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Home » , » State briefly Jonson's theory of comedy
The appearance of Jonson's Every Man in His Humour marked an important milestone in the history of English drama. Jonson came forward with a revolutionary manifesto, in which a new theory of comedy was presented and an example of the theory in practice boldly given in the shape of the above-named play. In the first place Jonson disapproved of the ridiculous improbabilities of plot and sense in the romantic drama of the time. The improbabilities and the unnatural plots of that drama seemed to his taste degrading and unfit for serious comedy. And so his classicism led him to realism. Instead of impossible events, instead of high-flown language, he aimed at

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

In pursuit of realism, he confined his comedy to an image of the times. With the same object in mind he aimed at a close-knit structure which could best be obtained by observing the three Unities-of time, place and action. Another peculiarity of Jonson's comic art is indicated by the use of the word "humour" in the title of his first important play. By this word, Jonson meant some oddity in a man's disposition, some folly, some affection, some unbalanced enthusiasm, some ludicrous exaggeration of manner, speech, or dress. Jonson so emphasized and thrust forward this single odd trait in a character as to push all others into the background.

Jonson's theory of comedy, then, demanded realism, satire, and an emphasis on humours. Realism involved a close-knit structure and, therefore, the observance of the Unities. Satire involved a moral purpose. Humours meant an emphasis on a single odd trait or affectation in each character. In trying to put his theory into practice, Jonson created "the comedy of manners".

In Volpone Jonson deals with, not affectations or oddities, but a master-passion, the passion of greed as it affects a whole social group. It is still possible to use the word " humour " for this passion, but this is a humour which is common to most of the characters in the play-Volpone, Mosca, Voltore, Corbaccio, Cowino, Lady Would-be. The play thus becomes a powerful study of avarice. The play opens with a speech which elevates gold to sainthood, and the whole play is pervaded by a passion for gold. The play is a fierce satire on this passion. Its moral or didactic purpose is evident: it is in fact over-empnasized.

Every action in the main plot of the play is determined directly or indi-rectly by greed. The raven, the crow, and the vulture differ in circumstances but not in the bent of their minds. The decrepit Corbaccio clings to his love of gold and is willing to endanger or sacrifice his son's right in order to gain futile new possessions. Corvino is ready to prostitute his wife to acquire Volpone's fortune. Voltore degrades the legal profession by his defence of his own and his client's crimes, demanding that the innocent should be punished instead. Jonson has dramatized actions which represent the extremes of savagely selfish materialism. Family, marriage, law are not just disregarded. They are made the very instruments of destructive greed. Volpone and Mosca too are avaricious. Volpone looks upon gold as something that transcends all relationships --children, parents, friends. Mosca shares this view. When the time comes, he gets ready to swindle his master and seize his entire estate.

But as a comedy of humours Volpone is different from Every Man in His Hunour and Every Man Out of His Humour. This play depicts only one domi-nant humour, while the other plays depict sexual humours. This play is different in another sense also. The two villains here, apart from being dominated by their avarice, reveal certain other traits which are no less powerful and which lend complexity to their characters. For instance, they look upon gold not as something to be possessed for its own sake, but rather as an instrument used to purchase other delights. Volpone is, indeed, a compound of humours. He is the passionate wooer of Celia, too. He has a love of disguises. He enjoys the discomfiture of others. Ultimately he eludes the humour frame-work, and be-comes a figure unique in Jonson's drama. Mosca does not just want gold. He is proud of being the true parasite. He is in love with his own frauds and he is an artist in devising rogueries.

The realism of all this cannot be doubted. We are here given a true picture of human follies and frailties. Exaggeration there is, of course. But exaggeration is legitimate in satire. Apparently the theme appears to be un-English, too. There were legacy-hunters in ancient Rome but not in Jacobean London society. To meet this difficulty Jonson placed the scene of the story in Venice, instead of in London. And yet the play is in essentials as English as it is Venetian. In fact the play is fundamentally universal. The greed and credulity of the legacy-hunters, and the cunning and cruelty of the two villains are not peculiar to any particular country or epoch : these are to be found everywhere and in all ages. Even in the disguise of a mountebank, Volpone is a figure, not peculiar to the Venice of the day, but international in appeal. In India we see so many mountebanks or quacks selling their wonderful remedies on pavements or in public parks, and using the same hyperbolic language. Thus there is nothing improbable or absurd in the story of the play.

The Unities have been observed too. The action of Volpone is restricted to one day. The entire action takes place in one city-Venice, even though different localities are the venue. The unity of action demands that the structure of the play be so closely knit that no part of it can be removed without causing damage to the whole. Volpone does not strictly fulfil this condition. The scenes between Sir Politic and Peregrine are not essential to the total structure. These scenes, however desirable they may be from another point of view, are an obvious flaw from the structural stand-point. An ingenious explanation of the connection between this sub-plot and the main plot has, however, been offered by a great critic.

In one respect Volpone goes beyond the scope of comedy as conceived by Jonson. Comedy, said Jonson, should sport with follies, not crimes. But in Volpone folly verges almost on crime. Both Volpone and Mosca are monsters of villainy. Nowhere else, unless in Iago, has vice been drawn with such fullness of detail and yet with such consistency as in this play. No tragic elevation lends majesty to the theme. The play depicts human meanness and depravity, unrelieved by any greatness of purpose or unselfishness of passion. It presents men as beasts, with the greed of swine, the craft of foxes, and the rapacity of wolves. The result is that the play acquires a sombre character and contains some tragic moments-the scene in which Celia pleads for mercy from Volpone, for instance. The punishments given to the culprits at the end are in keeping with the gravity of their misdemeanours  but they do produce an unpleasant effect which is against the spirit of comedy. At the same time we recall that, in the dedication to both universities, Jonson excuses the punishment of the vicious in comedy, defending himself by the example of the ancients, and still more because "it is the office of a comic poet to imitate justice, and instruct to life." This is interesting as an expression of Jonson's satiric comedy :Jonson's aim here is deeply serious; he is moved by a stern passion of moral indignation at the crimes and follies of men, and his laughter is curative and purgative, not frivolous or accommodating. He wanted his play to be approved by both the moralist and the scholar.

The air of this play is heavy and fetid with moral disease. A passing breath of freshness and purity just stirs it when Celia and Bonario go by, but this effect is faint and mild. Never before had Jonson depicted with so much power human beings wanting in every germ of goodness. Coleridge objected to the complete lack of any goodness of heart in any of the prominent characters. "After the third Act," he said, "this play becomes not a dead, but a painful, weight on the feelings." In defence of the play, it has been said that it was no part of Jonson's theory of comedy that the comic characters should be likable or that they should display any goodness of heart whatever. In Jonson's opinion, the dramatist's task in a comedy was to present persons who were ludicrous, foolish, and despicable, with the object of disgusting the spectators with their follies and stupidities. Objection has also been taken by some to Jonson's failure to have brought about a romantic union of Bonario and Celia but that was simply not possible. It was perhaps to provide comic relief in this sombre play that the sub-plot of Sir Politic and Peregrine was introduced by Jonson, even though structurally the connection between the sub-plot and the main plot is flimy. The dwarf, the hermaphrodite, and the eunuch too provide the comic interest. Nor is the element of fun totally absent from the main plot as such. The tricks which Mosca plays on the various legacy-hunters are quite amusing. For instance, he makes Corvino shout abusive words in Volpone's ears and the scene becomes quite hilarious. Volponse's tormenting the legacy-hunters with his sarcasms when he is disguised as a commandatore is also enjoyable. The satire in these scenes is very sharp and pungent.


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