'Volpone' in Context: Biters Bitten and Fools Fooled

'Volpone' in Context: Biters Bitten and Fools Fooled

by Keith Linley

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Everything you need to know about the cultural contexts of 'Volpone'. The unremitting exposure of human vileness is black and bleak, redeemed perhaps by the eventual punishment of the wrongdoers in an outcome achieved more by luck than justice. This book provides detailed in-depth discussion of the various influences that a Jacobean audience would have brought to interpreting the play. How did people think about the world, about God, about sin, about kings, about civilized conduct, about the predatory impulses that drive men to prey upon each other? Historical, literary, political, sociological backgrounds are explained within the biblical-moral matrices by which the play would have been judged. This book links real life in the late 1600s to the world on the stage. Discover the orthodox beliefs people held about religion. Meet the Devil, the Seven Deadly Sins and human depravity. Learn about the social hierarchy, gender relationships, court corruption, class tensions, the literary profile of the time, attitudes to comedy – and all the subversions, transgressions, and oppositions that made the play a topical satire but also an unsettling picture of a world so close to disaster.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783085606
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 11/21/2016
Series: Anthem Perspectives in Literature
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 250
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Poet, painter, teacher and academic, Keith Linley has lectured at university and given papers at conferences and book festivals on a range of literary subjects.

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Volpone in Context

Biters Bitten and Fools Fooled

By Keith Linley

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2016 Keith Linley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-560-6



1.1 The Jacobean Context: An Overview

Elizabeth I died in 1603 and James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The play was written in 1605, so falls into the Jacobean period (after Jacobus, Latin for James). In the wider European literary and political contexts, the period is the waning of the High Renaissance. Historians today call it Early Modern because many features of it are recognizably modern while being early in the evolutions that shaped our world.

The new king, ruling until 1625, was of the Scottish family the Stuarts. They were a dynastic disaster. None was an effective king. James I, a learned man but a flawed ruler, shirked the routines of work government involved; disliked contact with his people; was extravagant, constantly in debt and in perpetual conflict with Parliament; was a hard-line right-winger in religion who backed the repression of Catholics and Puritans; drank heavily and was impulsive and tactless. Sir Anthony Weldon, courtier and politician, banished from court for a book criticizing the Scots, dubbed him 'the wisest fool in Christendom'. The epithet captures something of the discrepancy between his writings on political theory and his practice as a lazy man only intermittently engaged with his role. London celebrated with bonfires when he succeeded peacefully. His apparent engagement with his regal duties generated hope, reflected in the mass of appalling, sycophantic eulogistic verse published. During the 15 March 1603 royal procession through the City two St Paul's choristers sang of London as Troynovant (New Troy), no longer a city but a bridal chamber, suggesting a mystical union and new hope. This sense of promise soon evaporated when his failings and inconsistencies quickly emerged. Volpone is underpinned by concerns about rule (or misrule) of self and others. The central character is a magnifico from the governing ranks of Venice, thus his misrule of self, his failure to live up to the expectations of his degree, is a significant theme running throughout the play. The moral failings of the other characters too relate to their social positions and become a part of the general criticism.

The previous monarch, Elizabeth, a Tudor, much loved and respected, had been a strong ruler, indeed strong enough to suppress the addressing of many problems which by James I's time had become irresolvable. The Tudors – Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth – ruled 1485–1603 and brought relative stability after the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses (though there were various short-lived rebellions against them). Questions of succession, the nature of rulers, the use and limits of monarchical power, the influence of court and the qualities of courtiers were matters that concerned people throughout the period and are part of the broader contexts of Volpone. Religion too was a major conflict area. Catholic opposition to the new Church of England and Puritan desires for freedom from tight central control created a constant battleground. The effects on society and individual morality of the wealth that the new capitalism and the expansion of trade were creating also worried Jacobean writers. The new individualism, another context, emerges in the self-centred ruthlessness of all five central characters. Each is driven by his own will to acquire wealth and power and seems to exist outside the ethical framework of the time. The increasing influence of such a disconnect between the old values of public duty and private morality was a source of much anxiety to moralists and writers. Deceit and selfishness seemed to be banishing openness and altruism.

