Volpone: A Demonstration of Ben Jonson Misanthropy

Ben "Not As Good As Shakespeare" Jonson

Ben “Not As Good As Shakespeare” Jonson

In her monograph Erotic Beasts and Social Monster, Grace Tiffany suggests that there exist two androgynies in literature, the ‘mythic androgyny’, and the ‘satiric androgyny’.  While the ‘mythic’ could be, as Phyllis Rackin points out, “‘an image of transcendence’” (Tiffany, 11), the ‘satiric androgyny’ illustrates a “distrust in personal and social relationships, particularly in relationships with women” (14).  Tiffany suggests that in his play Volpone, Ben Jonson employs the ‘satiric androgyny’ and through it promotes “masculinity as an absolute quality, and femininity as the absence of this quality” (107) and does so by creating men who “remain… separate and whole through their self-sufficient resistance to romantic involvements, evident… in their stoic withdrawal from all social ties” (114) while also noting “their preference for balanced, reasoned relationships with other men (relationships that are masculinised by their competitive nature)” (114).  However, in his article “Identifying Ethical Values in Volpone” C.J.Gianakaris suggests that the hyper-masculine realm which populates Volpone is peopled with “dullards… knaves… [and] rogues” (Gianakaris, 45), none of whom—save perhaps Bonario—posses anything that could be called an ‘absolute quality’.  Tiffany suggests Jonson’s point of view “derives from a misogynistic classical ethic” (Tiffany, 23), but it seems that men, not women, are the target of Jonson’s satire and that, as Percy Simpson notes, Jonson “‘painted… humanity denuded of every germ of goodness’” (Gianakaris, 45).  Though Jonson could be accused of illustrating a “distrust in personal and social relationships” (Tiffany, 107) via Volpone, as there is hardly a single relationship that is presented in a positive light in the play, Jonson appears to be more of a misandrist than a misogynist (though if one considers his portrayal of Lady Would-be, misanthropist may be the more fitting label for Jonson).

 

 

Grace Tiffany, author of "Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters

Grace Tiffany, author of “Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters”

Tiffany notes than Jonson’s men build “reasoned relationships” with other men “that are masculinised by their competitive nature” (114), and it is clear from the onset that the men of the play compete with each other.  Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino are all in competition for Volpone’s fortune, and as we see in the final act, so too is Mosca.  This competitiveness, however, does not harness a ‘balanced, reasoned’ relationship at all.  Instead, it leads to a series of deceits which come to illuminate the men, not as ‘balanced’ and ‘reasoned’, but rather, as Gianakaris refers to them: “witless creatures generally reflecting a total lack of comprehension” (Gianakaris, 46).  Mosca articulates this clearly in the final act when speaking to Volpone as to the reasons why Voltore, Crovino and Corbaccio were so gullible: “Each of them/ Is so possessed… with his own hopes,/ That anything unto the contrary,/ Never so true, or… so apparent,/ Never so palpable, they will resist it” (5.2.22-27).  These men are devoid of reason, but also devoid of simple observation skills.  One might assume that it is more than possible for knaves to be born into social standing, and so Corvino and Corbaccio may well be knaves (Corvino especially since he is married to a woman and Tiffany argues that Jonson promotes “masculine self-sufficiency” (Tiffany, 23) as a core component of his ‘satiric androgyny’), but Voltore is a lawyer, and as a learned man and is still duped by Mosca, a mere parasite.  Voltore is also not presented as being engaged in a relationship in the play and so, when  Tiffany suggests, “‘heterosexuality’ itself is effeminating for men” (56), Voltore, being single and in pursuit of now women, should be immune to such ‘effeminizing,’ but he clearly is not as he is easily duped.  The Avocatores of Venice are equally knavish as they convict two innocent people of crimes with no evidence outside of the testimony of their accusers.  These Avocatores, extensions of an exclusively masculine realm, should the epitome of ‘balance’ and ‘reason’, if Jonson’s aim is to promote the ‘satiric androgyny’, but even they do not escape Jonson’s biting satire.  If Jonson were employing the ‘satiric androgyny’, then the men of the play who are imbued with reason instilled by the exclusively-masculine academic realm, and who are devoid of the influence of women within the play, and who engage only in relationships with other men, should then be the epitome of  “masculinity as an absolute quality” (107), but: Volpone, Mosca, Voltore, Corbaccio and all of the Avocatores—save Avocatore 4 who mentions that he has a daughter (5.12.50) and is therefore assumed to have a wife who could potentially ‘effeminize’ him—should qualify for such standing, yet fail miserably to achieve it.  Instead of epitomizing ‘masculinity as an absolute quality’, they articulate how flawed the hyper-masculine realm is.

