Desire and Domination in Volpone

by Howard Marchitell
Desire and Domination in Volpone
Howard Marchitell
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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SEL91 (1991)

ISSN 0039-3657

Desire and Domination in Volpone


She is abus'd, stol'n from me and corrupted,

By spells and medicines, bought of mountebanks,

For nature so preposterously to err,

(Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,)

Sans witchcraft could not.

(Othello, I.iii.60-64)'

Death of my honor, with the city's fool? A juggling, tooth-drawing, prating mountebank? ( Volpone, 1I.v. 1-2)2

Brabantio's imagined scene of a mountebank's collaboration in Othello's seduction of Desdemona appears in parodic form in Volpone, as Corvino spies Celia throwing her handkerchief to Volpone disguised as Scoto of Mantua.3 This is not, however, simply a matter of dramatic or literary influence, but rather a sign that marks the difference between two worlds: between the dramatic worlds of Shakespeare and Jonson, between the domestic tragedy of Othello and the urban satiric comedy of Volpone, between the metaphoric world of embroidered strawberries (nipples, virginal/ menstrual on Desdemona's charmed handkerchief (wedding /winding sheets), and the material world marked by the exchange of Celia's handkerchief for a vial of dubious oil meant to cure venereal disease and incite the passions.

Celia appears at her window and, after hearing Volpone's plea, throws down her handkerchief-a gesture that Corvino then perhaps over-reads:

You were an actor with your handkerchief,
Which he, most sweetly, kissed in the receipt.

Howard Marchitell teaches in the English Department at Texas A&M University. He is currently completing a study of authority and authorship in Renaissance literature.

And might, no doubt, return it with a letter,

And point the place where you might meet: your sister's,

Your mother's, or your aunt's might serve the turn.


Corvino's fantasy of Celia's betrayal includes the family he imagines is somehow complicit in her deceit and he threatens the eradication of her entire family:

Thou'dst tremble to imagine the murder

Of father, mother, brother, all thy race,

Should follow as the subject of my justice.


This concern over family suggests not merely the depth of Corvino's rage (or the extent, let us say, of his madness), but also his fear of the disastrous familial-and, by extension, social- ramifications of adultery. The threat posed by a "dishonest" wife is a major theme in a diverse range of Renaissance texts, including Othello and Volpone, that often elicits a profound violence (not always only verbal) aimed at women: Othello's "I'll tear her all to pieces" (III.iii.438) and "I'll chop her into messes" (IV.i.196), as well as Corvino's equally brutal threat, "I will make thee an anatomy, / Dissect thee mine own self" (II.v.70-71).

Corvino's references to family intimate that his rage, and the sadistic violence that issues from it, arise over a fundamental reproductive vulnerability-even as Brabantio is concerned over his progeny and fears monsters for grandchildren. Volpone is a play that is explicitly concerned with reproduction. Volpone's device for his theatrical gullings is the "making" of an heir. How then are these issues connected? What links Celia's handkerchief to the play's concern over theatrical, sexual, and reproductive vulner- ability? And what is the nature of the sadism that these issues generate?

In a review of recent criticism of the work of Ben Jonson, Leah Marcus asks, "How might sadism have functioned in a Renaissance playhouse?"5 This is a particularly apt question to ask of Jonson, whose plays are replete with an over-determined, multivalent, sadistic pleasure. In this essay I will discuss domination in Volpone, particularly in Volpone and Mosca's master-servant relationship and Celia's ambiguous and problematic position within the play's male homosocial ec~nomy.~

But domination, I suggest, also characterizes Jonson's relationship to the audiences he continually wooed and simultaneously reviled. In light of this system for the "management of agression,"7 I would like to revise Marcus's question of sadism thus: how might Renaissance theater have functioned as an instrument of domination? Recent criticism has suggested that the subversive energies and potential of Renais- sance theater were perhaps mollified by the controlling and containing mechanisms of royal favor, patronage, and licensing.8 But this theory relies largely upon royal prerogative to explain a system of subversion and its containment, and is less sensitive to the dynamics of a theater that can be said to be an instrument of rational domination that existed beyond the will of the King, between artist and audience in the market-economy of public theater. It is in this context that I would like to situate the following discussion of domination.

