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Jonson's Volpone and Dante.

No one has linked Dante's Inferno to Ben Jonson's Volpone. But there are a number of reasons to think that the first canticle of the Italian poet's epic poem was influential on Jonson's most enduringly popular play. For one thing both works portray fraud as the root of all evil, as many other important works about morality do not. (1) Dante used Aristotle to make the principal divisions of the Inferno into the sins of incontinence, malice and brutishness, the latter two classifications comprising the sins of fraud. (2) Fraud, says Virgil to Dante in canto 11 when he is describing the plan of hell, "is man's peculiar vice; / God finds it more displeasing--and therefore, / the fraudulent are lower, suffering more" e de l'uom proprio male, / piu spiace a Dio; e pero stan di sotto / li frodolenti, e piu dolor li assale [ll. 25-27]). (3) Again, both Dante's and Jonson's master works are called "comedies," but both also contain harsh punishments. Jonson's play is quite distinctive here, not following in this regard his customary Roman models, and making a special effort "to put the snaffle in their mouths, that cry out, we never punish vice in our interludes." His moral labors in Volpone also required of him "to imitate justice, and instruct to life, as well as purity of language." (4) Jonson refers to Dante in the third act of Volpone when Lady Politic Would-Be, a tedious English dilettante visiting Venice with her equally shallow husband, brags of having read Petrarch, Tasso, Guarini, Ariosto, Aretino, and Dante, who, she says, "is hard, and few can understand him" (3.4.95). This couple, however, is such a pair of fools that her judgment of Dante can hardly be taken for Jonson's own, and her ignorant dismissal of the poet implies exactly the opposite attitude on the part of the dramatist himself. That her remark echoes Dante's own comment to Can Grande that his epic was "polysemous" and "not simple" (5) hints at more than a secondary knowledge of Dante by Jonson. Jonson's satiric conception of Venice as a locus of corruption, his cast of perverse characters, and his emphasis upon an appropriate final punishment for each of the evildoers combine to recall structural and thematic elements of Dante's work. And there is one final point: Jonson was a dramatist always sensitive to the shaping influence of native English morality plays; surely, then, he would also have been drawn to the most vigorous medieval condemnation of sin composed on the Continent, especially during those twelve years (1598-1610) when he was himself a Roman Catholic. All of these considerations would have made Dante's combination of comedy and severe morality an appealing combination to Jonson and one not easily found in most other sources available to him.

Modern criticism has sometimes seen the punishment of Volpone and Mosca as inconsistent with their sportive playfulness with folly and avarice. The point has also been made that the punishments are too harsh for the crimes. (6) But Dante has many persons in the Inferno who are admirable in many ways, such as the adulterous but winningly sympathetic Francesca, the fraudulent counselors but still upright and noble Jason and Ulysses, and the inciter to rebellion but lighthearted and gifted Bertran de Born. All these and many others in the Inferno have been given their final hard punishment because of an overriding vice that finally determined their character and which they desired more than their virtues. Neither Dante nor Jonson held the view that one's own personal sympathies or admiration of intellect or energy should shape a final judgment of character.

Jackson Campbell Boswell has recently shown knowledge of Dante to be much more extensive in England than was previously thought. (7) Boswell has found 322 literary allusions to the Florentine in English books published between 1477 and 1640, a number of them by persons Jonson admired or knew well, such as Sir Philip Sidney and John Florio. In addition, Thomas Kyd, to whose Spanish Tragedy Jonson wrote additions in 1601-02, translated several verses from the Inferno in his 1588 translation of Tasso's The Householders Philosophie. Dante was often grouped by English writers with Petrarch and Boccaccio as important Italian poets and was widely admired by Protestant polemicists for his criticism in both De Monarchia and the Divina Commedia of the Pope's involvement in worldly affairs. Indeed, some Catholic writers thought their Protestant counterparts such as John Foxe had gone so far as to make Dante one of their own; Robert Parsons, for example, said that Foxe had done this with both Dante and Petrarch, who "neuer held any iote of protestant religion in the world" but were made to appear so because in their works "they reprehend the manners of Rome, or liues of some Popes in those daies." (8) Florio's mention of Dante in his A World of Words (1598) is especially noteworthy, since he says there that Dante was the most difficult of the triumvirate of medieval Italian poets: "Dante is hardest, but commented." (9) His phrasing may also be the source for Lady Would-Be's comment noted above.

For our argument there is one important Renaissance reference to Dante that appeared in print after 1640, the limit of Boswell's study. In a letter to Sir Henry Wotton, composed around 1600, John Donne, a great friend of Jonson, wrote a substantial passage in which he talks of having "flung away Dant the Italian" in anger over Dante's having put Pope Celestine in purgatory for having resigned the papacy. "If he will needs punish retyrednes thus," Donne asks, "what hell can his witt devise for ambition?" What is intriguing about this passage besides its content is the casual way in which Donne talks of reading Dante, almost as though the Florentine were bedside reading, a familiar figure with whom he was accustomed to quarrelling. (10)

