English Literature: 1590-1798


Section 3: Characterization



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Volpone epathsala

Section 3: Characterization
Jonson’s characters reflect his theory of the comedy of humours that has its roots in the classical comedies of Plautus and Terence in which characters are portrayed and identified as types through distinct, predominant traits of speech, thought or action. The term humour originated from ancient Greek and Roman medicine and philosophy and signified the four major bodily fluids – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile – which were believed to correspond to the four elements (air, water, fire, earth) and determine the personality type and the physical and mental well being of an individual. The predominance of anyone of these fluids was supposed to have led to an imbalance and consequently to the emergence of peculiar character traits in an individual thus, an excess of blood made a person sanguine (brave, cheerful, carefree, yellow bile choleric (irritable, angry, black bile melancholic (depressed, mournful) and phlegm phlegmatic (calm, contemplative).In Jonson’s own words, When someone peculiar quality Doth so possess a man that it doth draw All his effects, his spirits, and his powers, In their confluctions, all to run one way This may truly be said to be a humour. Prologue, Every Man Out of His Humour) According to Jonson, a humour was more than merely an amusing eccentricity of speech or behaviour it was a more permanent, inherent characteristic of an individual thought and conduct that coloured his responses to specific situations and his general outlook to life. In Volpone, each of the main characters is portrayed as being guided by a predominant trait that is symbolically suggested through his name thus, Volpone is cunning and capricious like a fox in everything he says and does, Mosca is parasitic like a fly that leeches off the very source of his sustenance, the three fortune hunters Voltore, Corvino andCorbaccio are (respectively) like a vulture, a crow and a raven, all birds of prey. The fact that Jonson chooses to liken these characters to animals fairly


7 common in beast fables suggests that their actions are meant to be allegorical. The greed and unscrupulous ambition that drives each of these characters maybe considered to be indicative of the general atmosphere of early seventeenth century London, where mammon-worship and fortune hunting were the rule of the day. The titular character, Volpone represents the excesses that Jonson perceived as characterizing the London society of his times. Volpone is a devious man who loves indulging in sensual pleasures but hates the idea of working hard to earn his livelihood. His fondness for intrigue and his polished censure of those who seek to inherit his fortune seem to reflect Jonson’s own dramatic approach to the vices of his society yet, for all the critical potential of his satirical attitude to the legacy hunters, Volpone himself is something of a voyeur, delighting in witnessing the spectacle of unrestrained greed and ambitiousness that infects his own personality too. In fact, the darker aspects of his hedonistic personality become evident when he tries to rape Celia, and when he finally falls prey to his own trick at the hands of his clever servant. Like the proverbial fox, Volpone’s cunning ultimately becomes his own undoing. Mosca is undoubtedly the force that drives the plot forward, as it is he who comes up with the various stratagems and schemes that Volpone so greatly enjoys participating in. Determined and remorseless in his pursuit of money, Mosca is in someways a perfect embodiment of the avarice and deceit that seem to be endemic to the society he inhabits. Though he appears to be obsequious and faithful towards his master at the beginning, he finally turns out to be just as conniving and opportunistic as anyone else in the play. The fortune hunters are all characterized satirically Voltore’s fondness for legal tricks backfires on him, Corbaccio’s physical decrepitude reflects his moral malaise and makes his hope of outliving Volpone ridiculous, Corvino’s overprotective jealousy concerning his wife is revealed as shockingly hypocritical in the light of his willingness to trade her off for money. The desire for upward social mobility is also represented in a comical light through minor characters like Sir and Lady Politic Would-Be, the former absurd in his misplaced faith in his own social skills and competence, the latter annoying in her attempt to talk her way into Volpone’s favour. In contrast to these characters, Bonario and Celia seem almost unbelievably good natured and idealistic. In fact, they function as foils to the self-serving, greedy individuals they are surrounded by and have a rather nave and sentimental outlook to things in a world where such a romantic approach to human nature seems quite out of place. Yet, at the end,


8 they are the only characters who go unpunished and represent righteousness and self-restraint in a general atmosphere of corruption and immorality.

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