In his book Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1 750, Jean-Christophe Agnew examines the relationship between the theater and the market and the ways in which both not only reflect, but enact the characteristics of "a newly discovered, Protean social world, one in which the conventional signposts of social and individual identity have become mobile and manipulable reference points," and suggests that early modern England seeks "to give practical and figurative form to the very principles of liquidity and exchangeability that are dissolving, dividing, and destroying form and that, in doing so, are confounding the character of all e~change."~

Renaissance dramatists write plays within and against the rise of this expansive and de-stabilizing market economy-within it as the medium of their own professional identity, against it as a threat to the social, religious, and political institutions that had traditionally conferred honor and value upon the self. They had to negotiate between a nostalgia for an idealized, static pre-capitalist moment, and a desire for the seductive and dangerously liquid social relations of the market economy. Drama comes to embody that which was both attractive and threatening in this market world wherein identity was no longer derived exclusively from one's status, but also from the degree of one's success-both as producer and commodity-in the market. Identity, then, comes to depend upon one's value on the market, which is as likely to fall as it is to rise. The public drama embodies the dramatic endeavor of self-creation, of identity set adrift in the liquidity of the market.10

Jonson was especially sensitive to these issues, and in his plays there is an intimate relationship between domination and the market-economy of Renaissance theater; criticism that seeks to address Jonson's theatrical self-reflexivity and his relationship to his paying audiences (both the court for his masques, and the public for his drama), has had recourse to Jonson's self-conscious role as purveyor, and his audiences's role as consumer, of theatrical commodities.ll The theater becomes both an emblem and site of the enactment-symbolic and literal-of a newly-found social mobility that, as Frank Whigham has argued, "began to call into question the received ascriptive verities of birth and worth . . . and to make possible new codes and stratifications based on merit and behavior. "12

This new social mobility provided the necessary and enabling social context for self-fashioning-an ethos of "performative self- projection" '3 which problematized identity founded on status, while reveling in the potentiality of identity based on created rather than inherited value. This phenomenon obtained not only socially (e.g., in the market), or, as Whigham argues, at court, but also in the theater, which was naturally conducive to performance, fashioning, and projection. It was in the Renaissance theater that the new corporate sense of identity was formulated and articulated. Volpone is an important instance of this, as it is a play that self- consciously addresses questions of performative identity.'* Volpone will not only make an heir, but he will make himself, and do so, moreover, by making others into fools. He will conduct this business by means of a determined self-interest, outside the traditional structures of status and class. Yet, as I shall suggest, Volpone's project and autonomy are not limitless but bounded and prescribed, and what ultimately contains him and his project is his need of an audience. Self-fashioning, like social climbing, signifies only if there is some audience to observe and thereby validate one's efforts. Volpone's dramas serve to fashion his identity only if an audience registers his performance, as courtiers' performances must register upon a courtly audience, or, as a playwright's performative self-projection registers through the pleasing of his audiences ("The seasoning of a play is the applause" [Epilogue, line l]).15

Kenneth Burke discusses the power relations inherent in the artist-audience dialectic:

The artist who relies on smartness as a mark of "urbanity" may be "socially inferior" to the "ideal public" he is courting. Yet he is "professionally superior," and courts as an "ideal public" many persons he would unquestionably despise in particular. Yet again, as soon as you thus set him up, you must recall . . . that the artist-entertainer is the servant of the very despot-audience he seeks to fascinate.I6

Extending Burke's work on the "indeterminacy" of the performer/ audience dialectic, Whigham argues that "each side of the dialectic confers both a sense of power and a sense of abjection," and that "speech and other significations reveal not power but powerless- ness, pleading with the audience for a hearing, for recognition, for ratification." '7

An artist's dependence upon or bondage at the hands of the audience seems at first a startling notion, particularly in relation to Jonson, whose Horatian conception of the nature of poetry and poets depends upon the idea of the author as master of and independent from the dependent audience. Jonson's famous antag- onistic relationship with his audiences and his anti-theatrical prejudice (which culminate in the self-publication of his Works) indicate the tensions within the artist-audience relationship.I8 Volpone is a play fully enmeshed in this problematic dialectic. Even as Volpone imagines himself to be an artist and master who will achieve a self-created, fully autonomous identity through his theatrical machinations, he is eventually also distressingly aware of the profound tenuousness of this position: his dependence on rather than domination over his servant and his own theatrical vulnerability which threaten, ultimately, a loss of subjectivity and objectification at the hands of another.

