Power, Possession, and Disease in Volpone
Before delving into the tense relationship between power, possession, and disease in Jonson’s Volpone, it is first necessary to sift through the forbearing tensions between “profit and pleasure” that Jonson mentioned in the Prologue of the play. Firstly, the early forms of the text presented illustrations of the author as well as elaborate designs within and around the text. This alone implies the notion of mixing profit with pleasure because the intricate designs and illustrations are aesthetically pleasing as well as appearing to be a sort of marketing tactic for the text. The alluring qualities of these illustrations and designs seem intended to bring in the most profit while also being an aspect of pleasure in the material work itself. Jonson believed that plays were “poetry in performance” and early dramatists referred to ‘plays’ as ‘poems’” (Bednarz 91). With this in mind, the early materials of the play itself seemed very cognizant of the performative purpose of the play, and the elaborate artistry surrounding earlier versions seems to be a performance (as well as perhaps a marketing tactic) in itself.
However, the profit that has thus far been discussed is mainly monetary profit, but it is also interesting to think about the aspects of moral profit that Jonson intended his audience to gain. Mixing profit with pleasure would also be inclusive of the moral profitability portrayed through the entertainment of Jonson’s plays. What’s interesting perhaps is that Jonson explicitly states his intention of providing a moral lesson through his work when he says his “special aim being to put the snaffle in their mouths that cry out, ‘we never punish vice in our interludes’” and that it is “the office of a comic poet to imitate justice and instruct life, as well as purity of language or stir up gentle affections” (Jonson 38-9). Because of this, there is no subtlety in the idea that the audience is actually intended to “learn” a lesson through Jonson’s plays. This might be a bit problematic because if the audience is notified that they are supposed to be gaining a moral from the play, this might nullify the impact of the actual moral. On the other hand, this explicitly stated intention of providing a moral lesson might also make the audience more cognizant of the moral being presented because of the emphasis put upon it. Additionally, by exploiting his intention of moral presentation, this seems to emphasize the tensions between profit and pleasure because this moral seems perhaps a bit “forced” onto the audience since Jonson was so adamant about portraying a moral in his work.
Something else that seems rather problematic about the idea of profit and pleasure is the tensions that exist between Jonson’s literary self and his actual self. As previously stated, Jonson was rather vocal about his intentions to teach morals in his plays, but there seems to be a disconnection between the morals he wants people to learn and the person he was individually. In the Epistle, he mentions an “impossibility of any man’s being a good poet without first being a good man,” and he also mentions that his works are created “from a most clear conscience” regarding “profaneness” (Jonson 34-5). However, Jonson was notorious for his problem with alcohol, starting bar fights, and once even killing an actor. This seems hardly moral at all, yet Jonson was (and still is) decidedly a “good poet.” This doesn’t necessarily make him necessarily hypocritical regarding his actions and his work, but instead perhaps, since he was from the lower class, emphasizes his desire to criticize issues amidst his own struggles – or his seemingly un-virtuous actions could also be seen as his outward frustration with society, thus creating his passion to write plays with explicit morals.
However, what might actually come across as hypocritical behavior is the interesting tension between Jonson’s criticism of wealth and ownership while also being serious and nearly obsessed about claiming his plays and works as his own. Jonson clearly had a strong infatuation with the idea of “owning” his works and being associated with them as well as with the classical genres – another reason why it is important to note that his illustration is juxtaposed with another that includes the many allusions to the classical. Again, the fact that he came from the lower class could also be a reason why he felt compelled to criticize issues such as wealth and ownership. In the Epistle, Jonson mentions “my works are read, allowed (I speak of those that are entirely mine)” which indicates that he is fairly serious about which works are solely his and, in a way, he deserves credit for them (Jonson 35). This also emphasizes the notion that Jonson’s works are perhaps (at least in his eyes) more valuable than his contemporaries because his works are moral and thus allowed to be performed and read (again, this is a reason why he wanted to be so closely connected to the classical genres). He also discusses the idea that other writers’ “natures are inverted,” which puts him directly in contrast with them because he is making the distinction between himself and other writers who perhaps don’t write with the intention of providing a moral for the good of the public. Furthermore, “when [Jonson] had his name printed in large letters across the title-page of Volpone, he appropriated both its performed and published versions” (Bednarz 100). Perhaps a reason why he is so adamant about establishing ownership as well as a close association with classical ties is so audiences will recognize his plays (both read and attended) as offering moral lessons. Instead of being solely obsessed with the ownership of his plays, there seems to be a higher purpose to Jonson’s adamancy that he owns his plays, as if he is saying “these are mine because I do this whereas others do that” regarding morality. Even though Jonson’s claim and obsession of ownership over his works could be problematic, it appears that this obsession stems from his desire to make a distinction between himself and the “poetasters” that write (in his opinion) rather vulgar plays that don’t “punish vice.”