William Drummond claimed that Jonson knew neither French nor Italian but Ian Donaldson comments that "Drummond's statement is almost certainly an exaggeration," (11) and there are ample grounds for such a judgment. In saying that Jonson "neither doth understand French nor Italian" Drummond could well have been referring to speaking ability rather than reading comprehension, since the latter is generally regarded as much the easier. But it is hard to believe that as expert a Latinist as Jonson could not follow Italian with considerable comprehension. As David McPherson notes, "Scholarly opinion seems to be swaying toward the idea" that both Shakespeare and Jonson could read French and Italian. (12) If Jonson could not read Dante's poem in the original language, Florio could have easily described to him the structure and many of the details of the Inferno--the poems schematic organization lends itself to this. And there is indeed considerable reason to think that Florio gave Jonson expert assistance on Volpone. Florio's biographer Frances Yates says "his friendship with ... Jonson is of great interest and importance," especially in relation to Volpone. Jonson gave Florio a copy of the play containing the inscription: "To his loving Father, & worthy Freind Mr. John Florio: The ayde of his Muses. Ben: Jonson seales this testimony of Friendship, & Loue." (13) (It is interesting that Jonson, who himself loved to be called "Father" by his literary disciples, is happy here to bestow that honorific on Florio.) Also, Herford and Simpson, who accept Drummond's statement at face value, admit as "undeniably conceivable" Florio's providing this kind of assistance concerning another Italian text in connection to The Alchemist. (14) And, finally, Yates also pointed out that Jonson used Florio's Italian-English grammar, Second Frutes (1591), in dialogue between Sir Politic Would-Be and Peregrine (2.2.113-14). (15)

Just as Dante's hell is the spiritual inverse of heaven, Jonson's Venice is the moral inverse of every humanistic ideal which, as outlined in his poem "To Penshurst" and elsewhere, he believed should mold civilized society. (16) Within this Venice lies the house of Volpone, home of its greatest exemplar of immorality, and within his home is his bedroom with its overtones of indolence and physical gratification, the destination of Corvino, Corbaccio, and Voltore, the play's three craven legacy-hunters. This concentric arrangement of locales demonstrates Jonson's oft-noted penchant for centering devices in his comedies that intensify the dramatic unity of place. This centered structure also functions thematically, for as the play moves farther from Volpone's bedroom, his immoral agency gradually fades until, by act 5, he is condemned within a space controlled by values entirely inimical to his own--the courtroom. Such a design invites comparison with the architectonic structure of Dante's epic, in which the corrupting influence of Satan varies inversely with the sinners' distance from him, the virtuous pagans in limbo high above him being far less sinful than those condemned to the ninth circle. Laura Tosi describes the theatrical world of the play as "claustrophobic" a term which aptly suggests Dante's lowest circle as well. (17) Thomas Greene has discussed the importance of the circle in Jonson's dramatic designs, (18) and it seems likely that the concentric framework of Dante's epic would have drawn his attention as an influential, or at least confirming, model.

Not only does Volpone figure a civic Satan at the center of a venal Venice, but he is by nature as essentially impotent as Dante's devil. Encased in ice from the waist down and beating his wings in the infernal inane, Dante's Satan is a moral oxymoron, constantly in motion yet going nowhere, hungrily gnawing the heads of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius yet never sated. Similarly, Volpone's busy schemes contribute nothing to the health of res publica and, with an attitude that would appropriately locate him in lower hell, the region of fraud, he maliciously glories in his own self-absorption:
 I use no trade, no venture;
 I wound no earth with ploughshares; fat no beasts
 To feed the shambles; have no mills for iron,
 Oil, corn, or men, to grind 'em into powder;
 I blow no subtle glass; expose no ships
 To threatenings of the furrow-faced sea;
 I turn no moneys in the public bank.


As Peggy Knapp observes, Volpone's speech reveals his "self-deluding or hypocritical aloofness from normal economic life." (19) His goal is to have everything but to give nothing in exchange, whether money, love, or effort. He thus displays a hellish perversion of identity, living only to get rather than to beget, to have rather than to be in any way apart from the acquisition of wealth, lust as Satan's frozen loins will never generate and pass on his "substance," so Volpone announces, "I have no wife, no parent, child, ally, / To give my substance to" (1.1.73-74). Jonson is one of the first and best critics of early modern Conspicuous consumption and of the decline of a humanistic ideal shared with Dante, that of vera nobilitatis or the nature of true nobility of humanity. (20) The Christian dimensions of Jonson's comic vision, outlined by John Weld (21) and others, should alert us to the fact that Volpone's obsession with material goods is also consistent with the Thomistic conception of sin, which Aquinas understood to be a mistaken sense of self. Following Aristotle, for whom the human ethical telos was that the psyche be governed by the rational soul, Aquinas taught that sin was a misdirection in purpose such that the soul seeks not the loving authority of God, but only its own selfish authority; the result is not sanctity but solipsism. Volpone's opening paean to gold, which he terms "the world's soul, and mine" displays a Dantean inversion in which matter is elevated above spirit as Volpone worships "Riches, the dumb god" (1.1.3,22); "even hell, with thee to boot, / Is made worth heaven!" he proclaims (1.1.24-25).

Volpone's utter lovelessness (in Dantean terms, his utter separation from God and thus from his own truest identity) reveals itself in his great charade as Scoto of Mantua in act 2; he moves his chicanery from the privacy of his house to a piazza where he can enjoy hoodwinking a circle of onlookers, not just individuals. The real Scoto was an Italian actor under the patronage of the duke of Mantua and was popular as a juggler in England, where he was referred to in the writings of Nashe, Harvey, and James I. Yet beyond this immediately topical level, Volpone's assumption of a Mantuan role would have recalled for Jonson's more literate (and more preferred) audience members--especially those of Oxford and Cambridge to whom he dedicated the play--that town's storied myth of being founded by Manto, daughter of the prophet Tiresias and a fabled sorcerer who is the subject of a notable passage in canto 20 of the Inferno. Virgil's supposed birth in Mantua contributed to his medieval reputation as a seer and necromancer, but in Dante's poem he disavows that reputation by noting that the town was actually not founded by Manto, but merely located on the site of her death. Dante is anxious to portray Virgil as a wise seer who, while a native Mantuan by birth, is not truly "Mantuan" by nature--that is, not a deceiving sorcerer. Volpone, however, while not born there, is in fact a true "Mantuan" in that he offers false promises of future beauty and health which only his esoteric knowledge will obtain for his audience. He is an imposter in every sense, held up by Jonson as an untrustworthy manipulator of words. Volpone guarantees health for all who use his curative oglio, but these promises are lies. The length and tumbling prose style of Scoto's speech transform it into a huckster's aria, to which Jonson pointedly directs our attention. As Sir Politic says to Peregrine, "Ha' you heard better language, sir?" (2.2.63). But this is language that by its very ostentation raises doubts about its veracity. Volpone, after all, is a rhetorical sophist, one whose skill with words can almost, but not quite, hide his lack of moral probity.