Henry VIII's great achievement (and cause of trouble) was breaking with the Catholic Church of Rome and establishing an independent English Church. This inaugurated a period of seismic change called the English Reformation. In 1536 the first Act of Supremacy made Henry Supreme Head of the Church of England. Its rituals and doctrines remained essentially Catholic until the reforms of his son Edward aligned it with the Protestant movements on the Continent. There was some limited alliance with the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther, but in many ways the English went their own way. Monasteries and convents were dissolved, the infrastructural features of Catholicism banished, altars stripped of ornament (leaving only the cross and flanking candles), churches emptied of statues and relics and some murals whitewashed over or scratched out. New services and prayers were in English rather than Latin, new English translations of the Bible began to appear and there was a Book of Common Prayer to be used in all parish churches. Holy shrines, saints' statues and saints' days were done away with as idolatrous superstitions. The vicar was to be the only intermediary between a person and God. After a brief, fiery, bloody return to Catholicism under Mary I (1553–8), Elizabeth succeeded and bedding in the new church continued. The freedom of a reformed English religion, supposedly stripped back to its simple original faith, encouraged the rise of more extreme reforming Protestant sects (not always to the liking of the infant Established Church). These groups, called Non-Conformists, Independents or Dissenters, included Puritans, Calvinists and Presbyterians – all Protestant, but with doctrinal differences. Some eccentric sects emerged too – like the Anabaptists, the Brownists and the Family of Love. Religious differences, tensions between different faiths and disagreements within the same faith are persistently present at this time, but despite all the official changes to religion, the essential beliefs in sin, virtue, salvation, the centrality of Christ and the ubiquity of the Devil (the idea that he was everywhere, looking to tempt man) were the same as they always had been, as were the beliefs that sin was followed by punishment and possible damnation and that the world, in decline, would shortly come to an end.

Also persistent is the political discourse on kingship. Elizabeth (adoringly nicknamed 'Gloriana' after her identification with a character in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene) ruled 1558–1603, a time long enough to establish her as an icon, particularly as she headed up strong opposition (and victory) against the Spanish. External threats repulsed, the regime was consolidated (though relentlessly under covert attack by Catholicism), but the Elizabethan- Jacobean period was one of unstoppable internal changes, gradually altering the profile and mood of society. Religion, commerce, growing industrialization, increase of manufacture, social relationships, kingship and rule were all in flux. One unchanging feature of the period was the unceasing rise in prices, particularly of food, bringing an unceasing decline in the living standards of the poor, for wages did not rise. The rich and the rising middle class could cope with inflation, but the state of the poor deteriorated. Enclosure of arable land (labour intensive) and its conversion to sheep farming (requiring less labour) raised unemployment among the 'lower orders' or the 'baser sort' who constituted the largest proportion of the 4–5 million population (between 80 and 85 per cent). Rising numbers of poor put greater burdens on poor relief in small, struggling rural communities and added to the elite's fear of some monumental uprising of the disenchanted. Most of the population worked on the land, though increasing numbers were moving to the few existing cities. Later ages, regarding the Elizabethan era as a 'Golden Age', talked of 'Merry England'. It was not, except for a small section of rich, privileged aristocrats. Also enjoying greater luxury and comfort were canny merchants (making fortunes from trading in exotic goods from the 'New Worlds' of Asia and the Americas) and the increasingly wealthy, acquisitive 'middling sort' manufacturing luxury goods for the aristocracy. Awareness of the state of the poor and the governing class's emotional detachment from that deteriorating condition is not a feature of Volpone but it does concentrate on the self-centred concerns of the rich. An audience in 1606 would see the play as an indictment of the greed, shiftiness and corruption of its capital city and its leading ranks. On Sunday 13 March 1603, the Puritan divine Richard Stock, delivered a Lent sermon at the Pulpit Cross in St Paul's churchyard, commenting,

I have lived here some few years, and every year I have heard an exceeding outcry of the poor that they are much oppressed of the rich of this city [...] All or most charges are raised [...] wherein the burden is more heavy upon a mechanical or handicraft poor man than upon an alderman.

