Ben Johnson’s “Volpone” and “Epicene”

I desire / the learned and charitable critic to have so much faith in me / to think it was done of industry.

–Ben Jonson, lines 110-112 of the prefatory epistle to Volpone

Ben Jonson’s play Volpone, or “Sly Fox,” was performed for the first time on stage in London in 1605. It marked a moment of both critical and popular success for Jonson that led into a decade of his greatest accomplishments as a playwright. The next Jonson play to be produced was Epicene, or “The Silent Woman,” in 1609; the two plays, interestingly juxtaposed in chronology, also share an oddly similar dramatic arc, at least up until their respective denouements. Essentially, both plays are driven by trickery (or, as Jonson’s Volpone terms it, by “gullage” (V.xi.12)) utilized for the sake of financial or sexual gain, though often just for amusement, as well. Yet in Volpone, the tricksters, though initially successful, are discovered and punished quite severely, while in the later Epicene, all deception pays off quite thoroughly and without any significant setbacks. Why, then, does Jonson choose to so unreservedly penalize one set of con artists while rewarding the other trio devoted to an analogous occupation? And why, still, when the means and ends of the two groups are, at least on the surface, so similar?

Volpone focuses on the aging, avaricious, titular Venetian magnifico, or nobleman, and his schemes to increase his already extensive wealth. He does so by pretending to be on his deathbed while his very adept and perceptive “parasite” (I.i.68), Mosca, coordinates the comings, goings, and gift-giving of three other noblemen. Each of the noblemen are led to believe that they, in return for their fawning gifts, will be named the heir to the supposedly dying and decidedly childless Volpone and that their gifts “shall then return / Tenfold upon them” (I.i.80-81). A subplot subsequently reveals that Volpone’s lust extends to fleshier targets than just gold, and Mosca manages to arrange for one of the three noblemen to offer up his wife, Celia, the aim of Volpone’s desires. The arrangement fails due to the resistance of the virtuous woman and the unexpected intervention of Bonario, the son of one of the other noblemen. Nonetheless, Mosca artfully inveigles all three of the would-be heirs in the ensuing, embarrassing, and perjury-ridden courtroom scene in which they turn on son, wife, and self at Mosca’s mere suggestion. The ploys of Volpone and Mosca, from that point, devolve into mere harassment of these “gulls” in Act V. Volpone, exercising little foresight and in a state of questionable sobriety, decides to have it declared that he has died, telling Mosca to present himself as the heir, merely to “torment ’em more” (V.iii.106).

Epicene similarly deals with an issue of inheritance as far as the major arc of the drama is concerned. In this case, though, it is the supposed heir, Dauphine, who along with a pair of friends, Truewit and Clerimont, propels the action of the play by attempting to foil his uncle’s efforts at marriage for the sake of subsequently siring a child. The birth of a legitimate son to Dauphine’s uncle, Morose, would disinherit Dauphine. Nevertheless, the trio’s methods are rarely direct and are more often, like in Act V of Volpone, focused on merely harassing and distressing the other characters, particularly Morose. With Truewit at the helm, the trio tricks a number of characters into self-degradation and humiliation, either for the trio’s amusement, the sexual advancement of Dauphine, or both. Furthermore, much of the action occurs, by design, in the home of the reclusive and noise-hating Morose, to whose house they diverted a party for the explicit purpose of tormenting him with “so many several noises” (II.vi.37).

So, while the position of the deceivers is, in some respects, reversed in Epicene (from old man deceiving potential heirs to potential heir deceiving old man), the ultimate goal of tricking people out of their wealth remains, and on the broadest scale the trajectories of the stories are therefore more or less the same. Similarly, a significant subplot in the overriding arcs of both plays focuses on Volpone and Dauphine, the intended beneficiaries of the trickeries, achieving their sexual aspirations through the wiles of their colleagues. And, finally, both Epicene and Volpone are rife with nearly meaningless and unnecessary aggravation of many of the participants in the play at the hands of the two groups of tricksters.

Yet, these preceding paragraphs have only sought to deal with the main and rising actions of the two plays, since the comparison does not hold true through their denouements. The consequences of the actions of the two gulling groups are radically different, despite any parallels present in their crimes. On the one hand, Mosca and Volpone are ultimately charged with fraudulent impersonation and with imposture, respectively, and they are sentenced with the equivalent of death sentences. Mosca, “being a fellow of no birth or blood” (V.xii.112) is condemned for having donned the “habit of a gentleman of Venice” (V.xii.111), even at his master’s behest, in order to appear as Volpone’s heir. Volpone is punished for having gained “by feigning lame, gout, palsy, and such diseases” (V.xii.121-122). That Mosca was also guilty of extortion and Volpone of attempted rape matters less, since they were never charged with those crimes and there was little evidence that would have fully upheld any claims to their effect. Still the question remains: why does the scythe of judgment land so squarely on both of their necks for seemingly harmless crimes?

The severity of the punishment for Mosca and Volpone contrasts starkly with the manifold successes of Truewit, Clerimont, and Dauphine. That trio succeeds in gaining a guarantee for Dauphine’s inheritance, in humiliating myriad characters without gaining their animosity, and in winning the affection of every desirable woman for Dauphine to the point where “they haunt [him] like fairies and give [him] jew-/els” (V.ii.46-47). (In contrast, Volpone is reduced to a failed attempt at rape, which in many respects serves as an early indicator of his impending downward spiral.). The trio in Epicene gets off scot-free. Yet, were they not equally guilty of impersonation, fraud, and extortion as well?