Dante's opposition to Manto and all other diviners and seers was based on the conviction that, since only God can know the future, all fortune-tellers were liars. While not a soothsayer per se, Volpone displays a presumed spiritual authority like theirs when he replaces God with gold. His identities as devil, fraud, and sorcerer are joined in his misuse of language, recalling Christ's warning that "the devil is a liar" (John 8:44). The incurable sickness for which Volpone must be incarcerated at the play's end includes not only his obvious avarice but also his holding out a false future to the legacy hunters as well as the false statements by which he does so. (22) Alexander Legatt has even suggested that Volpone's self-destructive tendencies lead him to his own demise, a view which would merit him a place among the suicides in canto 13. (23)

Volpone's spurious speech is a Manto-like deception (perhaps hinted at by the rhyme of Scoto/Manto), in which Dante's concern with the veracity of truth-tellers becomes also one of Jonson's key satiric targets. (24) The relationship of language and truth is emphasized before Scoto's arrival with Politic's remark that "Italian mountebanks" are "[t]he only languaged men of all the world!" (2.2.13). And he later exclaims, again, "Is not his language rare?" (2.2.105). The piazza scene, a prose tour-de-force that manages "to use--and pervert--virtually every effect known to classic oratory," (25) echoes in its theme Dante's very prosaic Manto passage. Dante's purpose here may be "to entice the reader to suspend his disbelief and accept the truth of the fantastic cantos to come.... Such stress on facts and truthfulness also [emphasize that] superstitions and the distortions of facts are basic elements in the workings of soothsayers, sorcerers, diviners and augurs." (26) A link between Manto and Volpone/ Scoto also lies in a term applied to mountebanks, "ciurmatore (from the Latin carmen, or charm) [which] referred to the semi-magical powers, increasingly suspect in the post-Tridentine period, that the mountebank presumably used to bewitch his credulous public." (27) Despite the theatrical parallels that may exist between Scoto and Jonson himself, (28) Jonson's satire of Volpone's impersonation of Scoto is analogous to Dante's condemnation, through Virgil, of Manto and her ilk: both are guilty of what Peter Womack calls (in describing Scoto's language) "a persistent speech-type which can be best described as linguistic junk--that is, a cultural object ambivalently compounded of alienation, bad taste, cheapness, freedom, fun, superabundance, uselessness, waste." (29)

Volpone's pride in his duplicitous rhetoric is revealed when, after plying Celia with blandishments in act 3, he suddenly threatens to rape her, a threat motivated as much by rage at his failure to penetrate verbally her moral resistance as by his own lust. He fails to separate her from her true love, Bonario, who at the moment of threat springs from his hiding place like a matinee hero and rescues her. Yet these two lovers are not the Paolo and Francesca of the play, for Celia is not about to be swept away by mere winds of passion. Rather, like Dante's Beatrice, she is clearly a foil for the moral baseness that surrounds her, as her name ("Heavenly") implies. As "the embodiment not of any one virtue but of a whole attitude toward life," (30) she is the constant emblem of inviolate virtue, refusing to submit to Volpone even after having been dragged to his house by her pandering husband, Corvino. Just as Beatrice is "beata e bella" (so blessed, so lovely [Inferno, canto 2, 53]), so Celia's physical beauty is praised by Mosca, though of course with his typically lasicivous overtones ("A soft lip, / Would tempt you to eternity of kissing! / And flesh that melteth in the touch to blood!" [1.5.111-13]). She herself announces her devotion to religious idealism, Saying "I, whose innocence / is all I can think wealthy ... / And which once lost, I have nought to lose beyond it, / Cannot be taken with these sensual baits" (3.7.207-10). Her appeal to Volpone underscores the contrast between her virtue and his vice: "If you have touch of holy saints, or heaven, / Do me the grace to let me 'scape" (3.7.243-44). The roles of Celia and Beatrice appear linked as well in canto 32 of the Purgatorio, where Beatrice allegorically protects the Church (depicted as a chariot or "car") against the force of heresy (as a fox) in a way that recalls Celia's rejection of Volpone's advances:
 I then saw, as it leaped into the body
 of that triumphal chariot, a fox
 that seemed to lack all human nourishment:
 but, as she railed against its squalid sins,
 my lady forced that fox to flight as quick
 as, stripped of flesh, its bones permitted it.

(ll. 118-23)

 (Poscia vidi awentarsi ne lacuna
 del tr'iunfal veiculo una volpe
 che d'ogne pasto buon parea digiuna;
 ma, riprendendo lei di laide colpe,
 la donna mia la volse in tanta futa
 quanto sofferser l'ossa sanza polpe.)