Delving into the play itself, the criticism of wealth, ownership, and power is prevalent throughout its entirety. Mosca and Volpone both find much pleasure in manipulating people in cunning ways in order to gain a personal profit or possess something. However, what’s interesting is that Volpone seems transfixed on the power material and monetary wealth bring whereas Jonson’s obsession with “possession” is mainly about his plays depicting moral works and ideas. This distinction almost absolves Jonson from perhaps a label of “hypocrite” since he only desires to claim possession of works intended for the betterment of society.
In Volpone, there is a rather strong (and somewhat strange) relationship going on between this power, possession, and illness. Firstly, the very first line in this play is spoken by Volpone when he says “good morning to the day; and next my gold! Open the shrine that I may see my saint. Hail the world’s soul, and mine” (Jonson 47). This already presents an emphasis on ownership and material wealth because the first thing Volpone thinks of upon his awakening is gold – not only that, but his gold. Furthermore, Volpone refers to his gold as his “saint,” thus rendering it a holy relic instead of something simply material. On a disturbingly literal level, it’s already clear that Volpone essentially worships his monetary possessions and claims them to be the very substance that the world is made of because it is the “world’s soul” as well as his own. By equating himself with the world’s soul, Volpone is also indirectly stating that he himself is the world. Shortly after, Volpone says “O thou son of Sol, but brighter than thy father, let me kiss with adoration, thee, and every relic of sacred treasure in this blessed room” (Jonson 48).This obsession with wealth and the ownership of it has been even further transformed in these lines. Sol, as per the footnotes, is very easily interpreted as “the sun personified” while also “punning on ‘soul’” (Jonson 48). Within the first few pages of the play, there has already been a very tight association made with sol/sun and soul, which establishes a centrality in the piece while the literal sol/sun is central to the earth’s revolution, and Volpone has already seemed to make the distinction that he is also the center of the world since his monetary wealth is his soul as well as the world’s. There are many very disturbing ways to think about this, but the one that seems most prevalent is perhaps the idea that Volpone, in a sense, desires to own the world (or the soul of it) but also owns himself since he has made an odd association with himself by conflating his and the world’s soul, sol, and this notion of centrality that they imply.
In addition to this, the most obvious association is the notion that money and wealth is very central to the play since it is precisely the monetary wealth that has been equated with the sol/soul. Mosca says the interesting line of “riches are in fortune a greater good than wisdom is in nature” (Jonson 49). Mosca and Volpone find great pleasure in manipulating others in order to gain wealth, and this line seems to equate this central notion of money along with not only the soul, but the ability to be cunning in obtaining wealth. In a convoluted way, there has been a price put upon the soul, but there is also the value of being able to acquire this money/soul – the money is a tangible means of measurement for the “price of the soul” or the “possession of wealth.” In an even more convoluted way, this creates the notion that the wealth owns the person rather than vice versa. This creates an association to power because cunningness is the “powerful” trait that allows the characters (mainly Mosca and Volpone) to obtain whatever wealth they may have.
However, monetary wealth is not the only wealth that is presented. Volpone seems to “possess” people as well as money. For the first play-within-a-play, Volpone commands that Mosca “call forth my dwarf, my eunuch, and my fool, and let ‘em make me sport” (Jonson 50). Instead of using terms such as “the” dwarf, Volpone uses “my,” which makes it very clear that Volpone possesses these individuals for his own entertainment as well as Mosca (in a sense) since it is Mosca that he is commanding to “call forth” his entertainment. This notion is exploited even further when Volpone starts to equate this idea with women when he says “I’ll take her absence upon any price, with any loss” regarding Lady Politic (Jonson 124). This brings into play the notion that a person can be bought as well as disposed of for a price. This becomes even more horrific regarding the treatment of Celia. To start, Corvino mentions to Celia “you were an actor, with your handkerchief, which he most sweetly kissed in the receipt” (Jonson 104). Though this line seems to perhaps not carry so much weight, the word “receipt” carries the emphasis on a sort of transaction or purchase occurring – Volpone has “bought” Celia (or at least her attention, thus far). Corvino later says “what is my gold the worse for touching? Clothes, for being looked on?” when he is talking to Celia, and this implies not only the sort of transaction that gold can go through but also people – particularly Celia in this case. To make the matter even more intense, the exchange between Volpone and Celia is most disturbing in the exploitation of the idea that people can be possessions as well as money. Celia first says “is that which ever was a cause of life now placed beneath the basest circumstance, and modesty an exile made, for money?” which essentially points out that it is fairly absurd that a person and their “modesty” can be purchased monetarily. Volpone then reiterates this in a way by saying “he that would sell thee, only for hope of gain, and that uncertain, he would have sold his part of Paradise for ready money” (Jonson 132). Furthermore, the value of a person is emphasized when Volpone says “thou hast in place of a base husband found a worthy lover. Use they fortune well, with secrecy and pleasure,” which doesn’t simply reiterate the notion that people can be bought but begins to put a price on perhaps the “assets” or “fortune” a person has (Jonson 134). The idea that a person can purchased to become a possession of another is heavily emphasized in this play through these examples.
