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Home » , » Write a note on Jonson's realism and satire with special reference to Volpone?
Jonson, a genuine Elizabethan, unites two of the characteristic strains of Elizabethan drama--the native tradition of realism and the classical insistence on form. He distrusted and defined the romantic impulse with its exuberance and defiance of order. At his best he is the most skilful technician of Elizabethan playwrights. His comedies are sharply distinguished from the romantic comedies of Shakespeare by their intense realism.

Jonson believed that comedy had a high and serious purpose, and his own comedies are reformative and corrective. He very clearly expressed his view that the comic dramatist must deal with the familiar world of men; his business is to imitate and hold up to ridicule men's follies in character and in conduct; his aim is not only to amuse but to correct. It was Jonson's boast and virtue that he drew comedy down from the improbable realms of romantic colouring to the level of ordinary existence, where he could utilize--

"Deeds and language, such as men do use, And persons, such as comedy would choose. When she would shew an image of the times, And sport with human follies, not with crimes". 

Realism, added to intensified 'humours', treated in a satirical spirit, was first given to the theatrical world by Jonson.

Realism and Satire in Volpone

In Volpone Jonson has deviated from the realism of the earlier comedies, and also from his principal that comedy should sport with follies, not with crimes. Volpone is a savage satire on human avarice for gold, or greed for wealth. It is a forceful play and presents a vision of life which is at once horrifying and disgusting. It is rightly said that the "world of Volpone is crudely materialistic and gold-centred". All the principal characters-Volpone, his parasite Mosca, and the legacy hunters, Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino, and Lady Would-be, are motivated by s single-minded devotion to Mammon, and want to acquire more and more wealth. They live and move in a world which is dominated by greed and perverted human values. Jonson despised and ridiculed the excessive respect paid to money, the absurd passion of the rich to become richer, which he felt tainted his time. Money is the driving force of most of the evil in this play. It is the greed for money which impels fathers to disinherit sons, and the husbands to prostitute their wives to satisfy the lust of rich and wealthy patrons. Money makes lawyers and judges sacrifice their professional honour and integrity: citizens commit the sin of perjury for money and master and servant want to outwit each other and meet their own downfall. Jonson presents human depravity with stark realism, and his satire is savage and cynical in its tone and intensity. He has presented the baseness of human nature in its lowest depth.

The Theme of Legacy-hunting

This satire on vice is based on an entirely un-English institution of captatio or legacy-hunting. The practice of offering gifts to a wealthy, childless old man on the brink of death in the expectation of a more than corresponding reward in the form of a legacy was found in Rome, but this was not a from of greed specifically known to be prevalent in Jacobean London society. The captator existed in Rome and in Rome literature; he was derided by Horace, Juvenal arid Pliny; he provided the theme of an amusing episode in Petronius' Satiricon, and his desires and mortifications, and the schemes and counter-schemes adopted by both the legator and the legatee provided the material for some of the wittiest of Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead, Jonson found this Roman custom of captatio very suitable for his satiric purposes, and employed it with great energy and inventiveness in this play. The plot of Volpone, however, is not based on any 'sources' ; the characterisation, the scheming and counter-scheming of different characters, the setting, the brilliancy of dialogue, and the concentration of effect are all the products of Jonson's vigorous and fertile mind.

The Venetian Setting of the Play

The choice of such a subject as this made it necessary for Jonson to shift his mise en scene from contemporary London to Venice which was famous as a luxurious, semi-oriental setting for romantic crime and exotic vice. To Jonson and his contemporaries Venice was for literary purposes a setting for the bizarre, the montrous, the extravagantly sinister and intriguing a veritable hotbed of vice, luxury, lust and crime. Such a setting as this suited Jonson's dramatic purposes. He wanted to portray the meanness, selfishness, greed, and various other vices of man, and Venice was the city which could be easily associated by Jonson's contemporaries with the squalid world of the play. Venice was a fit place for the purpose of ridiculing human avarice and greed for gold. To make the Fox a Venetian grandee was to give him and his story the best chance of being at once piquant and plausible. For a play like Volpone the Venetian setting was very suitable and appealing. 

The Universal Appeal of the Play

It is said that this transferring of the scene from London to Venice deprived Jonson of a powerful spring of realism, and he had to abandon one of his surest holds upon the play-going public-his powerful presentment of the London life at their doors. This may be true to some extent, but the charm and appeal of the play do not suffer because of the setting. It rather helps Jonson to make his satiric sweep much bolder and larger in Volpone than in his other plays. As David Cook has pointed out, Volpone is in essentials as English as it is Venetian, and in fundamentals is universal. The greed, cunning and credulity here displayed are peculiar to no place or age. Jonson universalises this than by using it as an example of the universal human greed for money, either in itself, or for the power it confers. Even though Jonson is characteristically meticulous about details, Volpone as mountebank is international in the prices he asks, setting finally for 'sixpence it will cost you, or six hundred pounds'. Volpone's figure is peculiar to no one country; in fact, he is international in appeal. There might be exaggerations in the depiction of vice and greed, but exaggerations are legitimate in satire. The play is universal in effect and appeal.