 

Volpone: By Ben Jonson

Volpone: By Ben Jonson

So many characters are devoid of virtue that it seems difficult to identify any that could be called virtuous, but both Bonario and Celia could be described as such, even if Gianakarisis correct in suggesting that “Jonson purposely limits the dimensions of their dramatic developments” (Gianakaris, 46), they still display virtue even if they are too naive to adequately defend themselves at trial.  Tiffany notes that “Celia’s virtue is evident in several forms of inaction: her acquiescence in her husband Corvino’s attempts to prostitute her… but she ultimately refuses to cooperate when Volpone tries to seduce her” (Tiffany, 108).  Bonario’s virtue shines through when he rescues Celia from her would-be rapist, and so fulfills one aspect of Tiffany’s criteria for the ‘satiric androgyny’.  As Tiffany notes, for Jonson, “real men are generally willing to fight… like… Bonario, who leaps out from behind the arras to defend Celia from Volpone” (126).  But Bonario does not fulfill any other aspects of the ‘satiric androgyny’ since he proves incapable of defending himself at trial and therefore lacks the reason present in ‘masculine’ men in ‘satiric androgyny’.  As for Celia, she too proves problematic for Tiffany’s assessment of feminine virtue within the context of the ‘satiric androgyny’, virtues that are marked by: “silence, obedience, chastity, and… beautiful appearance”  (107-108).  Celia proves to be neither silent, nor obedient.  She fails to be silent as she argues with Volpone when he tries to seduce her (3.7) and in the process fails also to be obedient to her husband, though she does prove chaste and is described as beautiful (1.5.109-114), fulfilling two of Tiffany’s criteria for feminine virtue.  Jonson though creates a dilemma where Celia cannot be both obedient and chaste as her husband serves as her panderer, and so Tiffany’s definition of feminine virtue cannot be applied to Celia.

 

 

A scene from 'Volpone' circa 1941.

A scene from ‘Volpone’ circa 1941.

The play is almost devoid of female characters, outside of a spattering of servants who have pragmatic dialogue and no character.  Lady Would-be is the only female character outside of Celia (though an argument could be made to define both Castrone and Androgyno as women, but they are listed with the men in ‘The Persons of the Play’ and so can fairly be disqualified from conversations on Jonson’s construct of women).  Lady Would-be is perhaps as flawed as most of the men of the play as she, like the Avocatores convicts somebody with no evidence, in this case she convicts her husband of adultery with nothing more than the word of Mosca whom she does not know, but her cataloguing of Italian poets (3.4.79-81), coupled with her reference to Plato (3.4.111) and her suggestion that Volpone and she “Make use of our philosophy” (3.4.100) all suggests that perhaps women are capable of standing on equal ground with men intellectually.  The intellect though, according to Tiffany is a male virtue, and in ‘satiric androgyny’ “male virtue is… female vice” (Tiffany, 133).  When considered in context with the fact that Lady Would-be twice asks Peregrine to ‘use’ her (3.4.16, 3.4.17), which could be read as sexual innuendo, it would appear that Lady Would-be is unchaste and therefore is an example of how the masculine woman is flawed in ‘satiric androgyny’.  Still, in the context of the play, the women presented do not seem to represent the product of a misogynistic agenda, merely an agenda that sees humanity as flawed, and of the characters presented in the play, the female half of the human species seems far less flawed than does the male half and so do not entirely fit Tiffany’s definition of the ‘satiric androgyny’.

Ben Jonson is not to be confused with Ben Johnson.  One is a playwright, the other a sprinter.

Ben Jonson is not to be confused with Ben Johnson. One is a playwright, the other a sprinter.

Tiffany is clear about what defines ‘satiric androgyny’.  Virtue is to spring from masculine, homosocial relationships, men are to be self-sufficient and women are clearly inferior.  Little of this holds true on Volpone however.  The men of the play are “dullards… knaves… [and] rogues” (Gianakaris, 45).  None are self-sufficient, none are of superior intellect, and none, save Bonario display virtue.  Of the women presented in the play, neither is as corrupt as the key male figures, and though Lady Would-be is certainly flawed, Celia is the only character who displays true virtue via her chastity and loyalty, even when her husband has been exposed as a morally corrupt character.  Her chastity is doubly potent as the male characters of the play suggest that beautiful women are dishonest (1.5.105-106), illustrating how flawed such patriarchal stereotypes are.  The play though, even if it is misanthropic, is not misogynistic.  Even if one believed that Volpone was an articulation of Jonson’s views of humanity, though admittedly pessimistic, it does not lift the masculine realm above the feminine realm but instead illustrates how both are flawed, though the flaws are exceedingly more prevalent on the masculine side, and therefore does not fit Tiffany’s definition of the ‘satiric androgyny’.

 

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Works Cited:

 

Primary Source:

 

Adams, Robert M.  Ed. Ben Jonson’s Plays and Masques W.W. Norton & Company. Inc. New York, New York 1979

 

Secondary Sources:

 

Gianakaris, C.J. “Identifying Ethical Values in VolponeHuntington Library Quarterly , Vol. 32,

No. 1 (Nov., 1968), pp. 45-57 University of California Press

 

Tiffany, Grace  Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters  Newark: University of Delaware Press  Danvers Massachusetts 1995

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. I’m so flattered that you spoke about my book, and I think your article is charming and hilarious. I’m glad you straightened out that confusion between playwright and Canadian sprinter. I love Ben Jonson! If I were an oversized Jacobean playwright I would be him.

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