Beyond the notion of possessing money or people, there are a couple other notions of possession that occur within the play that seem significant. One of these is the possession of illness, which is emphasized when an Avocatore says “these possess wealth as sick mean possess fevers, which trulier may be said to possess them” (Jonson 206). This line associates (or rather compares) wealth and illness and even transforms the idea of possession into one of “being possessed.” In this way, the wealth that Volpone has accrued actually possesses him, and the illness that he has been feigning from the very beginning of the play in his effort to obtain wealth seems to possess Volpone as well. Volpone was never actually “ill,” but by this new definition Volpone was actually ill this entire time – sick with wealth, thus making wealth a disease. In fact, all the characters in this play are so infatuated with wealth that by definition they all would be sick. The introduction to this edition of Volpone mentions that the Christian concept of demonic possession is present in this play as well, but “what really possesses all of [the characters] is greed for gold” (Jonson 11). Perhaps what is also most interesting is one of Volpone’s earlier lines when he says “I rather pity their folly and indiscretion than their loss of time and money, for those may be recovered by industry, but to be a fool born is a disease incurable” (Jonson 95, emphasis mine). Regarding previously discussed notions, Volpone seems to be the most diseased of all, yet he is the one giving the definition of who is diseased. Thinking back upon Jonson, this is a very interesting (and ingenious) way to critique wealth and the search for it. As aforementioned, Jonson came from the lower class, and it seems that he is making some serious critique in this line regarding who is diseased and who is not. One cannot help the class that they are born into per se, but morals and character are things that a person has much agency over. Being born a “fool” here, when Jonson’s very voiced moral intentions are taken into account, seems to mean a person born believing that possession, wealth, and power are the only valuable things in the world is the true fool instead of the person born into poverty. In this way, it’s almost as if Volpone is unaware that he is admitting he is the fool since he essentially worships wealth, possession, and power – and he is thus diseased both falsely through his feigned disease and literally through his obsession with wealth.
Linking this to the notion of power, it seems as if illness is inextricably (and perhaps a bit difficultly) associated with wealth and power. As previously discussed, there is a tangled (but brilliant) relationship between wealth and possession where wealth is the center of the world and the ability to obtain it through the power of cunningness is also where much of its value lies. If an individual is able to “possess” wealth or people, then they most likely have the power of cunningness to obtain this wealth. In short, if a person possesses things, they will have power. However, with the line “these possess wealth as sick men possess fevers,” the connection between power, possession, and illness has come full circle (Jonson 206). By being wealthy, the characters are sick, but this seems to imply that the more wealth a person obtains (through the power of cunningness), the sicker a person becomes. This explains many of the “power switches” that occur throughout the play as in Act 3 where Volpone and Mosca exchange power as well as in Act 4 when Voltore seems to have the most power. All of the characters are cunning as well as seeking greedily for wealth, and because power, possession, and disease have been fused into essentially a single entity, all of the characters are sick – which allows these shifts to happen.
