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Studying Comic Sketches Of The Volpone Comedy English Literature Essay

Volpone is a comedy written by Ben Jonson and first produced in 1606, employing elements of city comedy, black comedy and animal fable, based on the theme of usury. A ruthless satire of avarice and lust, it remains Jonson's most-performed play, and among the finest of the Jacobean comedies. Several critics of Jonson's Volpone have reasoned that it is not a comedy in its truest sense but more accurately a mix of tragedy, comedy, and satire. While it is not a conventional form of comedy, it is a play that enlists the manner of a comical satire as well as a morality play. Yet this play, although it implements these traditions, puts a diverse twist on what one would anticipate from a comedy or morality play. Jonson offers his audience with a distinctive means of approaching the concerns he is satirising by conceiving a new variety of comedy that personifies aspects of all three genres. Volpone is not merely an assortment of farcical comic sketches and satiric cartoons but rather uses numerous different genres beyond rudimentary comedy to encompass all aspects of society and comment on them accordingly.

The disparity between Volpone and the conventional comical satire is instantaneously evident. Gone are the static spokesman, the conveniently formulated ideal, and the easy dispensation of comic justice from a lofty vantage point. [1] Instead in Volpone one can see a playwright who is perturbed with "conveying an anatomy of the time's deformity through comedy." [2] The deformity that Jonson is attempting to make an observation on is the amplification on the magnitude of money. This distortion is demonstrated in the opening two lines of the play when Volpone awakes and declares, "Good morning to the day; and next, my gold: open the shrine, that I may see my saint" (1.1,1-2).

In this opening scene the audience can observe that the Volpone’s world is not in order. When God is intended to be the reason of worship it is patent that the greed that shrouds most of the characters of the play is the subject matter of Jonson's comedy. In this respect one can see that Volpone is not merely a collection of comic vignettes and satirical caricatures. The play is a concrete satire on the scruples of the time. In this initial scene Jonson is laying the foundations for a thought-provoking satire as well as a morality play.

The satire corresponds with the malformation that subsists in Jonson's London. It is a lampoon on the "very fabric of justice" in London as well as the significance people put on affluence over "such basic concerns as the ties between husband and wife, (and) the ties between father and son." [3] The core impetus of this satire on social ethics is dealt with in the situation of Corvino and his wife.

In the Mountebank scene we witness traditional ideals consume Corvino. During the scene Corvino's wife, Celia behaves as a coquette with Volpone. Corvino bears witness to this and postulates that it is the "death of mine honor" (2.1, 1). Up until this point in the play he acts as the covetous husband. Once Mosca offers him with a ability to prostitute his wife for monetary gain, he is swift to lose his honour in exchange for the inheritance. Jonson demonstrates to his audience how odious Corvino is in abandoning his principles in exchange for fiscal gain. He criticises the "materialism of the age" for "elevating gold 'above God." [4] His farce "makes avarice the prevailing theme." [5] The characters of Jonson's comedy are so obsessed in becoming Volpone's heir they utterly disregard any sense of dignity.

Jonson further mocks his society by illustrating how "Corvino and Corbaccio are willing to sacrifice their dearest possession in hope of gain." [6] The union between father and son is something that is naturally sancrosanct. Once Corbaccio discovers that the only method he can become Volpone's beneficiary is to disinherit his own son Bonario, and name Volpone his official heir he is swift to do so. Through Corbaccio's exploits, Jonson is providing the audience with a glimpse at how cupidity impinges on traditional social ideals. In Volpone, Jonson is examining the circumstances that he observes exists around him. Owing to the relationships between Corvino and Celia and Corbaccio and Bonario the playwright is revealing to his audience the obstreperous ramifications money has on traditional ethics. These characters are willing to relinquish their most treasured traditions and principles in exchange for affluence. By making the characters of Corvino and Corbaccio so vituperative the audience can perceive Jonson's satire of the social ideals that were beginning to taint London.

Through his portrayal of gold as an item that is deified, Jonson has bestowed the audience with a state where moral integrity comes second to monetary reward. Volpone is more akin to a virtue play rather than an assortment of comic sketches and satiric cartoons in that it has traditional character forms. Where Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore are evidently characters of depravity, the characters of Celia and Bonario are even more patent as righteous characters. They embody morality in a world full of sin.

