English Literature: 1590-1798


Section 5: Social Commentary



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Volpone epathsala

Section 5: Social Commentary
Unlike his contemporary William Shakespeare, Jonson’s formal training in classical literature was reflected in the way he conceived of comic drama. Like the ancient Greek and Roman playwrights he drew inspiration from, Jonson’s comedies were meant to both entertain and instruct. He used drama as an instrument of social satire thus, he not only ridiculed the vices of ordinary men and women but also sent out a strong and clear moral message to his audience.
Volpone is a casein point. Though the play is set in Venice, the characters and action are clearly applicable to the general social context of seventeenth century London. The materialistic tendencies that are shown as infecting practically all the characters in the play are to be understood not assigns of individual moral weakness but as a direct consequence of the socioeconomic conditions prevalent in the England of Jonson’s own times. The rise of the mercantile classes in England during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods effected a rapid influx of people engaged indifferent professions into London society. No longer was it necessary fora person to be born well to acquire wealth and status, as the booming English trade and commerce opened up avenues of social betterment fora wide range of working class professionals like lawyers, doctors, merchants and businessmen. Contemporary playwrights often represented such characters in stereotypical terms as a means of finding a dramatic outlet for the cultural anxiety resulting from the rapid changes in the social structure. In the hands of masters like Marlowe and Shakespeare, however, characters like Barabas (The Jew of Malta) and Shylock (The Merchant
of Venice) received sufficiently complex detailing to resist simplistic categorization as hero or villain. It is in this historical and theatrical context that Jonson’s play ought to be read as a document of social criticism. The setting of the play itself is significant, as Venice was a major hub of economic activity in seventeenth century Europe and was popularly believed in England to be the den of sin and decadence. It is only appropriate that in such a symbolic setting, Jonson’s characters should also stand for beastly vices like greed, vanity, lust and pride. Volpone’s hedonistic delight in sensual pleasures is matched by the fortune hunters unrestrained greed for money. The only


11 way in which Volpone is set apart from his victims is his ability to use his superior intelligence to trick them into believing that they have the upper handover him in the game of deceit both are playing. Thus, there is no real moral distinction between the hero and the villains in this case the crucial difference between the two is merely that the former is more manipulative and imaginative than the latter. In fact, when Volpone tries to rape Celia, his act no longer remains a harmless trick played on a dupe but becomes an overt sign of the moral degradation his character has undergone in the reckless pursuit of pleasure and wealth. For all his clever wit and carefree pursuit of intrigue, Volpone, much like the proverbial fox, ultimately falls into the elaborate trap that he had laid for others. It is interesting to note that Volpone’s nemesis turns out to be his own faithful servant, Mosca who outsmarts his master at his own game of lies and deception. While the intelligent, double-crossing servant is a fairly common character type in comedies of the period, Mosca also represents the lust for money and status that percolated down the social ranks. The fact that Volpone and Mosca ultimately betray one another fulfils the dramatic logic of their own game of intrigue and brings about their downfall. The final punishment that both master and servant receive, along with the fortune hunters, brings them all together within the same moral compass and seems to indicate Jonson’s moral vision of a society where avarice and vanity must be exposed and corrected. Jonson also follows the popular comedic convention of rewarding the virtuous characters, Bonario and Celia, at the end of the play. Though both of them make significant economic gains at the end, it is not through their own pursuit of wealth. In
Jonson’s moral scheme, only those who act honourably and without selfish motives of personal gain deserve to go unpunished. Yet, their deliverance from the very real threat of a wrong judicial sentence is just as miraculous as their virtuous actions are exceptional in the corrupt society they live in. Unlike Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, the play ends not with the promise of personal fulfilment but with only the redistribution of wealth among the characters in terms of their moral virtue and vice. Thus, Jonson’s characters remain circumscribed within the social codes that he subjects to criticism and ultimately represent a rather grim moral vision of a world in which goodness and evil are in a state of precarious conflict.

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