Ben Jonson's Volpone is a play that defies categorization. It is usually classified as a comedy, although its tone and structure don't resemble traditional comedies of the period. Although Volpone uses many conventions of comedy, the play takes on many characteristics of tragedy as well, making it a most unique play.
The structure of Volpone doesn't follow the traditional "curve of comedy", which involves falling action for the protagonists for the beginning of the play, followed by rising action later on. Instead, Volpone takes on falling action for the end of the play, as in a tragedy. Unlike a traditional Elizabethan tragedy, however, none of the characters die during the play, and the just are rewarded while the wicked are punished. An attempt to interpret the characters and plot of Volpone using the theory of comic functions merely emphasizes the distinctness of this play.
The center of the function theory of comedy is the seeker/goal pair, which is traditionally a young man who seeks to marry a girl. In Volpone, the characters aren't seeking after girls, but money and the enjoyment of cheating others. The closest thing to a standard seeker/goal pair is found when Volpone seeks Celia, but his version of love is perverted lust and he is not successful. In the end, none of these "seekers" is satisfied, showing them all to be false seekers.
The events of the play bring out the worst in its characters. In the prologue to Every Man in His Humour, Jonson said that comedy should report "deeds and language, such as men do use," "show an image of the times, And sport with human follies, not with crimes." I feel that Volpone does fit this description. Volpone isn't so much about the crimes its main character commits, but his obsession with crime and the way it affects the characters around him, eventually making their versions of reality as warped as his.
Volpone seems to be a play about perversion. The protagonist, Volpone, has a truly distorted view of reality. This is evidenced in the first lines of the play: "Good morning to the Day; and, next, my Gold /Open the shrine, that I may see my Saint." (1.1.1-2). Volpone puts his Gold above God, and calls it his "saint", although this isn't his true motive. He admits that "I glory/ More in the cunning purchase of my wealth/ Than in the glad possession" (1.1.30-32). Volpone's real tragic flaw lies in his love of the con game. Even during conning his three marks, Volpone manages to make a few pence (and get a look at Celia) while posing as a Mountebank doctor, and after he's successfully finished his con, he can't help going back to rub it in. In that way, Volpone seems more like a tragic over-reacher than a comic hero, or villain for that matter.
Many other characters seem to go against nature, too. The old man, Corbaccio is forced to disinherit his son in an attempt to secure his place in Volpone's will, just as the married Corvino is willing to become a cuckold for it. Even Voltore, a presumably respected lawyer, will lie in court for Volpone's untold riches.
Jonson uses Celia as a counter example of what people should and would have traditionally done in such a circumstance to further illustrate this point. Her speech, when confronted with Volpone's proposition, is the way that people would be expected to respond:
Oh God, and his angels! whither, whither is shame fled
human breasts? That with such ease, men dare put off your
honors and their own? Is that, which ever was cause of life,
now placed beneath the basest circumstance? And modesty an
exile made for money? 3.7.132-138
This distortion of reality comes full circle when Volpone, previously the con man controlling the action, is in turn conned by his parasite. The old fox, previously the hero of fables, has been outwitted: "To make a snare for mine own neck! And run / My head into it willfully, with laughter! / When I had newly 'scaped, was free and clear!" (5.11.1-3). Despite Volpone's best efforts, the order of nature wins out, and he and his accomplices are captured and punished, although in ways which are much more harsh than in traditional Elizabethan comedies.
Volpone is a very unique example of Elizabethan Drama. Here we have a play, which is part comedy, part tragedy and part fable. It is very different from the romantic comedies that make up most of Shakespeare's comic output, and seems to represent a new sort of Elizabethan Comedy, creating its own category. This "rare" play certainly deserves its place in the canon.
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