Ben Jonson-Volpone


Post Counter Plot

In the next ten years, Jonson did much of his greatest writing; he was also the object of constant suspicion by authority. He was viewed as an unreliable figure, especially in the light of his recent coversion to Roman Catholicism. Topical references buried in his 1605 Roman tradegy Sejanus earned Jonson a summons before the Privy Council. As if Jonson became implicated in the Gunpowder Plot by dining with its leader Robert Catesby in October 1605. A colourful period of intrigue in Radical Catholic circles thus coincided with the writing of Jonson's best known tradegy, Sejanus, and arguably his comic masterpiece Volpone. It was in Sejanus, where the dissolute Emperor Tiberius rounds on his henchman-procurer Sejanus and has him torn publicly to pieces, that Jonson first uses the villain-on-villain counterplot theme that propels the final acts of both Volpone and his other great comedy, the Alchemist. Jonson soon discovered that in the theatre the biter can be bit not once but several times, which may reflect personal experience during his brief sortie onto the stage of Jacobean high politics and espionage.

Volpone: A city comedy

The style of Volpone is, by any standards, 'high' Apart from the interludes from Volpone's children and the prose-patter from 'Scoto of Mantua', the entire play is composed in blank verse. Yet the effect could not be further from the seamless lyricism of Shakespeare's romantic comedy. Jonson's blank verse lines are rammed with objects, discrete consumer units of meaning, so that the audience never forgets that this is a wealthy City, and that its wealth is ultimately no more than an addition sum of inert, and sometimes sordidly gathered, commidities. 'The verse demands... scrupulous inspection of each word' writes L.C Knights, 'we are not allowed to lapse into an impression of generalised magnificence'.

All of this is viable, enough slaves and skivvies and a charlatan, like Volpone's alias, Scoto and Mantua, might supply the unicorns' milk. But certainly constitutes conspicious cosumption. Volpone's pleasures dictates the slaughter of the world's only phoenix. Every phrase costs a packet, and is noted down, with appropriate care, in a potential accountant's ledger 'Is your pearl orient, sir?' Mosca asks Corvino, remembering some pearls are of great, some of lesser price. Volpone likes to work his temptations with a kind of reusable 'cherry'. He knocks it against the teeth of his victims, then pulls it back and stores it away for next time. Maximum effect: minimal cost. A favourite rhetorical device is outbidding. If Sir Pol has heard of three porpoises at London bridge, Peregrine rounds it up to 'six and a sturgeon, sir'. Jonson's inventory style, as John, J Enck argues, 'unites everything, from Volpone's vaunting declarations to Lady Pol's inane twaddle'

Eat or be Eaten 

Men eat men, drink gold, women wait to be eaten: the only honest- nay, glorious office, as scene-stealing Mosca rhapsodies, is that of parasite.

Volpone not only picks up on the sordid devotions of wealth addiction: it also celebrates the


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