In Act III:vii, Volpone attempts to take advantage of Celia. Bonario jumps in to rescue her and proceeds to rebuke Volpone. In this chastisement of Bonario's we witness both the spoof of orthodox traditions and the depravity that corrupts Volpone. "His speech is meant to be taken as a straight forward assertion of the play’s values." [7] It is a parody of conventional principles in that the discourse makes Bonario appear somewhat naive when he is faced with a character such as Volpone. Declaring Volpone a "foul ravisher" and "libidinous swine" (III:vii, l. 266) reveals how intense and occasionally preposterous the language of the righteous can be. Albeit a lampoon on traditional merits, Jonson is clear to suggest that Bonario is a character to be respected; more so than Volpone.

More than a parody on traditional virtue, Volpone is a satire on the variety of drama that was ubiquitous at the time. In The Dedication, Jonson makes it patent that Volpone will be a “moral” play and his intention is to divide justice out in an appropriate fashion. This was unconventional for playwrights of the period. Here he is attempting to "disarm the moral critics of the theatre." [8] By implementing some of the characteristics of a morality play, Jonson hopes to "imitate justice" and to "instruct to life" (The Dedication, lines 112-113) through the amalgamation of a satiric comedy and morality play. The severity of the retributions that take place during the conclusion of the play fall more in accordance with a morality play than with comical satire. "The surprisingly blunt exposure and punishment in Volpone pits the indulgent conventions of satiric comedy, in which wit is the sole criterion for success, against the forces of conventional moralism. [9] " Throughout the comedy, Jonson has parodied both the precepts of his era and the want for morality that was beginning to influence London at the time. His new form of comedy was more reminiscent of the ancient fables of Aesop than a comedy of Elizabethan standards.

By suggesting Volpone to be a fable one can observe that Jonson was undoubtedly influenced by the fable form. This genre permit enables the playwright to merge a lampoon of man with the moral he is attempting to communicate to the audience. As expressed in his dedication, Jonson is striving to provide his audience with a play that will teach them how to conduct their lives. The use of the fable facilitates this endeavour. By having the scheme of the fox fall short, Jonson is defying the conventions of the fable. Volpone enlightens the audience that a strictly ethical conclusion in Jonsonian comedy will take the conventional and comfortable form . . . because the real world does not work that way, and Jonson will not yield his realism to any pleasant literary formula. [10] 

This innovative form of comedy can best be grasped in the sub-plot. It is in the subplot that we notice Jonson endeavouring to illustrate to his audience the perils of living like the characters of the core plot. "It is on the thematic level that the presence of the Would-be's can be justified and their antics related to the major motifs of the play." [11] The Would-be's are portrayed as impersonators of the depravity perceived in the focal characters. They are employed by Jonson to illustrate the folly that is present in the English disposition in seeking to emulate the Venetian court. Jonson uses the sub-plot to reveal what might ensue in England if the country does not take heed over its actions. Sir Politic Would-be is "a comic distortion of Volpone" [12] while Lady Would-be is a somewhat paltry replica of a Venetian courtesan. Jonson, however, is patent that this couple is not implicated in the licentiousness of the main plot but rather involved in the folly of imitating their vices. Jonson uses the Would-be's to exhibit the risk of echoing the profligacy of the main characters rather than create comical sketches or an amusing double act. In the subplot the playwright demonstrates how it is still viable for England to flee the dreadful outcome that transpires to the other creatures of the fable.

In Volpone the audience is offered an innovative form of comedy unlike any play prior to it. It is the meshing together of the different forms by Jonson to present a comedy that is both satirical and moral rather than a set of farcical sketches with little significance in the plot. It tackles social and ethical concerns such as the impending risk of putting riches above faith, as well as the moral questions that are arise in the conduct of Celia by Corvino. This comedy is one that confronts the audience and urges them to examine their conduct judiciously as well as jest at the fortune of others.