Gerard H. Cox has noted that Celia's character and dramatic function draw strongly upon the sacred personages of the medieval Corpus Christi plays. Like Jesus or Mary, Celia is inviolate despite the immorality around her, and, like them, she is a mostly silent and inactive figure. Cox also finds in her portrayal a further Dantean analogue, noting that when Celia begs for mercy for Corvino and Voltore in court
 the first Avocatore rebukes her: 'You hurt your innocence, suing
 for the guilty' (5.7.104-6). The stringent attitude displayed here
 by the Avocatore is far removed from our modern sensibilities; like
 much else in the play; it reflects less modern than medieval modes
 of thought. Just as Dante emphasizes that man should not try to be
 more merciful than God (Inferno 8, 20 and 33), so Jonson emphasizes
 that Celia should not try to be more merciful than God's justices on
 earth. (31)

Volpone's eager assistant in his machinations is Mosca, who is clearly a "wily servant" in the tradition of Plautine and Terentian comedy, as well as a folkloric trickster whose selfish schemes recoil on his own head. Additionally, as his name reveals, he is a "fly" who constantly flits about the plot as instigator, another figure of the play's beast fable motif. (32) Jonson's motif notably accords with Dante's characterization of the intentional fraud punished in lower hell as "matta bestialitade" (mad bestiality [canto 11, 82-83]). Mosca, furthermore, also bears similarity to a like-named figure in canto 28, Mosca dei Lamberti. In circle 8, bolgia 9, devoted to the Sowers of Discord, Dante alludes to an incident from Florentine history. In 1215 Buondelmonte de' Buondelmonti reneged on his promise to marry a girl from the Amidei family, choosing a Donati bride instead. It was Lamberti who suggested to the Amidei that the most appropriate revenge would not be a mere beating but death. After Buondelmonte had been fatally stabbed, Mosca and his Ghibelline family were banished by the ruling Guelphs, initiating the feud that later involved Dante himself. Dante damns him, bloody and handless, as a schismatic for fomenting public divisiveness and disturbing the civic peace. Jonson's Mosca, while clearly comic, is just as willing to subvert the law, even to the point of committing murder.

In the play, Mosca makes of Volpone an unsuspecting Buondelmonte in his plan to entrap him and mulct him of his riches, or, failing that, to kill him. In act 1 he brags to Corvino, "Faith, I could stifle him rarely with a pillow, / As well as any woman that should keep him" (1.5.68-69), and in act 5 he announces his plan to entrap his master by death or deceit:
 Since he will needs be dead afore his time,
 I'll bury him, or gain by him. I'm his heir,
 And so will keep me, till he share at least.
 To cozen him of all were but a cheat
 Well placed; no man would construe it a sin.
 Let his sport pay for't. This is called the Fox-trap.


Finally cornered in the court, Mosca denies that he knows Volpone (also present in the court but disguised as a sickly codger, a common disguise of actual mountebanks) and promises to order the funeral for his patron "Whom I intend to bury like a gentleman" (5.12.58). Moments later the frustrated Volpone throws off his disguise, confesses his guilt, and implicates Mosca as his "knave." As they receive their final punishments, Mosca snarls at him, "Bane to thy wolfish nature" (5.12.116), a reference to death by wolf's-bane, a poisonous herb. Like Lamberti, Mosca is a "sower of discord," "the chiefest minister, if not plotter, / In all these lewd impostures" (5.12.108-9), as the judge tells him at his sentencing. He has from the start planned to turn Volpone's household on its head and has succeeded in killing him in effect, if not in fact. Mosca justifies his plans by appealing to a worldview which is just as hierarchical as that of the Inferno: "All the world is little else in nature / But parasites or subparasites" (3.1.12-13). Three of these subparasites are the deformed underlings who live with Volpone: Nano the dwarf, Androgyno the hermaphrodite, and Castrone the eunuch. Together they lend a grotesquely unnatural tone to Volpone's domestic arrangement and re-create the effect of the comically repulsive demons in the so-called "gargoyle cantos" (21 and 22) of the Inferno.

The deceptive stratagems of Mosca are but a few of the similarities between Dante's and Jonson's treatment of fraud that can be found throughout their respective works. The heart of Dante's portrayal of the vice is in the eighth circle of the Inferno, the Malebolge (evil pockets), divided into ten bolgia, or ditches, where sinners of fraud are punished in an almost endless variety of ways. Many of the characters in Volpone would find a spiritual home here as well. Mosca represents accurately, for example, not only a sower of discord but also the composite nature of fraud, figured by the monster Geryon who provides the means of transportation for Dante and Virgil to lower Hell in canto 27 of the Inferno. With his mild human face and tail of a scorpion he is the perfect usher into the realms of deceit, just as Mosca is the purveyor of the pilgrims of greed into Volpone's bedroom shrine to gold. After Geryon deposits Dante and Virgil in lower Hell he vanished, says the poet, "like an arrow from a bow" (come da corda cocca [17.136]), a simile that Jonson uses to describe Mosca's nimbleness as a parasite, one who "can rise / And stoop, almost together, like an arrow" (3.1.23-24). Bonario, initially contemptuous of Mosca, accepts the parasite's account of his father's plan to disinherit him in 3.2, and says in response to Mosca's perfectly hypocritical protestations of virtue, "This cannot be a personated passion" (1. 34), which of course is exactly what it is. Hypocrisy, a vice rampant in Jonson's Venice, is punished in the sixth ditch of the Malebolge, whose inhabitants must wear leaded cloaks and walk slowly around their prison. The punishment emphasizes, says John D. Sinclair, the "extreme tiresomeness of hypocrisy.... All their manhood is exhausted in keeping up appearances" (33) much as Volpone is exhausted by his disguise at the beginning of act 5 when he says that he thought "some power had struck me / With a dead palsy" (ll. 6-7).