Volpone is Jonson's most thorough exploration of his obsession with what I will call "paternity": fathers, sons, and literary creativity. Jonson's idea of paternity denies the place of women; his conception of creativity, subjectivity, and reproduction is emphatically paternal. Jonson's great epitaph "On My First Son" offers an important instance of this:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy; My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy, Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay, Exacted by thy fate, on the just day. 0,could I lose all father, now. For why Will man lament the state he should envy? To have so soon 'scaped world's, and flesh's rage, And, if no other misery, yet age! Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry. For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such, As what he loves may never like too much.lg

What is most striking about this poem is not the intensity of feeling for the dead child, but the exchange that the poem both commemorates and enacts: the death (debt) of the biological child is paid, and at the same time, re-paid by the birth of a poem. Jonson calls his dead son "thou child of my right hand," referring to the meaning of the Hebrew name Benjamin; but in doing so he also claims paternity of the newly-born poem, which is the child of his right/write hand.

In this poem production and reproduction are inscribed wholly within male relationships, and exclude women altogether. Literary productions and biological reproductions, which come to be for Jonson quite indistinguishable (he calls both his son and the epitaph to him his "best piece of poetry"), occur entirely within a closed male society. Jonson's epitaph insists upon this paternal genealogy of both the child and the poem as it invokes the presence of both the child/poem's father-the poet, Ben Jonson-and his father. In the opening line the child is defined as his father's creation, "thou child of my right hand," and is literally named through the father: both are called Benjamin. But this line marks a double intrusion: not only the poet Ben Jonson, but the poet's father as well has named his son "child of my right hand."20 The paternal genealogy is complete: the child/poem stands as the material creation of father and son, father and poet.z1

Volpone, too, participates in this fantasy of creativity a and autogenerative reproduction:

What should I do

But cocker up my genius and live free

To all delights my fortune calls me to?

I have no wife, no parent, child, ally,

To give my substance to; but whom I make

Must be my heir, and this makes men observe me.


In these lines Volpone points to both his notions of reproduction and the exclusively male society in which it is embedded. Volpone believes that his freedom to make an heir (both to select or appoint, and to literally create or produce) affords him a special, privileged position in his society. It is precisely this freedom that Volpone celebrates and imagines to be the mark of an apparently unbounded autonomy: he believes himself "liberated," as Stephen Greenblatt suggests, "from any hierarchy in the universe which would impose limits on his being,"22 and he exercises this freedom in the duping of his victims, hoping to "coin 'em into profit" (I.i.86). But while Volpone certainly feels himself fully autonomous, there is in fact a limiting condition to this freedom: he is bound to the service of Mosca.

It is useful to think of the Volpone-Mosca relationship in the terms with which they describe it, namely, master and servant. This is the relationship to which both Volpone and Mosca turn for self-definition and self-assertion. Volpone clearly imagines himself the master to Mosca's role as servant-or, in Mosca's own word, parasite. In a way similar to the later master-servant relationship between Subtle and Face in The Alchemist, Volpone as master depends on the craftiness and service of his servant. The gulling of the fortune-hunters is, we assume, Volpone's idea, but the per- formance of it is given over entirely to Mosca; it is he who must somehow juggle the several different plots in order to keep the one larger plot together. Volpone's power lies in Mosca's cleverness and ability to keep these dramas alive; the more ambitious (or more desperate) Volpone's plots become, the more completely he must depend upon Mosca to execute them. Volpone comes to depend so fully on Mosca that they literally reverse rolesz3

As Jonson's play opens, Mosca is merely Volpone's servant. But almost immediately Mosca begins to recognize Volpone's dependence on him and, by the opening of the third act, understands that he is no mere parasite, but something altogether finer. The rhetorical flourishes of Mosca's celebration of his talent attest to the phallic nature of the power to which he aspires, a power he understands as both protean and procreative, social and sexual:

I fear I shall begin to grow in love

With my dear self and my most prosp'rous parts,

They do so spring and burgeon; I can feel

A whimsy i' my blood. I know not how,

Success hath made me wanton. I could skip

Out of my skin, now, like a subtle snake,

I am so limber. O! your parasite

Is a most precious thing, dropped from above,

Not bred 'mongst clods and clodpolls, here on earth.


