Most Elizabethan theatre audiences had seen and enjoyed Shakespeare's l604 tragedy, Othello, the Moor of Venice. Upon viewing Ben Jonson's l606 comedy, Volpone, or The Foxe, these same audiences might well have noted both similarities and differences in the treatment of material set against the background of a city noted alike for its magnificence and its vice.
In both plays, we meet characters of "rare ingenious knavery." Indeed, Iago, Volpone, and Mosca are uncommonly similar in nature. An elaborate "con game" is practiced in each play through intriguing dramatic inventiveness. However, the focus of Shakespeare's tragedy is upon a noble and heroic figure; the focus of Jonson's comedy is upon a monster of depravity, a genius in crime.
Comparisons between these great plays continues to pale when Jonson's script is held up to scrutiny. Whereas Shakespeare's seventeenth century work in comedy would turn continually toward soft edges, romance, and the pastoral, mixing both the serious and the humorous, Jonson established a reputation as one of the major social satirists of the English dramatic tradition. In fact, Jonson's comedies establish the tradition of social comedy on the English stage. In Volpone, although the satire is ultimately moral, its immediate aim is mostly social or legal. The play unmasks the artificial features of respectability, exposing vice and the manipulations of hypocrites. To his credit, Jonson did not altogether excuse the imperceptiveness of the victims in the play. Jonson's central characters are among the early models of "anti-heroes," a term generally restricted to characters found in Dostoevski, Sartre, or Camus. The specimens dramatized in Volpone are not merely fools, but money-hungry, lustful, morally despicable knaves. Their names immediately suggest their depravity because they are identified with the world of beasts. Thus, the lawyer, Voltore, is named for the vulture, the deaf old Corbaccio for the raven, the violet Corvino for the crow, the parasitical Mosca for the fly, and the sly, scheming Volpone for the wily fox. This kind of deception continues to the purely comic characters of the subplot: the Knight Sir Politic Wouldbe, a wholly gullible social climber, is reduced to Sir Pol, the parrot; his wife, Lady Politic Wouldbe, chatters endlessly in the manner of the parrot; and the traveler, Peregrine, is named for a hunting falcon. Only Celia and Bonario escape animal imagery, but they are morally typed by their names (Celia means heavenly and Bonario means good-natured).
The wicked central character, Volpone, is incapable of either generosity or self-knowledge. He only fails in his greedy aspirations because of the tendency of vice to overreach itself. In the play, the mainly passive, virtuous characters are practically defenseless against scoundrels cloaked in propriety and skilled in legal dodging. The good-natured guardians of the law are dull-witted, and the true innocents, Bonario and Celia, finally escape only because the knaves ensnare themselves. If the laws of the state are vindicated, it is a hollow victory.
The comic ploy of man pretending to be sick was common in drama. (Later, Moliere would use a variation on this theme in his last great comedy, The Imaginary Invalid, produced at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in l989.) Ultimately, the plot of Volpone turns into tricking the trickster. Volpone's pretended illness gathers the gulls around him, waiting for his death and the chance to inherit his considerable wealth. The extremes to which the gulls are willing to go are cruel and unnatural: disinheriting a son and prostituting a wife. The subjects and the language in the play are dark. Gold is not only an object to achieve, but a substitute for God. Also, Volpone emphasizes disease and physical degeneration as a metaphor for moral illness. A seemingly irrelevant academic skit is enacted by a dwarf, a eunuch, and a hermaphrodite. In disguise, Volpone releases a diatribe aimed as much at burlesquing itinerant quacks as at advancing his designs on Celia. The English travelers are caught in an almost independent farce of their own. In the unraveling of the main plot, Jonson risks anticlimax by launching, as late as the final act, a brilliant new set of complications. Such craft may seem flawed. The fertility of this inventiveness is rich, but not disordered. Volpone, aided by Mosca, ensnares everyone around him. The lesser predators (vulture, raven, crow) are motivated by avarice as they drag along the less guilty, these merely foolish are altogether innocent. Perhaps Sir Politic Would-be, replete with his minor schemes and pretentious information, in some ways stands as a parody of Volpone. The men share equally appropriate justice. At the end of the play, the false sickness of Volpone is converted to real pain and all of his money goes to the incurables, of which, spiritually, he is one.
The play demonstrates a wonderful principle of thematic integration. Jonson relentlessly explores the idea of hypocrisy as the mask of lust and of lust as perversion of human nature. Avarice is everywhere: possessing possessions and being possessed! The perversity and deceptiveness of lust is constantly dramatized by use of tricks and transformations. The themes mix. Volpone's lust for gold leads him to deception and rhetoric well beyond the reach of the victims. Mosca, equally as lustful as Volpone, caters to Volpone's lust for Celia. Mosca thereupon impersonates a mountebank, the symbol of greed and lies. The deformed and mutilated servants of Volpone make sport of greed, hypocrisy, and perversion in order to please their master. Finally, Volpone attempts to transform Celia into a prize possession. This is a major crisis in the turn of Volpone's fortunes. Thereafter his vicious talents diminish and he becomes more and more exposed. By the final scene of the play, almost every character uses the word "possession" until it culminates in a definition: possessed by demons, whereupon final transformations reveal the truth. As a desperate, eleventh hour device, Volpone removes his last disguise in order to pull all the hypocrites down in his own ruin. Virtue is barely saved by the virtuosity of Jonson. Yet, the play is a comedy. While characters are morally convulsive and disturbing, the deceptions and self-deceptions are also theatrically entertaining. Happy are the actors who have the opportunity to create the role of Volpone and Mosca. For example, in the great Guthrie Theatre Company production in Minneapolis in l964, Douglas Campbell performed a riotous Volpone, matched by George Grizzard's Mosca, Lee Richardson's Sir Politic Would-be, and Ken Ruta's Voltore (Mr. Ruta won acclaim as Titus Andronicus in the l990 Utah Shakespeare Festival season). Volpone gets to perform as an invalid, a mountebank, a seducer, and an officer. Mosca continually plays a triple role as "concerned" servant, willing helper of the greedy gulls, and the schemer enjoying his success. Remarkably, so attractive are these schemes in their improvisations and maneuvers, we are repeatedly led by Jonson's skills to side with them against our better judgement! Indeed, we readily give the fox the applause he asks for at the end! And why not, remembering that this is theatre and make-believe. It is entertainment, as well as instructive concerning the foibles of men and women. Thus, again reminding us of Shakespeare, Jonson's brilliant craft captives us and we heed well Volpone's final words: "The seasoning of a play is the applause. / Now, though the Fox be punish'd by the laws, / He yet doth hope, there is no suff'ring due, / For any fact which he hath done 'gainst you; / If there be a censure him; here he doubtful stands. / If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands."