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Volpone

Ben Jonson

Act I, scene ii

Act I, scene i

Act I, scene iii and scene iv

Summary

Nano (a dwarf), Castrone (a eunuch), and Androgyno enter. They are here to entertain Volpone, with Nano leading the way. In a pleasant little fable, Nano relates that the soul now in Androgyno's body originated in the soul of Pythagoras. Mosca admits that he, in fact, wrote the entertainment, after Volpone says he was pleased with it. Nano then sings a song praising Fools, such as himself, who make their living by entertaining at the tables of the rich. A knock is heard at the door; Mosca says that it is Signior Voltore, a lawyer and one of Volpone's would-be "heirs." Mosca goes to see him into the house and comes back to announce that he has brought a huge piece of gold plate with him as a gift. Volpone is excited; his con is working, and he quickly prepares to put on the act of being sick, by getting into his night-clothes and dropping ointment in his eyes. He notes that he has been fooling these would-be heirs for three years, with various faked symptoms such as palsy (tremors), gout (joint- aches), coughs, apoplexy (breathing problems) and catarrhs (vomit).

Analysis

The entrance of Volpone's bizarre "family" of children is the entrance of the grotesque in the play; all three are"freaks" of one sort or another; Castrone the eunuch, Nano the dwarf, and Anrodgyno the hermaphrodite. Grotesque figures are often used as personified abstractions, stock and usually comic characters that represent an "inner" ugliness of some sort that the play intends to comment upon. This interpretation is supported by their names—Nano, Castrone and Androgyno simply mean "dwarf", "eunuch," and "hermaphrodite"—and by the fact they speak in heroic couplets (rhyming couplets written in iambic pentameter), as opposed to the central characters who speak in unrhymed iambic pentameter, also known as blank verse. (Iambic pentameter is a meter in which each line has ten syllables, or five pairs of syllables, the first syllable in each pair unstressed and the second stressed). What their grotesquerie represents is an inner grotesqueness in Volpone (and, as we shall see, in most of the play's characters). The three are not only are his servants, but also because they are in a very important sense his family; by his own admission, he has "no wife, no parent, no child, no ally." Furthermore, Volpone's choice to surround himself with individuals, such as Castrone and Androgyno, with "reproductive deformities" highlights and makes more strange his own lack of children, making the failure to reproduce seem more an essential part of his character, rather than an accident of fate. Thus, the lack of the basic human drive to reproduce seems, and certainly would seem to Elizabethan audiences, an indication that Volpone is something less than human, probably due to his inverted system of values.

In case we forget that this is a comedy, the scene also sets a lighthearted, erudite tone, for the play and helps highlight several of Volpone's redeeming qualities that make him a sympathetic protagonist. Nano traces a lineage for Androgyno's soul in rhyming couplets, thus demonstrating a gift for rhetoric similar to the one his master displayed in the first scene. Using this device, Jonson also manages to incorporate a great number of names from classical, which signify his allegiance to classical (i.e. Greek and Roman) literature. Volpone, like most of Jonson's plays, follows (or attempts to follow) the unities of classical drama: the unity of time (the audience and the characters must experience time at the same rate), the unity of place (the play should have only one setting) and unity of action (the play should revolve around one action). Very few dramatists (even ancient ones) stuck to these rules perfectly, and Jonson is no exception; though the play conforms to the first two unities farely well, it completely ignores unity of action with an entire subplot centering around the traveler Peregrine and the knight Sir Politic Would-be. Nano's song about "fools" refers directly to himself (Volpone calls him his "fool," but indirectly to Volpone; for "fool" is an Elizabethan word for "court jester" or "joker"; his defining characteristic is "wit" and "merry making." Fools, in this sense, can be thought of as the earliest professional comedians, pointing out the folly of the ruling classes for their own amusement; because he is a source of laughter, and not serious attack, "he speaks truth, free from slaughter," in other words, without fear of repercussions. He is thus also isolated from normal society, not subject to the usual laws of decorum and propriety that govern others; this distance and outsiders' perspective, as well as the freedom to speak his mind, gives him a moral superiority, especially in an age of hypocrisy, where truth-telling is in short supply.

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Correction

by zwibble-dibble, December 10, 2013

In the final paragraph, when discussing the second court scene, it says

"Mosca pretends to faint and claims to the Senate that he does not know where he is"

However, it is Voltore who does this, not Mosca.

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