Volpone and Mosca pursue opposite careers in the play: as Volpone falls from his place of authority because of his dependence on Mosca, so Mosca rises to authority because of his independence from Volpone. Their master-servant relationship is never stable, never permanent, and the play ends with yet another reversal as Volpone reasserts his authority over all the characters in the play- especially Mosca-by repudiating any dependence on him: "I am Volpone, and this is my knave" (V.xii.89). The repudiation of Mosca's control also reifies his subjugation under Volpone who claims Mosca to be his. Volpone's exclamation proves disastrous for Mosca (he is judged guilty and sentenced to the galleys), and even to Volpone himself who through the very assertion of his control condemns himself to the punishment of the "hospital of the Incurabili" (V.xii. 120).

The master-servant dialectic is central to Volpone: first, as the structuring device that initiates Volpone's plots; and second, in Mosca's inversion of it. But what is it that first draws and then holds Volpone and Mosca together? What occasions their reversal? And what finally breaks them apart? First, Volpone and Mosca's relationship is insular and protective, marking and separating them from their victims and the society in which they conduct their scams. Even as the economy of paternity in Jonson's epitaph suggests the insular privacy of the father and son relationship, which is literally violated by death but metaphorically recuperated by poetry, so Volpone and Mosca create a dyadic relationship instantiated upon a masculine exclusivity which thrives until it, too, is disrupted by something from without. The agent of that disruption is Celia, who challenges the notion of male exclusivity upon which both their relationship and, indeed, the entire play is predicated.

Celia is positioned in the middle of the Volpone-Mosca relation- ship and becomes the occasion for the antagonism between them and the eventual downfall of both. Volpone and Mosca's mutual obsession with creating dramas has led each of them to the pursuit of Celia. For his part, Mosca sees Celia as the device by which he hopes to invert his subordinate position. His introduction of Celia constitutes the seduction of Volpone:

0,sir, the wonder,

The blazing star of Italy, a wench

0' the first year! a beauty ripe as harvest!

Whose skin is whiter than a swan, all over!

Than silver, snow, or lilies! a soft lip,

Would tempt you to eternity of kissing!

And flesh that melteth in the touch to blood!

Bright as your gold! and lovely as your gold!


As these lines indicate, Mosca is fully initiated into Volpone's world, a world in which gold has become god:

Hail the world's soul, and mine!


0 thou son of Sol,
But brighter than thy father, let me kiss,
With adoration, thee, and every relic
Of sacred treasure in this blessed room.


Dear saint,

Riches, the dumb god that giv'st all men tongues,

That canst do nought, and yet mak'st men do all things;

The price of souls; even hell, with thee to boot,

Is made worth heaven! Thou art virtue, fame,

Honor, and all things else.


Mosca has heard Volpone's paean to gold and understands that Celia's beauty, as remarkable as it may be, would not itself be sufficient to seduce Volpone; but that Celia is as beautiful ("Bright . . . and as lovely as your gold") and as ualued as his gold ("She's kept as warily as your gold" [I.v. 1181) must prove irresistible.

Mosca's equating Celia and gold is not, however, merely an effective rhetorical device: it also represents the play's commodifi- cation of women. Volpone desires Celia not because she is somehow like his gold, but because she has become for him the same as gold, the gaining of which he will pursue at any cost:

Mosca, take my keys,

Gold, plate, and jewels, all's at thy devotion;

Employ them how thou wilt; nay, coin me too,

So thou in this but crown my longings-Mosca?


Mosca's introduction of Celia into the play occurs at the end of the first act-a remarkably self-contained whole in which we move from the famous opening speech on Volpone's gold standard, through scenes with each of his major victims. Structurally, the introduction of Celia functions to extend the play outward, even as dramatically her presence precludes the possibility of a play composed of a long repetition of the gullings already delineated in the first act. But Celia's presence also lures Volpone out of the private, insular world of Act I, and into a more public-and potentially more contentious-sexual world.

