Volpone brilliantly exemplifies Jonson’s unique jungle vision, with its self-contained world composed entirely of predators and prey. His contempt for mercenary motivation and capitalistic enterprise is blistering; the commanding indictment of the vicious habits of the new acquisitive society shows Jonson’s forward leap in terms of intellectual and analytical maturity. The play demonstrates throughout Jonson’s new-found ability to use the grim stuff of human wickedness and weakness, material not of a comic nature in itself, as the basis of satiric comedy. Obsessional greed, lust, the savage disregard of all other human beings and even eventually of personal survival—these are hardly funny, but Jonson makes them so. Yet never does he diminish the power of his portrayal of these ruthless materialists who embody “Appetite, the universal wolf.”
—Rosalind Miles, Ben Jonson: His Craft and Art
With Volpone, William Shakespeare had, for the first time since the death of Christopher Marlowe, a serious dramatic rival, and Elizabethan drama had an important alternative method and material. The master of the urban satirical comedy of manners, Ben Jonson brought raw and unflattering contemporary life within dramatic range and harnessed disparate, rowdy Elizabethan life to the classically derived rules of dramatic construction that would shape neoclassical theatrical ideals for the next two centuries. Jonson has been fated to be forever overshadowed by Shakespeare’s greater genius, to be, in John Dryden’s estimation, compared to the Bard, admired rather than loved. But in the history of English drama only Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw have contributed more plays to the permanent national repertory than Jon-son did. It was Jonson who insisted that drama was a form of poetry, the noblest and profoundest human expression. It was Jonson, more than any other English dramatist, who helped to establish plays as literature, capable of the most serious inquiry into human nature and social life. Shakespeare is inimitable; however, it can be argued, more playwrights claim their descent as a “son of Ben.”
A comparison between Jonson and Shakespeare, though irresistible and often misleading, is still instructive in underscoring their different relation-ships to the theater and dramatic practice. Born in 1572 or 1573, almost a decade after Shakespeare, Jonson was part of the next generation of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists who had Shakespeare’s works and the drama that he pioneered to imitate, modify, and transform. Both Shakespeare and Jonson came from similar lower-middle-class backgrounds, but Shakespeare was a countryman, who drew extensively on his love and familiarity with rural life, while Jonson was a Londoner, whose arena and references were predominantly urban. Jonson was the son of a minister who died a month before his birth. His widowed mother married a bricklayer, and Jonson was raised near Westminster where he enrolled at the prestigious Westminster School located in the precinct of the abbey. He studied under the age’s greatest classicist and antiquarian, William Camden, whom Jonson would later credit for “All that I am in arts, all that I know.” Camden would spark Jonson’s lifelong devotion to classical literature, his love of scholarship, and his self-consciously academic approach to his writing and aspirations. Jonson, in contrast to Shakespeare’s purported “little Latin and less Greek,” would proudly assert that “he was better Versed & knew more in Greek and Latin, than all the Poets in England.” It was at Westminster that Jonson was introduced to drama in annual performances mounted by its scholars. When he left Westminster, he did not, as might have been expected, matriculate at Oxford or Cambridge. (He would later express his gratitude that Volpone was favorably regarded at “The Two Famous Universities” and dedicated the published play to them.) Instead he apprenticed as a bricklayer, becoming a journeyman by 1598. The premature end of Jonson’s formal education and his working-class background no doubt made him excessively proud and protective of his scholarly attainments and anxious that his writing should be measured against the revered classical standards. Jonson married unhappily, losing both his children to early illness, fought as a volunteer foot soldier against the Spanish in the Netherlands, and began his career as a playwright, like Shakespeare, after first acting in one of London’s professional theater companies. He would never, however, like Shakespeare, become a full partner of any playing company as a resident actor or writer. He took instead an independent line to protect his scholarly and poetic aspirations and to become more than a dramatic professional. Jonson would complain about “the lothed stage” that catered to popular tastes that were “not meant for thee, less, thou for them.”
Jonson’s debut as a playwright was inauspicious. In 1597 he completed a topical satire by Thomas Nashe, The Isle of Dogs, and was imprisoned for several weeks for sedition for acting in and having coauthored it. After his release Jonson continued to collaborate on a number of plays (now lost) and produced his first solo effort, The Case Is Altered (1598), a comedy derived from Plautus. It was followed by Everyman in His Humour (1598) and Everyman out of His Humour (1599), performed by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which established Jonson as a coming playwright. Around the time of the debut of Everyman in His Humour Jonson killed a young actor in a duel and was again imprisoned, avoiding execution by pleading the ancient benefit of clergy because he could read. When James I came to the throne in 1603, Jonson won favor and patronage as the chief author of court masques and entertainments, despite being imprisoned for supposed slights to the king and the Scots in 1605 for the comedy Eastward Ho! Following Jonson’s failure with the tragedy Sejanus, which was hissed off the Globe Theatre stage in 1603, Jonson returned to stage comedy with Volpone, his first undisputed masterpiece, which was performed to great acclaim at the Globe in 1606. Volpone signaled a new kind of moral comedy and demonstrated Jonson’s mature style and construction that joined his admired classical models to the popular traditions of English drama. Volpone initiated a string of comic masterworks, including Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614), and The Devil Is an Ass (1616).
