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Home » , » Comment on the catastrophe of Volpone. Do yon think that it is an appropriate ending for comedy?
The catastrophic ending of Volpone has become a subject of controversy. Critics have found two blemishes in it-- first, that it is unconvincing and does not naturally proceed from the fourth Act and, secondly, that it is too harsh and severe, and borders on to tragedy. It is significant that the catastrophe is brought about by Volpone and Mosca themselves, and not by any other character or circumstance. The final overthrow of evil comes out of the excesses of evil itself. The evil is fully triumphant at the close of Act IV, and Volpone and Mosca are very happy at their successes. They have touched the highest point of their achievement. But Volpone does not rest in contentment; he wants to have some more fun and tease the legacy-hunters by mocking them in an indirect manner. He becomes wanton and wayward and quite unmindful of the consequences. It is significant to note that Mosca does not agree with his master and tries to dissuade him from venturing on any other schemes, thinking that the time has come for them to stop their tricks: 

Here we must rest; this is our masterpiece: We cannot think to go beyond this".

But, later on, when he sees the opportunity, he tries to over-reach his master also, and thus prepares the way for his own downfall, Jonson shows an extension of the power and skill of the two villains and builds up a comic climax which is at the same time a final epitome of the central motifs of the play. The 'fox' cannot tolerate that the mere 'fly' should cozen and overreach him so extensively. He decides to lose all than allow his parasite to outwit him. The punishments awarded to the evil doers are harsh and severe. Mosca will be a 'perpetual prisoner' in the city's galleys, and Volpone 'cramped with irons'. The birds of prey are banished or disgraced. Jonson winds up the play quickly, without an anti-climax.

The evil is destroyed by its own extension.

The unconvincing natue of the last Act. There are many critics who find the last act unconvincing, and think that it does not naturally arise from Act IV. Dryden is one of the earliest critics to take exception to the catastrophic ending of Volpone and finds a blemish in the unity of design of the play. He, however, defends the final Act on another ground. He says that "the unity of design seems not exactly observed in it for there appear two actions in the play; the first naturally ending with the fourth Act; the second forced from it in the fifth: which yet is less to be condemned in him, because the disguise of Volpone, though it suited not with his character as a crafty or covetous person, agreed well enough with that of a voluptuary ; and by it the poet gained the end at which he aim'd, the punishment of Vice and the reward of Virtue, both which that disguise produc'd. So that to judge equally of it, it was an excellent fifth Act, but not so naturally proceeding from the former"- Richard Cumberland also thinks that the ending of Volpone is not very convincing. He is of the opinion that Jonson has not very successfully executed it, and that it is not in keeping with the character of Volpone. He says: " For who can deny that nature is violated by the absurdity of Volpone's unseasonable insults to the very persons who witnessed falsely in his defence, and even to the very Advocate who had so successfully defended him? In it in character for a man of his deep cunning and long reach of thought to provoke those on whom his all depended, to retaliate upon them, and all this for the poor triumph of a silly jest." This he considers to be a serious blemish in the play which cannot to justified in any way. Probably it was due to the hasty composition of which Jonson boasts it the fcrotogue to the play. From this point of view the fifth Act is defective and unconvincing.

Swinburne's Defence

Swinburne strongly defends the ending of Volpone from the charge of improbability or unnaturalness of action in the fifth Act. He is of the opinion that there is nothing unnatural in the device by which retribution is brought on the originals in Act V.He says, "So far from regarding the comic Nemesis or rather Ate which infatuates and impels Volpone ti his doom as a sacrifice of art to morality, and immolation of probability -and consistency on the altar of poetic justice, I admire fits a masterstroke of character the haughty audacity of caprice which produces or evolves his ruin out of his own hardihood and insolence of exulting and faring enjoyment. For there is something throughout of the lion as well as of the fox in this original and incompatible figure. He thinks that the ending of Volpone is incomparable in comedy in terms of completeness, propriety and effect.

The Catastrophic Ending of the Play

Volpone is a forceful play and presents a vision of life which is at once horrifying and disgusting. In one respect, at least, it goes beyond the scope of comedy as Jonson, conceives it. Jonson's avowed aim in comedy was to laugh at contemporary follies and expose them. But in this play he is not "sporting with human follies" but with crimes, the knaves as well as the gulls are absolutely wicked; they are mean and greedy, and ready to stoop to any act of depravity to fulfil their selfish ends. The play presents men as beasts who have lost human attributes and become monsters of wickedness "due to their greed or lust. It thus acquires a sombre character and has some tragic moments the scene, for instance, in which Celia pleads for mercy from Volpone. The characters deceive one another unhesitatingly and suffer no qualms of conscience in accusing even the innocents. They are all exposed and punished in the, end, but their punishment is very severe, and indeed out of tune with the spirit of comedy. Jonson himself acknowledges that the catastrophe the of the play is more harsh than what would be consonant with the strict rigour of the comic law. He defends his departure from the comic tradition on the grounds that the classical comedies also did not always have a happy ending, and that it is the function of the comic post "to imitate justice and instruct to life". The moralist in Jonson could not allow the vice to go unpunished in the end. For the semi-tragic ending of the play Jonson is apologetic to his critics and asks them to be liberal in passing their judgment. The .severe punishments awarded to the monsters of iniquity harmonies superbly with the sinister spirit of the whole play. The moral lesson of the play is clearly expressed in the word of the First Avocatori who, while pronouncing the punishments on the evil-doers, says: 

Mischiefs feed Like beasts till they be fat, and then they bleed".


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