By: Ben Jonson
If you’ve never heard of Ben Jonson, then literary education has failed you.
He’s a contemporary of Shakespeare, and much more famous in his day than Shakespeare was.
Volpone is a play by Jonson, a satire set in Venice, Italy.
All I can really say about it is it’s all right. Not bad, not good. So-so. Eh. It comes complete with sadism, an attempted rape scene, a guy pretending to be a turtle…
My impression was that it’s satirizing greed, and it revolves around the comedy of avarice, including characters who are so caught up in their greed that any humanity in them is invisible or oppressed beneath a desire for more wealth.
So I suppose it succeeds in its goal. No one in this play ends up looking good at the end. They’re all greedy fools who, predictably, get “caught [in their] own noose.”
And I think that’s part of my problem with this play. It’s well-written, witty, definitely satirical. But it’s a little too didactic for my taste. Everything is laid out fairly simply, and you know all of the deceits, the ironies. The characters’ names literally mean fox, fly, vulture, raven, crow (or conversely, good and heaven). There’s no mistaking the moral lessons in this play.
But it is humorous. I would love to see it on stage, because there’s much visual irony and snappy witticisms. It just felt a little trite to me, but perhaps that’s because we’re so used to Shakespeare’s ambiguities and hidden meanings.
It’s a good example of Renaissance literature, and it’s important because Jonson was one of the first to argue for the importance of drama as a genre. And it’s rather short, so you won’t get bogged down. It’s a fun read, just a little too predictable for my taste. But maybe that’s just me.
If you liked Volpone, check these out:
(for contemporaneous drama)
Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
Othello by William Shakespeare
(for contemporaneous satire)
Utopia by Thomas More
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Meridian by Alice Walker