“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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