Macbeth, Tamora, Lady Capulet, Mistress Page etc., Volumnia and Gertrude are prominent because of the altering effect that they have on their sons and, therefore, the plays themselves. More specifically, when one looks at Hamlet and Coriolanus as plays about mother-son relationships, Volumnia emerges as the much stronger character. Gertrude is sensual, while Volumnia is matronly; Gertrude achieves her effects indirectly and through manipulation, while Volumnia’s approach is more direct and through commands – although she resorts to pleas in her final scene with her son; Gertrude ultimately fails because of her own weakness for her son, while Volumnia ultimately succeeds because of her son’s weakness for her. Despite these dissimilarities, however, Gertrude and Volumnia unite as mothers who seek to dictate – or suffocate, sometimes – their sons.

Volumnia remains, for me, Shakespeare’s strongest female character. This doesn’t necessarily imply that she is admirable or even good, but she is still incredibly, unforgettably important. Female leaders in our country still liken themselves to mothers - some go so far as to style their political sobriquets thus – and Volumnia is the very embodiment of the dominant influence of the maternal figure in the political space.

I’m always amazed at the calm with which Volumnia is capable of making sacrifices. For one thing, she is too intelligent to not have foreseen her son’s death. Yet, knowing this, she asks for Rome to be forgiven anyway. Of course, she had made it clear much earlier in a conversation with Valeria that she was willing to sacrifice her husband and son to war for her country. What makes this particular gesture surprising is that she has not sacrificed her son to an honourable death in battle; with Coriolanus’ life, she sacrifices pride and honour and sends him to a humiliating defeat.

In his desire to escape the control of his mother, Coriolanus fantasises about a seemingly impossible situation in which he is in control of her. When Volumnia begs her son for mercy to Rome and kneels before him, has fantasy comes eerily to life and this terrifies Coriolanus. He is aware that the situation goes against nature, but his words indicate that he has no choice but to listen to her: after all, that is what he has done his whole life. He says: ‘Behold, the heavens do ope, / The gods look down, and this unnatural scene / They laugh at.’

A sense of irony exists here: Coriolanus knows that he should not have to obey his mother, that no one would think any less of him if he didn’t, and yet he does. The conflict within him is obvious. Both Coriolanus and Volumnia know what will ultimately happen and that there is hardly any purpose to the conflict. Coriolanus does not fight his need to listen to Volumnia; what he fights, rather, is his own instinct, which is to not give up. When the two instincts – to obey his mother and to be resolute – come into conflict, the former wins.

One is left to wonder, at the end of the play, how Volumnia deals with the loss of her son. Does she weep the loss? Or does she, instead, triumph in the victory she has won once more for her country? Volumnia probably took great pride in every triumphant march that her husband or son led into Rome; she probably – and quite rightly – felt a secret sense of accomplishment and responsibility for each of those victories. And surely she will do the same when young Martius grows up to be a soldier. So when Coriolanus is killed, Volumnia, knowing fully well her own role in the death, must have felt pride more than remorse and gratification more than anger. Volumnia has won.