'Humour' character in Jonson's Plays

Jonson wanted to bring home the vices and follies and 'humours' of people by presenting them in the familiar milieu of real life, as it might by projected on the stage. His didactic purpose was, like that of every true satirist, "to scourge the follies of the time"; broadly, to castigate the essential selfishness of individual affectations and pretensions on the grounds that it detracted from the serious and reasonable conduct of affairs. Jonson's first aim as a dramatist was satire, and for this 'humour' afforded him an admirable weapon. Most, though not all, of Jonson's best comic characters are, therefore, specimens of such humours, either real or sham, gathered from contemporary society. In Volpone Jonson deals, not with affectations or oddities, but with a master-passion which affects a whole group of characters. All the principal characters--Volpone, his parasite Mosca, and the legacy hunters-Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino, and Lady Would-be-are motivated by a single minded devotion to Mammon, and want to acquire more and more wealth. It is possible to apply the word 'humour' for this passion. Every action in the main plot is connected directly or indirectly with greed. There is, however, one difference between Volpone and some other 'humour' comedies of Jonson, like Every Man in His Humour and Every Man Out of His Humour. Volpone deals with only one dominant passion or 'humour', while the other plays deal with several traits or 'humours' of characters. There is another difference also. The two main characters--Volpone and Mosca--apart from being ruled by greedy show certain other traits which are almost equally powerful, and which lend complexity to their characters. Volpone glorifies gold no doubt, but he is something more than a mere worshipper of gold-he is also the passionate wooer of Celia. In fact, he is a compound of several humours. He loves disguises, plays Scoto of Mantua to perfection and takes delight in the discomfiture of others. He himself says that he rejoices "more in the cunning purchase of wealth than in the glad possession." He is not a mere miser and hoarder of wealth; in fact, he has an individuality of his own. He is too full-blooded, a character to be understood merely in tems of the theory of humours. He is a character unique in all Jonson's plays. In the same way, Mosca also does not merely love gold. He is a true parasite and glorifies his profession. He loves his skill in devising plans and enjoys the gulling of others.

An Image of the Materialistic Culture of the Renaissance

Volpone is set in Italy and therefore the events of the main plot appear to be remote from the contemporary life in England. But there is also a touch of satire of contemporary life. The Renaissance had led to a Machiavellian attitude to life, and there was a thirst in the people not only for intellectual attainments but also for worldly glory. An important feature of the Renaissance was the emergence of a materialistic and utilitarian attitude in life. The excessive love of money and power led to the degradation of human character and the development of an unmoral attitude towards life and its problems.Volpone resembles a morality play because it treats of money, gold, greed, and debasement of human character from the view point of moral satire. The characters in the play are motivated by selfishness and greed, and unhesitatingly deceive one another for acquiring wealth. The Would-be's are also the targets of satire. Sir Politic is meant to be a satiric portrait of the fashionable man of the period who thought himself as a man of great importance, learning and wisdom. He is a pompous, pretentious knight, and thinks that he has a vast practical experience of life. He believes that he can give good guidance to the young and inexperienced people of the world. But the fact is that he is very shallow and superficial, and can be easily duped. His wife, Lady Would-be, is also an amusing character. She is clearly meant to stand for those ladies of the day who were fascinated by continental fashions and were very particular about their dress and appearance. Jonson constantly reminds us of the width of his satire by frequent references to contemporary professions and practices : the courtiers who "ply so for a place" at court; the usurers who coffin men alive for debt; the mill-owners who grind "oil, corn, or men" into powder ; the doctors who "kill with as much licence as a judge"; the Puritans who sometimes "devour flesh, and sometimes one another"; the entrepreneurs who have such fantastic commercial schemes as " waterworks in perpetual motion."

Depiction of Human Crimes

In one respect, at least, Volpone 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 folliea" 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. By all standards of judgment Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino are criminals. Voltore pleads vehemently a false case in the court; Corbaccio disowns his loyal son; and Corvino calls his innocent and chaste wife a whore of the most hot exercise. Mosca makes a false statement about the death of his master, and Lady Would-be is guilty of perjury. Volpone himself makes a full attempt to rape Celia, and the foolish Sir Politic talks of selling the state of Venice to the Turks. Thus we see that the characters of the play are all criminals and suffer no qualms of conscience in making a false statement. 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 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 poet "to imitate justice and instruct to life." The moralist in Jonson could not allow the vice to go unpunished in the end. The severe punishments awarded to these monsters of wickedntss harmonies superbly with the sinister spirit of the whole play. Indeed, Volpone is the grimmest and most tragic of all Jonson's comedies.


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