To push this even further, the acting done by the characters (or rather actors) ties up these concepts even more. To a large degree, the “real” Volpone is never portrayed in this play because he is always so busy pretending to be something or someone that is he not. In a strange sense, it seems that whoever Volpone pretends to be, he becomes. Interestingly, the only time Volpone seems to be actually Volpone is when he is talking to Mosca in the first act and explicitly states his own name. This is really the only time that Volpone’s name is mentioned, and it essentially one of the only times where Volpone is actually not pretending to be something he is not (Jonson 77). With this in mind in regards to all that has already been discussed, it seems very plausible that Volpone is pretending to be something he is. He can only be Volpone in that brief moment when he declares that he is Volpone, but all throughout the rest of the play he is not Volpone, but in not being Volpone he is very much being Volpone (if that makes sense). In the beginning Volpone pretends to be dying, but since the real Volpone is never significantly portrayed, it’s almost as if he was never alive to begin with. Similarly, Volpone feigned sickness in the beginning, and he even mentions that “first I feigned diseases; now I have one” about Lady Politic (Jonson 121). Regarding the previous discussion about power, possession, and illness, it would then seem that Volpone was never feigning illness at all because his wealth was an illness – therefore he was actually pretending to be something that he perpetually is – diseased through wealth. Additionally, Volpone’s “acting and the power this gives him over other people excites Volpone more than either gold or sexual possession” as mentioned in the introduction (Jonson 13). Volpone’s acting has now been equated to power, and by default has then been associated to disease and corruption – Volpone’s illness was never fake, rather it was simply not the illness he thought it was. Strangely, in his pretending, he fooled even himself because being the actual “fool born,” he never realized that his wealth was his disease.
Though it’s all rather tangled up into what might perceived as a congealed conceptual mess, there is indeed a tight relationship going on between power, possession, and disease, as well as acting/pretending. They are so inextricably linked that it seems almost impossible to sift through them individually to pull them apart, which is frustrating while also being brilliant that they are equated with each other so masterfully and exploited so horrifically that it’s impossible not to think about Jonson’s claims about providing morally based plays (or poems) that punish vice. Linking back to the tensions between Jonson and ownership as well as being a “good man” in order to be a “good poet,” it does seem that, though Jonson was far from perfect, intrinsically he could be a good man – this being emphasized through his intentions regarding his work – and perhaps his creations were the result of him trying to improve his public portrayal (or even himself) as well as provide a moral lesson for the betterment of society. Wealth, possession, and power are all part of the same disease, as well as the means of obtaining one another.
Jonson, Ben. Volpone. Edited by Brian Parker and David Bevington. Revels. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.
Bednarz, James P. “New Directions: Jonson’s Literary Theatre: Volpone in Performance and Print (1606 – 1607).” Volpone: A Critical Guide. London: Continuum, 2011.
Gender and the Renaissance: Female Sexuality in Jonson’s Volpone
In Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Celia represents the epitome of femininity in Renaissance literature. She is beautiful, submissive, quiet and helpless to resist her husband’s control over her every movement. Although it is disturbing that her gender renders her a victim to male characters such as Corvino and Volpone, who treat her as though she is a possession to be won, this essay seeks to unravel the reasons as to why masculinity is threatened by female strength and autonomy, not to victimize the female characters within Jonson’s play or to vilify the men as the root of this injustice. Because masculinity and femininity can not exist without each other, both men and women must be voluntarily or forcibly complicit to function within this binary. By examining female sexuality and morality in not only the characterization of Celia but also that of Lady Would-Be Politic, Jonson reveals how women are caught in a double-bind within the patriarchal structure of Renaissance England; they must either conform to their feminine roles or risk being alienated from their communities.
Celia, the wife of Corvino (one of Volpone’s victims) has entirely conformed to the feminine role of a proper married woman. Mosca introduces her character into the play by informing Volpone, “She’s kept as warily as is your gold:/ Never does she come abroad, never takes air/ But at a window. All her looks are sweet/ As the first grapes or cherries, and are watched/ as near as they are”(Jonson 2.0 ll. 118-122). Although Corvino married Celia because she embodied the virginal and moral qualities of “the feminine”, now that she lives in his home it becomes his responsibility to maintain her virtue. He keeps her locked up inside so that she is not corrupted by outside influences. Volpone, upon hearing this news, finds Celia sexually appealing not only because Mosca tells him of her beauty but also because he compares her to Volpone’s gold. To Volpone, wealth is the source of his power in the community and therefore reinforces his own masculinity. If Celia is Corvino’s gold, Volpone ultimately wants to have sex with her to prove that he is more masculine than any of the men involved in his scam. In the article “Desire and Dominance in Volpone,” Howard Marchitell explains that that the reason that Celia is sought after by both Corvino and Volpone as a prize is that “Celia is the model of a woman who is commodified and exchanged between men”(298). Throughout the play, Jonson characterizes Celia as flat, one-sided, and static to use her as an example of any woman who conforms to her feminine role and then becomes a target for men like Volpone, who simply want to use her to boost their own reputations. Blissfully unaware at the moment of the danger that surrounds her femininity, Celia buys a powder from Volpone (in disguise) that he claims Venus used and which, “kept her perpetually young, cleared her wrinkles, firmed/ her gums, filled her skin, [and] colored her hair” (Jonson 2.2 ll. 234-236). Conforming to her feminine role has undoubtedly placed Celia in a position where she is easily victimized by then men in her community, yet the consequences of not conforming are perhaps even more severe than the danger she now faces. She buys the powder because she feels that it is necessary to preserve her feminine appearance in order to stay in her husband’s favor. By marrying a nobleman, Celia has gained status within the community and lives the lifestyle of a noble woman. By straying away from the feminine she risks losing her status as her husband’s wife and is also in jeopardy of being alienated from her community.
