Rôle playing, character, transformation, and disguise in Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair

‘I have considered our whole life is like a Play: wherein every man, forgetfull of himselfe, is in travail with expression of another. Nay, wee so insiste in imitating others, as wee cannot (when it is necessary) returne to ourselves’ (Jonson, Timber, or Discoveries).Write about rôle playing, character, transformation, and disguise in Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair.Jonson saturates his plays Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair with the themes of rôle playing, character, transformation and disguise, grounding the plays firmly in mimicry. The above quotation seems to imply a negative, impoverishing transformation and a deterioration of character by imitation. However, as ‘the master of masque,’ the examples of Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair do not completely align themselves with this idea. Whilst some characters do appear to be debased by their obsession with mimicry, these plays are rooted in ideas of mask, or what might appear or seem to be true. This ambiguity makes the audience unsure, at any given time, about the original nature of a particular character. As a result, the audience is not able to discern whether the character has transformed negatively, positively, or even at all. It highlights the possibility that the character’s final appearance is actually only the realisation and representation of the character’s true nature. J A Banish contends that mimicry causes the mimic to ‘forfeit the making of himself,’ but perhaps instead the rôle playing simply serves to draw out manifestations of the true character – after all, most characters have been in a state of imitation for most of the play.When we remember that this is a play, and therefore an audience and a response are always implicated in any action, it is possible to say that in watching actors play out the apparent outcomes of imitation onstage (even if that outcome is a more honest representation of a character’s true nature) the audience members themselves undergo a positive transformation. This seems to contradict the negative implications of J A Barish’s assertion that ‘Mimicry…is the symptom of a universal disease.’ Whilst the mimic may well remain ‘trapped in a vocabulary, a syntax, and a whole idiom,’ it does not necessarily follow that all mimicry has a negative effect on all people. Indeed, as already indicated, we should investigate the possibility that the mimicry brings out the true character. Jonson surely wished the audience to learn from what it saw onstage, as in the prologue of Volpone he denotes that the play will educate as well as entertain – ‘To mix profit with your pleasure’ (line 8) – and so it might be suggested that audience members too ‘cannot return to [themselves]’. Sidney, in his Defence of Poesy, expounded the idea that imitation can ‘teach and delight’ and Jonson certainly seems to agree. In watching actors imitate characters that are imitating others, the audience will leave the theatre not only entertained but also transformed by this double level of rôle play, a sort of binary remove. One of the most intriguing elements of all three plays is the way that Jonson uses irony to invert and transform the very ideas of rôle play and disguise and their theatrical functions. In Bartholomew Fair, Adam Overdo’s attempt to uphold justice by disguising himself as a madman in order to investigate the fair’s corruption is loaded with irony. Overdo’s self-righteous arrogance is evident in his soliloquy beginning Act II: ‘Well, in Justice’ name, and the King’s, and for the Commonwealth! defy all the world, Adam Overdo, for a disguise, and all story; for thou hast fitted thyself…’ (Act II, scene I, lines 1-3). By seeming to act for ‘Justice,’the ‘King’ and even the ‘Commonwealth,’ increasing the preposterousness and presumption of the examples as the line progresses, Overdo sets himself up for failure – or rather, the playwright sets Overdo up for failure. Jonson compounds the irony as Overdo says ‘They may have seen many a fool in the habit of a Justice; but never til now, a Justice in the habit of a fool (lines 8 – 10).’ This line is doubly ironic, not only because Overdo will eventually be thrown into the stocks and laughed at due to his meddling and disguise, but also because it is easy to see that Overdo is, certainly at the beginning of the play, ‘a fool in the habit of a Justice’. Dramatic irony is also reflected in the mere fact that Overdo uses the deceitful method of disguise in order to pursue justice, and so to the audience his mission seems doomed from the start. He heightens the humour by actually facilitating injustice as his sermon promoting justice acts as a distraction that enables Edgworth to pick Cokes’ pocket, as well as his being accused of thieving in Act III. However, the impression Jonson gives is not that Overdo becomes a self-important fool, but instead that he was always a self-important fool. The disguises Overdo takes one simply serve to expose this quality, very visually in this case when he is put in the stocks. Similarly, in Volpone, Jonson complicates the ideas of disguise not only with the multiplicity of characters trying to deceive each other, but also the various levels on which this takes place, and the overlap between these levels. There is dramatic irony in the way that Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino are all seeking to ingratiate themselves with Volpone (thus trying to deceive him) in hope of securing his legacy, whilst in fact he is not unwell and ironically is making them look ridiculous by deceiving them. That their hypocrisy is exposed by an even more audacious and talented liar is comical, and whilst greed is presented as endemic in society – all the characters display it – at least Volpone is honest with himself about his vice. Indeed, the audience gets the sense that he gains pleasure in revelling in his disguise and exposing them, making a talent out of deception: ‘Yet I glory more in the cunning purchase of my wealth than in the glad possession’ (Act I, scene I, lines 30 – 32). However, the dramatic irony takes a rather sharply dramatic twist when Volpone’s rôle-playing