The Setting of "Volpone"

Critic: Ralph A. Cohen
Source:Renaissance Papers, 1978, pp. 64–75. Reprinted in Drama for Students, Vol. 10.


Theseus' observation that poets give "to airy nothing a local habitation and a name" is nowhere more confirmed than in the works of Ben Jonson. To his great plays Jonson has given local habitation a hundred names and made the sense of locale in those plays almost tangible. His plays are filled with scenes that go beyond an attempt to suggest a place and try instead to re-create it in all specifics. Where Shakespeare would supply a setting with a few bold impressionistic strokes, Jonson etches in every detail with Hogarthian thoroughness. Jonson first toyed with a precisely imagined setting in Every Man out of His Humour in 1599, but he did not approach setting consistently until he wrote Volpone in 1606. From that time on, Jonson takes pains to locate his comedies in a strict geography. The deliberate setting of Volpone functions as symbol, as theme, and as a principle of unity and dramatic tension; it suggests the extent to which setting is structural, not ornamental, in Jonson's great plays.

The often-remarked severity of the play's conclusion voices Jonson's own response to the meaning of the play's setting. Venice was renowned in the English mind for its excesses--in wealth, in beauty, in corruption.

Jonson's choice for Volpone of an Italian--specifically, a Venetian--setting contributes to what C. H. Herford describes as a "lurid atmosphere." In the eyes of Jonson's English audience, Italy "represented the very acme of beauty and culture, of licence and corruption." And of all Italian cities, Venice, as Herford points out, "stood in the front rank for this sinister repute," so that "to make the Fox a Venetian grandee was thus to give him and his story the best chance of being at once piquant and plausible."

To the Englishman, Venice was the most fabulous of wealthy Italian cities; it was a place where houses were "worthily deserved to be called, Pallaces, some hundred of them being fit to receive Princes...." Venice was a city famed for its jealous husbands and closely kept wives on the one hand, and for its courtesans and brothels on the other. Thomas Coryat marvels that such "places of evacuation" were necessary "for the gentlemen do even coope up their wives always within the walles of their houses ... as much as if there were no Cortezans at all in the City." The reputation of Venice for licentiousness was matched by its reputation for harsh justice, and the Catastrophe of Volpone reflects not only Jonson's own strenuous morality but also the fame of a Venetian punishment "sufficiently severe and righteous to frustrate ... the villainy its society presumably tolerated."

This reputation of Venice for vice, opulence, jealousy, and cruelty made Jonson's choice of it as the setting for Volpone not simply a sound one, but the sine qua non of the action, the characters, and even the language of the play. Little wonder that when Jonson published his Works ten years later he used Volpone as it stood and did not transfer it to London as he did his other important play with an Italian setting, Every Man in His Humour. But Jonson was not the first English dramatist to appreciate the aptness of Venice as a setting for a play about greed and harsh judgment. What separates the Venice of Volpone from the Venice of Shylock is Jonson's detailed depiction of that setting.

Jonson clearly establishes the Venetian setting of Volpone and preserves that setting consistently throughout. Unlike the Florentine setting of the first Every Man In (Quarto), for example, the Venice of Volpone does not grow transparent and reveal, as the play progresses, a thinly disguised London beneath an Italian setting. Unlike the Insula Fortunata of Every Man Out, the Gargaphy of Cynthia's Revels, or the Rome of Poetaster, the Venice of Volpone is not meant as an allegorical London. Nor has Jonson created, as he did in Poetaster, a setting which, though true to the Italian model, is carefully drawn to resemble London. Venice is simply the best setting possible for the play, and throughout Volpone Jonson's steady execution of that setting shows he knew its value.

The care with which Jonson draws the Venetian setting of Volpone anticipates the accuracy and technique of his finest London comedies, and this despite the fact that Jonson never visited Venice. Jonson's diligence appears in the references to currency, in allusions to literature and politics, in the language, and in the imagined topography of the play. Twelve kinds of coin are named in Volpone, more than in any other of Jonson's plays, and his use of six denominations of Venetian currency testifies to his careful research. Nowhere does an errant reference to English money spoil the consistency of the setting.

Jonson shows the same care with respect to works of literature. In the Milan of The Case Is Altered, Jonson alludes at length to the English stage. In the Florence of Every Man In (Quarto), the fops steal poetry from Heywood and Marlowe and pay homage to Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. Despite their settings of Gargaphy and Rome, Cynthia's Revels and Poetaster, respectively, are extended references to the literary society of London and are designed as salvos in the Poetomachia. Only Volpone of all Jonson's non-English comedies is innocent of displaced allusions to English letters.

