skip to main | skip to sidebar
Home » , » Discuss the relevance of the sub-plot in Volpone
The sub-plot involving Sir Politic Would-be, Lady Would-be and Peregrine has been regarded by many critics as irrelevant and therefore a flaw in the play. The following comment is typical of this critical attitude so far as the sub-plot in Volpone is concerned : "This whole episode of Sir Politic Would-be never did, nor ever can, please. He seems to be brought in merely to lengthen out the play..... I cannot help thinking this episode to be rather an excrescence than a beauty, as it has no sort of connection with the rest of the play; yet the character is not destitute of humour." That the character is not destitute of humour may be one reason for Jonson's inclusion of Sir Politic in the play. The main plot of Volpone is savage and fierce; the comic element in it is too thin; and the tragic note is quite marked. The sub-plot may have been invented to lighten the general gloom of the main story.

Sir Politic's talk is quite amusing because of its sheer absurdity. He is a pompous, pretentious Knight with an exaggerated sense of his own importance, his wisdom, his learning etc. His thinks of himself as a successful educator of the young. Actually he is very shallow and superficial. The contract between what he is and what he thinks himself to be makes him look absurd. He everywhere detects spies, portents, agents, and prodigies. He comments on the mountebank show his complete ignorance. His hiding himself in a tortoise-shell shows him to be an absolute coward. He appears as a ridiculous person throughout the play. Lady Would-be amuses us too. Her garrulity, her imperfect knowledge of medicine and literature, her avarice, her credulity, her mistaking Peregrine as a harlot in disguise---all these make her, like her husband, a comic character. Thus all the scenes* in which Sir Politic or his wife appears arouse our mirth and contribute largely to the comic atmosphere of the play.

But that is not all. It is possible also to relate the comic behaviour of these two persons to the principal motifs of the play and thus to justify their inclusion among the dramatis personae. If Volpone be regarded as a beast fable, which it certainly is, Sir Politic can be looked upon as the chattering parrot and Lady Would-be as a more deadly specimen of the same species. The Knight and his lady are not only ceaseless talkers, like a parrot, but also mimics like that bird. They imitate their environment and, without knowing it, they travesty the actions of the main characters. In so doing, they add to the density and complexity of the author's vision as projected in this play.

Sir Politic's efforts to Italianize himself takes the form of an interest in intrigues, secrets of state, and Machiavellian scheming. His wife imitates the local style in dress and cosmetics, read the Italian poets, and tries to emulate the lascivious Venetians in their game of seduction. But the mimicry of Sir Politic and his wife does not end there. They also mimic, or caricature, the characters of the main plot. The Knight is, as his name implies, a would-be politician. He is an unsuccessful enterpriser whose projects prove abortive; while, by contrast, Volpone is the real politician, the successful enterpriser, who actually gets rich by his schemes. Lady Would-be, for her part, joins the mad game of legacy-hunting and her actions are a caricature of the more sinister moods of Corvino, Voltore and Corbaccio.

Peregrine, the third character in the sub-plot, himself belongs to the beast fable. He is the pilgrim falcon hunting the parrot. The falcon was a bird sacred to Apollo, since it pursues the truth, attacks ignorance, and makes the fool its victim. All these activities are performed by Peregrine in relation to Sir Politic.

The sub-plot conveys three chief ideas, all inter-related, and all of great importance to the play as a whole. The first is the notion of monstrosity. The strange marvels reported by Sir Politic are monstrous, and are thus a distant echo of the moral abnormality prevailing among the inhabitants of Venice. The second is the idea of folly. When Sir Politic talks about the professional fool, Master Stone, we feel that, though Master Stone was not immortal, his folly lives on incarnate in hundreds of fools much as the soul of Pythagoras, after numerous transmigrations, now dwells in the body of Androgyno, the hermaphrodite and fool of Volpone. The third idea is mimicry which has already been illustrated above.

The play contains two interludes in which the three misbegotten off-spring of Volpone provide entertainment to him. The first interlude establishes an identification between folly and monstrosity by showing that the soul of the fool is planted now in the body of the hermaphrodite. The second interlude identifies mimicry with deformity since the dwarf is shown to be the best entertainer by virtue of his "pleasing imitation of greater men's action, in a ridiculous fashion". So mimicry is itself something monstrous and abnormal. Sir Politic thus in himself combines both mimicry and deformity, as do the chief characters of the play. Therefore they may all be assigned to the category of monsters----half-men, half-brutes.