ACT III:vii (lines 185-272) – Staging of short sequence

The main lighting focus will be on Celia and Volpone. There should be a dim lighting to illustrate the seduction taking place. Celia keeps a good distance from Volp. As she is still a pious character. Volpone’s body language is aggressive, as though he is already planning to take advantage of her. In this short sequence, we see Volpone and Celia alone. Volpone jumps off of his bed, and commences his seduction on her. He declares Celia is divine to him, and that he is a significantly more worthy a suitor than Corvino is. He describes all the intense delights she will experience if she becomes his lover. Celia, however, is unyielding; she snubs his proposition, pleading with him to cease, offering to never utter what has come to pass. Volpone is incensed by her rebuttal and informs her that if she refuses make love to him voluntarily, then he will take her by force. She shrieks out to God but Volpone tells her she does so futilely, but just at that instant, Bonario leaps out from behind his hiding place and liberates Celia, stealing her away. In this section, my main focus will be Volpone’s ruthlessness in trying to rape Celia. I want to convey the satire of conventional principles in that the discourse makes Bonario appear somewhat naive when he is faced with a character such as Volpone. Here we witness that Celia and Bonario are the only moral drives in the entire play.

Bonario (hiding)

CeliaVOLP: Why droops my Celia?

BedThou hast, in place of a base husband, found

VolponeA worthy lover: use thy fortune well,

With secrecy and pleasure. See, behold,

What thou art queen of; not in expectation,

As I feed others: but possess'd, and crown'd.

Volpone’s language is intensely sensual and rich in hyperbole and religious imagery. Volpone's portrayal of paradise is lustful. He is offering Celia a catalogue of extravagant feasts to lure her. The lighting must remain dim on Volpone to show his lustfulness while there is a white spotlight on Celia to reveal her innocence. Volp. Edges closer and closer to Celia but her body language remains controlled and unyieldingSee, here, a rope of pearl; and each, more orient

Than that the brave Egyptian queen caroused:

Dissolve and drink them. See, a carbuncle,

May put out both the eyes of our St Mark;

Here we see the full extent of Celia’s goodliness. All 7 deadly sins are referred to during the play, but she is an escape from it. She is a martyr. Emphasis should be placed on the word “wealthy” as affluence is the main topic of the play and the driving force behind each characters actions excluding Celia who believes wealth resides in her virtue. Her position is unrelenting as should her body language. A diamond, would have bought Lollia Paulina,

When she came in like star-light, hid with jewels,

That were the spoils of provinces; take these,

And wear, and lose them: yet remains an ear-ring

To purchase them again, and this whole state.

A gem but worth a private patrimony,

Is nothing: we will eat such at a meal.

The brains of peacocks, and of estriches,

Shall be our food: and, could we get the phoenix,

Though nature lost her kind, she were our dish.

CEL: Good sir, these things might move a mind affected

With such delights; but I, whose innocence

Is all I can think wealthy, or worth th' enjoying,

And which, once lost, I have nought to lose beyond it,

Cannot be taken with these sensual baits:

If you have conscience—

Volpone's use of allusion in his inventory of famed lovers throughout history fulfils a dual purpose: it broadens and elevates his discussion, providing him and Celia direct historic consequence through correlation with these names, while at the same time making unequivocal Volpone's desire to make love to Celia in an elegant erudite manner. Here Jonson uses alliteration to intensify the poetic quality of the speech. This should be expressed by Volpone communicating an air of masculinity, as though he is planning on educating Celia throught sexual deeds. He begins to edge closer to her in a dominating manner as though reciting a sonnet.VOLP: 'Tis the beggar's virtue,

If thou hast wisdom, hear me, Celia.

Thy baths shall be the juice of July-flowers,

Spirit of roses, and of violets,

The milk of unicorns, and panthers' breath

Gather'd in bags, and mixt with Cretan wines.

Our drink shall be prepared gold and amber;

Which we will take, until my roof whirl round

With the vertigo: and my dwarf shall dance,

My eunuch sing, my fool make up the antic.

