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.
The primary concern of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” is how the female speaker views her relationship with men; the emotions associated with her views of sex are equated to […]
In the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a narrator chronicles the events leading up to a murder and explores the mystery surrounding the victim’s innocence […]
The monologue of King Herod just preceding the Dance of the Seven Veils (Wilde, 50-53) demonstrates the depth of the King’s desperate neuroses. While his intention is to implore Salome […]
The narrative of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is expressed in the form of a long, heartfelt from a dying father to his young son. Intended to be read after his imminent […]
T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock shares many correlating themes with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Despite their evident similarities in style, Eliot criticizes Shakespeare’s Hamlet in […]
A major controversy in the philosophies of both the modern philosopher Sartre and the ancient philosopher Socrates is the argument regarding how life will unfold. Either every choice someone makes […]
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is a story that is parallel to Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Overcoat. Gogol’s work is commended and mentioned countless times by Lahiri in her writing. […]
Nighttime is usually viewed as a silent period; cars no longer clutter the roads, restaurants have shut down, and people are quietly sleeping in their beds. It seems only appropriate […]
Modernists writers have held the view that public and private spaces play a central role in the formation of culture publicly and privately. The issue of public and private spaces […]
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” […]