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Home » , » Discuss the play, Volpone, as a comedy of humours?
Jonson wrote many of his plays according to a prescription which has earned them the label "comedy of humours". The humours of which a man's body was supposedly compounded, according to their relative predominance, determined his disposition----choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, or sanguine. Jonson applied the term " humour " metaphorically to what is nowadays called a man's "obsession" or his "complex", and he explained his theory in the Prologue to his Every Man Out of His Humour :

       As when some one peculiar quality doth so possess a man, that it doth draw All his effects, his spirits, and his powers,In their confluctions, all to run one way,This may be truly said to be a humour.

Accordingly, Jonson endows each of his characters with some particular whim or affectation, some ludicrous exaggeration of manner, speech, or dress; and he emphasizes this single oddity so-much that a character's other characteristics  are lost sight of. Thus in Every Man in His Humour, there is the boastful soldier, he clever servant, the greedy and jealous husband, the gay young man, and the dupes. Every Man Out of His Humour has a vainglorious knight, a public jester, an affected courtier, a doting husband, and others. In this play the various characters are ultimately forced out of their affectations through the agency of Macilente who also is cured of his besetting envy.

In Volpone the comedy of humours receives a new dimension. Here Jonson depicts, not individual whims or oddities, but a master-passion, the passion of greed, as it affects a whole social group. The play opens with a hymn to gold which is regarded by Volpone as a "saint" or a "deity". The love of gold pervades the whole play. Not only Volpone, but Mosca and all the legacy-hunters are deeply and passionately in love with money, property, gold. The play shows the extremes of a blatant and savagely selfish materialism. The very names are significant : Volpone; Mosca Voltore ; Corbaccio Corvino. These persons not only partake of the classical tradition of stock characters but constitute the comedy of humours. The raven, the crow, and the vulture differ in circumstances but not in their master passion. The infirm and enfeebled Corbaccio clings to his worldly love of property, and is willing to risk or sacrifice his son's rights in order to feed his precarious life with futile new possessions. Corvino, who was previously an obsessively jealous husband, gets not only ready but eager to prostitute his wife in order to acquire an inheritance. Volpone, with the same aim, degrades his lawyer's profession by his ardent defence of his own and his client's crimes, demanding that the innocent should be punished in their place. When, in the last Act, Voltore makes an attempt to reveal the truth, Corvino cries : "The devil has entered him." Family, marriage, law are not just disregarded; they are made the very instruments of destructive greed.

In order to add to his hoarded wealth, Volpone feigns sickness and en-courages each of the legacy-hunters to believe himself to be the sole heir to Volpone's estate. He looks upon gold as something that transcends all relationships--children, parents, friends. Gold is in his eyes virtue, fame, honour, and all things else. Mosca echoes his master's thoughts and is himself prepared to practise any kind of roguery, knavery, or fraud in order to enrich himself. Celia's beauty can find no greater praise in Mosca's mouth than to be described as bright like gold, and lovely like gold. In his wooing of Celia, the chief temptation that Volpone holds out of her is pearls, diamonds, gems etc.

This love of gold, then, is common to all the principal characters---the two villains and the three dupes. This is the dominant humour common to these various characters. As a comedy of humours. Volpone is different from Every Man in his Humour and Every Man Out of His Humour in so far as Volpone depicts one "humour" while the other two plays depict several "humours".

But Volpone is different in another, and deeper, sense too. The two villains apart from being dominated by their avarice, reveal certain other trains which are no less powerful and which lend complexity to their characters. Volpone, and Mosca are not governed by a single obsession, to the exclusion of every other passion. There are other aspects of their personalities, too, and it is this which distinguishes Volpone from a typical comedy of humours.

Mosca is no mere automation in a scheme of humours. Nor can Volpone be classified as such. Both of them, while being fascinated by gold, transcend mere miserliness. They look upon gold not as something to be possessed for its own sake, but rather as an instrument used to purchase other delights, or as a symbol of their genius. Volpone says that he rejoices " more in the cunning purchase of wealth than in the glad possession ". He believes that a man should " live free to all delights " which fortune invites him to.

is a trickster of an exceptional kind. He has a unique ingenuity of mind, and is distinguished from other persons of his kind by an awareness of his art as something inborn :
O ! your parasite Is a most precious thing, dropped from above....