Volpone glories, he tells us, not in the "glad possession" but "More in the cunning purchase" of his wealth (I.i.31-32). The motivation for his endless dramas arises both out of a sadistic pleasure in the gulling of his victims and out of his concern over potency. This term refers to the dramas by which he will deceive and humiliate his victims, but with the introduction of Celia it becomes clear that it also refers to his sexual potency. For Volpone these two concerns become virtually indistinguishable, and this conflation of theater and sexuality comes most fully together in his pursuit of Celia. The seduction of Celia would be for Volpone the culmination of his theatrical endeavors. Indeed, he imagines their sexual relationship as a series of dramatic impersonations:

Whilst we, in changed shapes, act Ovid's tales,

Thou like Europa now, and I like Jove,

Then I like Mars, and thou like Erycine;

So of the rest, till we have quite run through,

And wearied all the fables of the gods.


But Celia is not only the mediator-unwilling and unlucky-of the homosocial desire between Mosca and Volpone, she also occasions the covert expression of the desire that Volpone and Mosca have for each other. The erotic dimension of their relation- ship erupts into the play particularly in Volpone's desire to define the relationship as physical, if not as explicitly sexual:

Excellent, Mosca!
Come hither, let me kiss thee

Thou art mine honour, Mosca, and my pride, My joy, my tickling, my delight! (III.vii.68-69)

My witty mischief,

Let me embrace thee. 0 that I could now

Transform thee to a Venus-

(V.iii.102- 104)

Celia also mediates relations between Volpone and Corvino, and, moreover, this triangularized relationship manifests itself across her body. After he spies Celia standing at her window seeing and being seen by Volpone disguised as Scoto, Corvino promises a violent revenge:

Away, and be not seen, pain of thy life;
Nor look toward the window; if thou dost-

Nay, stay, hear this; let me not prosper, whore,

But I will make thee an anatomy,

Dissect thee mine own self, and read a lecture

Upon thee to the city, and in public.


Corvino's rage at what he believes is Celia's betrayal and infidelity is predicated upon a circuitous exchange of illicit gazes: Volpone/Scoto has managed to glimpse Celia, Celia has dared to return this glance, and Corvino has surreptitiously observed the en- tire moment. The triangulation of this moment of exchange-a moment of the confrontation, conflict, and clash of desires-is emblematic of gender relations in the play and is both homologous to and a manifestation of the male domination just beneath its surface. Corvino fears that Celia, by cuckolding him, will displace him from his several social bonds with men: that he will lose his honor and his place in male society which is predicated primarily upon the domination of women and the generation of male heirs. In fact, when he later attempts to convince Celia to go to Volpone, Corvino makes explicit that he believes offering her to him will redeem and insure his position:

I've told you reasons:

What the physicians have set down; how much

It may concern me; what my engagements are;

My means, and the necessity of these means

For my recovery; wherefore, if you be

Loyal and mine, be won, respect my venture.


The revenge that Corvino fantasizes for Celia's imagined sexual offense is figured in what he feels is a metaphoric aptness to the injury: he will displace her "place." Corvino threatens that since the offense was begun at the street-front open window, he will restrict Celia's freedom of movement:25

some two, or three yards off

I'll chalk a line, o'er which if thou but chance

To set thy desp'rate foot, more hell, more horror,

More wild, remorseless rage shall seize on thee

Than on a conjuror that had heedless left

His circle's safety ere his devil was laid.


He will bind her in a chastity belt-"here's a lock which I will hang upon thee" (II.v.57)-and declares, finally, that he will keep her "backwards":

And, now I think on 't, I will keep thee backwards;

Thy lodging shall be backwards, thy walks backwards,

Thy prospect-all be backwards, and no pleasure,

That thou shalt know but backwards.


When Corvino enters upon the mountebank scene, Celia is clearly nothing more to him than property to be maintained for the sake of his honor-"Death of my honour, with the city's fool?" (1I.v.l). But once it is clear to Corvino that offering Celia to Volpone will insure his election as heir, Celia then becomes property which gains value only through exchange. To this end Corvino dismisses the notion of honor:

Honour! tut, a breath.

There's no such thing in nature; a mere term

Invented to awe fools. What, is my gold

The worse for touching?


Corvino is now ready to pander Celia, his "gold," which he will make current in an exchange for preferment with Volpone, as he banishes jealousy from the exchange: "I am not jealous. . . Faith, I am not, I, nor never was; / It is a poor, unprofitable humour" (II.vii.5-7), and invites Celia to "a solemn feast /At old Volpone's" (1I.vii. 16-17).z6

If Celia is the model of the woman who is commodified and exhanged between men, then her opposite is Lady Wouldbe, who is portrayed as autonomous and therefore as both unattractive (Mosca declares, "She hath not yet the face to be dishonest" [I.v.1051) and threatening. Volpone laments her arrival:

Now, torment on me; squire her in,

For she will enter, or dwell here forever.

