11 July 2006

Thayer, C.G. 'Ben Jonson: Studies in the Plays'. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963

Thayer presents 'Volpone' in his section 'Middle Comedies.' His discussion focuses on exactly what kind of play it is: granting it is a great play, is it really comedy? Some critics, he says, argue that it is not, but they are mistaken. He begins his argument with the prologue. 'All gall, and coppress, from his inke, he drayneth,/ Onely, a little salt remayneth;/ Wherewith, he'll rub your cheeks, til/ They shall looke fresh, a weeke after.(p. 33–36). This, he says, is a straightforward statement of Jonson's intention. The play is supposed to be funny enough to give you rosy cheeks for a week after seeing it.

Given this, he examines reasons for a tragic reading, beginning with Jonson's seeming violation of comic principles in Act II, when Corvino is willing to prostitute Celia for Volpone's inheritance, and Act III, when Volpone proves his wickedness by trying to rape her. Yet Thayer says that this, however disturbing it may be, is legitimate comedy in that Mosca creates this will in him by playing on his faults. In Act II, scene 3, Corvino shows insane jealousy, yet in scene 7, he is chiding her chastity. Other elements of this incident that contribute to the humor, he says, include the character of Celia, who is actually a homely, empty–headed fluff who cannot even appreciate the way Volpone woos her. Bonario's frustration of the rape, as well, is just silly melodrama.

The sentence passed against Volpone and Mosca is another reason some critics have called the play tragic: both protagonists are sent off to die, Mosca in a galley–ship, and Volpone in stocks that will make his as sick as he pretended to be, which seems much too harsh to be funny and far out of proportion with their crimes. Thayer, however, describes them as part of an elaborate comic pattern which focuses on the judges's stupidity. Readers who see this ending as nearly tragic, he then says, should remember that Volpone is really no Lear or Othello (54). The problem with this ending is not in its harshness, he claims, but in Jonson's skill as a playwright. While vile, Volpone is also witty and engaging, so that he almost seems to be a real person. It is this person we empathize with and pity when Volpone is sentenced, which may be what makes it so disturbing.

Thayer goes on to say that Jonsonian comedy is a systematic perversion of basic social principles. This would, it seems, make him a satirist, criticizing the principles he sees as perverse in his own society. This distortion begins in Volpone's opening soliloquy, in which he declares gold to be sacred and its possessor to be all things good. We also see that Volpone is special because he gets his gold without working, which makes him morally superior to those who do.

This is where I must disagree with Thayer. His assertion that Jonson's comedy is based on distortion of social principles is meaningless to me; it violates a fundamental premise of fiction. Fiction, and drama must be considered as fiction because it tells a story that is not completely true, relies on the setting aside of disbelief and accepting of an author's premises for its effect. If we are not willing to enter the world Jonson gives us, we cannot appreciate his creation. If we do accept it, 'Volpone' becomes a tragedy.

Actually, the play could be divided into two parts. The first four acts are comic; Volpone capers through them and makes fools of everyone. Yet these acts are merely prologue, to develop his character and set the situation for the twelve scenes of Act V. In this act, Volpone makes his tragic decision: he will play one more trick on the world, by pretending to be dead. He will sign all his property over to Mosca in a 'fake' will, then hide so he can watch the reactions this causes. The fatal flaw Volpone demonstrates is, like Othello, faith in his chief companion. He believes that Mosca will go along with the prank, then give everything back to him. Mosca, on the other hand, has been hoping for just such a windfall, and once the estate is legally his, has no intentions of giving it back. Yet he seems to play along, helping Volpone run around pestering his disappointed suitors in scenes five and six. It is the jealousy of these suitors that finally brings Volpone and Mosca down. Outraged that a servant should inherit the fortune and become like a gentleman, they take him to court. It is in court, where each tries to prove guilt in the other and to establish a case for being the heir, without exposing his own guilt, that the truth somehow manages to come out. Yet Mosca is not sentenced for his trickery, but for impersonating a gentleman; Volpone is not convicted of a crime, but only made to become like what he seemed to be. This does not, however, detract from the tragedy. Volpone makes a decision, the decision leads inevitably to his death. That is tragedy.


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