home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


19 january 2022

Volpone appeared halfway through Ben Jonson's playwriting career. He had been writing for the public stage for about a decade, and had recently become a premier writer of masques for the court. He'd tried several veins of drama, often mixing classical models with contemporary characters and language; he'd done one Roman history play (Sejanus His Fall) that I remember as somewhat less animated than those by Shakespeare. Volpone is unique, though: a comedy that draws on several learned and popular traditions, transposing them into an urban comedy and then exporting the setting to Venice – a city that also served for two of Shakespeare's greatest plays, even though neither Shakespeare nor Jonson, I think, had ever gone anywhere near Venice.

As a result, Volpone is highly artificial and highly naturalistic at the same time. A cast of characters with the attributes and names of classical fable characters rotate through a complex mechanical plot; but at the same time, the play features lyrical exuberance, satire, great poetry, obscene insult, a famous love song, and a farrago of styles of language and "humors" that goes by faster than you can take in. It has always been Jonson's most successful piece on stage.

As fast as the characters can get on and offstage, the verbal texture of Volpone shifts from the lusciousness of Volpone wooing Celia

See, behold
What thou art queen of; not in expectation,
As I feed others, but possessed and crowned.
See, here, a rope of pearl, and each more orient
Than that the brave Egyptian queen caroused.
Dissolve and drink 'em. See, a carbuncle
May put out both the eyes of our Saint Mark;
A diamond would have bought Lollia Paulina
When she came in like starlight, hid with jewels
That were the spoils of provinces. Take these,
And wear, and lose 'em; yet remains an earring
To purchase them again, and this whole state. (Act 3, Scene 7)
to the proto-Pepysian banality of the diary of Sir Politic Would-Be:
I went and bought two toothpicks, whereof one
I burst immediately in a discourse
With a Dutch merchant 'bout ragion del stato.
From him I went and paid a moccenigo
For piecing my silk stockings; by the way
I cheapened sprats, and at St. Mark's I urined. (Act 4, Scene 1)
The most brilliant language in the world won't get you far if you don't have a vivid plot, but Volpone has that too. The title character (the Fox) and his parasite Mosca (the Fly) have a long con running. They extract presents from various hangers-on (Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino: the Vulture, the Crow, the Raven) on the promise that Volpone, supposedly near-dead, will favor the most lavish giver by making him his heir. Volpone becomes a sort of human slot machine, fed by these hopefuls; but of course he is really in much better health than any of them, and intends not only to outlive them but to make himself their heir in the process.

None of this is highly logical, but schemes to get rich rarely are. Volpone's comeuppance comes when he tries to parlay the con game into a seduction. Mosca convinces Corvino that Corvino's young wife Celia can ensure Volpone's legacy by getting into bed with Volpone – and what's the harm, the Fox is near death. Of course Volpone immediately revives and starts his famous seduction, which makes Celia markedly less likely to sleep with him than before. After that, all bets are off as all the characters start double-crossing one another.

Even though Volpone is full of inventive, exuberant language, and has lots of topical and jargon usages that one imagines sounded pretty hip in 1606, it is more like Molière than Shakespeare in one respect: Jonson doesn't use a lot of jokes. Much of the humor in any production must come out of the central situation: a lusty, very-much-alive villain pretending to be moribund so that he and his fellow villain can hoodwink a bunch of other villains.

Sometimes one can pick up a sense of the hipness of a reference by analogy. When Volpone sneers at one of the gulls "Bid him eat lettuce well" (Act 5, Scene 1), you can maybe transpose it to the early 21st century by imagining some snark about kale. But most of the laughs in Volpone, 400 years ago or today, come from the opportunity the text provides for physical comedy and "business" conducted in and around the schemes of the characters.

I wouldn't say it's my favorite Ben Jonson play. Volpone is well-oiled; The Alchemist is rougher but to my mind more audacious and funnier, while using the same basic confidence-game premise. But both are among the greatest comedies written in English.

Jonson, Ben. Volpone. 1606. Edited by Brian Parker & David Bevington. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999. PR 2622 .A2P3