Jonson articulated his break with the theater of his day in his prologue to the revised version of Everyman in His Humour, declaring his allegiance as a comic writer to “deedes, and language, such as men doe use,” and to the presentation of an “Image of the times,” embodied in ordinary characters and everyday circumstances—“with humane follies, not with crimes.” He criticized contemporary dramatists for “all license of offence to God and man” for their improbable plots that relied on accidents, coincidences, and the stale contrivances of mistaken and concealed identities, for their indecorous mixture of comedy, pathos, and tragedy and violations of the unities of time, place, and action in language inappropriate to the speaker and marred by artificial sentiment and bombast. Volpone, or The Fox clearly shows Jonson’s response. Instead of the conventional romantic intrigue that Shakespeare had relied on in his comedies, Jonson submits to comic ridicule the “ragged follies of the time.” Blending the fortune-hunting plot and character types of Roman comedies with native allegorical elements of the morality play and the beast fable, Jonson ingeniously arranges variations on the theme of human greed. At the center of the play is Volpone, the fox, a Renaissance Venetian schemer, and Mosca (the fly), his servant, who extort riches from those courting Volpone’s favor as Volpone pretends to be a dying man in need of an heir. As the play opens Volpone delivers an invocation to gold that sets the play’s theme of avarice:
Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine, that I may see my saint.
Hail the world’s soul, and mine! More glad than is
The teeming earth to see the longed-for sun
. . . O thou son of Sol,
But brighter than thy father, let me kiss,
With adoration, thee, and every relic
Of sacred treasure in this blessed room . . .
Riches, the dumb god, that gives all men tongues,
That canst do nought, and yet mak’st men do all things;
The price of souls; even hell, with thee to boot,
Is made worth heaven. Thou art virtue, fame,
Honor and all things else. Who can get thee,
He shall be noble, valiant, honest, wise—
Volpone’s morning devotional—his sacrilegious worshipping at a golden shrine from which all blessings are derived—sets the tone for the gulling of three birds of prey, snared by their own cupidity. The lawyer Voltore (vulture), the aging gentleman Corbaccio (crow), and the merchant Corvino (raven). The allegorical arrangement recalls the medieval beast fable in which a fox feigns death to catch and eat the carrion birds but with the appetite for food here replaced by a craving for gold. Each arrives with presents and is assured in turn that he is to be Volpone’s choice to inherit his fortune if their gifts continue to fi nd favor with him. Corbaccio is advised to disinherit his son and leave his fortune to Volpone; while Corvino, whose beautiful and virtuous young wife Volpone lusts after, is to deliver Celia to the supposed decrepit and impotent Volpone’s bed for medicinal purposes. Compared to the slow-witted, unimaginative prey, Volpone and Mosca tower above them as ingenious, consummate actors, totally adaptable to their audience, totally consumed by their parts, with a zest for deception and intrigue that will be their eventual undoing. To relieve and expand the play’s satirical attack on greed, Jonson introduces the foolish Sir Politic Would-Be and his wife, English travelers whose inflated self-regard shows how easily fools can be manipulated by self-centered delusions. What is striking about Jonson’s arrangement here is his centering the play on a comic villain and his parasite. While Elizabethan tragedies featuring monstrous characters had been common since Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, few Elizabethan comedies had ever dared such a complete capitulation to the villainous hero and his sidekick. Volpone presents a world inhabited exclusively by knaves, gulls, and the innocent victims of both. Jonson mounts his satiric argument here indirectly, not by opposing the vices and moral failings of his characters by the counter forces of good and virtue, but by multiplying and exaggerating through caricature greed, hypocrisy, and self-deception and thereby shaming his audience into rejecting these false values by ridicule. Central to Jonson’s strategy is the notion that the characters’ greed will ensure their own downfall. As Volpone observes, “What a rare punishment / Is avarice to itself.”
The undoing begins as Volpone’s scheming overreaches the deserved entrapment of Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino to severing the natural bonds between father and son and husband and wife to serve his ends. Bonario, Corbaccio’s disinherited son, is on hand to witness Volpone’s reinvigoration as an ardent lover of Celia and prevents Volpone’s rape. What should be the triumph of the innocents, however, quickly turns into an even more sinister victory of the rapacious self-servers. In the trial scene that follows, truth is suborned by lawyer Voltore who casts Celia and Bonario as foul schemers, lewd adulterers, and heartless victimizers of the innocent Volpone. The four Avocatori who judge the case are incapable of overcoming their own prejudices, self-satisfaction, and obsequiousness to wealth and rank. Justice is not just blind, it is insensible, and the witty inversion of all under the rubric of appetite appears complete and total.
Volpone celebrates his expected legal triumph by a final display of his power over the gulls who have perjured themselves on his behalf. He pre-tends to be dead and to have left his fortune to Mosca for the sheer enjoyment of seeing how his victims will respond when they learn that they have been deceived. It is finally not greed but pride that brings Volpone down, as Mosca, who shows himself loyal only to money, decides to retain the fortune. To recover it Volpone must reveal the plot and his own deceptions. Voltore withdraws his false testimony as the court reconvenes, and, as it appears he has been bested by Mosca, Volpone throws off his disguise and exposes all, including himself. Truth is finally revealed and order reasserted not by any powerful force of good but by the confession of the play’s chief villain who sacrifices his safety for vengeance. The appropriate punishment is suited to the crimes of each, with the worst reserved for Mosca, who is condemned for life as a galley slave, and Volpone, who is to be imprisoned in chains until he becomes in fact the helpless invalid he pretended to be. One of the Avocatori sanctimoniously intones:
Let all that see these vices thus rewarded,
Take heart, and love study ’em! Mischiefs feed
Like beasts, till they be fat, and then they bleed.
But there is precious little moral reassurance here in the wisdom of authority, in justice, or in the moral force of virtue over the appetites for self-supremacy. Jonson’s bracing and daring comedy, grotesquely and ludicrously magnifying our worst capacities, is turned into a mirror by which we are forced to recognize unflattering and disturbing resemblances. By shifting the focus of comedy from dreamy and delightful wish fulfillment to actuality, Jonson helps establish drama as an instrument for both truth and moral instruction, even as he delights with the skill of his construction and the daringness of his conception.