By Ben Jonson
Volpone was first performed in 1606 by the King’s Men at the Globe Theatre. The play is not confined merely to stupidity or pompous silliness as were many of the earlier comedies, but includes crimes, so that, as Coleridge remarks, “there is no goodness of heart in any of the prominent characters.” Nevertheless, Volpone restored Jonson’s popularity, which had been temporarily dimmed by the poor reception accorded Sejanus. The latter play had taught Jonson the necessity of a closely knit plot while the concept of legacy hunting, so popular in Roman literature, had impressed him as fertile ground for a play.
Volpone is a story of greed and the nature of men to behave like animals. The characters of the protagonists are all linked with animals of the medieval fableaux. Volpone is the fox, cunning and treacherous; Voltore the vulture (and lawyer), circling the ‘dying’ Volpone. Corbaccio is the crow, a carrion feeder, while Corvino is the raven, a bird associated with death, opportunistic theft and corruption.
From the opening scene when Volpone greets the dawn and worships his treasures, equating gold with the sun, both religious and erotic language are perverted to represent the corruption of the main characters. In essence they have abandoned traditional moral values in the pursuit of material wealth. It is these flaws that lead to their inevitable downfall and humiliation at the end of the play.
The action of the play occurs in Venice; affluent, glittering and yet corrupt. For many Elizabethans, Italy was the land of villainy and only in the sub-plot does Jonson introduce England in the persons of Sir Politic Would-Be and his wife. The main plot centres on Volpone, an elderly Venetian miser, and his servant, Mosca, aptly titled the parasite. Volpone pretends that he is dying while Mosca convinces Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino that each of them is to be Volpone’s sole heir. To make sure that Volpone continues to favour them, these false friends bring him lavish gifts which he and Mosca gleefully accept.
Eventually Volpone’s desires turn to the possession of Corvino’s wife, Celia. In one of the most blackly comic scenes of the play, she is led like a sacrificial lamb to Volpone’s bed chamber as a gift. Only the heroism of Bonario, Corbaccio’s son and heir, saves her honour. Eventually all of the men have their day in court, where disguise and lies are brilliantly employed. Ultimately, however, truth and justice prevail and all ends well…except for those whose ignorance, stupidity and moral corruption merits they receive a suitable punishment!
Ben Jonson was born in 1572 and educated at Westminster School. After a brief stint in the army, serving in Flanders, he returned to England and married Anne Lewis in 1594. He joined the theatrical company of Philip Henslowe in London as an actor and playwright on or before 1597, the same year he was imprisoned for his involvement in a satire entitled The Isle of Dogs, declared seditious by the authorities. The following year Jonson killed a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel in the Fields at Shoreditch and was tried at The Old Bailey for murder. He escaped the gallows only by pleading benefit of clergy. Upon his release he had to forfeit all his possessions, and received a felon’s brand on his thumb.
Jonson’s second known play, Every Man in His Humour, was performed in 1598 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe with William Shakespeare in the cast. Jonson became a celebrity, and there was a brief fashion for ‘humours’ comedy, a kind of topical comedy involving eccentric characters, each of whom represented a temperament, or humour, of humanity. A later play, the classical tragedy Sejanus, His Fall (1603), based on Roman history, again got Jonson into trouble with the authorities. He was called before the Privy Council on charges of treason. A year later he was again briefly imprisoned for controversial views voiced in Eastward Ho (1604).
In 1605, Jonson began to write masques for the entertainment of the court and seems to have been appointed Court Poet shortly after. The masques displayed his erudition, wit, and versatility and contained some of his best lyric poetry. Masque of Blacknesse (1605) was the first in a series of collaborations with Inigo Jones, noted English architect and set designer. These visually elaborate productions confirmed Jonson’s standing as the foremost writer of masques in the Jacobean era.
Jonson’s enduring reputation, however, rests on the comedies written between 1605 and 1614. The first of these, Volpone, or The Fox (performed in 1605-1606, first published in 1607) is often regarded as his masterpiece. The play, though set in Venice, directs its scrutiny on the rising merchant classes of Jacobean London. The following plays, Epicoene: or, The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614) are all peopled with dupes and those who deceive them. In 1616 he was appointed as poet laureate.
Despite numerous failures and his frequent feuds, Jonson was the dean and the leading wit of the group of writers who gathered at the Mermaid Tavern in the Cheapside district of London. These young poets, influenced by Jonson, were the self-styled Cavalier poets, a group which included, among others, Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace.
Jonson was appointed City Chronologer of London in 1628, the same year in which he suffered a severe stroke. His loyal friends kept him company in his final years and attended the King provided him some financial comfort. Jonson died on August 6, 1637 and was buried in Westminster Abbey under a plain slab on which was later carved the words, “O Rare Ben Jonson!” His admirers and friends contributed to the collection of memorial elegies, Jonsonus virbius, published in 1638. Jonson’s last play, Sad Shepherd’s Tale, was left unfinished at his death and published posthumously in 1641.
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