Whilst we, in changed shapes, act Ovid's tales,

Thou, like Europa now, and I like Jove,

Volpone randomly bursts into song as a final attempt to entice Celia. Here we see that he is slowly at the end of his tether trying absolute anything he can to lure Celia into his bed. Now we see him looming behind her as thought ready to pounce on her at any moment at the same time the atmosphere is droll as the audience can see that Celia will not budge in her decision. He sings out loudly gesticulating like a tenor.Then I like Mars, and thou like Erycine:

So, of the rest, till we have quite run through,

And wearied all the fables of the gods.

Then will I have thee in more modern forms,

Attired like some sprightly dame of France,

Brave Tuscan lady, or proud Spanish beauty;

Sometimes, unto the Persian sophy's wife;

Or the grand signior's mistress; and, for change,

To one of our most artful courtezans,

Or some quick Negro, or cold Russian;

And I will meet thee in as many shapes:

Where we may so transfuse our wandering souls,

Out at our lips, and score up sums of pleasures,

[SINGS.]

That the curious shall not know

How to tell them as they flow;

And the envious, when they find

What there number is, be pined.

While Volpone sings to Celia she edges away from him to the other side of the stage. A white light follows her all the way to further illustrate her pureness. Volpone is left high and dry as she remains resolute in her decision to remain chaste. Celia tries to plead to whatever trace of "holy saints, or heaven" Volpone has within him. Her total lack of victory entails that he has none. This is demonstrated by a dim red light that begins to shine on Volpone showing his immorality. Celia’s speech is like that of a saint and as she is pleading with Volpone she is simultaneously pleading with God. CEL: If you have ears that will be pierc'd—or eyes

That can be open'd—a heart that may be touch'd—

Or any part that yet sounds man about you—

If you have touch of holy saints—or heaven—

Do me the grace to let me 'scape—if not,

VolponeBe bountiful and kill me. You do know,

I am a creature, hither ill betray'd,

By one, whose shame I would forget it were:

BedIf you will deign me neither of these graces,

Yet feed your wrath, sir, rather than your lust,

Celia(It is a vice comes nearer manliness,)

And punish that unhappy crime of nature,

Which you miscall my beauty; flay my face,

Or poison it with ointments, for seducing

Your blood to this rebellion. Rub these hands,

With what may cause an eating leprosy,

E'en to my bones and marrow: any thing,

That may disfavour me, save in my honour—

And I will kneel to you, pray for you, pay down

A thousand hourly vows, sir, for your health;

Here Volpone begins to show his impatience and hostile nature as he advances rapidly and aggressively towards Celia. His speech is now antagonistic, he no longer aims to woo her but rather demonstrate his masculine dominance.Report, and think you virtuous—

VOLP: Think me cold,

Volpone seizes Celia and hurls her onto the bed. A red/dim white light floods the stage to illuminate the violence that is occurring. Celia cries out to God for help as Volpone prepares to rape her, just before Bonario jumps out to rescue Celia. This moment is a absolute denunciation on the part of Bonario and Celia, of Volpone's reversed value-system, where he esteems instant self-gratification, over God. This is the turning point of the play and the moment that Volpone begins to lose control over the circumstances after having lost control over himself.Frosen and impotent, and so report me?

That I had Nestor's hernia, thou wouldst think.

I do degenerate, and abuse my nation,

To play with opportunity thus long;

I should have done the act, and then have parley'd.

Yield, or I'll force thee.

[SEIZES HER.]

CEL: O! just God!

VOLP: In vain—

BON [RUSHING IN]: Forbear, foul ravisher, libidinous swine!

Free the forced lady, or thou diest, impostor.

But that I'm loth to snatch thy punishment

As soon as Bonario rushes in a flood of white light immerses the stage as though the audience is waking up from a nightmare. He pulls Volpone off Celia and throws him onto the floor. Celia remains on the bed in shock. As Bonario scolds Volp. He looms over him in the same menacing manner Volp. Loomed over Celia when trying to seduce her. Bonario her is Celia’s knight in shining armour and the answer to her prayers.Out of the hand of justice, thou shouldst, yet,

Be made the timely sacrifice of vengeance,

Before this altar, and this dross, thy idol.—

Lady, let's quit the place, it is the den

Of villany; fear nought, you have a guard:

And he, ere long, shall meet his just reward.

[EXEUNT BON. AND CEL.]


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