Lady Would-Be Politic, on the other hand, is an example of a woman who is seen as somewhat masculine by members of society and is therefore often ignored and shunned by men of status. When Lady Would-Be visits Volpone, whom she believes is gravely ill, and attempts to have a conversation with him, he seems entirely disgusted by her presence, stating “The Sun, the sea will sooner noth stand still/ Than her eternal tongue! Nothing can scape it.”(Jonson 3.4 ll. 84-85). Not only is Volpone uninterested in anything that a woman may have to say to him but he also seems surprised that a married women would lack proper feminine modesty and show up unaccompanied to his home. Her independence is extremely unattractive to Volpone because autonomous women in this community are likely prostitutes. Volpone is not interested in women who are viewed as promiscuous because he cannot prove his masculinity by having sex with a woman who is not a model of femininity. Yet, while Lady Would-Be is not feminine enough for Volpone, she is in many ways trapped in the same double bind as Celia. When Mosca interrupts her conversation with Volpone and tells her that her husband is “Rowing upon the water of a gondole/ With the most cunning courtesan in Venice”(Jonson 3.5 ll. 19-20), Lady Would-Be immediately departs so that she can intervene. She is aware that other women who have embraced their feminine roles may have more of an appeal to her husband than she herself. This is a threat to her own quasi-independence, because as a married woman she is somewhat accepted into the social realm of the community, whereas without her husband she would no longer be welcome. Although she pushes the boundaries of her role as a wife, she is not willing to entirely let go of her position because without that status she would be entirely alone with no way to support herself. This cycle of oppression therefore leaves her with only one valid option, which is to perform her gender with enough effort to maintain her marriage.
Lady Would-Be performs her gender only when she feels threatened; however, because Celia is married to a man who is consistently trying to prove his masculinity, she must constantly remain the model of femininity, especially in her sexual behavior. Unfortunately, she makes the mistake of showing herself in public when a disguised Volpone sells her his miraculous powder. When Corvino catches her in the act, he is full of rage; ranting, “You were an actor with your handkerchief!/ Which he most sweetly kissed in the receipt,/ And might no doubt return it with a letter,/ And point the place where you might meet”(Jonson 2.5 ll. 40-43). Although Celia simply handed Volpone her handkerchief with a coin inside to pay for the powder, Corvino sees her public appearance with another man as a sexual act. The social implications of Celia being seen with another man threaten Corvino’s power and ultimately his masculine status within his community because she is his wife and therefore his property, which he should have control over. In his article on Volpone, Marchitell reveals the reasons behind Corvino’s behavior, stating, “Corvino fears that Celia, by cuckolding will displace him from his several social bonds with men: that he will lose his honor and his place in male society which is predicated primarily upon the domination of women”(Marchitell 297). Although Celia is one of Corvino’s most prized possessions, she is also potentially the most dangerous hazard to his status. In a society where a man’s wife is a reflection of his own character, Corvino believes that any public sexual behavior shown by Celia could irreparably damage his own reputation.
Celia’s sexuality is initially a major threat to Corvino, but after he realizes that he may be able to use it as a tool for his own gain, Celia’s virtuosity is no longer as important as his complete control over her body. When Corvino agrees to let Volpone have sex with Celia in return for making him the sole heir to his fortune, Celia cries out in surprise, “Oh God and his good angels! Whither, whither/ Is shame fled human breasts, that with such ease/ Men dare put off your honors with their own?”(Jonson 3.7 ll. 133-135). Celia has assumed up to this point that conforming to her feminine role would protect her to a certain extent from being forced into immoral behavior. Although she understands that she is her husband’s property and must obey him, she previously thought that since her sexuality belonged to him and him alone, he would not willingly give her body to another man. Yet, since power and masculinity are so intertwined in the social structure, Corvino does not see his wife’s rape as a threat to his honor because he is the one forcing the sexual behavior upon her. To pressure Celia into having sex with Volpone, Corvino not only threatens her but also commands her to be a proper wife and do as she is told. In Ivan Canadas’ article regarding Volpone, he states, “By appealing to Celia’s wifely duty, or loyalty, Corvino reveals his fundamental vision of Celia as just another commodity”(8). In the same way that Volpone’s gold is a possession that enhances his masculine reputation within the community, Corvino believes that his ultimate control over his wife will have the same effect. Because Celia is in fact his property, she realistically has no choice but to follow her husband’s orders and fulfill her wifely duty. She now realizes that the moral protection she thought she would receive for being a model of femininity has no bearing on this situation, since she is a commodity and nothing more.
