Blog 6: Volpone

Ben Jonson’s Volpone: Reading Questions

Adapted from Dr. Irving Mitchell, Dallas Baptist University

1. The opening scene of the play (1.1.1-27) is often considered a satire of some sort on the Catholic Mass.  If this is so and considering that Jonson was a Catholic at the time of the writing, why would the author include such a scene?

2. Volpone is set against a background of decadence and corruption in Venice.  Renaissance (and Enlightenment) England was publicly suspicious of the supposed corruption that traveling to Italy brought.  How does Jonson use this background to further the themes and purpose of his play?  Are the images stereotypical?

3. How much is Volpone a play shaped by monetary fears and concerns?  How much is it a play about the use and abuse of authority?

4. What is the purpose of the subplot involving Sir Pol, Lady Pol, and Peregrine?  Does it in any way reflect on the larger plot? What is the role of Nano, Castrone, and Androgyno? How would you play the court Avocatori?  Are they primarily serious or farcical characters?

5. How complicit are we as an audience with Volpone and Mosca’s vices?   Are they too attractive (at first) as characters?  Why is Volpone given a chance to address the audience in the closing speech?

6. Is this a comedy?  How do you account for the punishments awarded at the end, the vulgar attempted rape by Volpone, and the play’s more serious moments?  Is the ending comic?

7. Does this play have (in the end) a positive, ethical message?   If so, what is it?  If not, why not?

Published in: Blogs on February 25, 2011 at2:44 pm Comments (10)

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  1. on March 3, 2011 at 5:02 pmsharanielsen Said:

    While reading through mainly the first couple of acts I didn’t see the comedy. I had to keep reminding myself it was a comedy and not a tragedy. My views changed when I read the conversation between Lady Politic and Volpone. This conversation was the first comedic relief in the play that I actually laughed at. The next scene that sort of brought back the darkness of the play but still added comedy was the scene between Volpone and Celia. It is very serious in nature but the dialogue between the two is hilarious (Especially Celia’s responses). The most comedic part about about this scene however isn’t the conversation between the two but the short side notes of how Volpone acts. Especially after acting like a sick and dying old man, Volpone just springs off the couch to meet Celia. This touch would be great to see in a production of this dark-humored morally corrupt play!

  2. on March 3, 2011 at 5:34 pmBreanna Tuttle Said:

    It is completely a guess to say why an author would include something in a play/novel unless you can actually talk to the author. Since that isn’t possible, my best guess of why Jonson would include a satire on the Catholic Mass would be to later address somewhat religious topics. First and foremost, though, I think he inserted this satire because he was writing a comedy and what would be more comedic than a satire on this? I imagine that everyone in attendance was or knew an awful lot about Catholicism; the audience can understand the humor in Volpone saying things like “Open the shrine that I may see my saint” (1.1.2), “O thou son of Sol [center of the earth]” (1.1.10), “…let me kiss/ With adoration thee and every relic/ Of sacred treasure in this blessed room” (1.1.11-13), and “Thou art virtue, fame,/ Honor, and all things else” (1.1.25-26). Volpone clearly worships his money and possessions.
    This idea of Volpone’s money being a type of false God made comical gives way for Jonson to address other religious topics/commandments. Coveting, for example, is seen throughout the play by the three men who want Volpone’s money as well as Volpone wanting theirs. Volpone also covets Corvino’s wife, Celia. The story takes on more drama and comedy by accusing prostitution, adultery, and lying. Jonson was able to make these stabs visible to the audience by introducing the biggest ‘stab’ at the beginning and making it seem “all in good fun” rather than a real social commentary which probably would have been rejected by the censors.

  3. on March 4, 2011 at 10:30 amvanessahunt Said:

    Ben Jonson’s play “Volpone” can essentially be categorized as a comedy, but it is more so a comedy drama because of tragic elements of contained within it. The comedic overtones of the play, though, overtake the dramatic undertones. The fact that Volpone tries to take advantage Celia is not a comedic moment, but there are so many other comedic moments that the tone of the play comes off as comedic.

    Volpone and Mosca are very narcissistic characters, but they very comical interactions with the other characters due to their narcissistic nature. Volpone meets his match in Lady Would-Be. She is also very narcissistic and loves talking about herself, which Volpone finds hard to stomach. She explains to him that she is very familiar with well-known poets and “I have read them all” (3.4.81). The exchange between Volpone and Lady Would-Be is an example of what makes this play a comedy. It is centered around the vainness of the characters and how they are all doing things for selfish reasons. They want to talk themselves up so that the people around them will give in to their wants.

    While there are tragic and dramatic elements to the play, the overall light and comical tone really makes this play a comedy. The tragic events are written in a way that they do not feel too heavy. It is the tone of the play and the vainness of the characters that really makes this play a comedy.

  4. on March 4, 2011 at 2:02 pmAnne Thornton Said:

    Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England was a time of great religious turmoil. Citizens were required to worship in whichever religion was dictated by the current ruler of the country. Queen Mary I was a passionate Catholic and persecuted those of the Protestant faith. Upon her death, Mary’s sister Elizabeth, who was a Protestant, took the throne, changing the widely accepted religion of England. Writing at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Johnson’s audience would have largely consisted of believers (or at least followers) of the Protestant faith. The satirical first scene of the play in which Volpone ceremoniously “worships” his gold, similar to the worship service of Catholic Mass, could have been Johnson’s attempt to boost his popularity with a religiously biased audience. Despite his own Catholic beliefs, Johnson’s career and success would have depended upon the popularity of his plays. By associating the play’s deceptive, cunning, and greedy antagonist with the Catholic religion, he sets an underlying tone that Catholicism is the path to unrighteousness, therefore gaining favor with this Protestant audience.
    Another reason for this satirical comparison could have been Johnson’s method of emphasizing the theme of the evils of greed that appear throughout the play. The idea of “worshipping” worldly riches would have shocked an audience in the early 1600’s. Such a blasphemous comparison would quickly introduce the idea concluded at the play’s end that such a desire for worldly riches and pleasure will only lead to unhappiness.

