English Literature: 1590-1798

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Volpone epathsala

Section 6: Critical Overview

12 Since its first performance in 1606, Volpone has remained one of the most famous plays in the oeuvre of Jonson. His comedy of humours was particularly influential during the Restoration, when playwrights like Congreve, Etherege and Wycherley were writing a kind of comedy that was directed at the faults and foibles of urban, upper class characters based in London. Popularly known as the comedy of manners, such plays satirized, much like Jonson’s comedies, the peculiar personality traits of stock characters that made them act in ridiculous and often quite immoral ways. Jonson’s theory of distinct predispositions or humours was adapted by the Restoration playwrights to mock rather than correct the social maladies that afflicted their characters. However, William Congreve, one of the most prominent writers of this kind of comedy, finds Jonson’s characters lacking in the sophistication of speech and the passion of feeling that he observes in the work of his own contemporaries. Early 18
th century critics of drama largely focussed on a comparative analysis of the merits of Jonson and Shakespeare. Thus, Nicholas Rowe suggests that though Jonson was a more learned man and abetter scholar than Shakespeare, the latter had a natural gift of imagination far greater than any amount of careful study could attain. Others like John Dennis have praised Jonson’s dramatic craft for its capacity to expose the ridiculousness of human behaviour through as well as in the major characters of his plays. Writers like Alexander Pope observed that Jonson was the first playwright to bring critical learning in vogue on the English stage, guiding his audience, albeit with some artifice through prologues and declamations, on how to respond to characters and situations. While he recognized
Jonson’s adherence to the classical rules of dramatic composition, especially in the domain of comedy, Pope also warned against the adversarial overstatement of Jonson’s reliance on studious craft and Shakespeare’s free exercise of imagination which earlier critics had been guilty of. While the classical nature of Jonson’s writing predictably did not find favour with Romantic critics and audiences, in the twentieth century there has been a popular and academic resurgence of interest in his work, especially in the specific literary and social context in which he wrote. Thus, contemporary critics like Rosalind Miles have pointed out that Jonson attempted to create an ideal audience, one that would share his standards and accept his assessments, while others like AD. Cousin point to his inevitable dependence on the very men and women whose character he sought to create and improve. Richard Dutton, on the other hand, has critically examined the complex relationship between Volpone and Mosca in the light of the rules of

13 patronage in seventeenth century England, detecting contrary impulses of loyalty and resentment in their equation. Similarly, James Loxley comments on the breakdown of personal and familial relations as well as of public institutions of law and morality in Volpone under the strain of desire in a mercantile culture that is both enacted as well as contained in the specific theatrical context of Jacobean England.

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