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Volpone and Jonson: A Study in Contradictions

By Ace G. Pilkington
From Insights, 1991

 

Ben Jonson, rival and friend of Shakespeare, was a study in contradictions. Acknowledged as poet laureate and founder of a "school" of poets who called themselves the "Sons of Ben," he preached writing according to rules, including the so-called classical (or Aristotelian) unities. As Jonson says of himself in the Prologue to Volpone, "The laws of time, place, persons he observeth." He was the careful kind of poet who wrote out what he meant to say in prose and then "translated" it into verse.

In his life, on the other hand, he was anything but controlled. As a soldier in Flanders, he fought single-handed with an enemy in full view of the two armies, and killed him. Back in England, he refused to follow his stepfather's profession of bricklayer, becoming instead an actor and playwright. He soon got into trouble: he was thrown into prison as the co-author of a supposedly seditious play called The Isle of Dogs, and he fought a duel with a fellow actor, killing him and escaping the hangman's rope only by pleading the old law of "benefit of clergy." This meant that he had to prove knowledge of Latin, something which in earlier times would have indicated he was a priest and therefore beyond the reach of the regular law. Jonson was branded on the thumb as a felon to prevent his using the "benefit of clergy" defense ever again. His quarrels with actors, audiences, and other writers continued throughout his career, but henceforth he fought with a pen and not a sword.

Volpone is Ben Jonson's most popular play, and in some ways it was very much like its author, carefully controlled in principal but violent and quarrelsome in the message it sends. The first of Jonson's works to please both the people and his own precise palate had been Every Man in His Humour, a play that used the then-accepted medical idea that each person is dominated by a "humour" or prevailing temperament.

This humour was supposed, in turn, to be the result of an excess of one of four bodily fluids blood, choler, melancholy, or phlegm. Thus, in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio warns Kate against the eating of meat, "For in engenders choler, planteth anger" (IV.i.l60). And in Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare laughs at the whole idea (and perhaps at his friend Ben) with the character Nym, who cannot say two sentences without using the word "humour," no matter how nonsensical it may be in the context.
However, for Jonson, the "humour" was just the sort of structure on which to build character. And in Volpone he hits upon a similar scheme, reaching back into the middle ages for a "beast fable" and classifying his characters as birds or beasts. So, Volpone is a fox; Mosca, a fly; Voltore, a vulture; Corbaccio, a raven; Corvino, a crow; Sir Politic Would-Be (Pol), a parrot; Peregrine, a falcon, and so forth.

The message Ben Jonson sends is, nevertheless, no respecter of rules or rulers. His characters are human in shape, but beasts in their behavior. The exotic city of Venice is a place of greed, lust, and corruption, where gold is indeed (as Volpone says) "the world's soul" (I.i.3). Jonson was striking at the new spirit of acquisitiveness abroad in the Renaissance, the failing of the old feudal certainties before the rising middle-class merchants who made money and remade themselves simultaneously. And there is a warning for the city of London in Jonson's magical, wicked picture of Venice. Jonson warns in Volpone, a city comedy about all cities, that Londoners wishing for Venice's sophistication may have Venice's degradation as well if, in fact, they do not have it already.

Still, there is one last contradiction in Jonson and his most popular play: while he condemns Volpone and the other rogues, while he attacks their vices, he also loves their cleverness and their plots, making from them his own devices and, in his own cleverness, his best, most stage-worthy plot.


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