The Jacobean period was quickly perceived as declining from the high points of Elizabeth's time, with worsening of problems she had been unable or unwilling to rectify. Economic difficulties, poverty, social conflict, religious dissent and political tensions relating to the role and nature of monarchy and the role and authority of Parliament, all remained unresolved. Charismatic, strong rulers (like Elizabeth) inspire loyalty though often through fear.

Emerging problems are ignored or masked, because the ruler disallows discussion of them and councillors fear to raise them. Elizabeth, for example, passed several laws making it treason to even discuss who might succeed her. Such a ruler's death exposes the true state of things. Volpone's detachment from any form of civic-political duty highlights the growing perception that James I's court and government were more concerned with pursuing their own pleasures and milking the system than with addressing the problems growing in the nation at large.

Under James I strong, purposeful central rule dwindled into rule by whim and capricious diktat. His court became more decadent and detached from the rest of the population than his predecessor's. Commerce and manufacture expanded rapidly, triggering a rise in the middle class that provided and serviced the new trades and crafts. Attitudes to religion and freedom from church authority began to develop into resistance, and science began to displace old superstitions and belief in magic. Like all times of transition the Jacobean period, and the seventeenth century in general, were exciting for some but unsettling for most, profitable for a few but a struggle for the majority. As always the rich found ways to get richer, and the poor got poorer. Gradually the disadvantaged found men to speak up for them in the corridors of power, in the villages of England and the overcrowded streets of the cities. Volpone is about the fall of a man who could have had power but who lives entirely for himself. The fall of Volpone is not a tragic story, not a Renaissance de casibus tragedy. Unique as it is, it is also a typical Jacobean play – dark, cynical, deeply satirical, violent, psychological – but it explores character and motive only in broad terms. While much concerned with sin and punishment, there is little of repentance, redemption, reconciliation. Its first audience was probably the broad social mix of The Globe. Many of the clientele would appreciate the exposure of their so-called betters. Others would find it an embarrassing experience.



Strict hierarchy (everything having its place according to its importance in God's order) and organic harmony (everything being part of a whole and having a function to perform) were the overriding principles of the broad orthodox background to how the audience thought their universe was structured (cosmology), how they saw God and religion (theology) and how their place in the order of things was organized (sociology). The disorders and disharmonies upsetting roles and expectations stem from Volpone's and Mosca's massive deception (already three years old). Both contravene Christian and humanist teaching about conduct. Mosca has usurped control over his master, and Volpone fails to live according the rank to which he belongs. Their transgressions, while theatrical, impressive and fascinating, are entirely immoral. An audience might be amused by their trickery and admire their skills, but would expect (even demand) ultimate punishment. Volpone is like other Ben Jonson pieces in that the action becomes increasingly complex in the last act. The outcome remains unsure as unexpected new twists make the audience wait. Suspending retributive justice prolongs the excitement as the plot winds up into a whirlwind of complications, as the sins reach excessive proportions and as the audience wonders how and whether it will all be resolved. Christian beliefs and values demanded punishment, but it looks as if Mosca will get away with his final scam – betraying his partner in crime. Both characters, at the beginning of the play, are already deeply implicated in the breaking of the Commandment not to bear false witness. Both commit the sins of avarice and covetousness.

Volpone's household and clients form a small court, but it is a place of corruption and predation, not a centre of amity, harmony, elegance or moral example. The source of that subversion is the very man who should be an exemplar. His little world is a reflection of the greater society with its cheats and scavenging parasites, a place of dishonesty, theft and a form of cannibalism where men prey on their own kind. This linking of the microcosm with the macrocosm, the idea that the world of Volpone's palazzo reflects the world of the Venetian state, that the spiritual dimension is connected to and has an influence over the fleshly world, that the inner world is a model of the outer, is central to Renaissance thought about order, hierarchy, nature and God. The distortions of right conduct witnessed in Volpone's court act as enveloping emblematic metaphors of a world turned upside down. A series of other reversals are presented before the play reaches a degree of harmony when the literal, judicial court pronounces sentences on the perpetrators of the evil witnessed through the narrative.

