Ben Jonson's "Volpone" - A Satire?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Volpone - a Satire?
2.1 Influences on Volpone I
2.1.1 The Beast Fable
2.1.2 The Morality Play
2.2 Volpone and the Question of Genre
2.2.1 Volpone ~ a Romance?
2.2.2 Defining Satire
2.2.3 Volpone and the Definition of Satire

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“It is a satire David Bevington writes in his essay about Ben Jonson’s Volpone and continues without sparing the question of the play’s genre another thought. There is, however, no unanimous opinion on the matter, as the ease with which Bevington comes to his conclusion would suggest. The play is too complex to be classified that quickly. Although the satirical overtones are undeniable, Jonson was influenced by more than just classical satire. As a consequence, Volpone shows traces of other genres, some of them closely related to the satire. The objective here will be to examine a small choice of literary traditions aside from satire and their possible influence on Jonson’s play. Furthermore, a closer look has to be taken at the definition of satire and its comparability with Volpone.

2. Volpone — a Satire?

2.1 Influences on Volpone

2.1.1 The Beast Fable

One of the more obvious influences on the play is the beast fable, which is defined as a short tale in which “animals and birds speak and bebave like human beings [...] usually illustrating some moral point.”[1] [2] As Dutton observes, “no other play of its era is so fully peopled with characters who are explicitly animals, birds, and insects, behaving exactly in the manner of Aesop's archetypal beasts, as the text knowingly reminds us.”[3] Jonson even gives his characters names which identify them as their animal counterparts in fables. There is Volpone, the protagonist, whose character is almost identical to that of his namesake, the fox. Like the animal, he “feigns death in order to catch predatory birds.”[4] The similarities do not end with the actual creature, however. Volpone also shares features which have been ascribed to the fox in mythology. He certainly qualifies as a “crafty shape-shifter”[5], since he spends a large part of the play in disguise, fooling almost everyone around him. The protagonist himself makes references to the resemblance between his plot and events in the fables of Aesop: “Good!—and not a fox/Stretched on the earth, with fine delusive sleights, / Mocking a gaping crow?”[6] Volpone's victims are just as aptly named: Voltore, Corvino, and Corbaccio, the vulture, crow, and raven. They all personify the faults which were associated with the birds whose names they carry. Vultures “were associated with avarice, particularly in lawyers, but also with their persuasiveness.”[7] Voltore certainly fits the bill perfectly, as he demonstrates in his pursuit of Volpone's riches and his manipulation of the Avocatori in court. Corvino and Corbaccio match their animal foils just as well. The former's treatment of his wife can be seen as an ironic hint to the “medieval fable of a white crow turned black by Apollo for tattling on his wife’s infidelity”[8], while the latter's treatment of his son corresponds to the idea of ravens neglecting their offspring.[9] Mosca is an equally good example. Volpone, other characters, and he himself constantly call him a “parasite”[10]. His relationship to his master reflects the relationship between the parasitic fly and the fox. At first he only lives off Volpone's possessions and seems to help him with his schemes, but later in the play he turns on his master. Like the flies, Mosca turns out to be “the best cure for the ‘fox's evil’.”[11]

Of course, this does not mean that Volpone is a beast fable. The characters may be called Voltore or Covino, but they are still completely human and not just animals acting like humans.

2.1.2 The Morality Play

Another possible source for inspiration for Jonson’s Volpone could have been the late morality plays; “dramatized allegories, in which personified virtues, vices, diseases, and temptations struggle for the soul of Man as he travels from birth to death.”[12] [13] Obviously, Jonson’s play is not about the life of Man, but it does feature characters similar to vices and virtues.

Volpone and Mosca, who victimize both the ‘estates’ and the virtues, provide Jonson's Venetian equivalent for the vices who traditionally impose their will upon a world which by its acquiescence and complicity has granted them power.

Indeed, Volpone and his parasite resemble “in their use of disguise and their love of mischief for its own sake”[14] those vices very much. On the other hand, there are Celia and Bonario, the innocent victims. If the protagonist and Mosca are to be identified as vices, because of their single mindedness, then the two only moral characters in the play can be seen as the equivalent of the virtues in morality plays. Accordingly, Alan C. Dessen claims that [Celia's] prime function is to represent not a psychologically realized individual but rather, like Simplicity in The Three Ladies or Christianity in The Tide Tarrieth No Man or Piers Plowman in A Knack to Know a Knave, a helpless victim whose plight can suggest the effects upon society of Volpone's way of life.[15] Both Celia and Bonario remain incapable of betraying their values, even in the face of punishment. “Sir, I will sit down, /And rather wish my innocence should suffer, /Than I resist the authority of a father.” Bonario's attitude in court shows that he is the sheer definition of a virtuous son, who ends up suffering because of the “Vice- like powers of Volpone and Mosca”[16] Another aspect which links the protagonist and his parasite to the tradition of the morality play's vices is their choice of victims: “witnesses, lawyers, or judges”[17] In the Lucre plays they are “bribed [...] in order to subvert justice.”[18] Volpone does almost the same thing; he manipulates everyone (except, of course, for the two virtuous characters) with the promise of his fortune.


[1] Bevington, David. “The major comedies” The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson. Ed. Richard Harp and Stanley Stewart. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 72-89. 74.

[2] Baldick, Chris. The Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.23.

[3] Dutton, Richard. “Volpone and Beast Fable: Early Modem Analogic Reading.” Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature, http ://lionreference.chadwy .uk/searchF vLe vel=0&qu ery Id =, ./session/1238400229_20896&trai)Id=l 1FBBE91857&area=abell&forward=critrefft

[4] Parker, Brian. “Introduction.” Volpone, or The Fox. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1999. I- 60. 14.

[5] Parker 14

[6] Jonson, Ben. Volpone, or The Fox. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1999.1, ii, 94-6.

[7] Parker 14.

[8] Parker 15.

[9] 7 Cf. Parker 14f.

[10] Jonson I, i, 68.

[11] Parker 15.

[12] Baldick 141.

[13] ° Dessen, Alan C. Jonson's Moral Comedy. N.p.: Northwestern UP, 1971.

[14] Parker 13.

[15] Dessen 89.

[16] Dessen 82.

[17] Dessen 91.

[18] Dessen 91.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Ben Jonson's "Volpone" - A Satire?
University of Würzburg
Hauptseminar: Early Modern Overreachers
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ISBN (Book)
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Ben Jonson, Volpone, English, Literature, Satire, Genre, Play
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Lynn Bay (Author), 2009, Ben Jonson's "Volpone" - A Satire?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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