The very beginning of the ditches of fraud contains the panderers and seducers, fitting descriptions of Mosca and Corbaccio's attempt to prostitute Corbaccio's wife Celia, and Voltore would find himself, if not at ease, at least in familiar circumstances in the fifth bolgia in the boiling pitch where the barrators pay the price for their manipulation of the law for personal gain. In describing this ditch Dante uses an extended simile of the Arsenal of the Venetians where pitch is boiled to "patch their sick and tattered ships" (rimpalmare i legni lor non sani [21.9]). And, of course, Sir Politic Would-Be is the essence of the false counselor (eighth bolgia, canto 26), albeit a comic one, as he presents his ludicrous insider's information with all the seriousness of the pretentious bore.

The personators and other falsifiers (34)--those who act contrary to their own person or who practice alchemy or counterfeiting--are found in the very bottom of the Malebolge in the tenth ditch (cantos 29-30): in Dante's mind their behavior is nearly the Worst kind of fraud. (35) The impersonators are the only persons in the whole of the Inferno who are insane--they bite and feed on each other's flesh although all of the falsifiers of nature, person, currency, and their word are made sick in one way or another as their punishment. Volpone of course has been impersonating a sick person throughout the play and the harshness of his ultimate punishment is based on the same principle that vice is punished in the Inferno: that of contrapasso (cf. Inferno 28.142, where it is translated by Mandelbaum as "counter-penalty"), a punishment that emerges from, or by means of, the very nature of the crime committed. So the Avocatores tell Volpone that
 since the most [of his wealth] was gotten by imposture,
 By feigning lame, gout, palsy, and such diseases,
 Thou art to lie in prison, cramped with irons,
 Till thou be'st sick and lame indeed.


Through this device of contrapasso in the Inferno, as Kenneth Gross has pointed out, not only will Dante's sinful souls receive retribution, but "Dante's symbolic ironies show how the infernal states actually perpetuate the spiritual disorder which constitutes sin." (36) The Thomistic concept of sin as the living out of a deluded self is carried forward in the sin's penalty; the delusion of sin is itself a punishment, as S. L. Goldberg has implied. (37) Thus Mosca, the parasite who sought to bilk everyone else, is punished first by being whipped and then forced to live "perpetual prisoner in our galleys" (5.12.114); he who sought to make everyone else his slave becomes a slave of the state. Volpone's goods are stripped from him, and, having mimicked an incurable, he is placed in a hospital for real incurables until he becomes "sick and lame indeed" (5.12.124). For someone whose soul is sense, to remove both his possessions and his health is to strip him of any identity he may have had; he himself clearlygrasps the principle of his own punishment, saying, "This is called mortifying of a Fox" (5.12.125). Voltore, having scandalized the legal profession, is barred from it and banished; Corbaccio's goods are given to the son he intended to disinherit, and he is sent to a monastery to learn to "die well" (5.12.133). Corvino, who had publicly shamed his virtuous wife, will be publicly shamed by being pilloried and pelted with garbage. As in the Inferno, each of these punishments is itself a variation on the sin it punishes.

Even before this final scene, though, Volpone's impersonation had led him to feel ill. After he has been tormenting the jilted heirs of his fortune, he says at the beginning of act 5, "I ne'er was in dislike with my disguise / Till this fled moment" and he finds that "'Fore God, my left leg 'gan to have the cramp, / And I apprehended straight, some power had struck me / With a dead palsy" (5.1.2-3, 5-7). And earlier still, on the occasion of Lady Would-Be's first visit to him, Volpone says, "Before I feigned diseases, now I have one" (3.4.63). (38) His remarks not only foreshadow the nature of his final punishment, they confirm for us his constant concern for his physical, rather than moral or spiritual, well-being.

One of Dante's impersonators is especially relevant to Volpone. This is Gianni Schicchi, whose story is found in canto 30 of the Inferno and who is there biting the flesh of Capocchio, a Florentine alchemist and mimic. Gianni's fame is recorded in detail in the fourteenth-century Anonimo fiorentino:
 This Gianni Schicci [sic] was of the Cavalcanti of Florence, and
 the story is told of him that when Messer Buoso Donati was stricken
 with a fatal illness, he wanted to make a will, for he knew he had
 a great many things to give back to others. His son Simone put him
 off with words, to prevent his doing it; and he put him off so long
 that he finally died. When he was dead, Simone kept him hidden,
 afraid he might have made a will while he was healthy. Indeed, all
 the neighbors said he had made one. Not knowing what to do, Simone
 unburdened himself to Gianni Schicchi and asked his advice. Gianni
 knew how to imitate the voice and actions of everyone, and
 especially of Messer Buoso, whom he knew very well. He said to
 Simone: "Have a notary come, and tell him that Messer Buoso wants to
 make a will. I will get into the bed, and we'll shove him behind it.
 I will cover myself well, put on his nightcap, and will make a will
 just as you want it. Of course, I want to get something out of it
 myself." Simone agreed. Gianni gets into the bed, pretends to be in
 great pain, and imitates the voice of Messer Buoso so well that it
 seems to be he. Then he begins to dictate the will, saying: "I leave
 twenty soldi to the opera of Santa Reparata, five life to the Friars
 Minor, five to the Dominicans," and so on, giving for God, but in
 small amounts. This was what Simone wanted. "And," he adds, "I leave
 five hundred florins to Gianni Schicchi." Simone says to Messer
 Buoso: "You needn't put that in the will. I'll give them to him,
 just as you say." "Simone, you will let me dispose of my own
 property as I see fit. I am leaving you so well off that you will be
 satisfied." Simone kept quiet, out of fear. And then the other
 continues: "I leave Gianni Schicchi my mule"--for Messer Buoso had
 the best mule in Tuscany. "Oh, Messer Buoso," said Simone, "he cares
 little about that mule, and never prized it particularly. I know
 what Gianni Schicchi wants better than you do." Simone began to
 get angry and to fume; but out of fear, he kept quiet. Gianni
 Schicchi goes on: "And I leave Gianni Schicchi one hundred florins,
 which my neighbor so-and-so owes me. And all the rest I leave to my
 heir Simone, on this condition: that he carry out each of my
 bequests within the next fifteen days. If not, the whole estate is
 to go to the Friars Minor of the convent of Santa Croce." When the
 will was finished, everyone left. Gianni gets out of the bed, and
 they put Messer Buoso back in. Then they begin to wail, and say he
 just died. (39)

