“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.

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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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“Volpone” Marketing Blurbs

Short:

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.

Long:

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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