Even the allusions to public figures and history show Jonson's eagerness to give Volpone an accurate Italian setting. Volpone, as Scoto, searching for a simile to express his rejuvenated appetite, tells Celia he is "as fresh / As hot, as high ..." as when he acted Antinous for "the great Valoys" (III. vii. 157-162). The reference is to a 1574 reception for Henry of Valois, the Duke of Anjou, given by the Doge and senators of Venice--a reference perfectly apt for a Venetian in 1606 who is recalling his youth.

The most obvious way in which Jonson has matched the language of Volpone with its Venetian setting is the occasional Italian term with which he has seasoned the speech of the play's characters. Italian vocabulary that finds its way into this English play includes: sforzati, "gallie-slaves"; scartoccios, "a coffin of paper for spice"; canaglia, "raskalitie, base people, the skum of the earth"; gondole; saffi, "a catchpole, or sergeant"; clarissimo, a grandee; strappado, a Venetian torture; and Pomagnia, a popular wine in Venice. Jonson's attention to these Italian touches as well as his care in such details as literary references and coinage contributes bit by bit to the exotic and foreign atmosphere of the play as a whole.

But the language of Volpone heeds the location of the play in a more important way: only the two tragedies avoid the tones and rhythms of everyday London speech more carefully than Volpone. From the elegance and blasphemy of Volpone's hymn to his riches--"Good morning to the day, and next my gold"--Jonson maintains a heightened verse in keeping with the reputation of Venice for the perversely exotic. Nowhere in the play is there a trace of the lower-class colloquial English found in every Jonson comedy from A Tale of a Tub to The Magnetic Lady. Although the London travelers--Peregrine, Sir Politic and Lady Would-be--provide some relief from the sumptuousness of the play's language and emphasize its foreignness, even they do not speak in the English of the London streets.

Indeed the English subplot is itself a clever device for separating the Venetian setting from London. First, the very presence on the scene of two "affectate travellers" is a constant reminder that London is not the setting of the play. Second, the harmless English folly of the Sir Politic Would-bes acts as a foil to the vicious Italian knavery of the other characters and thus enhances the menacing Venetian atmosphere. And third, by channeling all topical English allusions into the Would-be scenes, Jonson can flavor his play with topical comedy without compromising his setting. Act Two, scene one, for example, in which Sir Politic enlightens Peregrine on the subject of international intrigue while Peregrine reports the news from home, is a veritable gazette of current London news and gossip, but in the context of two Englishmen meeting abroad the whole scene serves to emphasize the Venetian setting.

The most impressive aspect of London's thoroughness in creating his Venetian setting is his handling of place itself. There are forty-four topographical allusions to Venice in Volpone. Altogether, including Venice, thirteen different places are mentioned. Venice is referred to sixteen times, St. Mark's Cathedral eight times, the Piazza of St. Mark's five times, the scrutineo or court four times, the port twice, and eight other locations once each. By contrast, in The Merchant of Venice, though Shakespeare refers to Venice seventeen times, the only other place name he mentions is the Rialto. These numbers confirm the importance of setting to the playwright; since Jonson had never been in Venice, such allusions cannot be the echo of actual experience but are rather a conscious effort to provide an accurate and thorough background. This nearly documentary approach to dramaturgy appears to have been fundamental to Jonson's larger purpose--the making of a unified play.

The Prologue declares, "The lawes of time, place, persons he observeth" (1. 31), and, in fact, Jonson strictly enforces the unities of time and place. By setting all of Volpone in Venice, Jonson easily fits the action into a single day, a feat he had already managed in Every Man In, Cynthia's Revels, and Poetaster. Volpone, however, represents a significant development in Jonson's technique, not because the action of a day is limited to one city, but because the action is confined to a certain part of a city. In this play Jonson begins the technique he never abandons of focusing his comedies within the sharp outlines of a narrow and well-conceived section of a city. Jonson squeezes the action of Volpone into the Piazza of St. Mark's and its surrounding buildings.

The text specifically locates all the scenes except Sir Politic Would-be's quarters and Volpone's house itself. Ten of the play's scenes take place in the Piazza of St. Mark's, which Sir Politic calls "this height of Venice." Three more--the three at Corvino's house--take place in "an obscure nooke of the piazza" for which it is likely that Jonson envisioned no movement at all, but intended that the scenes be played on the upper stage, while the main stage continues to represent the piazza. Nine scenes are set in the scrutineo or senate house that makes up one side of the Piazetta adjacent to the main piazza. Thus Jonson sets twenty-two of Volpone's thirty-nine scenes in the most renowned section of Venice, the magnificent Piazza of St. Mark's and its adjoining Piazetta. Of the seventeen unlocated pieces in the puzzle, one is Sir Politic's house, for which there simply is no evidence, and sixteen are Volpone's house. Having so scrupulously conceived the other parts of the setting, Jonson would hardly have been indifferent to the location of Volpone's house in his imaginary Venice. The care, moreover, with which Jonson has placed the majority of the scenes around the center of Venice strongly suggests that he envisioned all of the play within a narrow scope of the city, namely in close proximity to the piazza.