  5. on March 4, 2011 at 2:22 pmRebecca Tuft Said:

    The first scene of the play “Volpone” does seem to have some religious elements. The main character, Volpone, worships gold in the same way that Catholics worship saints and God. Many Catholics have shrines for different saint and they pay homage to those saints in many different ways. Volpone does the same thing with his “saint.” He has a shrine to his gold that he pays homage to by, not only greeting it first thing in the morning, but by kissing every piece of gold in his “shrine” as well. There are also many other elements in this first scene that show that Volpone treats his money with the respect of something holy. He says a couple of lines that are very similar to ideas in the Book of Genesis, and in a couple different places he compares his gold to Gods and Goddesses of different religions.
    Jonson, although a Catholic at the time that he wrote this play, may have written this scene as a satire of a Catholic Mass because a lot of the people of the time, including the Queen, were Protestant. If he were to have had a serious Catholic Mass in his play, it might have offended the Queen and many other people of the time. By making it almost a joke, he was saving himself the wrath of the people, and making his play appeal to Queen Elizabeth and the other Protestants.

  6. on March 4, 2011 at 3:32 pmazbrooks Said:

    In Jonson’s Volpone, money became an issue not because the characters needed but because they wanted it. All the main characters use it to manipulate and use. Money is the excuse—the end that justifies the means. Corvino falls prey to it, throwing aside pride and prostituting his wife. Money becomes an authoritative power, more so than the authority the characters have. Carbaccio for instance abuses his power to disown his son for money. Voltore abuses his own power, again for money, to convict Celia and Bonario of crimes they did not commit to cover for Volpone. Money and the decadence it promises creates a forum for these characters who likely would not have thought of committing these acts on their own, but easily do once the idea has been planted and they see the profit that comes from it. Mosca is the character with the least authority and power, but the most ambition. Driven by a desire for money, Mosca works hard to please Volpone. However, when he sees a chance to inherit Volpone’s money, he uses the will that Volpone created for his ploy in order to get more out of Mosca. Volpone’s reluctance to give Mosca any of the riches makes Mosca rethink his position. Being a parasite, he has no authority whatsoever. Being a part of their group has given him a taste of what he can have if he ‘kills’ Volpone. His lack of sophistication in courts becomes his downfall, and though he has the means to clap Volpone in irons, Volpone uses his own power to bring down his servant as well as the others who wish to be parasites if only to inherit.

  7. on March 4, 2011 at 3:55 pmkyralehtinen Said:

    Ben Jonson’s Volpone, although filled with vice and villainous protagonists, ends with the positive ethical message that wrongdoing begets more torment than it does gain. Even Mosca and Volpone see their own faults in others and laugh at their misfortune despite not admitting them in themselves. At the beginning of the play after the two are first seen conning Voltore and Corbaccio, Volpone laughs at their gullibility and says “What a rare punishment is avarice to itself”(1.4.142-143)! Later when Bonario saves Celia from being raped, Volpone and Mosca panic about being found out. Volpone says he hears the footsteps of officers outside his house coming to get him and Mosca replies “Guilty men suspect what they deserve still” (3.8.21-22). Here Mosca hints that Volpone’s deception deserves to be punished, but still does not recognize his own failing karma. The closest Volpone comes to repentance is after he carries his joke too far after his own “death” so that Voltore threatens to tell the truth to the Avocatori and Volpone basically admits that he should have quit while he was ahead (5.11.1-3). In the end, he and Mosca along with Voltore, Corvino, and Corbaccio are caught in their own deceptions when they all turn on each other. The Avocatori give them all fitting punishments for their crimes and state “Take heart, and love to study ‘em. Mischiefs feed like beasts, till they be fat, and then they bleed” (5.12.150-151).

  8. on March 5, 2011 at 2:04 pmkbone Said:

    In Volpone the characters of Androgino, Nano, and Castrone seem to serve a very fascinating purpose. At first it seems as if they are simply there for entertainment, but that does not seem to be deliberate enough for Jonson’s style. The one thing that all three of these characters have in common is that they are impaired sexually (or would at least perceive to be during the Renaissance). Hermaphrodites are generally infertile, eunuchs lack pertinent equipment for reproduction, and dwarfs would be perceived to either infertile or a “three inch fool”. That these characters are placed so close to Volpone serves to only further emphasize the fact that he is childless and without an heir. These very distinct characters act as a reflection of Volpone’s foolishness for not having fathered any sort of heir.

    On another note, I would play the court Avocatori very seriously because I believe that was how they were meant to be played. Ironically, by playing them in that manner I think it would only serve to emphasize the humor of the situation and make them even funnier. When a joke is anticipated too much it lessens the absurdity of a given scene, and I think that would be particularly likely to happen with the Avocatori.

  9. on August 5, 2012 at 3:00 pmrawan Said:

    So this is where our professor gets his questions from !!! :S

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