“Volpone:” Medieval Bestiaries & Reynard the Fox

Barry Honold

There is a reason that the characters in Volpone behave like beasts: one of Jonson’s sources was beast fables that dated back to antiquity. The most popular of these were Aesop’s fables. He began the practice of giving animals human characteristics to impart moral lessons. In the Middle Ages, monks picked up the practice and illuminated the margins of their manuscripts with mini-fables. The fox, already known as a cunning animal, was an obvious choice to embody the traits of the conman. By the thirteenth century, there were two French manuscripts depicting a fox who routinely flouted law and authority: Reynard.

These manuscripts depict Reynard doing what comes most naturally: fooling other people for his benefit. He assaults a rabbit with a broom. He jousts with his lifelong enemy, Ysengrin the wolf. He robs other animals of their food and possessions without a thought. He tricks a rooster into pulling him in a cart so he doesn’t have to walk. He tricks a sheep into stranding itself at the bottom of a well so he can escape the well. Patiricia M. Gathercole writes that one manuscript depicts Reynard at the top of a Wheel of Fortune (a medieval idea which depicted the natural rises and falls of man), “with cape and crown, [presiding] in glory.” He even wrestles with Noble, the lion king of the beasts.

The stories of Reynard are legion and tend to go like this: Reynard dupes another animal into harming itself, either for Reynard’s benefit or sheer amusement. The animal does so and realizes later it’s been wronged. Both appear before the king for a trial and Reynard shrewdly worms his way out of trouble (usually, by showing the king a hidden treasure or tricking the king into believing the aggrieved animal is actually at fault).

Jonson was working from a central image: a fox on its back feigning death to lure birds of prey close to its mouth. According to Oxford Journals author D.A. Scheve, the earliest mention we have of this is from the first century AD. It is in a Greek hunting and fishing tome by Oppianus. Furthermore, “the episode of the fox…is set forth in detail in a book Jonson had in his library, Conrad Gresner’s Historia Animalium.” Richard Dutton writes that the most famous version (which Jonson also read) hails from a fifteenth-century translation of The History of Reynard the Fox. Reynard pretends to be dead, as is his wont. He loses the crow; his “actual victim [is] the crow’s wife (that is, the play’s Celia).”

The stories of Reynard appear throughout the Continent from the Middle Ages through the late Victorian Era. Another popular edition was published after Volpone, 1620’s Reynard the Fox. It had two sequels. The first deals with Reynard’s appointment to a royal position and his subsequent attempt at a coup d’état. He is caught and executed in the final chapter. The second is entitled The Shifts of Reynardine the Son of Reynard the Fox. It tells the story of how Reynard instructs his two sons (Reynardine and Volponus) to avenge his death. The stories’ populatiry peaked in the 1700s. By the end of the Victorian Era, it was relegated to children’s tales.

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 4:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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Greed in “Volpone”

Barry Honold

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” — Gordon Gekko, Wall Street

Gordon Gekko’s infamous Wall Street speech perfectly captures the motivations of the central characters in Volpone. They are all greedy for something: money, station, sex, acclaim. Corvino is willing to prostitute his own wife. Voltore suborns and commits perjury. Corbaccio disinherits her own son. Mosca betrays his master.

One would be hard-pressed to find any admirable characters in the play. Even Celia and Bonario are guilty of naiveté in the extreme. C.J. Gianakaris writes that Jonson’s goal accorded with the role of the contemporary playwright: to please and to teach. Instead of a good character to offset the ill, we are forced to settle for characters whose best trait is that they are less reprehensible than others. James A. Riddell writes that the audience “is asked to see the effects of bestial appetites and at the same time to enjoy being fed upon them.” Ultimately, the audience itself is invited to pass judgment and take note of their own follies.

And Volpone outshines them all as the most roguish. He is a grand, charismatic, and flawed figure who simply cannot help himself. His life is a constant con in pursuit of more. Stephen Goldblatt writes that Volpone views himself as “liberated from any hierarchy in the universe which would impose limits in his being.” At the very beginning of the play, he admits that his true passion is more for the game itself than what he may get out of it. He reinforces this attitude after the trial which imprisons Celia and Bonario. He enjoyed the adrenaline rush of the events “more than if I had enjoy’d the wench.” We see the depths of his solipsism up front. Instead of God or honor, he has placed himself and his golden shrine at the center of the universe. He says that he is loath to place people in debtor’s prison because they owe him. Likewise, he despises tearing families apart. Mosca agrees with the sentiment before implying that Volpone does these things anyway.