Such a conjecture finds support in Volpone's taunt to Voltore in V. ii:


I meane to be a sutor to your worship,

For the small tenement, out of reparations;

That, at the end of your long row of houses,

By the piscaria: it was, in Volpone's time,

Your predecessor, ere he grew diseas'd,

A handsome, pretty, custom'd bawdy-house,

As any was in Venice (none disprais'd)

But fell with him; his body, and that house

Decay'd, together.

(ll. 7-15)

The phrases, "fell with him," and "his body, and that house / Decay'd, together," suggest that Volpone is talking about his own lodging, a place corresponding in both moral and physical terms with the nature of its master--a decayed "bawdy-house." The "piscaria" in Venice was on the wharf along the south side of the piazza. In light of the configuration of the other settings and in view of this reference to Volpone's "long row of houses, / By the piscaria," Jonson apparently envisioned all of the action, including that at Volpone's house, in the area of St. Mark's Piazza.

The question is "why?" Later, Jonson's extraordinary care in limiting and locating the settings of his London comedies might have given his audience a good deal of fun, but the audiences who saw Volpone would not even realize, much less enjoy, Jonson's precision with the Venetian setting. I would like to suggest that the limited and detailed setting first used in Volpone and thereafter in every Jonson comedy worked as a principle of construction for the author. It provided him with a framework that resulted in the tensions, the atmosphere, and the unity that have come to be associated with Jonson's great work. Beyond whatever sense of "being there" his deliberateness gave the audience, the careful setting unifies and heightens the action, enhances the symbolism of the spatial relationships on and off the stage, and lends meaning to the play.

For the playwright, the cumulative effect of the many concretely imagined details of the piazza in Volpone is that of a container which unifies the action simply by keeping its different parts in the same place. Madeleine Doran has rightly pointed out that unity of place is not an end in itself but a way of insuring unity of action. Because the scope of the setting is limited, Sir Politic can break off his conversation with Peregrine to watch Volpone perform nearby as the mountebank; Mosca, leaving Corvino's house, can meet accidentally with Bonario; Lady Would-be, leaving Volpone's house to apprehend her husband, can find him in the piazza with Peregrine; and so on. Thus the limited imaginary setting helps Jonson hold the various actions together. Working from this premise, Jonson can give the audience a sense of concentration that leads in turn to a heightened excitement, because the container, which confines Jonson's action so closely that the characters must frequently meet one another, raises the audience's expectation of collision.

By extending the principle of movement within an imaginary container to the action on the stage--the visible container--Jonson achieves the intense expectation of collision which is the essence of the excitement in Volpone and The Alchemist. In both plays, Jonson creates excitement by a theatrical application of Boyle's Law--he puts more and more characters into a chamber in quicker and quicker succession, and thereby increases the probability of collision and the exhilaration of each near miss. In Volpone, Mosca's deft shuffling of the dupes in and out of Volpone's house generates tension until they collide at the end of Act Three, while in The Alchemist the three rogues prolong and aggravate the tension until Act Five. The excitement in both the London play and the Venetian play is a function of Jonson's carefully concentrated setting--both on the stage and in the narrowly conceived section of the city beyond.

His precisely delineated setting helps Jonson establish the symbolic significance of the spatial relationships on stage. As simple a relationship as "high" and "low," for example, acquires a rich complexity. In the mountebank scene the stage is divided into three levels: the stage floor, the platform on which Volpone speaks, and Corvino's balcony. Sir Politic, Peregrine, and the "flock" stand on the first; Volpone as Scoto of Mantua, on the second; and Corvino's wife, Celia, on the third. Their positioning on stage is a visual comment on each. The mob, fooled by Volpone's disguise, represents the fox's victims and is, therefore, on the bottom; Volpone, a Venetian grandee who preys on the greedy but is unable to corrupt the virtuous, is situated above the crowd but below Celia, who, as befits her name, is placed nearest heaven and out of the reach of Volpone. Logically, Corvino, who is in the house, should be above to discover Celia at the window, and his extreme jealousy would erupt there on the spot. But since the appearance of such a despicable character on the highest level with the innocent Celia would destroy the careful symbolism of the spatial relationships, Jonson has preserved his high-low scheme by having the enraged Corvino appear on the stage floor level to chase Volpone/Scoto away.

