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Dryden said of Ben Jonson that he was a learned plagiary of all the ancients. This view completely hides the native springs of the poet's vitality; but it does emphasize his indebtedness to the ancients. Ben Jonson read deliberately and widely. It was to be expected, therefore, that the effects of his reading would be in some manner present in his verse. He was definitely influenced by classical ideas about drama and endeavoured to write his plays on the classical pattern.

In the Prologue to Volpone Jonson tells us that he was intent on making his play a comedy "as best critics have designed". These critics were obviously Renaissance scholars who had developed the theories of dramatic form from their study of Aristotle's poetics and the Roman comedies of Terence. The most important principal of these classical theories was that every part of a play should contribute to a single, total effect. He registers his hostility in the Prologue to the common English practice of introducing comic scenes, though funny in themselves, but irrelevant to the plot of the comedy. He was determined to follow, whenever 'needful', the classical laws and rules for the writing of good comedy. Jonson says in the Prologue: 

The laws of time, place, persons he observeth, From no needful rule lie swerveth.

The 'law of time' here means the unity of time. The unity of time is one of the three classical unities, the other two being the unities of place and action. Let us consider the unity of time first. This unity requires conformity between the time taken by the events of the play and that taken in their representation on the stage. In other words, it was necessary for a good plot to select an event or events that happened within twenty four hours or so in life, so that when represented in about one-fourth of that time on the stage they may not appear unnatural, as they would if their time were longer. The action of Volpone compressed to a single day. It begins in the morning and ends on the evening of the same day. It opens with Volpone getting out of bad. Wishing "good morning to the day", he engages in a morning act of worship to his gold. He watches a morning entertainment before starting his morning routine of visiting his clients. He puts off Lady Would-Be until " some three hours hence." It is still morning when he plays the mountebank under Celia's window. First Lady Would-Be, then Corvino and Celia visit him in the aternoon. Later in the same afternoon the first court scene takes place in which the judges promise to pass judgment on Celia and Bonario "ere night". The observance of the unity of time succeeds in conveying the eagerness of Volpone and Mosca to make use of every moment of their lives--"Time will not be ours for ever". It adds to the pressure and excitement of the plot. It emphasises the dramatic reversals in the fortunes of characters. It helps the play to move easily.

The 'law of place', the unity of place means one place and not one scene. The single place of action is the city of Venice. Several street-scenes, and scenes in Volpone's bedroom, Corvino's house and the law-court are all laid within that city. Thus the whole play is set in a single city contributing to the concentration of action in the same cultural atmosphere.

Aristotle and all his followers agreed that the unity of action mattered most. The test of this unity was, in the words of Jonson, that "nothing in the structure (plot) can be changed or taken away, without impairing, or troubling, the whole." Now, the story of the English travellers in not at all essential to the main plot of Volpone. Having no part in the main story, Sir Politic Would-Be and Peregrine could be removed from the play quite easily. Even Lady Would-Be can hardly be called inseparably connected with the main plot's logical development, though she does join forces with the other legacy-hunters in a late stage of the play. Thus Jonson does not observe the unity of action as strictly as may be considered necessary in a classical comedy. But then, here Jonson gives an example of his independence from the rules when he needed independence. He needed the Would-Be to provide a link between Venice and England. By separating Sir Politic he emphasises the difference between absurd English folly and intelligent Italian vice. By gradually associating Lady Would-Be with the Italians he shows that the difference is not as great as his audience might have wished to believe.

Finally a word about the law of persons'. Jonson made characters to fit his plot. In conformity with the classical 'law of persons' Jonson made every character represent some typical human qualities, or typical combination of qualities, so that the pattern of interaction between the characters would be typical of human society. Hence Jonson's characters are 'types' more than individuals under the influence of Renaissance throry based on classical example.

This is, perhaps, enough to show that Volpone is a classical comedy which observes three classical unities to a great extent. It may, however, be added that Aristotle insisted on the observance of the unity of action alone. He mentioned the unity of time only twice and that of place never even once. Moreover, Ben Jonson was not a slavish imitator of the classical tradition, as he implies by saying that he follows only a "needful rule." In a well-known passage in Discoveries Jonson speaks of following the ancients "as guides, not commanders": 'For to all observations of the ancients, we have our own experience; which, if we will use, and apply, we have better means to pronounce," That this was not a mere assertion of independence is shown by every page on which be seems to draw most directly on the classics. As the first of a line of neo-classicists, he wanted not to surrender to Greece and Rome, but to rival them, to wed ancient form to modern substance, to garner

"......such wool As from mere English flocks his muse can pull,"and therewith to fashion."......a fleece To match or those of Sicily or Greece." ( The Sad Shepherd ) 


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