Such reversals of normal order, such monstrous greed, such deforming of nature were unsettling to an audience that followed a strict etiquette of precedence, where social power depended on a person's place in the hierarchy being seen (in clothing and other signs of wealth, title, rank and office) and accepted as superior by those below them in society. Disturbingly, underpinning the action seen is the knowledge that this is no fiction, that this is how humans behave.

2.1 Hierarchy

Everyone was fairly clear where they were in the universal order, the Great Chain of Being. God ruled all, was omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing). Man was inferior to God, Christ, the Holy Ghost, all the angels, apostles, saints, the Virgin Mary and all the blessed, but superior to all animals, birds, fish, plants and minerals. God ruled Heaven, kings (and princes, dukes, counts) ruled on earth and fathers ruled families like God at home.

The chain stretched from God through all the hierarchies of existence to the very bottom in descending order of importance – from divinity to dust – all interconnected as contributory parts of God's creation. The chain links were each a separate group of beings, creatures or objects, each connected to the one before and the one after, semiseparate, dependent but partly independent, both separate and part of something greater. Within each link there was a hierarchy. The human link contained three different ranks – 'the better sort' (kings, nobles, gentry), the 'middling sort' (merchants, shopkeepers, farmers) and the 'baser sort', or 'lower orders' (artisans, peasants, beggars). Within each of these orders there were further rankings of superiority and inferiority. The word 'class' was not used then, but these ranks, degrees or estates represent our upper, middle and lower classes as we know them today.

2.2 Cosmology

In astronomical terms, medieval and Renaissance man thought of creation, the cosmos, as an all-enveloping godliness that incorporated Heaven, the human universe and Hell. The universe was thought of as a set of revolving, concentric, transparent crystal spheres, one inside the other, and each containing a planet. It was a geocentric model, with the earth in the middle encased in its sphere, enveloped by the moon's sphere, and then by Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, like the rings of an onion. Each of these bodies in its sphere circled the earth at different orbital angles and different speeds.

After Saturn came the firmament or fixed stars (divided into 12 seasonal zodiac sectors). Volpone mentions how he is more glad to see his gold than the earth is to see the spring sun 'peep through the horns of the celestial Ram' (1.1.5), referencing Aries, the sign that relates to late March–late April. Next were the 'waters [...] above the firmament' (Genesis 1:7) encased by sphere ten, the Primum Mobile (the first mover), which drove the spheres. Finally, everything was held within the all-surrounding empyrean, the domain that was all God's and all God – Heaven. Here the Deity was accompanied by his Son, the Holy Ghost, the Virgin Mary, the angels, the saints and the blessed. The set of concentric crystal balls was imagined by some to hang from the lip of Heaven by a gold chain. This cosmological organization, called the Ptolemaic system, was formulated by the second-century AD Egyptian astronomer-geographer Ptolemy (Figure 2.1). In Tudor times his Cosmographia (Geography of the universe) was still recommended by Sir Thomas Elyot for boys to learn about the spheres.


Excerpted from Volpone in Context by Keith Linley. Copyright © 2016 Keith Linley. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction; About this book - What is a context? – Further Reading; Part I. The Inherited Past; Prologue: the setting;1. The historical context; 2. The world order: from divinity to dust; 3. Sin, death and the prince of darkness; 4. The seven cardinal virtues; 5. Kingship; 6. Patriarchy, family authority and gender relationships; 7. Man in his place; 8. Images of disorder: the religious context; Part II. The Jacobean present; 9. Ben in context; 10. Literary context; 11. The political context; 12. The beast fable; 13. Transgressions and sins: the biters bit.14. The venetian context: consumerism and cannibalism; Bibliography

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‘Detailed and fascinating. Such clear and full explorations of its historical and cultural contexts will deeply enrich students’ understanding of the play. Vital reading for anyone interested in how the affairs, interests and obsessions of early Jacobean England parallel those of our own world, and therefore make Volpone so important for us today.’ —Ewan Craig, Head of English, Yarm School, United Kingdom

‘Linley’s book is lively, readable and illuminating; it draws you into Jonson’s world and provides insight into the forces that shaped the tour de force that is Volpone. An essential guide.’ Wendy Ellis, OCR A Level English Literature Team Leader

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