The double bind that both Celia and Lady Would-Be Politic find themselves in directly relates to the patriarchal assertion that society must uphold masculinity and femininity as natural qualities attributed to one’s sex to keep the social order. Throughout Volpone, Corvino and Volpone desperately try to maintain their power and wealth by asserting their own masculinity while Celia, the model of femininity, attempts to maintain her status as a proper wife. Yet, unintentionally, Celia becomes a commodity and a prize caught in the midst of her husband’s greed. She soon realizes that the morality and virtuosity assigned to “the feminine” will not save her when she becomes a threat to her husband’s wealth and power.
Reconstructing the Woman, Rediscovering her Discourse
In her article on English Renaissance Drama, Katharine Eisaman Maus asserts how “in the Renaissance theater, the generic spectator is male, the spectacle female, and in some sense sexually available” (Maus 577), and the play Volpone by Ben Jonson is no exception. Here, Maus problematizes the naturalization of appropriating the female body to pander to the needs of the patriarchal subject in the Renaissance theater. It is implied in her work that the representations of women are often skewed to fulfill a specific role or function within the patriarchal binaries of masculinity and femininity. Rather than being sovereign characters in their own right, women in drama are valued instead as objects of spectacle, mere tools which exist solely to drive the male-centric plot forward. Likewise, Howard Marchitell argues in his paper Desire and Domination in Volpone that “Volpone is Jonson’s most thorough exploration of…”paternity”: fathers, sons and literary creativity… [which] denies the place of women; his conception of creativity, subjectivity, and reproduction is empathetically paternal” (Marchitell 291). He exposes the inherently gendered nature of the play’s very conception, foregrounding patriarchal subjectivity as the governing ideology of theatrical works. Beyond the quantitative lack of female characters, Celia and Lady Political Would-Be are also portrayed as polarizing emblems of patriarchal ideals of femininity, hyperbolic representations of social archetypes. Hence, this essay aims to explicate the problematic deconstruction of the female body when subjected to the male gaze, as well as the ambiguity of the presence of a female discourse, predicating the toxicity of patriarchal ideologies governing Renaissance theatre. By foregrounding how “the power lies in Mosca’s cleverness and ability to keep [the] dramas [of the play] alive” (Marchitell 193), Jonson posits the male interiority at the core of Volpone’s plot. In doing so, he seemingly necessitates the appropriation of the female body as an indispensible plot device. A
t the end of Act 1, Celia, or rather the idea of Celia is introduced to Volpone by Mosca, marking the beginning of the play’s problematic representation of the women. Here, Mosca, in his attempts to manipulate Volpone into craving the masterly possession of Celia, deconstructs the image of female body. He presents Celia instead as mere fragments of body parts such as “skin… whiter than a swan”, “A soft lip” and “flesh that melteth in the touch” (Jonson 78). The fetishistic quality of the male gaze is thus thematized through Mosca’s cutting up and reduction of Celia to mere fragments, subjecting her body to being re-presented and re-constructed in Volpone’s mind. The entity of a woman is thus reduced to a pitiful reconstruction in the interiority of the patriarchal subject. Furthermore, the reconstructed image is revealed as one whose appeal to the patriarchal mind ironically exacerbates in direct proportion to its incompleteness. It is evident how the fact that it is “not possible” (Jonson 78) for Volpone to see Celia with his own eyes excites him even more than before, inciting his declaration that it is a “must [for him to] see her” (Jonson 78). Yet, it is not Celia herself, who in fact “is an articulate, intelligent woman” (Linley 124) in her own right, that entices him but rather the image of her that he has constructed in his mind through the mere fragmented signifiers that Mosca has given him access to. The position of the female body as the object to be dismembered and remembered by the male gaze is thus problematized before Celia herself had even shown up in the play.
