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Home » , » Some critics are disposed to regard Volpone as a tragedy
Volpone comes nearer to tragedy than any of Jonson's comedies and contains more bitter and unpleasant scenes. There is here a very narrow line between laughter and disgust. It is not really funny to overhear two men abusing a third who is supposed to be on the point of death:
         Would you would once close those filthy eyes of yours, that flow with slime ,Like two frog-pits.
It depends very much on the actor playing Volpone whether we find this sort of thing bearable. The scene in which Volpone tries to rape Celia is an even bigger problem for the producer, because it cannot be made amusing to a modern audience without seeming tasteless; and yet this scene must not become too harrowing. Jonson felt the need to justify the scene of Sordido's attempted suicide in Every Man Out of His Humour, because it was an incident more violent than was usual in comedy. But the scene between Celia and Volpone is likely to disturb us much more. Certainly Celia's pleading has an almost tragic note:
        If you have ears, that will be pierc'd ; or eyes, That can be open'd  ; a heart, may be touch'd;Or any part, that yet sounds man, about you : If you have touch of holy saints, or heaven,Do me the grace, to let me 'scape. If notBe bountiful, and kill me.

In the Dedication, Jonson answered those who objected to the harshness of the play's ending by pointing out that his special aim was to satisfy those disgruntled members of the public who complained that writers never punished vice in their plays. But Jonson had made something more severe than an ordinary comic finale necessary by what he had allowed to happen in the course of the play.

In spite of this, we should not treat Volpone as a tragedy or Volpone himself as a tragic figure. The fact that he is surrounded by people who are on the whole worse than he himself does not make him a good man. To take a noble view of Volpone would be erroneous. There is absolutely no element of idealism or nobility in him. His only likable qualities are his vitality and gusto, his sheer enjoyment of his own and Mosca's trickery. However, he is not motivated by greed alone as the candidates for his wealth are. He wants wealth, but he also wants to be amused by the means of getting it. Indeed, Volpone needs constant stimulation of this kind. The extent to which he depends on this stimulation is shown after he has escaped from his trial. As soon as he begins to recover his nerve, he begins to yearn for amusement :
           Any device now, of rare, ingenious knavery,That could possess me with a violent laughter.

This craving for excitement is more Volpone's essential humour than any passion for gold. Indeed, he seems to value his gold less for what it is in itself than as a means of his success in tricking others. He is much more of a gambler than a miser.

An actor playing Volpone's role has to bring out a certain deterioration in his character as he goes on. In Act I, he is at his most successful and his most attractive. His deception of Corbaccio, Corvino, and Voltore is just a practical joke. In view of the obvious character of these suitors, the audience will naturally admire Volpone's cleverness and not bother about the morality of what he is  doing. When, at the end of Act I, Mosca mentions Celia, Volpone seems at first excited as much by the opportunity of showing his own cleverness in another way as by the prospect of seeing her beauty, and in his performance as Scoto he is at his most brilliant and amusing. The sight of Celia plays havoc with him. His desire for her mars his judgement, and he never again in the play shows the same mastery of the situation as he displays at the beginning. He fully understood Corbaccio and the others, because he was quite dispassionate in his dealings with them and could finely assess the degree to which they could be deceived. He quite misunderstands Celia's character, because he wants her desperately. He thinks that she will be happy to betray her husband, like the heroine of an Italian comedy. When he realizes that he is wrong, he loses control of himself and threatens to rape her. The intervention of Bonario at this point places Volpone in great danger. For the third quarter of the play Volpone is cornered and becomes a passive figure while Mosca and the others deep the action going in their efforts to release him. When he reasserts himself at the beginning of Act V, the compulsive nature of his humour forces him to seek fresh excitement, and that brings about the catastrophe.

Volpone makes a bigger fool of himself, in fact, than any of his victims, as he realizes : 

To make a snare for my own neck and runMy head into it, wilfully, and with laughterWhen I had newly scap't, was free and clear !Out of mere wantonness !
As in the past, he calls on Mosca for help, only to realize too late that the love of his "divine", his " exquisite. " Mosca was merely a camouflage for selfishness, and that he has been ruined by his own trust in the man. Only then, when he is in despair, does he reveal the truth. He does so not from any desire to redress the wrongs he has done, but out of determination that Mosca shall not triumph over him. The development of mood is from a jovial, assured, self-satisfied cleverness at the beginning, through domination by the passions first of list and then of fear, back to a kind of desperate, obsessive search for amusement, and finally to a grim desperation. There is no room in this for tragedy. We may feel a kind of doomed or destined quality about Volpone. * But to stress this note too much would be to over-weight the role of the actor who plays the part of Volpone, and it would destroy much of the comic effect of the play.

Apart from Celia and Bonario, no one in Volpone has any genuine claim on our sympathy and admiration. Peregrine is a neutral character, and could easily be acted so as to make him seem a very nasty man indeed. The fact that we tend to offer our sympathy to Volpone is due rather to our acquiring a modern approach to comedy than to Jonson's original intention. There is in England a tradition of sympathy with comic characters. This tradition begins with Chaucer, with characters such as the Wife of Bath, and it owes much to Shakespeare who had the capacity to present many different types of character with understanding. To this we must later add eighteenth-century sentiment and Victorian sentimentality, and the twentieth-century sensitivity to the feelings of the unwanted and despised. The result is that people who are fed on this tradition will expect to like comic characters even when they laugh at them, and will feel disturbed and uncomfortably by comedy such as Jonson's where there is no outlet for our desire to sympathise. We must be ready to subdue our gentler, humane instincts if we are to enter fully into Jonson's comic world, and prepare ourselves to enjoy humour which is hard, even cruel and brutal, and which springs from the interaction of characters very few of whom possess attractive, let alone admirable, qualities. Volpone is the supreme example of this unfamiliar style of comedy, and therefore the most challenging. The fact that some critics have sentimentalized this play to the extent of treating Volpone as a noble and tragic figure shows that this challenge can be difficult to accept.


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