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.
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