This is a story reminiscent of the great comic scene in Volpone (5.2-3), where Volpone has Mosca take his place in the invalids bed and read a will that leaves everything to the parasite, and is, we suggest, as close an analogue for this particular scene as many that have been suggested for other parts of the play. (40) Volpone is not dead as Messer Buoso so obviously is, but like him, he is out of sight behind the bed; he can hear and peek at the horror of his gulls when they find that it is not they but Mosca that is his heir. Schicchi improvises and adds clauses in the will to make himself a principal beneficiary; Mosca does not do this here but he does do it later, when he is before the Avocatores. There he negotiates with Volpone for possession of his wealth as the price of maintaining their charade, which leads Volpone once and for all to take off his disguise. Gianni Schicchi, Simone Buoso, Volpone, and Mosca all find that their use of pretense and impersonation backfires--the latter three in this life, the first in the next one.

Impostor is the word used most frequently in the play to describe Volpone's brand of impersonation, beginning, perhaps, as early as 1.2 when Volpone asks Mosca to help him with his "posture" (1. 127) to receive his dupes, referring to his position on his sickbed but with at least a glance at his disguise. It is a word used generally throughout the play. Recall, for example, Peregrines telling Sir Politic that he has heard mountebanks are the "most lewd impostors" (2.2.14). Volpone also claims that other mountebanks have tried, "like apes in imitation of that, which is really and essentially / in me, to make of this oil" (2.2.133-34), and he here accuses others of attempting to be the impostor that only he can truly be--ironically, of course, what is "really and essentially in me" is no identifiable nature at all. He seeks praise from Mosca at the end of the scene for how well he performed the impersonation.

Volpone says proudly to Celia that she has at "sundry times, raised me, in several shapes, / And but this morning, like a mountebank, / To see thee at thy window" (3.7.148-50). He says shortly thereafter that he acted young Antinous for the entertainment of the great Valois. When Bonario rescues Celia he calls Volpone an "impostor" (3.7.268), and one of the Avocatores in 4.5 says that "the impostor ... is a thing created / To exceed example" (1. 8). Bonario asks that Volpone may come to court so that "your grave eyes / May bear strong witness of his strange impostures" (ll. 17-18). Susan Baker has noted that in Shakespearean drama, when one assumes another's identity, it is usually "a sexual ploy, specifically designed either to evade or to enforce social sanctions on sexuality." (41) In Jonson, however, to be an impostor most often means to violate nature in some fundamental way. Plutus and Mammon are impostors of love in the masque Love Restored and, especially notable, Mercury reproves Vulcan in Mercury Vindicated against the Alchemists for those "impostors" of Nature, the antimasque figures of the alchemists' art. Nature herself is revealed at the end of the masque. Antoninus speaking to a doctor in Dekker and Massinger's The Virgin Martir (1622) could have been jeering at Volpone as Scoto when he says, "out you Impostors / Quack salving, cheating Mountbankes, your skill / Is to make sound men sicke, and sicke men kill[ed]." (42) Volpone says that in gulling those who hope to be his heirs into giving him their wealth, he plays "with their hopes, / And am content to coin 'em into profit" (1.1.85-86). Volpone's association of multiplying wealth with disguise and impersonation is like that of the Florentine Capocchio, in the tenth valley of the Malebolge who, again according to the Anonimo fiorentio, "was a person who, like the performers at court, could mimic anyone or anything he liked, so much so that he looked just like the thing or the man he was imitating. Later he began to counterfeit metals, just as he had done people." (43)

When the careers of Dante and Jonson are viewed together, significant affinities between the two authors emerge. Like Dante's, Jonson's was essentially a conservative political vision that advocated a return to foundational ethical values which he believed should inform all of society. Whereas Dante's vision of social harmony is far more religious in its grounding, the roots of Jonson's guiding values lay as much or more in a humanistic respect for the norms of classical culture. Each author is best known for works labeled comedies, suggesting that despite their often bitterly graphic portrayal of human imperfections, they held to a deeply meliorist outlook, whether finally achieved in this world or the next, and not without great effort in either case. Both authors intentionally inserted themselves into their own works, not only as agents for moral guidance (Jonson's prefaces presenting a teacher's persona, Dante playing the student of Virgil), but also as a means of contending against literary and political forces impinging upon their own careers and artistry. Both were significant critics of their own works as well as of the dominant literary practices of their eras, and each left major documents in the critical canon. Finally, each responded with special sensitivity to the work and career of Virgil, who was for Jonson the exemplar of classical literary achievement, but who for Dante acquired a more complex and deeply personal significance. Despite their many literary, individual, and national differences, they shared a range of values that urge our closer exploration within Jonson's great Venetian comedy. Clearly, the greatness of Volpone owes much to the skill with which Jonson melded a variety of literary, theatrical, and moral elements from native and classical models. But to be aware of the many correspondences between him and the medieval poet is also to recognize the play as a Dantean comedy. It is a theatrical descent into the sins of seventeenth-century Italy whose success derives in significant part from Jonson's appropriation of Dante's epic panorama of the underworld.