The scene between Lady Would-be and Volpone serves, to some extent, as a parody of similar scenes in Act I between Volpone and the three principal legacy-hunters. All the essential ingredients of those scenes re-appear, but in a jumbled and topsy-turvy  shape. At the end Lady Would-be leaves behind a cap made by herself, and this serves as a suitably ridiculous contrast to the treasures earlier offered by the three principal legacy-hunters. The scene also serves as an introduction to,and a comic distortion of, the one that takes place between Volpone and Celia. Lady Would-be's attempted seduction of Volpone fails, just as Volpone's attempted seduction of Celia fails afterwards.

Celia's rejection of Volpone shows a rejection of folly, vanity, and lust combined. Our recollection of Lady Would-be using cosmetics and making indecent advances to Volpone emphasizes Celia's sudden horror at her own beauty and her plea that her face be disfigured as a punishment to her for the lust she has aroused. For Lady Would-be, the cosmetic art was a desirable preliminary to an attempt at sexual conquest. For Celia the suggested disfig-urement of her face is a proof of her chastity. Lady Would-be has been trying to adopt Italian vices as a mark of sophistication. Celia's behaviour shows her remoteness from the moral corruption of Venice. Thus Lady Would-be serves as an interesting and necessary contract to Celia.

Later in the play, Sir Politic speaks to Peregrine about the projects he has conceived for making money. He needs the assistance of a reliable person for the implementation of those projects. Of course, he is hinting that Peregrine should undertake that task and thus stand to him in the same relation as Mosca is to Volpone. But Peregrine contents himself with merely inquiring into the nature of the projects and thus shows the wide difference between himself and Mosca. The most elaborate of Sir Politic's projects is the way to protect Venice from the plague by using onions as an index to the state of infection on ships entering the harbour. This mad project echoes Volpone's claim to have distributed his oil under official patent to various countries. But this project serves also remind us again of the moral corruption prevailing in Venice and the incapacity of these characters to understand the situation even when they talk most about disease and cure.

The next scene is a parody of the episode in Act II where Corvino discovers his wife in conversation with the mountebank. Corvino interrupted Volpone while the latter was advertising his medicine. In the same way Lady Would-be interrupts her husband when he is talking to Peregrine about his projects. As Corvino spoke jealously of lecherous men, so Lady Would-be characters about temptresses and harlots. Corvino drove away the mountebank; so Lady Would-be scolds Peregrine. Both speak of "honour" but both discard that term as soon as it becomes inconvenient.

The beast-characters in the play show a true instinct in describing the innocents as beasts. Corvino called Celia a crocodile, referring to that animal's ability to imitate human tears. Lady Would-be calls Celia a "chameleon" harlot and compares her tears to that of a "hyena". The chameleon is known for its capacity to change its colours to suit its environment; while the hyena is known for its powers of mimicry.

When the legacy-hunters call on Mosca, each expecting to receive the entire estate of Volpone, Lady Would-be is the first to be dismissed. The treat-ment meted out to her in this scene is part of the comic justice inflicted on the legacy-hunters. For Lady Would-be it is sufficient that, awakened to some sense of her own foily, she vows to quite Venice. And so with her preposterous husband, who becomes the victim of Peregrine's plot which performs the same service in mortifying him that the final trial scene does in mortifying Volpone. The mercatori engaged by Peregrine perform the office of the avocatori who pronounce sentence on Volpone. The discovery of the pathetic note-book, with its scraps from play-books, becomes the burlesque substitute for the exposure of Volpone's will, in bringing on the disaster. The question that emerges from this scene of the broadest tomfoolery is : " What kind of creatures are these?" Throughout the play beasts have been aping men, and men aping beasts on the moral and psychological levels. The theme of mimicry reaches here its literal climax in an episode of farce where the most imitative of characters----namely, Sir Politic----puts on the physical integument of an animal. Six Politic's disillusionment is complete, and his punishment too is complete. He and his wife, the only survivors in this play, of Jonson's earlier humour characters, are now "out of their humour", cured of their imitative folly by the strong medicine of ridicule.

The sub-plot of Sir Politic and his wife is thus relevant to the total design of the play. Each of the episodes involving the English Knight and his wife serves a definite dramatic purpose. In this way, the sub-plot adds a fresh dimension and a profounder insight without which Volpone, though it might be a neater play, would also be a poorer and thinner one.


Post a Comment

Back To Top