The lack of a good character means that the bad characters must self-destruct. And they do: Gianakaris writes that the gulls are gulled, and Volpone steps forward to his doom because of his irrational greed. The idea that someone could beat him at his own game is unacceptable. Furthermore, his greed extends even to schadenfreude. The true moment of his demise is when he leaves in disguise to torment his former “heirs.” In doing so, he has made Mosca master of the house. Later, given the choice to share with Mosca or reveal himself, he chooses mutually assured destruction. In the final analysis of the play, “cleverness, having confounded stupidity, now confounds itself….no one ends with what he desires. All the plans lie in ruins because of a lack of sound judgment.” The house of cards collapses for the two main characters under the weight of their own egos.

Volpone may have been imprisoned and subject to a long, humiliating mortification. But his character type, already with a long history, would reach his fulfillment in English Restoration comedies. The “fop” plays of the latter 1600s specialized in rich people behaving badly.

Gekko was right. When it comes to storytelling, greed is good.

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 4:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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“Volponse” Production History & Trivia

• The play premiered with the King’s Men at the Globe Theatre in 1606. Jonson had almost certainly used long-time collaborators John Lowin and Alexander Cooke, but who played what roles is unknown. A plague outbreak limited its production the next year to Oxford and Cambridge, audiences that would appreciate his just-added Pythagoras satire. The play certainly remained in the King’s Men repertory throughout the period. After the Restoration, Jonson found himself in favor with Charles’ court, which helped the play garner more performances (by one account, fifty before 1770). As with many other Jacobean plays, it had fallen from favor before the end of the century. Even in the early eighteenth century, critics had complained about the improbability of the fifth act, which was frequently likened to farce, and to Jonson’s highly Latinate language. By the end of that century, these objections had come to seem insurmountable to producers, and the play survived only in reading. – Edited from Wikipedia

• Works by Ben Jonson: The Alchemist, Cynthia’s Revels, Every Man in His Humour, Every Man out of His Humour, Poetaster, Volpone, Sejanus, Catiline, Bartholomew Fair, The Devil is an Ass, Staple of News, Eastward Ho!, Epicoene

• A whale was actually reported in the River Thames in early 1606. Based on the play’s mention of the whale, scholars have placed the first performance of Volpone between March 9 – 25 of 1606. This accounts for both Sir Politick’s seven-week trip to Venice and the prologue’s description of the play being written in five weeks.

•  A PBS article notes that Jonson’s writing was championed by none other than Shakespeare. Their relationship was somewhat thorny: Jonson thought Shakespeare pandered to the lowest common denominator. When Jonson “embraced” Boys’ Companies, the feud grew so heated that the two “came to blows.” They continued sniping at each other in their plays. There was a “War of the Theatres,” with opposing writers attacking their counterparts and actors across town. The article “Jonson and Shakespeare at Chess” argues that the war led to an alleged satirizing of Jonson in Troilus and Cressida. There is an unauthenticated and dubious painting of the two, celebrating the event wherein Shakespeare is literally and figuratively check-mating a surprised Jonson. However, modern scholars have questioned whether the “war” was really just a publicity stunt and are unanimous that Shakespeare played no role in it.

•  Volpone’s parasite, Mosca, bears little resemblance to predecessors. Mosca more closely resembles the English parasites than ‘those miserable, fawning, half-starved creatures [that] haunt the plays of Plautus and Terence.” The English tradition gave the parasite more cunning and wit. – Lucius Hudson Holt, “Notes on Ben Jonson’s Volpone

•  The play is not confined merely to follies, as were the earlier comedies, but includes crimes, so that, as Coleridge remarks, “there is no goodness of heart in any of the prominent characters.” Nevertheless, the production of Volpone restored Jonson’s popularity, which had been temporarily dimmed by the poor reception accorded Sejanus. The latter play had taught him the necessity of a closely knit plot and the value of Roman history as a source. Legacy-hunting, so frequent in Roman literature, had impressed him as fertile soil for imposture and fraud, and for the materials of the play he drew suggestions from numerous classical sources, among which may be mentioned Lucian’s dialogues, Horace’s satires, and Libanius. Professor J. D. Rea in his edition of the play has stressed Jonson’s debt to Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. The scene of the action is quite appropriately laid in Italy, to the Elizabethan mind the land of villainy, and only in the sub-plot (which, although it affords some effective comic episodes, does not advance the action) does Jonson introduce a bit of his own England in the persons of Sir Politic and his lady. –theatrehistory.com

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 4:03 am  Leave a Comment  

Ben Jonson

Barry Honold

Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) was the “highbrow” playwright to his “lowbrow” friend and rival, William Shakespeare. He was well-read and his intelligence comes out in his biting satire.

