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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

I. Ben Jonson

§ 14. Volpone; Epicoene

The four comedies which followed rank with Every Man in His Humour as his masterpieces. They are all comedies of humours; but each is a peculiar development of the type. In Volpone, the Plautian model appears only in the use of the clever servant as the mainspring of the action, and of entanglements based on the trickster-tricked type of plot. The subject and persons, however, are different from those usual in either Latin or English comedy. Volpone, a miser and sensualist, works on the greed of his acquaintances, and, by false reports of his sickness and death, excites their hopes of inheriting his fortune, and lures them into all kinds of abominable knavery. A shameless lawyer, a father who disinherits his son in order to satisfy his own greed and a wittol who offers his wife in return for an inheritance, are the chief dupes; while Sir Politick Would Be, a foolish English traveller, and his affected wife, who quotes Plato and knows of Pastor Fido and “Montaignié,” play lesser parts. The play has little mirth; but it is a vigorous exposure of greed and inquity. Its purpose is not amusement but satire, its subject not folly but vice, its protagonist not the managing servant but his master, a monster of villainy. Utterly bad men are common in Elizabethan tragedy, and are found, occasionally, in comedy. But nowhere else, unless in Iago, has vice been drawn with such fulness of detail and yet with such consistency as in Volpone. No tragic elevation lends majesty to the theme. The play depicts human meanness, unrelieved by any greatness of purpose or unselfishness of passion. It presents men as beasts, with the greed of swine, the craft of foxes and the rapacity of wolves.

Plot, characters and blank verse, unusually vigorous and flowing, all show Jonson at his best; and he was justly proud, as he boasted in the prologue, of having written in five weeks a comedy that observed the laws of time, place and persons, and swerved from no needful rule. In the dedication to both universities, he excuses the punishment of the vicious in comedy, defending himself by the example of the ancients, and still more because “it is the office of a comic poet to imitate justice, and instruct to life.” This is interesting as an adumbration of Rymer’s poetic justice,” and as an expression of the purpose of Jonson’s satiric comedy. Other passages in this same dedication give noble expression to the aims at which his art had now arrived,

  • 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 poesie, to inform men in the best reason of living.
  • It must be confessed, however, that Jonson’s vainglorious proclamation of reform exhibits an insolent disregard of his great predecessors and contemporaries. He promises
  • the maturing of some worthier fruits; wherein, if my muses be true to me, I shall raise the despised head of poetry again, and stripping her out of those rotten and base rags wherewith the times have adulterated her form, restore her to her primitive habit, feature, and majesty, and render her worthy to be embraced and kist of all the great and master-spirits of our world.
  • The Silent Woman, is much less intent on moral castigation than is Volpone, and, also, much merrier. Its plot is farcical, dealing with the entrapping of Morose, who hates noise, into marriage with Epicoene, who turns out to be a noisy tartar, and, after Morose has forgiven his nephew, proves to be a boy. Sir Dauphine, the nephew, and his friends, are the wits; Daw, La Foole and the Ladies Collegiates, the butts of their jests.

    There is abundant satire of the manners and affectations of the day; but the skilfully complicated action depends on numerous disguises, and does not rise above the level of admirable farce.