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Home » , » What light does Volpone throw on the social life of the contemporary London?
The play Volpone is in essentials as English as it is Venetian, and in fundamentals it is universal. True, the comedy of Volpone is universal, but, as L.C. Knights says, it could be perverse not to relate it to the acquisitiveness of a particular time and place. At the beginning of the seventeenth century most people thought that, at all levels of society, the one over-riding motive for action was avarice. Now, the vice central to Volpone is greed, the relentless striving after acquisition.

The pamphlets of the times, produced in great number, notably by Thomas Dakker Thomas Nashe and Robert Green amply tell us not only about the lives of the poor, but also about the tricks of the rogues, and the language they spoke, called 'canting'. The pamphlets expose knavery and warn people of the tricks that may be practised by the rogues on them. The pamphlets, which were greatly popular then, voiced disapproval of the merchant class, or more generally of those who enriched themselves at the expense of others. In Volpone, all the characters, except Bonario, Celia, Sir Politic and Peregrine are hankering after money, and more after the money of others. Jonson was always a harsh and severe satirist of human failings, but never more so than in this play. The suitors are completely amoral and depraved, and even inhumane in their greed; Jonson gives them the names of birds of prey Volpone and Mosca combine greed with trickery. Every action other than those of Sir Politic, Peregrine, Bonario and Celia and these are minor characters, is determined directly or indirectly by greed. The senile Corbaccio clings to his ardent worldli-ness, and is willing to imperial or sacrifice his son's right in order to feed his flickering life with futile new possessions. Corvino is ready, eager indeed, to make a mockery of the equally fundamentally human tie of marriage by prostituting his own wife. Voltore, the man of law and consequently of justice, debases his profession by cynical defence of his own and his clients' crimes, ruthlessly demanding the punishment of the innocent. This is a vicious picture of society, but in many ways a true picture of the society of Jonson's own day in which large fortunes were being amassed by means as devious as Volpone's own. Jonson has no doubt deliberately dramatised acts which represent the extremities of blatant and savagely selfish materialism, yet the picture is essentially of his own age. "Amid the traffic and speculation of the Renaissance," as Harry Levin says, "treasure-trove, legacy-,hunting, and alchemy were considered legitimate alternatives in the general pursuit of riches. If this crass after-thought robs Jonson's comedies of their fantasy, it binds them much more firmly to the life of their time.

Lady Would-Be stands, for the emancipated woman of the Renaissance version, eager to discourse on dreams, cures, music, literature, philosophy and the great love story of her life. London then looked upon Venice as her superior and evinced fondness for every thing Venetian. The lady is representative of the contemporary London : 

She Lies here in Venice for intelligence Of tires, and fashions, and behaviour Among the courtesans.

In Sir Politic Would-Be Jonson pictures the futile nobleman who wishes to be thought great in matters of state and poses as close to the British Embassy in Venice. While Lady Would-Be's humour is to learn the Italian language and fashion, he hangs onto the followers of the lord ambassador and gathers such bits of information as, from his point of view, might shake a kingdom. Through the Knight's futilities, Jonson strikes boldly at consequential people of fashion who flirt with affairs of state.

The actors Nano, Androgyno and Castrone are all physically deformed. Their physical deformity, besides symbolizing the spiritual deformity, also caters to the taste of the day. "Jonson's audience hissed the tortoise and clapped the depraved monsters." They "paid money to see 'monsters' such as these in fair grounds."

Jonson said of comedy :"She would shew an image of the times."

What has been said above is, perhaps, enough to establish the dramatist's claim to this ideal in Volpone.


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