(1) St. Thomas Aquinas is Dante's theological guide in the Commedia but the theologian deals with fraud much less severely than does the poet. St. Thomas does agree with St. Gregory the Great when he says that "fraud is a daughter of covetousness." In another statement applicable to both the Inferno and Volpone, St. Thomas says that of all the moral virtues it is in justice "wherein the use of right reason appears chiefly" and that the chief vice opposed to justice is covetousness (Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols. [Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1981], 3:1420). Cicero is one other moralist who considered fraud a worse sin than, for example, violence, saying that the former is the quality of the "cunning fox," while the latter is the quality of "the lion"; both fraud and violence "are wholly unworthy of man, but fraud is the more contemptible" (De Officiis, trans. Walter Miller [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913], bk. 1, pt.13). In the sixteenth century Sir Thomas Elyot says that "of all iniuries that which is done by fraude is moste horrible and detestable, nat in the opinion of man onely but also in the sight and iugement of god" (The Boke named The Governour [New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1907], bk. 3., pt. 4, p. 207).

(2) "Of moral states to be avoided there are three kinds--vice, incontinence, brutishness" (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross, 12 vols. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952-63], 7:1). In this same passage Aristotle says that the contrary state to brutishness is "superhuman virtue, a heroic and divine kind of virtue"; both of these states, he says, are rarely found. But perhaps Jonson has in fact gone to the extremes in Volpone and portrayed both states: brutishness in Volpone, Mosca, and the gulls, superhuman virtue in Bonario and Celia. Jonson gives great praise to Aristotle in Discoveries, saying that he "was the first accurate critic and truest judge, nay, the greatest philosopher, the world ever had, for he noted the vices of all knowledges in all creatures...." (in The Oxford Authors: Ben Jonson, ed. Ian Donaldson [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985], 586). All references to Jonson's works, unless otherwise indicated, are to this edition).

(3) The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). All subsequent references to both the Italian text and to the English translation are to this edition, unless otherwise indicated.

(4) "Epistle Dedicatory" to Volpone, Oxford Authors, p. 3. John Creaser says the ending of Volpone is not really classical--"The harsh outcome ... is therefore much more unorthodox than Jonson seems to have realised" (see his essay, "The Mortifying of the Fox," Essays in Criticism 25 [1975]: 332)--but is in keeping, we would add, with the Inferno.

(5) See Robert Hollander, Allegory in Dante's Commedia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 45.

(6) Roual Broude gives a good summary of the various opinions about the ending of Volpone at the beginning of "Volpone and the Triumph of Truth: Some Antecedents and Analogues of the Main Plot in Volpone," Studies in Philology 77 (1980): 227-46.

(7) Jackson Campbell Boswell, Dante's Fame in England: References in Printed British Books, 1477-1640 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999). Subsequent references appear in the text.

(8) Ibid., 123.

(9) Ibid., 103.

(10) The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, ed. Charles M. Coffin (New York: Random House, 1952), 366.

(11) The Oxford Authors, 759.

(12) David McPherson, Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Myth of Venice (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), 13-14.

(13) Frances Yates, John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare's England (1934; reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1968), 277. The 1611 edition of Florio's Queen Anna's New World of Words lists four commentaries on Dante's work that Florio read "of purpose for the collecting of this Dictionary." The original edition was published in 1598.

(14) See Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson, 11. vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), 2:95.

(15) John Florio, 279. Brian Parker also accepts the allusion in his Revels edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 138-39.

(16) The commentary on Dante's conception of hell as an inverted cosmos is vast; for a recent discussion, see Joan M. Ferrante, "Hell as the Mirror Image of Paradise" in Mark Musa, trans. and ed., Dante's Inferno, The Indiana Critical Edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 367-80. On Jonson's ethical context, see George A. E. Parfitt, "Ethics and Christianity in Ben Jonson," in New Perspectives on Ben Jonson, ed. James Hirsh (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997), 77-88.

(17) Laura Tosi, "Violent Communication and Verbal Deception in Ben Jonson's Volpone and The Alchemist," Prospero 6 (1999): 151.

(18) Thomas Greene, "Ben Jonson and the Centered Self," SEL 10 (1970): 325-48.

(19) Peggy Knapp, "Ben Jonson and the Publicke Riot" ELH 46 (1979): 581.

(20) See Michael McCanles, Jonsonian Discriminations: The Humanist Poet and the Praise of True Nobility (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 57, 178-79. In Paradiso, canto 16, Dante's ancestor Cacciaguida laments the decay of the old Florentine families and the covetousness and ambition of those who have succeeded them.

(21) John S. Weld's view is found in "Christian Comedy: Volpone," SP 51 (1954): 172-93.