His father was a clergyman who died just before he was born. His mother soon remarried a local bricklayer. Jonson attended school at St. Martin’s Church and showed an early talent for language. He fell in love with the classics and eventually excelled at both Greek and Latin. He briefly attended Westminster but left at seventeen to go help his stepfather in the bricklaying business. He became a soldier and fought for the crown in the Netherlands. His classical leanings even showed in his fighting. He boasted that, like Homer’s Achilles, he killed a man in single combat and stripped him of his armor.

He was imprisoned for a month in 1597 for the now-lost The Isle of Dogs, which possibly satirized Queen Elizabeth. He found his first success the next year with Every Man in His Humour, in which Shakespeare acted. Jonson was back in prison a few months later for killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. Facing execution, he quickly drew on his vast education and claimed “right of clergy” (clergymen could only be tried by ecclesiastical courts, not secular ones), then recited scripture in Latin. His property was confiscated and his thumb branded, but he was free.

W. Speed Hill once wrote that, whatever else one thought of Jonson, one was forced to concede his “utter inability to countenance criticism.” He had recently co-authored The Page of Plymouth and Robert the Second, King of Scots with Thomas Dekker when he was satirized as too prideful by John Marston. Jonson did not turn the other cheek – he fired back with <i.Every Man Out of His Humour, which attacked Marston’s garrulousness. What ensued was the “War of the Theatres,” a three-year campaign of insults. It drew so much publicity that Shakespeare mentioned it in Hamlet with Guildenstern’s line, “oh, there has been much throwing around of brains.”

He got in trouble for Eastward Ho! because of its political themes and was questioned about potential involvement in Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up Parliament. His reputation suffered because Sejanus failed as a tragedy. However, the Restoration of James I gave his career a boost. The Theatre History website notes that Jonson was responsible for over half of the Court Masques presented to the king. He was honored in 1619 with the title M.A. of Oxford, which signified acceptance by his academic peers. He suffered from a stroke in 1628 which left him partially paralyzed. Charles II gave him an administrative post as city chronologer the next year, which included a small pension. After his death in 1637, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. His acolytes published a collection of poems dedicated to him in 1638, the Jonsonus Virbius.

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 4:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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“Volpone” Marketing Blurbs


Greed. Pride. Volpone.

In this darkly comic fable about age-old vices, a sly fox and his parasite exploit the greedy with embarrassing and hilarious results. Then, Volpone sees a young beauty and is consumed with lust. The stakes grow ever higher and betrayals reveal “polite society” as savage beasts.


Greed. Pride. Volpone.

In this darkly comic fable about age-old vices, a sly fox and his parasite exploit the greedy with embarrassing and hilarious results. The lovable, self-absorbed Volpone and his clever, ambitious servant Mosca have three perfect victims. Each is convinced Volpone will soon die and they have been named his heir. There’s Corvino, a desperate, violent, and conveniently jealous merchant. The old miser Corbaccio will forsake her own blood for the fortune. The silver-tongued lawyer Voltore manipulates language and subverts justice. Will Volpone and Mosca succeed, or is someone playing all sides? Ben Jonson’s biting wit and social satire bring this timeless tale of double and triple crosses to life.

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 3:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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Dialects in Huck Finn

By Barry Honold

In the preface to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain gives a brief statement about regional dialects:

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding”

What precisely he meant by this is curious; it’s been both dismissed as a joke and closely scrutinized. The earliest attacks on the novel were directed at the language. Twain was one of the first American novelists to write in the vernacular of the region about which he was writing. Many people found such vernacular usage vulgar. One month after the book was released, a Massachusetts library banned it, deeming it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” According to the PBS “Culture Shock” page on the novel, “[its] free-spirited and not always truthful hero as well as its lack of respect for religion or adult authority draw immediate fire from newspaper critics. The ungrammatical vernacular voice in which Huck narrates the book is also attacked as coarse and inappropriate. Some readers find the colorful stories Huck tells immoral, sacrilegious, and inappropriate for children.” Twain wrote in the vernacular for literary flavor; one article attributes this to Twain’s desire to “allow the reader to have a closer connection to the setting of the story and [permit] the story to be more believable and understandable.”

