skip to main | skip to sidebar
Home » , » How far is it possible to regard volpone as a modern criticism of capitalism
Feeding may be regarded as the central image of the play, Volpone, because it is the core of many other images here. Feeding might be said to symbolize the double theme of greed for riches and lust for sensuous pleasures and volpone as a modern criticism of capitalism.     The final lines of the play----" mischiefs feed/Like beasts till they be fat, and then they bleed" -sum up the imagery of feeding. It is the First Magistrate who makes this observation which is a summing up and a comment on the meaning of the animal imagery in the play. It is this natural fattening and natural bleeding which restores the order of things. The principal villains, Volpone the fox, and Mosca the fly, fatten themselves on their victims and by their own over-reaching bleed themselves. "I must be merry, with a mischief to me!"* says Volpone with regard to his over-reaching himself. And Mosca, the flesh-fly who had so long fed on the flesh of another, has begun to grow in love with his dear self, and is feeling a whimsy in his blood. It is the beasts themselves not the law, who restore the order.

The first half of the play tends to revolve around Volpone's bed; the second half around the court. The true function of both the bed and the court has become perverted. Normally, a bed is an immemorial symbol of rest, sexual pleasure, and pregnancy, and secondarily, of birth, death, and sickness. But in this play the bed has become a symbol of pretence and falsehood. The sickness is false; the death is false; the rest which Volpone is supposed to be taking is also false: Volpone is more vigorous and active than anyone else except Mosca. Even the sex is false, for Volpone finds cheating the fools around him more pleasurable than making love to a woman. As the normal function of the bed has been so perverted, Volpone's punishment is symbolically just: he is to lie in prison, cramped with irons, till he actually becomes sick and lame. He had fattened himself for some time, only to meet this fate. Early in the play, there was enough to see what a " rare punishment " avarice was to itself. Then, after his first hearing in the court, he begins to "bleed". His left leg has the cramp, and some power has struck him with a " dead palsy". Volpone, who was a disease to others, has become a disease to himself.

But the power that strikes him with a dead palsy is brought into operation by himself, not by the court. The Fox, refusing to be cheated by his subordinate, throws off his disguise and reveals his identity.

Feeding is at the heart of the animal imagery in the play. We have the phrase "pecking for carrion".* Volpone constantly thinks in terms of feeding others or himself. He feeds others in expectation, and Celia he will feed with the Phoenix and other rate delicacies. Both Volpone and Mosca think of hope as something to eat. Mosca compares Volpone's hopes to fair blossoms which promise timely fruit. Later he says that the legacy-hunters could not perceive that they were being deceived because each was "stuffed with his own hopes". Hopes are " milked"; and hope is "such a bait, it covers any hook".

Many are the things which, in this play, are depicted as food to be eaten. Celia is " a beauty ripe as harvest ".* This comparison means that she is either a lamb or a foodgrain. Again, " all her looks are sweet as the first grapes, or cherries". Laughter becomes something to be eaten, when Volpone says that the shabby treatment of the legacy-hunters "will afford me a rare meal of laugh-ter." Or, once eaten, it is something to be purged. Mosca advises his master to contain his "flux of laughter." Flux, in the physiological sense, meant the flowing out of any excess in blood, excrement, etc. from the bowels or other organs. The shabby treatment itself is thought of by Volpone as a "feast". Gold is regarded as a drink. " Our drink", Volpone tells Celia, "shall be prepared gold and amber". Drinkable gold was thought of as a very effective remedy. But Volpone's drinking gold seems like a parody of the Communion : he must drink the blood of his dumb god, riches. But gold is not simply something to be drunk. Mosca visualizes Voltore swimming in liquid gold. Gold becomes both a bath and a meal.

But the ultimate reach of feeding goes beyond woman as an object of sexual pleasure, laughter, hope, and gold. The final food is man himself. This is implied in more than one place. Early in the play when Volpone says that he will not earn money by uneasy. Mosca adds. " No, sir, nor devour soft prodigals." Mosca also says that Volpone will not "swallow a melting heir". In other words, Volpone will not feed himself in this manner; but the implication is that someone in his hideous world will. Just before this, Volpone has said that he will fatten no beasts to feed the slaughter-houses, and have no mills to grind corn or a man into a powder; that is the common way to gain. The definition of a Puritan by Androgyno is another glance at the feeding of man on man: " Of those who devour flesh, and sometimes one another. " Volpone, referring to his morning's games, says:
Why this is better than rob churches, yet Or, fat, by eating once a month a man**

When Volpone refers to the mortifying of a fox as the punishment for himself, he apparently thinks of himself as food for others.* These images of a man being crushed to powder at a mill, of a prodigal being devoured, of an heir being swallowed, of Puritans sometimes eating one another, add to the biting power of the last lines in which mischiefs feed like beasts till they be fat, for mischiefs feed on men

This picture of the world acquires a universal character in one of the most remarkable speeches in the whole play-Mosca's soliloquy, in which he depicts himself as the ideal parasite, and in which he says :

All the wise world is little else, in nature, But parasites or sub-parasites.*

The literal meaning of a parasite-one who eats at the table of another -- remains, but to it has been added the biological meaning: an animal or plant which feeds on another organism, There can be more to life than this parasitic feeding of one man on another. But, though there is a way out, this kind of feeding is quite natural. Mosca widens the references of such parasitism, even as Volpone has done before, by showing what the common parasite is : one who feeds on the left-overs at another's table, or one who knows how to "fawn and fleer". Mosca, like his master, is an aristocrat among parasites. The images of the arrow, the star and the swallow in his speech show that he, like Volpone, thinks himself above the earth-fed parasites. The true parasite feeds on man constantly, not intermittently as those with either " your bare town-art to know who is fit to feed them", or "court-dog-tricks"  do. Such an elegant rascal can rise to the occasion at all times and is able to exploit anyone. He has the ability to change the expression on his face, "swifter than a thought". This implies that misuse of the rational faculty which all Mosca's plots and counter-plots illustrate. The true parasite is one who uses his natural gifts as a man to feed on others. The others are only buffoons who mimic his tricks.

It is clear, therefore, that feeding is the great symbolic act in this play, and that this act dramatizes the unlimited greed of man. Bird feeds on fox, fox on bird, and fly on both. That is nature. In so far as man plays the part of a bird of prey, a fox, or a fly by feeding on another man, he misuse the very quality that makes him a man-namely, his reason. And he breaks the fundamental Christian law that St. Paul stated thus : Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another."

In this play man feeds on man, and a possessor is pursued with an animal-like ferocity. The world which is depicted in this play may be regarded as a prophetic vision of the society which capitalism was creating even in Jonson's day. The scenes of Volpone worshipping his gold may easily be interpreted as extravagant caricatures of that adoration of wealth which is the practical religion of the capitalist society. The animal imagery and the imagery of feeding may be regarded as a horrifying picture of an economic system divided into possessors and pursuers. Or, we may assert that in Volpone Jonson is drawing on the anti-acquisitive tradition inherited from the Middle Ages. A reading of Volpone based on either of these views would be sensible.


Post a Comment

Back To Top