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Home » , » In what sense does the last scene of Volpone "imitate justice, and instruct to life"?
Almost all critics think that Jonson does not adhere to his own rule that comedy " would sport with human follies, not with crimes." To quote a critic : "In Volpone... Jonson broke his own rule that comedy should deal with 'follies, not with crimes', when Corvino tries to prostitute his wife or Corbaccio testifies against his own son, they are guilty of something far worse than folly." There is no doubt that there is enough folly in the play. Volpone's deception of Corbaccio, Corvino and Voltore, especially in the first act, seems little more than practical joking; given the obvious character of these completely amoral and depraved suitors, the audience will naturally admire Volpone's cleverness and not trouble themselves about the morality of what he is doing. It is after the 3rd act, as Coleridge puts it, the play becomes not a dead, but a painful, weight on the reeling. It is true that the scene in Act III in which Volpone tries to rape Celia is really painful. And much that follows is certainly unpleasant. It is difficult to disagree with Coleridge here.

The play's world is unmistakably rich and splendid, but is depraved, a world in which gold is god; where for gold people are prepared to do anything, and blinded by gold they lose their humanity. The slight figures of Celia and Bonario, whose names stand for goodness fail to contribute any substantial strength to the moral fabric of this would. The corruption of the world of the play is repeatedly shown as the result of unnatural behaviour, which is not in harmony with divine purpose in the universe.

We find ourselves agreeing with Herford and Simpson that there is folly enough, to be sure; but it is formidable and menacing folly of men who have capacity and resource and absolutely no scruples; and whether such men commit follies or crimes is merely a question of occasion and circumstance. All the principal characters are capable of any crimes; they are gamblers playing desperately for high stakes, and when they see their advantage, they are only too willing to play the most heinous hand; Corbaccio plays his son's inheritance, and Corvino his wife's honour. The moral repulsion, however, with which they so powerfully affect us is less due to the actual crimes and vices they perpetrate than to the impression of unlimited possibilities of evil which they convey. The air is heavy and smells foul of moral disease. When Celia and Bonario go by, they just stir a passing breath of freshness, but this relief is faint and ineffectual. The total impression is not sensibly mitigated even by the Catastrophe. Thus we find that the play violates Jonson's own theory that comedy should sport with human follies, not with crimes.

Coleridge pointed out that anyone but Jonson would have brought Celia and Bonario together at the end, if only to send the 'audience away happier. Jonson himself was aware that the play might be regarded as a tragedy. And in his Dedication to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge he apologizes for the harshness, especially of the punishments meted out at the end, which made Coleridge to wish for the union of Celia and Bonario, for comedies were supposed to end happily; or at least on a light note. Here is Jonson's explanation about the unhappy ending and breaking his rule:

And though my catastrophy may, in the strict rigour of comic law I meet with censure, as turning back to my promise; I desire think it was done of industry... my special aim being to put the snaffle in their mouths, that cry out, we never punish vice in our interludes."

Thus Jonson made the ending of his play like this as a counter to those who complained that contemporary dramatists were not careful enough to reward virtue and punish vise. In such unpleasant endings, however, Jonson had examples in the ancients: 

"I took the more liberty: though not without some lines of examples, drawn even in the ancients themselves, the goings out of whose comedies-are not always joyful......"

It has been observed that "though vice is punished in the end of Volpone, we scarcely remember it, for Volpone and his crew belong to a world where Justice is alien, and clever villainy its own reward." it is hard to agree with the view after all this talk of the harshness of the ending for which the dramatists had to apologise and critics like Coleridge labelled the play as a painful reading especially after the third act.

A word about Justice and punishments in Volpone is called for. For, in the Dedication of Volpone. Jonson also says in defence of the harsh ending of the play that comedy should 'imitate justice, and instruct to life'. The punishments could be said to be appropriate to the crimes committed. Voltore is dismissed from the profession he has disgraced; Corbaccio is to learn how to die in a monastery; Corvino's folly is to be publicly exposed. Mosca, who assumed the mask of a gentle man, is to be whipped and sent to the galleys like a commoner. And Volpone, who has been pretending to be sick, is to be kept in prison until he is "sick. .indeed". However, these punishments, though appropriate, cannot be said to represent justice in its ideal form. The court has been shown to be gullible and corruptible to serve as a perfect model.

And how does Volpone "instruct to life"? The severe condem-nation of Volpone and Mosca in the last seen shocks us into realizing that for most of the play we have been laughing along with them and enjoying their cleverness. The whole play has been tempting us to enjoy as 'good theatre' what we ought to condemn in real life. By "instruct to life" Jonson means that comedy should teach us how to live better lives. But when even the judges are to be criticized, how does Jonson teach us in Volpone? It is hard to feel that Jonson aimed to teach directly. It may be pointed out here that the Dedication was written after the play and is a statement of literary theory, not necessarily a reliable guide to the author's practice.


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