(22) Virgil's disavowal of any suggestion that his birthplace--and by extension he himself-practiced pagan soothsaying is a crux in the Inferno. Manto, the "savage virgin," lives "with her slaves to ply her arts" in the dry center of a swamp. After she died there, it was named after her, but, Virgil notes, "they cast no lots" and says, "Therefore, I charge you, if you ever hear / a different tale of my town's origin, / do not let any falsehood gull the truth" (Pero t'assenno che, se tu mai odi / originar la mia terra altrimenti, / la verita nulla menzogna frodi [97-99]). Yet his own account of the founding of Mantua in Aeneid X differs by saying that it was established and named for "sybilline Manto" by her son Ocnus (ll. 272-96). Scholars differ as to why Dante would have had Virgil in effect rewrite a portion of his epic. See Richard Kay, "Dante's Double Damnation of Manto," Res publica litterarum, 1 (1978), 113-28; Robert Hollander, "Dante's Misreadings of the Aeneid in Inferno 20," in The Poetry of Allusion, ed. Rachel Jacoff and Jeffrey T. Schnapp (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 77-93; and Guy Raffa, "Dante's Beloved Yet Damned Virgil," in Musa, Inferno, 266-85.

(23) Alexander Legatt, "The Suicide of Volpone," UTQ 39 (1969): 19-32.

(24) The nature of poetic truth and the relationship of language to truth form a major theme in the Commedia: see, for example, Robert Hollander, Dante: A Life in Works (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 94-97. For a more theoretical approach, see Jeffrey Tambling, Dante and Difference: Writing in the "Commedia" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

(25) Jonas Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960; reprint, New York: W. W. Norton, 1970), 143.

(26) Mark Musa, trans. and commentary, Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy: Inferno (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 6:269.

(27) Robert Henke, "The Italian Mountebank and the Commedial dell'Arte," Theatre Survey 38, no. 2 (November 1997): 3.

(28) See, for example, Alvin B. Kernan, ed., Volpone (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 214-16; David Riggs, Ben Jonson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 137-38; James Hirsh, "Cynicism and Futility of Art in Volpone," in New Perspectives on Ben Jonson, ed. James Hirsh (Madison, N.J.; Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997), 119-23.

(29) Qtd. in Tosi, 157.

(30) Charles Hallett, "Jonson's Celia: A Reinterpretation of Volpone," Studies in Philology 68 (1971): 68. Cf. Hallett's comparison of Volpone and Satan, "The Satanic Nature of Volpone," Philological Quarterly 49 (1970): 41-55.

(31) Gerard H. Cox, "Celia, Bonario, and Jonson's Indebtedness to the Medieval Cycles" Etudes Anglaises 25 (1972): 510-11.

(32) In conceiving Mosca, perhaps Jonson was also aware of a medieval legend about Virgil regarding "a bronze fly, allegedly fabricated by the Roman poet which had the power to keep other flies out of Naples; Dante's friend and confidant, Cino da Pistoia, refers to this legend in his satiric canzone on Naples, 'Deh, quando rivedro l dolce paese'" (Teodolinda Barolini, "True and False See-ers in Inferno XX," in Lectura Dantis: Inferno, ed. Allen Mandelbaum, A. Oldcorn, and C. Ross (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 280.

(33) See John Sinclair's edition of The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 291.

(34) Dante's word is falsador (29.57). Florio's A World of Words says a falsifier is "a counter feiter, a forger, a false coiner." John Minsheu's 1599 Spanish-English Dictionary says it is one "that playeth a part in a comedie." See Early Modern English Database, english/emed/patterweb.html.

(35) As an example of how seriously Dante took the vice of impersonation, consider that he puts Ovid's character Myrrha from the Metamorphoses, who went to her father's bed at night in the disguise of a maid, in this tenth ditch of the Malebologe, where the falsifiers are punished, rather than in a higher level where sexual sins are punished. Incest in his mind was a lesser offense than falsifying one's identity. Dante introduces the impersonators in canto 30 by taking several examples from Ovid's Metamorphoses; Mark Musa finds this appropriate as they, "like Ovid's characters, changed appearance" yet unlike "Ovid's characters, did so for the sake of fraud" (Inferno, Musa, 2:396).

(36) Kenneth Gross, "Infernal Metamorphosis: An Interpretation of Dante's 'Counterpass.'" MLN 100 (1985): 147.

(37) S. L. Goldberg, "Folly into Crime: the Catastrophe of Volpone," MLQ 20 (1959): 233-42.

(38) Ian Donaldson says these words "suggest a major theme of the play. If you feign sick out of mere mischief, you must realize that one day sickness and death will come upon you indeed"; this is a moral, he says, "more insistently suggested than any other" in the play ("Volpone: The Quick and the Dead," Essays in Criticism 21 [1971]: 132.) Jonas Barish says in his textual reading of the play "that mimicry itself is something monstrous and abnormal" (Ben Jonson's Plays and Masques, 2nd ed., ed. Richard Harp [New York: W. W. Norton, 2001], 404).

(39) Qtd. in The Divine Comedy: Inferno, trans, and commentary, by Charles S. Singleton, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 2:551-52.

(40) Many of these have been conveniently collected in Brian Parker's edition of the play, 299-320.

(41) Susan Baker, "Personating Persons: Rethinking Shakespearean Disguises" Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 307.

(42) Act 4.1.61-63. Saying Jonson finds Volpone's continual role-playing reprehensible is not to say that he is giving in to an antitheatrical prejudice, as he is, obviously, judging Volpone's vice in the theatrical medium itself. Jonson's relation to the theater and theatricality is obviously a complicated topic; here we would only suggest that there is a distinction between one who does not like the very idea of the theater or fiction because it is based on illusion (and this is not Jonson) and one who uses the drama, as Jonson is doing here, to attack role-playing in real life.

(43) Inferno, Singleton, 2:543.


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Title Annotation:Ben Jonson, Dante Alighieri
Author:Baker, Christopher; Harp, Richard
Publication:Comparative Drama
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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