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Home » , » Throw light on Jonson's method of characterisation with special reference to Volpone?
At the very outset it may be said that Jonson's method of characterisation is entirely different from Shakespeare's. In any good play it is difficult to say and also hardly worth asking, whether plot or characters were more important to the author. For the two depend so closely on each other. But in the case of, say, Hamlet it is obvious that the author's interest in the character of the hero is stronger than his interest in the plot. Here Shakespeare is unmistakably seen concerned, above all, with the exploration of Hamlet's mind. Hence the long soliloquies delay the action. Shakespeare looks upon Hamlet as a unique individual worth studying for his own sake. Now, Jonson never thought of characters as portraits of unique individuals, but as types. To him a character should represent some typical human quality with the result that the interaction among the characters would be typical of human society. He believed that this method made the dramatist's imitation of life universally true, and his moral universally applicable. Jonson, therefore, always tried to fit his characters to his plot, each contributing to a larger design.

Next, since Jonson is a satirist, he depends for his effect on exaggeration, on caricature. Yet he produces a forceful representation of reality. Here his method consists in first deciding what qualities he wishes to illustrate and, then, bringing them to life through his deep insight into human psychology. That is why we do not complain that the characters of Volpone are unreal, though we are sure not to meet such people in real life, 

Another point regarding Jonson's characters is that they need not be understood sympathetically, as though they were real people.They need not be judged as we might judge Shakespeare's characters by balancing good moral qualities against moral weaknesses. We are required to judge Jonson's characters by their part they play in our moral response to the play. But it is not easy because our moral standards are continually upset by the author.

Let us illustrate this point from Volpone. No problem arises in the case of the three "birds of play" because their evil is obvious and repellent. Our repulsion for them is never called in question. But they do confuse our judgment of Volpone and Mosca of whom we are led to think favourably by comparison. Celia and Bonario are obviously good, but it is not easy to respond to their goodness with enthusiasm as we cannot help questioning its effectiveness in overcoming evil. We are continually tempted to forgive the stupid would be though they are absolutely lacking in moral virtue. We should respect the judges who represent the authority of the state. But their command of our respect is stinted because of their attitude towards Mosca after discovering him to have inherited Volpone's wealth. Though the wickedness of Volpone and Mosac is never in doubt, we cannot condemn them coldly because we enjoy and admire their skill and cleverness. Thus we see that Jonson continually and deliberately offers challenges to our moral standards through his characters and this he does particularly in Volpone.

It remains to add that if Jonson's characters are not seem in the light their author meant them to be seen, they appear to be least satisfying. A summary of various critic's unfavorable remarks by Jonas A. Barish, which follows, brings out this point very well.

It was charged, J.A. Barish observes, that Jonson's characters were not individuals, but blue-prints of types, or else, on the contrary, they were so frantically individuals, so rampantly eccentric, that they ceased to seem human altogether. They were islands that never had and never could form part of the mainland. Moreover, they belonged not to life but literature, and to a laboured, unspontaneous sort of literature at that. They did n strike one as 'extemporary creations thrown off in the heat of the pen', they seemed 'made up' rather than 'real'. And far from striking chords of sympathy in readers, they tended to provoke a fascinated repugnance, or a derisive dismissal. They were not, furthermore, the sort of people one wished to live among. Nineteenth century readers thought of themselves, precisely, as living among the characters of fiction. They inquired into their good breeding and their family connections. In Jonson... one always finds himself in low company. Every the least prejudiced critics... confessed themselves revolted by the rankness of Jonsonian realism, and dismayed by the absence of 'goodness of heart' in his personages, his lack of a 'cordial interest' in his own dramatic creations.

This discussion of Jonson's characters may, perhaps, appropriately be closed with their comparison or rather contrast with the characters of Shakespeare. Shakespeare's characters are such as might exist in different circumstances than those in which Shakespeare sets them. But Volpone's life, for example, is bounded by the scene in which it is played: the life of the character is inseparable from the life of the drama. Here the emotional effect is single and simple. Whereas in Shakespeare the effect is due to the way in which the characters act upon one another, in Jonson it is given by the way in which they fit in with each other. The artistic result of Volpone is not due to any effect that its characters have upon each other, but simply to their combination into a whole.


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