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Social Criticism In Ben Jonsons Volpone English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1281 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Benjamin Johnson is the third most important name in English drama after William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Although he did not achieve much success with his tragedies, Ben Jonson became very well-known for his comedies. “Volpone”, which is part of his mature comedies, or second period, is his most significant and most-performed play. Ben Jonson parodies the material “age of gold” referring to the Golden age from Greek mythology. Human vices are the main reason for people’s moral degradation and the perversion of the Golden Age. He accentuates on people’s tendency to deceive others out of greed, vanity, sloth, lust and hedonism.

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“Volpone” has a main plot and a subplot, which was very typical for plays of that time. The main plot reveals the characters obsessed with greed, and the subplot “attacks” another vice – that of vanity. It bears the typical characteristics of Jonson’s drama. The action takes place over the course of one day (in seventeenth century Venice). Jonson was an Italophile, though back then, Venice was considered to be the centre of sin and corruption. Characters are historically bound to their place and time and each one of them represents a human trait or eccentricity.

Volpone, whose name means fox, is a rich man who makes “good” use of his leisure time. He is not married and childless which makes him a perfect target for legacy hunters. He pretends to be sick and on the verge of dying, so as to delude people and make them wish for becoming his heirs. Volpone is the epitome of greed and hedonism – he enjoys pleasure in all of its manifestations and indulges in the way he deceives three gullible men, all of them bearing the names of predatory birds – Voltore (from Italian – meaning vulture), Corbaccio (raven) and Corvino (crow). Thus greed is presented as “a characteristic of the society as a whole”. But the difference between Volpone and his would-be heirs is that Volpone is greedy not only for wealth, but for “gaining more power over his victims”. The protagonist is very much contented that he receives gifts, but what gives him real satisfaction is the fact that his plans for manipulating people into giving him presents work very well:

Yet I glory

More in the cunning purchase of my wealth,

Than in the glad possession…

“Volpone” is reminiscent of Thomas Kyd’s Spanish tragedy as it is another “play within the play”. In Jonson’s play the protagonist and his “parasite” – Mosca, are the main actors and the rest are just puppets in their hands.

In the rest of Volpone’s speech, Jonson indirectly makes an allusion to another cardinal sin – sloth:

… since I gain

No common way; I use no trade, no venture;

I wound no earth with plough-shares; fat no beasts,

To feed the shambles; have no mills for iron,

Oil, corn, or men, to grind them into powder:

I blow no subtle glass; expose no ships

To threat’nings of the furrow-faced sea;

With the use of irony, the author indirectly accuses the audience of being idle because many people preferred using tricks instead of working as a way to get money. It was a common practice among upper classes to find an heirless “magnifico” who is expected to die soon. Then one starts ingratiating with him in hope of becoming their heir. But in “Volpone” the author presents the idea of “the thief who becomes the victim of thieving” – each of the three men tries to get Volpone’s riches, but is actually robbed of their own. Since the three competitors for Volpone’s inheritance are so desperately trying to earn his favour, the protagonist is certainly no worse than them. He is just taking advantage of their gullibility and is wrapping them around his finger with Mosca’s help.

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Volpone “exults” that he has “no wife, no parent, child, ally”. Nano (the dwarf), Castrone (the eunuch) and Androgyno (the hermaphrodite) are his servants and their function in the play is “thematic and rhythmic”. They speak in heroic couplets as compared to the central characters. They constitute Volpone’s household which is “a parody of a family”: the three grotesque characters are his children-freaks and Mosca is his mistress. Such “travesties” have always indicated a “social or spiritual decadence”. Jonson hints that the concept of a family has been perverted in the society because blood bones do not have that much importance as they used to. Volpone boasts that he does not have any blood relatives, Corbaccio disinherits his son and Celia is betrayed by her own husband. The latter is not an example of betraying a blood relative, but it is a good illustration of how corrupt the society has become, since Celia’s husband compels her to sleep with another man in order to get hold of his riches.

Hypocrisy is yet another vice that has spread like a disease in the Venice society of that time. It is a potent tool for achieving one’s goals and it goes hand in hand with the unlimited greed of some of the characters. Everybody starts lying as soon as they realize that they can take advantage of their lies. The three men’s desire to get their hands on Volpone’s money make them pretend that they are concerned about Volpone’s health. And they are, indeed, though it is not improvement, but deterioration of his health that will relieve their anxiety. The dialogue between Volpone and Voltore is a perfect example of the “trickster tricked” idea:

The next victim is Corbaccio who is older than Volpone and is certainly nearer to death than him. His attempts to become heir to “soon-to-die” Volpone suggest that people do not change over time. Either greed does not know age, or Corbaccio is just another person who does not accept the fact that he is getting old and will not be able to take his possessions with him when he dies. The raven’s gift is worthless compared to the other two competitors’ presents. He offers a medicine that is supposed to improve Volpone’s condition, but, of course, the chances of the given drug to be actually a poison are very high. Corvino is the third person who is tricked by Volpone and Mosca. Each of the would-be heirs is told that he is the one who will receive Volpone’s inheritance. As soon as the last competitor goes out of the house, Volpone and Mosca start mocking at their gullibility. The fact that their actions are less dishonest compared to the actions of the three legacy-hunters is the reason Ben Jonson still does not punish them for their lying.

Lady Politic Would-be “serves as Sir Politic Would-be’s female counterpart in her vanity”. Besides the fact that she is vain about her looks, she also pretends to be very literate and tries to prove it by talking too much. Thus Ben Jonson satirizes the loquacious woman who indulges too much in being the centre of attention.

The subplot is “directed towards Italophile Englishmen” (like Jonson himself) who travel to Italy to get to know its civilization. But these people are endangered by succumbing to the corrupt manners of the society. Sir Politic Would-be and his wife are two examples of how simple-minded people are easily corrupted once they are influenced by the Italian way of life.


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