To Content the People

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...

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