Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

One of the blackest comedies ever written, Ben Jonson's Volpone is the masterpiece of a playwright all too frequently dismissed for being unnecessarily dark and academic. Merciless in its depiction of avarice, this rich and masterful play provokes both laughter and indignation in its audiences.

This Handbook:
• Provides in-depth analysis of the play, scene by scene and line by line
• Examines the multitude of interpretations of Volpone throughout history, including both on stage and screen
• Explores the critical discourse surrounding the play and summarises the social and literary forces that shaped Jonson's work

Table of Contents

1. The Text and Early Performances

Abstract
In his 1973 essay ‘Jonson and the Loathèd Stage’, Jonas Barish persuasively argues that both Jonson’s life and work are pregnant with an antitheatrical prejudice. Visible in every aspect of Jonson’s writing, Barish claims, are a deep-seated distrust of the theatrical experience and an undeniable preference for the printed word. In the decades following Barish’s essay, many scholars have sought to temper this perception of Jonson as an enemy of the stage; however, even those scholars who defend Jonson as a man of the theater still concede that he, alone among renowned Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, took an active role in the preparing and printing of dramatic texts for publication. Why was Jonson unique in this regard? What did he have to gain from the publication of his plays? And what were the consequences of Jonson’s involvement in the preparing of his dramatic texts for print?
Marshall Botvinick

2. Cultural Contexts and Sources

Abstract
The Age of Jonson was a transitional time for England. The country still cleaved to certain relics of the medieval economy, but it was also beginning to adopt many aspects of the modern capitalist system. Some prominent features of the medieval economy were the active role played by guilds, the general absence of social or financial mobility and the existence of a localized market that ensured most transactions took place within the confines of a close-knit community. Even though these vestiges of the medieval economy could still be observed during the Elizabethan-Jacobean era, they were undeniably on the decline. Replacing them were a slew of capitalist innovations that were timed perfectly to the circumstances of the late 16th and early 17th century. Between 1550 and 1600 the population of London ballooned from approximately 50,000 to 200,000 people. This sizeable concentration of individuals, in turn, created a substantial consumer base unlike anything England could have envisioned during the Middle Ages. During this period, England also witnessed the development of two major industries: clothing and mining. Furthermore, the discovery of the New Worlds tripled Europe’s supply of gold and silver.
Marshall Botvinick

3. Commentary

Abstract
I to the end It is not very often that a play begins without the playwright identifying the speaker of the first line, but it is also not very often that a playwright like Ben Jonson comes along. Known for flouting convention while simultaneously touting his adherence to the rules of classical drama, Jonson is a paradox of reverence and irreverence, rule abiding and rule breaking; and this contradiction is on full display in the prologue. The open-ended nature of the first speech (if it is even preserved in performance) leaves a director with numerous options and questions when thinking about how best to begin the production. Most importantly, a director must select the appropriate actor(s) to deliver the prologue. Looking at the meter, several scholars have observed that the verse sounds strikingly similar to the verse of Nano, Androgyno and Castrone. Another option would be to assign the prologue to the actor portraying Volpone. This choice lends the production a nice symmetry since it is Volpone who delivers the epilogue. It is also possible for a director to enlist multiple speakers and divide the text among some or all of the cast members, creating a unified show of support for Jonson’s claim of literary superiority. The director must also decide whether s/he wishes to present the speaker(s) as actor(s) or character(s).
Marshall Botvinick

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
A production history serves several functions. Most importantly it reconstructs past performances so that their memory endures even after all who bore witness to a particular performance have died. Unlike film, theater is an ephemeral art form that requires scholars who are committed to preserving records of individual performances. Without the efforts of theater historians, the work of theater artists would perish the moment after the cast takes its final bow. Performance histories also show how attitudes and approaches to a play can evolve and change over time. They demonstrate how various productions can exist in conversation with each other, sometimes borrowing and sometimes intentionally deviating from earlier productions; and they look for ways in which a production is responding to a particular moment in history. Thus, theater historians are not evaluating individual performances in a vacuum, as reviewers often do, but are instead seeing productions as part of a vast historical continuum. Furthermore, because production histories detail the benefits and drawbacks of specific production choices and directorial approaches, they have the potential to influence future practice. Finally, production histories can inform the critical discourse surrounding a particular play.
Marshall Botvinick

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
Until recently there was not a readily available film that used Jonson’s text. This changed in 2010 when Stage on Screen, a company dedicated to producing DVDs of classic plays, recorded a live staging of Volpone at the Greenwich Theatre in London. Before the Stage on Screen version, the only recording that garnered any attention was a 1959 version that Donald Wolfit made as part of BBC’s World Theatre series. According to Ejner Jensen, who extensively researched Volpone’s stage and screen history, the BBC destroyed all copies of this film in their archives; however, R.B. Parker, who conducted his research prior to Jensen, was able to view Wolfit’s work and thought the following:
It is only a ghost of Wolfit’s stage portrayal. Without the audience response which fed his energy, with his vocal power muted for the microphones, with sexual innuendo cut in the interests of family viewing, and with [director Stephen Harrison’s] stolid camera angles, the interpretation loses size, fluidity, and bite. Despite diminished excitement, however, it can still give a useful sense of Wolfit’s interpretation. (‘Wolfit’s Fox: An Interpretation of Volpone’, p. 201)
Marshall Botvinick

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
When writing critical literature, scholars typically argue about a work’s quality or its meaning. Critics who defend or attack the artistic merit of a particular work are participating in critical valuation while those who try to decipher a work’s meaning are engaging in critical interpretation. Both aspects of criticism have implications that extend far beyond the confines of universities and classrooms. The critical reception of a play can determine whether or not it continues to be produced while the critical interpretation of a play can shape how it is staged. This is certainly true of Volpone, and it is my hope that the connection between the critical history detailed in this chapter and the performance history discussed earlier in the book will be readily apparent.
Marshall Botvinick
Additional information