The privilege of representation in Volpone is also significantly awarded based on a character’s conformity to patriarchal conventions. Mosca’s initial judgment and swift dismissal of her as one who “hath not yet the face to be dishonest”(Jonson 78) asserts the way in which a woman’s value in “the play’s male homosocial economy” (Marchitell 288) is measured by her conformity to patriarchal ideals of femininity. It is implied that a woman’s worthiness of representation, dramatically staged through Mosca, is premised on the extent to which her physical appearances cater to the primal erotic desires of man. Women are thus represented once again as objects lacking in agency, only existing to be known and defined by the patriarchal subject without their permission or knowledge. Although Lady Politic Would-Be, embodying a polarized representation of femininity, is not presented in as desirable a light as Celia, she fails to escape the fetishistic scrutiny of the male gaze. Instead, the notion of the deconstruction of the female body is likewise made central in Mosca’s casual substitution of Lady Politic Would-Be’s face with “Signor Corvino’s wife’s face” (Jonson 78). The notion of a woman is stripped down once more to the fragmented images of the body, entirely substitutable by similar disembodied fragments. Hence, in the gendered subjectivity upon which Jonson constructs the narrative of Volpone, women are represented only as fetishized fragments dismembered by the male gaze and reconstructed in the interiority of the patriarchal mind.
The representation of women in Volpone as homogenous, substitutable, and one-dimensional “sexual goods that [men] can acquire” (Linley 123) further problematizes the subjection of women to the mercy of Jonson’s patriarchal lens. Mosca’s emphasis on the similitude between Celia and Volpone’s gold is as Marchitell suggests, not “merely an effective rhetorical device: it also represents the play’s commodification of women” (Marchitell 295). As so, women are represented as mere commodities to be negotiated and traded, existing both within and without the play as tools directed to satisfying male lust and greed. Marchitell predicates how “Volpone desires Celia not because she is somehow like his gold, but because she has become for him the same as gold, the gaining of which he will pursue with no at any cost” (Marchitell 295). The woman is thus reduced to a mere commodity, with no greater value to Volpone that his material wealth.
Furthermore the female body becomes a mere commodity within the social institution of marriage. In Corvino’s marriage to Celia, her identity is dissolved into the role of the “Wife” (Jonson 110). She is portrayed throughout their interactions as a mere adornment to his collection of material wealth, an idol onto which he could show off the “choiciest jewels…[and]best looks” (Jonson 111). The imbalance between how he labels her crudely as “Lady Vanity” and “whore” (Jonson 103) not affectionate so much as extra formal. Lady Politic Would-Be, despite her liberty of speech, nonetheless conforms to this in the maintenance of respectful terms used in the address of her husband as even in anger she addresses him as “Master Would-Be” (Jonson 153). Marriage is hence likened to a business transaction, where honor, be it the honor derived from flaunting ones wealth or the honor lost upon one’s wives transgressions by extension tainting ones name, is constantly posited at the foreground of its consideration.
With the inherent scarcity of female characters in the play, the “spectacle of the female” (Maus 577) becomes apparent, with the main representations of women manifesting in figures who serve distinct dramatic functions which compliment and advocate patriarchal superiority. Unlike the men in the play, the female characters appear closely configured to fit the cookie cutters of stereotypical stock figures of the period. Celia, for one, appears to be the epitome of the pure, innocent and helpless maiden in distress. The image of Celia locked away in the tower looking down at the disguised Volpone exemplifies the archetype of the damsel in distress, a literary construction made to compliment and exonerate the valor of the male knightly figure. Her minor act in which she exercises her agency by tossing her handkerchief “and be advertised that the first heroic spirit that deigns to grace [Volpone] with a handkerchief” (Jonson 98) is hence met with her husbands hyperbolic reaction, accusing her of transgressing her role as a dutiful and honorable wife to him.
Likewise, Lady Politic Would-Be fulfills her dramatic function as a figure of transgression, challenging renaissance ideals of feminism in her loud and unabashed mannerisms. Unlike Celia whose words are constantly been drowned out by those of her husband, Lady Politic Would-Be appears conversely unapologetic in asserting her voice and by extension her power onto men. Unlike the wordless first encounter which Volpone and the audience has with Celia, Lady Politic Would-Be unapologetically declares her own arrival, urging Nano to “signify unto [his] patron [that she is] here” (Jonson 118). She is portrayed as having an independent voice spared from her husband, and yet, this is critiqued explicitly by Volpone who mocks the liberty “of the bold English, that they dare let loose their wives to all encounters” (Jonson 78). Mrs Politic Would-Be, as reflected in her name alone, is hence known and acknowledged only in relation to her husband, having been awarded no autonomous identity of her own. Instead, the audience is constantly reminded of how she functions as the dramatic antithesis to renaissance ideals of femininity rather than being allowed to form their own opinion of her character. For one, her introductory monologue is followed immediately by Volpone’s claim that he “[felt] the fever Ent’ring in at [his] ears” [Volpone 118]. Volpone, alongside Mosca, rejects the presence of a female discourse, claiming that the woman’s “obstinate silence” is “now safest” (Jonson 22). His “mind’s perturbed” (Jonson 22) by the woman’s “eternal tongue” (Jonson 22), and appears completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of language which is uncharacteristically spouted by the figure of the Renaissance woman. The first solid instance of female discourse in the play, albeit its unabashed nature of deliverance is thus shot down and portrayed as an undesirable transgression of patriarchal standards of femininity.