Jonson also uses the "in" and "out" spatial relationship on stage for its symbolic impact. Volpone's house, particularly his room--the inner sanctum--is the goal of all the scoundrels and, therefore, the play's symbolic "in." When Mosca betrays Volpone in V. v, he expresses his triumph in terms of in and out: "My Foxe / Is out on his hole, and, ere he shall re-enter, / I'le make him languish, in his borrow'd case ..." (ll. 6-8). Though being "in" the fox hole after the fox is gone is the ambition of all the dupes, the metaphor cuts the other way as well, for Volpone's room is, above all, a trap. Corvino, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Lady Would-be are all caught in that "Foxe-trap," but the scene that most vividly expresses the negative sense of "in" as entrapment is III. vii, where Celia, dragged into Volpone's room by her husband, is caught by the Fox and pleads, "If you have touch of holy saints, or heaven, / Do me the grace, to let me scape" (ll. 243-244).

Jonson establishes an over-all opposition of place within the play. Volpone leaves the safety of his lair to prey on the innocent Celia and his subsequent assault on her brings in the opposite moral pole--the scrutineo. Through Mosca's brilliant manipulation, he and his master escape the Venetian justices and return to Volpone's inner sanctum. Act Five finds Volpone secure and ready to bring his plans to fruition, but Volpone's desire to torment his victims makes him leave his house in Mosca's hands and the tricky servant springs the "foxe-trap." From this point on, the action is determined by the play's second magnetic field--the scrutineo--where all the scoundrels are punished and the play ends. Thus the fifth act repeats in miniature the movement of the play by restating the struggle between Volpone's house--pleasure, falsehood, and lawlessness--and the scrutineo--severity, truth, and law. At the opening of the act, Volpone and Mosca are in control of events in the fox's lair; then Volpone's arrogance moves the action to the piazza, away from the safety of his house; and finally the forces of law represented by the avocatori take control of the action, resolve the complications, and punish the evildoers.

The often-remarked severity of the play's conclusion voices Jonson's own response to the meaning of the play's setting. Venice was renowned in the English mind for its excesses--in wealth, in beauty, in corruption. That atmosphere of excess exaggerates familiar domestic faults: it transforms jealousy into the viciousness of Corvino; turns the misunderstanding between father and son into the bitter enmity of Corbaccio and Bonario; materializes the dreams of a voluptuary into Volpone's attempted rape of Celia; surpasses a charlatan's promises with Volpone's actual wealth; transmutes the folly of English "gulls" into the frightening avarice of the carrion birds--Corvino, Corbaccio, and Voltore; and inflates the pranks of clever servants and the con games of rogues into the crimes of Mosca and Volpone. These excesses were rooted in the English concept of Venice, and Jonson responded to them by using yet another reputation of Venice--its harsh justice--to punish its sins.

Volpone might fairly be viewed as a turning point in Jonson's work for the public stage. In Volpone he treats setting with a deliberateness which is surprising in view of his earlier comedies but which signals his approach to place in the masterpieces that follow--Epicoene, The Alchemist, the revised Every Man In, and Bartholomew Fair. The Venice of Volpone is much more than appropriate ornamentation for Jonson's play. Although, like Shakespeare, he chose Venice because his audience associated that city with wealth, corruption, viciousness, and judicial severity, Jonson drew Venice with an unparalleled accuracy and detail. His remarkable care in such matters as references to coins, history, and literature, and his obvious research into Venetian topography bespeak a purpose in his methodical madness. Through these efforts, he provides the imagined world of the play with a fixed and detailed setting and with a narrowly limited field of action. Jonson's best comedies share these two characteristics in their settings and reflect their benefits. Primarily, such a setting provides Jonson's plays wtih a sense of concentration. It can accelerate the movement of characters from place to place--an effect he exploits in Epicoene. It can increase the plausibility of a chance meeting and raise the expectation of collision, thus heightening the excitement of the play--a device most dramatically demonstrated in The Alchemist. Perhaps most important, the tightly drawn setting accounts for what T. S. Eliot calls Jonson's "unity of inspiration"--his ability to "do without a plot"--by holding the various actions so tightly together that they appear intertwined--a technique fundamental to the coherence of Bartholomew Fair. Jonson's handling of setting in Volpone is a departure from his earlier work, a departure that corresponds with and in part explains the beginning of his greatest period.

Source: Ralph A. Cohen, "The Setting of Volpone," in Renaissance Papers, 1978, pp. 64-75. Reprinted in Drama for Students, Vol. 10.




   
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