Volpone Study Guide

Volpone was published first in 1607 as a quarto and then in 1616 as part of Jonson's collected Workes. In the later edition, the date of the first performance of Volpone is listed as 1605. However, many scholars speculate that the first performance actually took place in early 1606. Whatever the date, Volpone was first acted by the King's Men with John Lowin playing Volpone, Richard Burbage playing Mosca, and Cooke playing Lady Would-be. Later, as the Epistle indicates, Volpone was performed at Oxford and Cambridge.

The play was an immediate and resounding success. It was, and continues to be, admired for its balance of scathing satire against human greed with classical restraint and formalism. Like many of his plays, Volpone demonstrates an attentiveness to the superficiality of theater. All of the main characters are explicitly associated with an animal -- the fox, the wolf, the raven, the crow, etc. -- which lends the play the character of a fable. But this surface glitter does not distract from the strong characterizations that drive the play. Jonson's balance of theatrical convention and innovation, of commedia del arte tradition and English muscularity, invites comparison more to Moliere than to Shakespeare. Volpone is widely considered by critics to be Jonson's best play: the one in which his formal and human concerns achieve their most perfect balance.

After the late 18th century, Volpone waned in popularity; the nineteenth century in general appreciated the unencumbered imagination of Shakespeare to the pointed erudition of Jonson. It was not until the 1920's that it began to be performed again on a regular basis. In 1928, Stefan Zweig and Jules Romains adapted the play, changing the ending so that Mosca walks away with Volpone's fortune; this popular production ushered in an era of relative theatrical appreciation that continues to this day.

The well-read Jonson may have drawn upon many sources in composing Volpone. Critics have speculated that the idea for the play derives from Petronius, a Roman satirist, though others disagree. According to J. D. Rea, writing in 1919, Erasmus' Praise of Folly was Jonson's inspiration. Rea's claim is substantiated by Jonson's own Epistle in which he pays homage to the ancient Erasmus' style of comedy. At any rate, the play adheres strictly to the Classical ideals of drama as illustrated in those earlier satires, even as its striking originality prohibits us from identifying a clear forebear.