Nay, quickly, that my fit were past. I fear

A second hell too: that my loathing this

Will quite expel my appetite to the other.

Would she were taking, now, her tedious leave.

Lord, how it threats me, what I am to suffer!

(III.iii.25-3 1)

Lady Wouldbe's autonomy is, on the one hand, a literal freedom from her husband, the foolish Sir Politic. Indeed, this freedom occasions Volpone's questioning of the wisdom of Englishmen that "dare let loose / Their wives to all encounters!" (I.v.101-102). Later, after Mosca has been installed as Volpone's apparent heir, there is the suggestion that Lady Wouldbe has literally offered herself to Mosca for preferment: "Nay, raise no tempest with your looks; but hark you, / Remember what your ladyship offered me / To put you in an heir; go to, think on 't" (V.iii.39-41). An even more threatening manifestation of her autonomy, however, is her verbal freedom, and it is her language-its intensity and sheer volume-that most unnerves Volpone: "I do feel the fever / Ent'ring in at mine ears. 0for a charm / To fright it hence" (III.iv.8-lo); "The storm comes toward me" (III.iv.39); and disturbs his sleep:

L. Wouldbe. How does my Volp?
Volpone. Troubled with noise, I cannot sleep; I dreamt
  That a strange fury entered, now, my house,
  And, with the dreadful tempest of her breath,
  Did cleave my roof asunder.

Lady Wouldbe, though, is no reader of dreams, and she continues what for Volpone is her verbal deluge: "Another flood of words! a very torrent'i(III.iv.64).

Volpone, desperate for peace and release, declares "The poet / As old in time as Plato, and as knowing, / Says that your highest female grace is silence" (III.iv.76-78). Lady Wouldbe misses Volpone's point and launches on a discussion of Italian poets. But Volpone's dread of her language and his wish for silence are clear reactions to a caricatured version of feminine autonomy as it is manifested in language. As is clear in Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, male domination depends, in large part, upon denying women access to language. Lady Wouldbe is the prototype of the fantasy of women who will become the Collegiates in Epicoene:

A new foundation, sir, here i' the town, of ladies that call themselves the Collegiates, an order between courtiers and country-madams, that live from their husbands and give entertainments to all the Wits and Braveries o' the time, as they call 'em, cry down or up what they like or dislike in a brain or a fashion with most masculine or rather hermaphro-

ditical authority, and every day gain to their college some new probationer. (Epicoene, I.i.67-74)Zi

Volpone's aversion to women's language is, similarly, an anticipation of Morose's fear of the Collegiates ("0, the sea breaks in upon me! Another flood! An inundation!" [Epicoene, 3]), and his fear of their language: "I shall be o'erwhelmed with noise. It beats already at my shores. I feel an earthquake in myself for 't" (Epicoene,, and "They have rent my roof, walls, and all my windows asunder with their brazen throats" (Epicoene, 1V.ii. 121-22).

The conflict over feminine freedom and a male desire for domination and the overthrow of such autonomy erupts in the seduction scene in which Volpone believes that Celia naturally will accept his authority, that she will accept not only his great wealth but also his theatrical manipulations by which it was won. In his vision of limitless Ovidian sensuality, Volpone fantasizes an equally limitless protean sexuality. But Celia is only repulsed by Volpone and responds to his advances by pleading for mercy:

Do me the grace to let me 'scape. If not,

Be bountiful and kill me. ..


And I will kneel to you, pray for you, pay down

A thousand hourly vows, sir, for your health;

Report, and think you virtuous-


Volpone, however, does not imagine setting her free as merciful, but rather as a confession of sexual and theatrical impotence, and he completes Celia's line accordingly:

Think me cold,
Frozen, and impotent, and so report me?


I should have done the act, and then have parleyed.

Yield, or I'll force thee.