The institution of slavery in the US proscribed education amongst slaves. Society discouraged it, and some states legislated against it.  Some slaves were quietly educated by their owners, but the majority were not. The common fear among whites at the time was another Nat Turner slave rebellion.  As one article put it, Jim speaks in an uneducated fashion because he is, point in fact, uneducated, not because  Twain “made him” that way.

Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Roger Miller: King of the River

By Barry Honold

Roger Miller was once asked how he wanted to be remembered; he fired back with “I don’t want to be forgotten.” The idea of that happening is unlikely. His quirky, fast-paced, and witty nature is reflected in the eclectic quality of his work.  At the very least, he is notable for being the only country music artist (thus far) to win a Tony Award for Big River: the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, based on Mark Twain’s classic novel.

Miller was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression. His father died from spinal meningitis when Miller was an infant. His mother had no way to care for him or his two siblings, so they were scattered to the winds, sent to live with different relatives. He went to live with an aunt and uncle in Erick, Oklahoma. As a child, his musical talent manifested itself early; he wrote a song for his mother at the age of six. However, he was bad at schoolwork and withdrawn. He once joked that he flunked “school bus” but had the “highest marks” at getting rapped on the knuckles with a ruler.

He was excited when a cousin began dating local entertainer Sheb Wooley (who appeared in High Noon, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and sang “Purple People Eater”). Wooley taught him how to play guitar and fiddle, and the two would use everyday occasions to talk about making it in the entertainment industry. According to Miller’s website, Wooley once remarked that it was “really a good thing that [Miler] made it in the music business ’cause he would have starved to death as a farmer.” Miller made little money picking cotton, and had his heart set on a new guitar. He was drifting back and forth between Texas and Oklahoma, and stole a guitar from a shop in Texas. Wracked with guilt, he returned it the next day. He was given the choice between jail or the army, and soon was in Korea.

After serving, he came to Nashville. One of his favorite stories was about an informal audition with Chet Atkins, who famously told the young Miller to get in some more practice in. The Country Music Hall of Fame page notes that he soon landed a slot in Minnie Pearl’s band playing fiddle. Through her, he met George Jones, who recorded Miller’s “Tall, Tall Trees.” Miller’s early success was largely writing for other artists. Soon, marital and financial pressures forced him to move to Texas and become a fireman. There, he met Ray Price and became a backup singer for his band.

Miller continued to write songs for other performers, and started performing his own. A Free Republic article notes that he was signed to the Smash record label in 1964, and released the songs that would launch his career: “Dang Me” and “Chug-A-Lug.” They were instant sensations. He received five Grammy Awards, including “Best New Country and Western Music Artist.” His songwriting and performing continued doing well. In 1965, he had a formidable opponent at the Grammys: the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” His secret weapon: “King of the Road,” which was doing very well on the pop and country music charts. He beat the Beatles “in two separate categories. That year, Miller went home with awards in six of his nine nominations….Miller’s Grammy domination had been so complete, the rules were changed so it wouldn’t happen again.”

In 1982, Miller was approached by Broadway producer (and future NEA chairman) Rocco Landesman. Landesman, a fan of Miller, had been toying with the idea of how to turn the iconic story of Huckleberry Finn into a musical. He thought Miller would be perfect. Miller didn’t know how to write for a musical, and the songs were delayed. Finally, Landesman locked Miller in a hotel room, and told him to start writing. Miller angrily stormed out with a hastily-written song and told Landesman that “if you want Rembrandt – that takes time.” Big River: the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a smash hit, winning seven Tony awards. The role of Pap was originally played by a very young John Goodman. Miller later took over the role. Pap reminded him of his uncle, who didn’t drink as much, but enjoyed “cussin’ the government.”