begins to take to physical manifestations: ‘Some power has struck me With a dead palsy’ (Act V, scene I, lines 6 – 7). Some of the physical signs of sickness that Volpone was imitating earlier in the play are now overcoming him, serving as metaphors for his inability to distinguish between truth and deceit, reality and disguise. sickness represents the destructive effect of disguise. However, one might also consider that disguises do not just conceal the outward appearance of someone, they also reveal to us something about the inward person (one has to ask what sort of a character would choose to deceive people in the way Volpone does). Therefore the Volpone the audience sees at the end of the play (in the metaphor of his sickness, representing his immorality) may not be the product of transformation in his period of disguise, but instead may simply exposed as the true Volpone. In The Alchemist, Jonson implies rôle playing, character, transformation, and disguise through the theme of alchemy. Dutton argues a case paralleling alchemy with rôle play, asserting that just as alchemy can be seen as meddling with nature, so too can imitation or disguise be seen as ‘observing its own laws’ rather than the laws of nature: ‘Till he firk nature up, in her own centre (Act II, scene I, line 28).’ That Face and Subtle are tricking other characters to believe that they are able to turn lead into gold is, however, part of their nature, just as it is in Mosca’s nature to deceive (he refers to it as his ‘art’ [Act III, scene ii, line 30]). Since he makes his living out of it, Subtle may conceivably believe in the transmutation with which he tries to deceive, although it is unclear as to whether Jonson believed in alchemy. In Act II, scene iii, Subtle expounds the theory of alchemy in learned, scientific speech (lines 142 – 176) and this inclusion of Latin (‘Materia liquida’ [144] and ‘propria materia’ [148]) and various elements, whilst seeming to contradict Subtle’s ‘charlatan’ image, actually illustrates his proficiency in putting on a deceitful disguise. The perhaps obvious point that imitation is artificial and thus contrary to the rules of nature is also played out in Bartholomew Fair in Jonson’s use of metatheatre. The speech of the Stage-keeper in ‘The Induction on the Stage,’ and the play-within-the-play in Act V, scene IV, emphasise the artificiality of drama whilst demonstrating a self-consciousness that reminds the audience that the actors are constantly acting. The constant asides and interjections from the other characters watching the play, and the Stage-keeper’s sarcastic but simultaneously praising commendation of Jonson’s play – ‘it is like to be a very conceited scurvy one, in plain English’ (Induction, line 9) – serve to draw attention to the idea earlier outlined – actors playing imitators onstage. The audience members are required to recognise this, in order that they might themselves be transformed by watching the imitation and action.The first time we see Mosca without his master, at the beginning of Act III, we see his independent streak, as never before has Jonson been able to characterise him out of the rôle of obsequious servility. His ‘I could skip’ (Act II, scene I, line 5) quite literally takes him leaping ‘Out of [his] skin, now, like a subtle snake’ (line 6), and the snake symbol endows the metaphor with an additional power, since it has traditionally been used to represent temptation. The image of Mosca slipping out of his skin is a very exact one, and implies not that Mosca himself is transformation, but that, whilst remaining the same, he is changing appearance. This points to the idea that Mosca has always been resentful of his subservience. Mosca’s rôle as sycophant had been seen as the archetypal ‘parasite,’ but in his transformation of appearance and presentation Mosca actually transforms the image of a parasite. Whilst traditionally perceived as the stock comic and often pathetic character dependent on the rich whilst actually debased, here, the rôle itself takes on a new meaning: ‘Almost all the wise world is little else in nature but parasites or sub-parasites’ (Act III, scene ii, 11 – 13). By suggesting that parasitism has a universality, Mosca is also applying the label to the members of the audience, and so by the end of the play the audience itself is implicated. Having somewhat aligned ourselves with Volpone and Mosca, fascinated by the intrigue surrounding disguise and laughing at their ridiculing of the other characters, we suddenly become aware of our identification with Volpone, which sits uneasily in light of his attempted rape of Celia. Disguise in Volpone initially seems to create the impression of energy, creativity and a fascinating fluidity of character, as the audience are not completely sure of the real Volpone’s identity, but on discovery the audience is forced to evaluate themselves. Jonson prompts us to think about the fact that the self-interest and greed present in Volpone is present in people universally, just as in The Alchemist, manipulates the audience into being carried away by Face and Subtle’s attractive rhetoric (for example, Subtle’s persuasive language already examined in Act II, scene i). We are momentarily swept away before we realise the folly we are condoning. As the Prologue warns us: ‘They are so natural follies, but so shown, as even the doers may see, and yet not own’ (lines 23 – 24). The transformation appears when we recognise the irony of this audience-implication, at which point we are not implicated, because we acknowledge our own folly.As Quarlous reminds Bartholomew Cokes in the final scene of Bartholomew Fair, ‘remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood!’ (Act V, scene vi, line 99) and it is this reminder that Jonson wishes his audiences to grasp throughout all the farce and spectacle in these plays. Therefore Greene’s assertion that the subject of Volpone is ‘Protean man’ may therefore be deemed correct. Implicating mankind universally is Jonson’s aim, and through imitation, he does this not by showing characters transform by disguise, but discover their folly and vice through disguise, and whether or not they exhibit a morally appropriate response to this, the audience is expected to by examining themselves.