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Volpone was actually written in the form of a satire. Jonson focuses on the decay of humanity, which is seen as a reation to to the Renaissance ideas of rebirth and the freedom of thought. He illustrated Venetian society as lacking in virtue and overrun by vice, and the desire of humans to defeat others as a means to better themselves. His character's behaviors were calculated strategies driven by individual desires. Through this work, Jonson hoped to expose the greed and vice of Venetian society with the use of humor and to educate his audience by exposing the errors of city folk.
The Renaissance was a period in European history, from the 14th to the 17th century, regarded as the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history. It started as a cultural movement in Italy in the Late Medieval period and later spread to the rest of Europe, marking the beginning of the Early Modern Age. While Volpone was set in Venice, London audiences were well able to recognise its themes. For his realism, Jonson was attacked at the time as “a meere Empyrick, one that gets what he hath by observation”. But four centuries on, his ability to capture social contradictions related to the pre-dominant captivity of Renaissance and present them in a captivating form continues to resonate. Through the play, considered by some his masterpiece, Jonson portrays with a black humour a society in which the pursuit of wealth and individual self-interest have become primary. Venice was regarded as the epitome of a sophisticated commercial city and virtually all the characters are revealed as corrupt or compromised.
Women for centuries have fought against a male dominated society in order to achieve a more equal standing. This same society and its stereotypes of women have proven to be a hindrance to accomplishing this lofty goal. These stereotypes prevailed in renaissance England and flourished in many of the female characters in the literature. Ben Jonson's classic comedy, Volpone, surely falls into this category. The portrayal of Celia and Lady Would-Be in Volpone reflects the misperceptions and low status of women in Renaissance England.
Celia reveals herself initially, however briefly, in Act II, Scene II. She does not speak but simply observes Volpone from her window, dropping her handkerchief to show her interest. This scene of Volpone down below on the street and Celia leaning out her window from above is reminiscent of the romantic stories of a lady-in-waiting being wooed by the gracious knight. However, Volpone's intentions toward the fair Celia prove less than honorable. Celia shows an innocence and naivety that proves endearing and repulsive at the same time. Although women had limited rights at this time, her lack of self-esteem feeds the stereotype of the beautiful woman who lacks substance.
Celia finally speaks in Act II, Scene IV, in response to her husband's angry tirade. When Corvino demoralizes Celia by dragging her in from the window, she responds, "Good Sir, have patience." The audience instantly sees Celia as a victim, unable to stand up for herself. Because she has given up control of her own destiny to her husband, Celia plays the role of lady-in-distress, waiting for her knight in shining armor.
Volpone is a satire and an animal allegory, kind of like Animal Farm. Once again, animals are making mischief. And this time, a greedy, evil fox gets embroiled in a courtroom drama with as many costume changes as a Shakespearean play. Despite displaying some pretty nasty personality traits, though, this play's characters act out a lot of concerns shared by their audiences. During the Renaissance, pretty much everyone would have been fretting over inheritances and rapacious old men.
Dominant use of humour and metatheatricality can be seen through Volpone’s dwarf, eunuch and fool – who are portrayed very comically throughout the play. Lady Would-be prays to Volpone to ‘lend [her his] dwarf’ and this shows how these characters are objectified and often portrayed as pets. In the Greenwhich production Lady Would-be even attaches a collar to his neck which reinforces this idea. In addition, it is argued that in city comedy, two types of Renaissance gentleman can be found – the ‘natural idiot or deformed fools’ and here Volpone’s children are examples of deformed fools. In Genesis it states that we are made in the image of God and in the same way, it has been argued that Volpone’s children are made in the true image of Volpone. Therefore although these characters are highly comical, they are used to represent the unnatural, profane and reversed nature of Volpone’s character.
It is argued that ‘disguise, deception and false identity are all fruits of corruption emblematic of the dishonesty which greed leads’. In Act 1 Scene 1, the characters enter Volpone’s house which is situated in the Italian city of Venice. The play’s setting is vital in understanding Volpone’s world of corruption, as the Venice of the Renaissance was viewed abroad as the seat of corruption, infamous for its vice-ridden inhabitants and decadence. Venice was stereotyped for many years in English drama and as a result, Italians were often portrayed as sensuous beings who were associated with greed, disguise and deception.