Many of his performances are available on YouTube, and show his quick wit. In 1965, he performed and was interviewed for Gene Davis’ show. Davis mentioned the song “The Moon is High, and So am I,” asking “how does it go?” Miller chuckles his response: “pretty well, so far.” Later, he appeared on “The Dean Martin Show.” He and Martin sang a duet on “King of the Road,” with Martin singing from a lavish trailer festooned with women and a bear rug. Miller’s set trailer was barely big enough to stand in, sparsely furnished, and had a litter of kittens on an old bed. Miller was good-natured during all this and actually had fun at his own expense. Other interesting videos include Miller’s appearances on “The Muppet Show.” He also did voice-over work and a few songs for the Disney animated film Robin Hood.

He spent a few years out of the spotlight, and then went on a nationwide tour featuring just him and his guitar. In 1991, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away in 1992. In 1995, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“Forgotten?” Impossible.

Race in “Huckleberry Finn”

Edited by Barry Honold

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (set in the 1840s) was published in 1885, after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. It was the beginning of the Jim Crow era and open racial resentment, especially in the South. The routine use of the denigrating word “n****r” was part of this prejudice. Its use at the time was not reviled the way it is today. Twain’s use of it in the novel was an accurate reflection of the “time, place, and people about which he was writing,” according to a Syracuse Stage article.  Roger Miller and William Hauptman decided to keep the use of the word for Big River: the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The article also notes that “the use of Twain’s original language, however truthful to the time, requires a degree of discussion and context not entirely provided by the production alone.” The book has long been a source of controversy. It was decried as too vulgar, too vernacular, and most recently (and seriously) racist. Here are some excerpts from various scholars and teachers who have written about Twain and race.

From Lucille Fultz’s review of Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn:

The editors…have compiled some of the most conflicting and controversial critical perspectives on Huckleberry Finn in a highly charged volume that leaves its readers with no stable or comfortable position on Twain’s novel….With the benefit of more than a century of critical studies of Twain’s novel and the responses of several generations of readers, the critics assembled here, within an Afrocentric matrix…historicize and contextualize the issues raised by Huckleberry Finn.

In the first essay, “The Case Against Huck Finn, John H. Wallace…characterizes the novel as “the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written…whether the author intended it to be or not.” [He] defends his position on the grounds that no teacher is able to counter the racism and pain engendered in black readers when they hear [that word] and observe the dehumanization of Jim.

Toni Morrison’s reading…grants the use of [that word] as racial and offers a radical counterpoint to Wallace’s assessment of Twain’s novel….She holds that the word…is “inextricable from Huck’s deliberations about who and what he himself is – or more precisely, is not.” Morrison insists that Huck’s moral maturation as a human being is contingent of Jim and that “freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the specter of enslavement…the signed, marked, informing, and mutating presence of a black slave.”

From “Old Dog/New Tricks: Reteaching Huck Finn and Pop Culture” (Elisabeth Haley, National Council of Teachers of English):

Everyone knows the problem with teaching Huck Finn. Mr. Twain, himself, would greatly appreciate the irony in the fact that the novel he wrote to condemn racism is one century later condemned as racist trash. The novel is a stick of dynamite that could explode even before being ignited. No teacher in her right mind wants to teach it. But wait a minute…the truth is the novel is as timely today as it was in 1875. Who denies the fact that we live in a world of gang wars, con artists, parents with drug-abuse problems, neglected youth, and racial conflict?

….there is one character who, in the midst of all the confusion and negative messages in his society, in spite of his lack of parental direction or support, looks deeply into his soul and uncovers a strong moral conscience and a working understanding of his own convictions. Most importantly, the book is a tale of an interracial friendship that is one of the enduring bonds of loyalty in all literature. So the problem remains: how to preserve the character and messages in the novel while avoiding the offensive text?

From “Teaching Huck Finn in a Multiethnic Classroom” (Ann Lew, NCTE):

….I took a class called “Race and Literature…” where Huck Finn was a required text. I told the professor of my recent experience with teaching this novel; he encouraged me to investigate any question that would help me teach it again….I reread the novel and examined each episode that involves Jim.

Contrary to the charges of negative stereotyping, Jim is consistently shown to be smart, assertive, and compassionate. In his quiet, gentle way, he boldly violates the behavior code of the slave as prescribed by the white system. He emerges as a superior character who not only teaches Huck morality but who himself rises above the brutalizing effects of slavery.

Is Huck Finn a valuable piece of literature, and is Jim an appropriate role model for teenagers in the 1990s? If the novel is taught in the context of history and if the students are provided adequate guidance in their reading and interpretation, I would give an enthusiastic “yes” to both questions. Considerations of time and place are crucial to understanding behavior; students must be made aware of what the struggle for justice entailed in the nineteenth century. However, without guidance, students may not get beyond the language to understand the substance of Twain’s message. Worse yet, they might totally misread him, as so many people continue to do.