Moreover, the education of woman seems to be denaturalized through repeated instances in which the men fictionalize and condescend Lady Political Would-Be’s displays of cultural or philosophical awareness. For instance, when Lady Politic Would-Be brings up the likes of Plato and Pythagoras, Volpone asserts the patriarchal convention of women as naïve models of innocence and quiet servility, saying that “As old as time as Plato, and as knowing, Says that your highest female grace is silence” (Jonson 122). Likewise, Peregrine seemingly mocks her in a similarly condescending manner in exclaiming, “What’s here? Poetic fury and historic storms!”(Jonson 153). He also laughs at her display of self-awareness regarding the gendered expectations within her society, where one’s actions are judged based on whether they are “being a solecism in our sex, If not in manners” (Jonson 153). Yet, the comedic element here is undermined by the evident truth in her words, relevant in fact to the exact moment in their conversation. She questions instead how it is a through the force of “habit” that Sir Politic Would-Be “apprehend[s]” her (Jonson 152), assuming her intellectual inferiority to his simply because she is a woman. Such instances of self-awareness perhaps turns the mirror onto the audience themselves, urging them to question the extent to which they themselves have internalized the normalization of these patriarchal constructs. Hence, the character of Lady Politic Would-Be, albeit embodying a cookie cutter fragment of renaissance theater’s convention, does in fact give utterance to the female discourse through problematizing the expectation of silence and incapacity for intellect in women.
This ambiguity of the presence of a female discourse is likewise aggravated through the portrayal of Celia. For most of the play, Celia is given a degree of agency in her ability to subvert and challenge “the notion of male exclusivity upon which…the entire play is predicated” (Marchitell 294). Her pivotal role in disrupting the symbiotic relationship between Volpone and Mosca, offsetting the balance of reliance between the Fox and his parasite, ultimately functions as a quintessential plot device in the play. Despite her inability to effectively convey her defense when first seen conversing with her husband, her subsequent interactions with other patriarchal figures seem to let on about her acute self-awareness of her position within a male-centric sociopolitical landscape. Her ability to detach herself and perceive the conventions as the constructs that they are seem to harness the true sense of agency that she has, given her circumstance. In her manipulation of the patriarchy’s ingrained expectations of women, pleading that “but I, whose innocence Is all I can think wealthy, or worth th’ enjoying, And which, once lost, I have nought to lose beyond it” (Jonson 135), Jonson reveals Celia’s agency in subverting conventional perceptions of women to suit her own agenda. This hence supports Linley’s assertion that “Celia is an articulate, intelligent woman, but very much under her husband’s thumb” (Linley 124). Thus, the acknowledgment of a hidden complexity and sophistication of a woman’s mind hints at the presence of a female discourse in Volpone. Hence, it is evident how the fragmentation of the female body to be reconstructed in the interiority of the patriarchal mind serves to problematize the fetishistic quality of the male gaze. Moreover, the polarity between the models of femininity represented in the characters of Celia and Lady Politic Would-Be appear superficially to be reflective of stock types of the period. However, nuances in the representation of women expose an underlying presence of a feminine discourse beneath the façade of modelling patriarchal expectations of female servility and naivety. Therefore, the play provides a rather balanced representation of women in the sense that the complexity of the female interiority is presented as being just as potent as their compliance to patriarchal archetypes of femininity.
Jonson, Ben. “Volpone, ed. Brian Parker and David Bevington.” (1983): 48.
Linley, Keith. ‘Volpone’in Context: Biters Bitten and Fools Fooled. Anthem Press, 2016.
Marchitell, Howard. “Desire and Domination in Volpone.” Studies in English literature, 1500-1900 31.2 (1991): 287-308.
Maus, Katharine Eisaman. “Horns of Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender, and Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama.” ELH 54.3 (1987): 561-583.