He becomes at once a typical self- seeker, and yet something more than the average self-seeker. The great, boastful speech he makes in the beginning of Act III lends conviction and vitality to him. He aims at his own fulfilment even before his self-interest. He thus shares something of Volpone's joy in the schemes they both execute. He is carried away by the zest for the game :     
I fear I shall begin to grow in love with my dear self, and my most prosperous parts,They do so spring and burgeon.

Volpone is, even more than Mosca, a versatile knave. He exults in the easy skill with which he succeeds in his frauds. He has more of the artist in him than of the money-maker. He takes active pleasure in his devices and values them more for the satisfaction they bring him than for the monetary gain. What he deftly acquires, he does not merely hoard. As Mosca tells us, he gives liberally to all his dependants. He is by no means a common miser. To Celia he offers his entire fortune.

That brings us to another fact of his personality. He is a sensualist, par excellence. When the bed-ridden old man suddenly changes into Celia's Would-be ravisher, he is no crude, lustful animal, but a lyrical voluptuary. And he tries to capture her imagination with the splendour not only of lavish promises, but of his own magnetic and soaring image. Only when his words fail to move her, does he think of resorting to force.

Volpone is, furthermore, a consummate actor. He adopts different disguises and postures, each with great success. He plays a sick and dying man to perfection, coughing at the right moment, seeming to recover slightly when necessary, moving his hands weakly or lying perfectly still as, the situation requires. In order to catch a glimpse of Celia's beauty, he assumes the disguise of a mountebank and shows such vast knowledge of a mountebank's lore, such attention to little details, such fluency and facility of speech as could not have been surpassed by Dr. Scoto himself. After he has been foiled in his attempt to rape Celia he is called upon to play the part of an absolutely decrepit, impotent old man, and here too he acquits himself splendidly. And when all goes well, his restless spirit is yet not content, and he dresses up as a court official to put the crowning touches to his achievement. Nobody is able to see through his disguise at any stage.

This capacity for counterfeiting roles and playing different parts is displayed by Mosca too. Mosca's acting talent is of no mean order. He can change his facial expression "swifter than a thought". His chief quality as an actor is his flexibility. He can in a quick succession play many roles. First, he is the humble servant of each of the legacy-hunters whom he feeds on false promises and assurances. Then he is the tearful friend of Bonario to whom he reveals his father's intention to disinherit him. Next, he is the smiling pimp or procurer. Presently he appears as the stern inheritor of Volpone's fortune, the impressive Magnifico. There seems no end to his resources, and all that he pretends to be appears genuine. And he shows other theatrical talents too.

All this shows that the two leading characters of this play, the two characters who direct the action till they wreck each other, cannot be fitted into a reading of this play merely as a comedy of humours. These two characters transcend the restricted scope of such a comedy by their complexity, the variety of their interests, and the range of their activities. The label " comedy of humours " is applicable to this play only in a limited sense.So far we have not spoken of Sir Politic and Lady Would-be. These two like the three birds of prey, do surely represent certain specific humours. Both are "parrots", that is, excessively talkative, and both talk about trivialities. Sir Politic thinks himself to be a statesman of considerable importance. That is his affectation. Nor is it correct to say that he is untouched by the general passion for gold. He has his " projects " which can yield substantial profits only if he could find a reliable man to execute them. Lady Would-be joins the mad race for legacy-hunting, and to keep up with the latest fashion in Venice is her affectation. Both husband and wife are, however, forced out their humours by the treatment they receive from Peregrine and Mosca respectively.

Nor should we ignore Bonario and Celia. Uninteresting and shadowy as they are, they yet contribute to the comedy of humours. They are the repre-sentatives of goodness in a corrupt and materialistic society, and their virtue is their humour.


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