From “Huck Finn: Born to Trouble” (Katherine Schulten, NCTE):

In 1995, a group of African American students…eleventh graders who had previously been A students – suddenly began failing tests and quizzes in their English class. As long as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was being taught…they would no longer do the work. Before assigning it, the teacher had not mentioned that the book was controversial, nor had she mentioned the 200-plus instances of the word…in the novel. As a result…no one was prepared for the power of the word in class. White students would nervously “snicker” or “turn around and stare” at the few African American students when the word was read aloud. [Those] students…felt too self-conscious to speak up or ask their teacher for help. Instead, they went home and told their parents. Long frustrated with the lack of multicultural content in the district’s curricula in general, their parents decided it was time to act….It took nearly a year, but in the end [everybody] found a way to teach Huck Finn that addressed each group’s concerns.

[Curriculum co-developer Sandy Forchion’s] position was unique: “I was a black English teacher who was against censorship but who had despised the way Huck Finn was taught to me when I was in school.” [Matthew] Carr says that his desire to get involved hinged on learning early on that this challenge to Huck Finn was “not just some current ‘PC’ thing but an issue that had been raised continuously over the last forty years. “I realized this was long-term and had caused deep-rooted anger and pain,” he says.

“We looked for demeaning areas, places where students might find the portrayal of blacks laughable,” [Forchion noted]. Then they countered these passages with documents from the period that give additional background. They believe students will be less likely to dismiss Jim’s superstition as simple-minded…if they understand them in the context of slave life and religion. Ending the unit with a slave narrative, such as…Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, helps students look at forms of resistance and opens a discussion about whether “wearing a mask,” as Jim does, is as valid a form of resistance as any other.

What do you and your students think?

Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 8:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Proof:” Carl Friedrich Gauss & Sophie Germain

By Barry Honold

Author Elizabeth Klaver asks, why does “Auburn choose the prime numbers and not some other area of mathematics?” Her answer: Sophie Germain, Catherine’s character, and Germain Primes provide a rather “nice connection.” Catherine is working on a proof involving prime numbers. Germain was one of the first professionally-accepted female mathematicians, and her story ties directly into that of her mentor: Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777 – 1855).

Gauss is arguably the greatest mathematician who ever lived. His skill first manifested itself at the age of nine. He was clearly meant to enter academia. Under Gauss, Germany would become the “mathematical Mecca of Europe.” A colleague thought him the perfect man to finally solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. Gauss declined, replying that one could easily “lay down a multitude of such provisions, which one could neither prove nor disprove.” He made a number of advancements in optics, map-making, magnetism, non-Euclidean geometry, and invented an early telegraph. He was a master of the Romance languages and spent his sunset years learning Sanskrit and mastering Russian to correspond with colleagues there in their native tongue. He was, to quote one biographer, “a master in the deepest and most abstract questions of knowledge.”

He corresponded with many mathematicians on the Continent, though he never left his native Germany. One in particular fascinated him: an inquisitive and bright young Frenchman by the name of Monsieur Leblanc. When the French occupied his native Brunswick, an officer paid a visit, and said that he had been instructed by a certain Mademoiselle Germain to inquire about Gauss’ health. Gauss was confused; the name “Germain” meant nothing to him. His colleagues began to needle him about keeping a Frenchwoman as a lover.

Three months later, the mystery was solved: in a letter, one Sophie Germain admitted to having “previously taken the name of Leblanc” in writing to Gauss. Gauss was an open-minded individual, and pleasantly surprised at her little trick. He replied:

“How can I describe my astonishment and admiration on seeing my esteemed correspondent M. Leblanc metamorphosed into this celebrated person. . . when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarizing herself with [number theory’s] knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius.”

Germain (1776 – 1831) defied all expectations of her time. She received a Grand Prix from Napoleon for her work in acoustics and prefigured Comte’s positivism. When she was thirteen, she was in her father’s study reading a copy of History of Mathematics. Upon reading the legend of Archimedes’ death, she developed an interest in mathematics. Her parents were fiercely opposed to her studying math, so she studied at night. When they discovered this, they took her candles. She responded by hiding candles, and using them after bedtime. This escalation continued until her parents gave up in exasperation. Later, she realized that she needed to know Latin to read Newton and Euler. Having no instructors, she went about it “alone and unaided.” 