Essentially, it would seem that, from a broad view, the first two-thirds of the plots indicate or suggest a nearly equal culpability for both groups of con artists, or at the very least a less fundamentally abrupt difference in their consequences. However, the texts themselves do provide a number of instances or circumstances that make the action seem less implausible and somewhat justifiable, if not altogether satisfying. And if the actions of the trio in Epicene are not altogether different in kind from those in Volpone, then they are at least different in degree. It is also quite clear from the prefatory material of the two plays that the author, Jonson, has fairly distinct end goals for the two plays and that his hand will, if necessary, force the action to fit his needs or desires (an attribute that is fairly common in the unpredictable and often jarringly angular trajectories of Jonson’s plots).

In an edition of Volpone published about a decade after its initial stage production, Jonson includes a rather long prefatory epistle that dedicates the play to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, thanking the institutions for their support. He then goes on to condemn anonymous contemporary colleagues, claiming: “it is certain… that the too much license of poetasters in this time, hath much deformed their mistress” (prefatory epistle, 12-14). He defends his play and his goal to act as “a teacher of things divine no less than human, a master in manners” (28-29). More notably he asserts the fact that Volpone is a morality play — a play that will “inform men in the best reason of living” (108) for “the office of a / comic poet [is] to imitate justice and instruct to life” (120-121). So, in this play, Jonson has made it his explicit task to “mix profit with your pleasure” (Prologue, 8), but more significantly to hold off those critics of his unwitting colleagues and, by extension, theater and poetry in general, against the claim that poets and playwrights “never punish / vice” (prefatory epistle, 115-116). Jonson punishes vice in Volpone even if it means the loss of verisimilitude, believability, the understood laws of comedy, and an audience-friendly happy ending.

The prefatory material in Epicene, while similarly asserting a desired end of both “profit and delight” (Another, 2), appears to show much less concern for the conveyance of a moralistic theme. Morose is the only character who suffers a real, tangible loss, and his worst crime is a desire to shun the world and gain an heir. So, if morals are to be gleaned from this play, it is that one should not live reclusively. While not an altogether ridiculous point for Jonson to make, it seems unlikely that an anti-antisocial idea was what drove him to create this play. In fact, given the final turn of the play, in which Morose is discovered to have married a cross-dressing boy of Dauphine’s choosing, the play is reduced to a farce and carries little weight in the realm of morals. And even Jonson is clear that “The ends of all who for the scene do write / Are, or should be, to profit and delight” (Another, 1-2). So, while Jonson is aware that he “should be” providing profit to the public, and while maybe that thought lingers in the back of his mind, his primary aim is indicated in the first Prologue as desiring to provide entertainment “fit for ladies; some for lords, knights, squires, / [But also,] some for your waiting-wench, and city-wires, / Some for your men and daughters of Whitefriars” (Prologue, 22-24).

In Epicene, when Truewit tricks two of the cocksure knights into symbolically and publicly castrating themselves (by giving up their swords) and severely discrediting their own titles, he attributes the trick to Dauphine. The collegiate ladies don’t see “Dauphine’s” trickery of the two knights as malicious or knavish, though it seems thoroughly cruel, but they praise his wit and cleverness and are immediately attracted to him. The success of the team of con artists in Epicene is based on their mutual respect and friendship, allowing for true teamwork to emerge.

In contrast, despite Volpone’s claim that he wished he could “transform [Mosca] to a Venus” (V.iii.104) to have him as a sexual companion as well, he is only impressed by his lackey insomuch as Mosca continues to be profitable and subservient. It is an isolating greed that has always existed between the two that allows for Mosca’s treacherously insatiable avarice to allow everything they’d worked at to unravel. Mosca, the true wit of Volpone, incurs the most disdain when found out “t’have been the chiefest minister” (V.xii.108), and he consequently suffers the harshest punishment.

Thus, it becomes clear that Jonson’s purpose with the two plays was distinct: Volpone served as an anti-greed moralistic guide and Epicene as a long-winded farce on an English society that only valued wit. So, even if the two plays seem to have similar arcs and mirrored actions, it is clear from a close examination of the individual contexts of the plays that the consequences will differ.

And while it is the natural inclination of the viewer or reader to root for the hero — even a villainous one if he possesses some admirable qualities, as Mosca clearly does — it is only with resistance, with an overcoming of odds, that our blood pressures are raised and our interests are piqued. Therefore, there is something satisfying about the rape of Celia being foiled by Bonario, as it presents a resistance to the daunting and unwavering guile of Mosca, a stutter-step on his way to an expected victory. But it ultimately proves to be more than a stutter-step, and while he initially overcomes the minor and attention-grabbing setback, the avoidable and ridiculous unraveling of his machinations in Act V is disappointing. It is disappointing, but it is necessary in the greed-punishing world that Jonson has constructed in Volpone.

At the same time, the infallibility of Truewit et al.’s endeavors leads to an empty feeling at the end of the play since these beguilers faced no worthy opponent and merely succeeded in making fools out of people who were already quite foolish (even named LaFoole!). Yet, Jonson’s purpose with Epicene was not to instruct as much as to entertain — the play is, of course, a farce. So, while the inevitable success of each of Truewit’s plots grows cumbersome, especially since the plots themselves aren’t even necessary for the end-goal of the play (except maybe to aggravate Morose into a frenzy so that he will say yes to anything), their success is necessary given the overall wit-rewarding morality of Epicene’s world. Fundamentally, in Volpone Jonson’s goal is to glorify widely held virtues and punish vice; the play’s morality is hinged on the punishment of avarice and lust. In contrast, in Epicene the goal is to entertain and delight, and so the morality is hinged on rewarding wit and cleverness.

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