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Home » , » "The foxe is a Renaissance, not a Medieval Morality" says Arthur Sale. Discuss?
"Of all the plays, it is Volpone which is the most powerful and also most in the tradition of the morality play." 

Thus says Legouis; and Arthur Sale says that Volpone is a Renaissance morality. Thus both critics regard the play as a morality play, one traditional and the other a Renaissance one. The question needs to be discussed. To make such a statement is to deny the character of comedy to Volpone. The morality is a primitive kind of drama, and we do not see how Volpone, an accomplished comedy, can bear any resemblance to a morality. The morality is run on abstract ideas or embodiments of abstract ideas, and the motive is the enforcement of moral truth as a guide to human conduct. The abstract ideas may be virtues, as Justice, Mercy, Compassion; or vices, as Avarice, Malice, Falsehood; or a state, or condition, or mode of life, as Youth, Old Age, Poverty, Abominable living; or any embodiment of the human race, as in the character Every Man, one of the moralities; or of a part of it, as in the play of Lusty Juventus; or of the end of all men, for in these compositions Death is not infrequently embodied. There are also stock-characters, as the Devil and the Vice--the former being an inheritance from miracle-plays, but the latter is a new creation. The Devi was represented as the hideous monster, evolved by the morbid imagination of the dark ages, having horns,at least one hoof, a tail, a shaggy body, and a visage both frightful and ridiculous. The Vice wore generally, if not always, the costume of the domestic fool, or jester of the period, which is now worn by clowns of the circus. The Vice became a district line of character--and his name and functions were those of Infidelity, Hypocrisy, Desire, and so forth. Sometimes, the part of gallant or bully was written for the Vice, and was named accordingly; and sometimes he was called Iniquity. When he bore this name, he would seem to have been not a mere buffoon or clown, making merriment with gibes and antics, but a sententious person with all his fun: for Shakespeare makes the following descriptive mention of this kind of Vice: 

  • Thus, like the formal vice, Iniquity I moralize two meanings in the word.

But the Vice generally performed the mingled functions of scamp, braggart, and practical joker.It has been necessary to give a detailed account of the morality play above to clear all misunderstanding about it, We can assume little affinity between Volpone and a morality play as such. One might fancy that the function of the Devil and the Vice has been distributed between Nano, Castrone and Androgyno, and the abstract idea is embodied in all the main characters, Volpone included. But we should not forget the fundamental difference in the conception and structure of a morality and a comedy. The morality play represents the primitive stage of drama and comedy shows a process of evolution. We do not deny that some elements of a morality play may be present in a comedy. The Fool in a comedy--and Shakespeare's comedy has always a fool--is a later development of the Vice, and for that reason nobody will identify the Fool of a comedy with the Vice of a morality, or a comedy with a morality. The function of a Fool has changed from that of the Vice. We may take Touchstone in As You Like It--and Touchstone has very little in common with his progenitor, the Vice. So Nano, Castrone and Androgyno cannot be aligned with the Vice. Than again abstract ideas are the personages in a morality; in a comedy there are living characters, and each living character represents some idea or other. An abstraction is one thing, and a living character is another. The very fact of the presence of living characters in a comedy precludes it from being classed with a morality. Lastly, there is a much richer and broader conception in a comedy than there can be in a morality. Humour, wit, characterization, development of the action stage by stage mark a new genre. All that we have in a morality is horse, play-coarse, rough, boisterous fun, nothing of fine humour and intellectual wit, nothing of characterization. It is little short of absurd to think of Volpone as a morality of any kind, with its advanced technique, with the subtle play of wit, with its chastened merriment, with the interweaving of plot and counter-plot. 

Arthur Sale concedes that Volpone, a morality as he takes it to be, breaks away from the murky medieval atmosphere. The con-cession that Volpone captures the breath and spirit of the Renaissance, demolishes the plea that Volpone is a morality. The morality is typical of the medieval standard of life and outlook, the medieval conception of morals and theology. Medieval Theology, we should say, is the central core of a morality, and the Renaissance outlook is a total breakaway from the medieval conception of life. If the Renaissance spirit and outlook enter largely into Volpone, we cannot understand how it can be approximated to a morality.

Arthur Sale seems to have been misled by Jonson's emphasis on the moral issue of the play, to reform the comedy of the day, and reiterates the same purpose in his prologue. Comedy has sunk into "ribaldry, profanation, blasphemy, all licence of offence to God and man." Jonson desires to lift the comedy out of the rut. His Volpone is an attempt to cure the ills from which the comedy of the day, suffers. So he writes, "I have laboured for their instruction and amendment, to reduce not only the ancient forms, but manners of the scene, the easiness, the propriety, the innocence, and last, the doctrine, which is the principal end of poesies to inform men in the best reason of living " To inform men in the best reason of living is Jonson's moral purpose. And Arthur Sale, therefore calls Volpone a morality under the influence of the Renaissance.

It may also be added here that the popular medieval morality was still remembered in Jonson's day. In the morality vice-characters were shown as dangerously attractive. They appealed to the audience of being lively and humorous. In Jonson's play, Volpone and Mosca are quite attractive and their cleverness is appealing. Volpone with his tricks to get other men's money is a type of the devil who captures men's souls with his tricks. In morality drama good characters were not superficially attractive like the bad ones. Goodness is not clever, does not disguise itself, does not make jokes. This is true of Celia, a heavenly woman and Bonario, a good man. The audience was, therefore, sometimes tempted to think that Volpone was a morality. In no case is it a simple morality play, not even a Renaissance one.


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