Germain realized that this bias against her would be the norm, and adopted the name of “M. Leblanc” to correspond with noted mathematicians. One in particular, Joseph Louis Lagrange, took note of her skill and the two routinely wrote.  As Jess Fernandez-Martinez wrote, she “procured for herself students’ notebooks,” particularly those in Lagrange’s classes. She then went over them thoroughly, and began sending in notebooks of her own. Lagrange was immediately intrigued by this student’s exceptional skill and began touting the pupil to anyone who would listen. Lagrange arranged to meet “him,” and met her. So delighted was he that he lent his prestigious name to her cause, and she was soon meeting with some of the foremost minds in France.

The French government had a call to solve a problem regarding acoustics, which she did on her third try, while none of her male colleagues would touch the problem. Gauss recommended that she be granted an honorary degree. Unlike him, she did try her hand at proving FLT.  As a result, we have the Germain Primes, without which FLT would have taken even longer to prove. Unfortunately, she died of breast cancer before receiving her honorary degree.

“Proof:” Fermat, Wiles, & Auburn

By Barry Honold

David Auburn, in deciding how much math to include in Proof, had to strike a delicate balance: though math is an integral part of the story, it is not a “math play.” However, he did try “to get in as much kind of math lore as possible” One central theme is that of the lone genius. Catherine, the lone genius in Proof, has many real-life counterparts in math and science. However, none may be more fitting than Princeton University’s Andrew Wiles.

In 1993, Wiles flew to a conference in England. There was a steady drip of rumor regarding what he had been secretly working on. This, writes Amir Aczel, took seven years and kept Wiles “a virtual prisoner in his own attic.” He was allotted an unusual three hours of lecture time. When he arrived, he kept to himself and discussed nothing. This uncharacteristic secrecy from a colleague sparked curiosity, and attendance to his lectures soared.

As he spoke, it became obvious what problem he was about to solve. For over 300 years, it had gone unsolved by the best and the brightest in math. History was made with the utterance of two simple sentences: “And this proves Fermat’s Last Theorem. I think I’ll stop here.” The lecture hall exploded in a standing ovation. Wiles had done it. The cameras snapped and the global press was soon in contact.

Calvin Clawson writes that Pierre de Fermat, after whom Fermat’s Last Theorem was named, may be “the greatest mathematician of the seventeenth century.” Only after his son posthumously published his work did he receive the acclaim he so rightly deserved. Fermat was a lawyer by education, who spent his career performing nominal legal duties that allowed him to fervently pursue his hobby: math.

If Fermat the amateur is judged on both quality and sheer volume of his work, he outshines many professional mathematicians. What he became famous for was a margin note. After his posthumous publication, a scribble was discovered in the margin of a Fermat manuscript. Per Aczel, it stated that “ has no whole number solution if (n) is greater than 2.”

Fermat wrote that he had a proof for this formula, but “the margin is not large enough to contain it.” The equation went on to bedevil mathematicians for over 300 years. In the play, Hal says that Catherine’s proof regards “a mathematical theorem about prime numbers, something mathematicians have been trying to prove since…there were mathematicians. Most people thought it couldn’t be done.” That was most certainly the consensus in the math community about Fermat’s Last Theorem for three centuries. Until Wiles.

Richard Hornsby writes that Proof is about “the obsessive, fascinating, all-consuming process of doing mathematics” and that Auburn is “second to none in depicting all three mathematicians’ enthusiasm for their work.” The play was never meant to be based on the events of 1993 – 1995. But the mathematicians all share Wiles’ enthusiasm and obsession. He described proving FLT (its shortened name) as akin to “entering a dark mansion. After some scientific, trial-and-error fumbling about, you learn the location of the furniture. Then you locate that room’s light switch. Then, it’s on to the next room to repeat the process.”

 Catherine and Wiles both built upon centuries of work for their achievements. The completion of their work would have been impossible if not for their predecessors. According to Hal, Catherine’s proof was very “hip,” and utilized a “lot of newer techniques” that were developed after her father’s time. Wiles’ final proof relied heavily upon post-WWII advances in math. Wiles, in essence, merely completed the process. Both lone geniuses merely completed a process started long before they were even born. They were the final, elegant piece of the mathematical puzzle.

Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 5:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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