Volpone's fall into public theater is initiated in the attempted rape scene-the moment in which Volpone's dramatic ambition seeks a sexual validation. Volpone believes the moment of seduction to be an entirely private one: he is entirely alone with Celia. But Volpone's sense of privacy is more absolute than this: he believes that he alone exists as subject. For him Celia only exists as the object of his desires. Celia can define herself as an innocent only against Volpone's lust for her, even as Volpone can define himself as pure subject, as dramatist, only against Celia's refusal to be the object of his desires.29

The play stands here at a crisis point, suspended between two different possibilities-between the comedy the play has so far been, and the tragedy that it threatens to become. But this caesura lasts only a moment. Volpone's private drama of the seduction turned attempted rape of Celia is exposed by the surprise presence of Bonario, whose unsanctioned status as audience destroys Volpone's scene. Bonario has heard the entire exchange between Volpone and Celia, and he now breaks into the room to Celia's aid: "Forbear, foul ravisher! libidinous swine! / Free the forced lady, or thou diest, impostor" (III.vii.267-68). Volpone understands im- mediately this fall into public drama to be his downfall:

Fall on me, roof, and bury me in ruin!

Become my grave, that wert my shelter! O!

I am unmasked, unspirited, undone,

Betrayed to beggary, to infamy-


Mosca enters and we see that Volpone's fall is Mosca's as well: "MThere shall I run, most wretched shame of men / To beat out my unlucky brains?" (1II.viii. l-2).30

This scene represents the fundamental turning point of the play, the moment from which Volpone never fully recovers his theatrical power since, from this moment forward, he cannot be said to inhabit the private world of his own desires any longer. Instead, he increasingly comes to play a role in a larger drama not of his own writing.31

Later in the play it is only the eventual appearance of Volpone "as impotent" (s.d., in the first court scene that convinces the avocatori of the falsity and even absurdity of Bonario's and Celia's claims. In the scene immediately following, Volpone reveals his absolute horror at having played publicly at being impotent:

Well, I am here, and all this brunt is past.
I ne'er was in dislike with my disguise
Till this fled moment. Here, 'twas good, in private,
But in your public-Cavt, whilst I breathe.

Fore God, my left leg 'gan to have the cramp,

And I apprehended, straight, some power had struck me

With a dead palsy.


The horror at this scene is quite literally beyond words for Volpone; the memory of that fear haunts him still and must be driven off by yet one more device: "Any device, now, of rare, ingenious knavery / That would possess me with a violent laughter, / MTould make me up again" (V.i.14-16). He calls for Mosca, who taunts him, "'T seemed to me you sweat, sir. ..But confess, sir; / Were you not daunted?" (V.ii.37-39), to which Volpone responds, "In good faith, I was /A little in a mist, but not dejected; / Never but still myself" (V.ii.39-41). Volpone is a play about economic, social, and performative liquidity, and Volpone maintains his identity through the denial of identity, as he does in these lines. Volpone is, finally, (even as Mosca aspires to be), the accumulation of the roles he plays-none of which are ever himself. Volpone's assertion here-"Never but still myselfH-is rich with the ambiguity inherent in his protean changeability: he claims eternal sameness, yet this sameness consists of imperson- ation, dissimulation, disguise, and the constant refusal to be himself. Like an actor, Volpone can only assert identity through impersonation which is simultaneously an act of grand self-projection and radical self-effa~ement.~~

The effects of Volpone's confrontation with Bonario in the scene of his seduction/attempted rape of Celia, and his theatrical vulnerability, culminate in his final drama: his feigned death and the installation of Mosca as his apparent heir.33 But is this final drama truly his, or is it Mosca's? It seems clear that the two have reversed their roles. It is now Volpone who works to fulfill Mosca's drama of the subversion of his master. Volpone is initially blind to his theatrical manipulation by Mosca, while Mosca understands well his new plot and ambition:

My fox
Is out on his hole, and ere he shall re-enter,
I'll make him languish in his borrowed case,
Except he come to composition with me.


So, now I have the keys and am possessed.
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.


In the second court scene, Voltore, outraged by Mosca's promo- tion to heir, recants his previous testimonies before the court. Volpone is present and realizes that the only hope he has is to tell Voltore that Volpone still lives and that Voltore is still his favorite, but the only way that Volpone can do so is anonymously, in the name of Mosca: "Sir, the parasite / Willed me to tell you that his master lives" (V.xii.15-16). With this new news Voltore recants yet again-through the device of appearing possessed-and Volpone is vindicated once more. But this lasts only until Mosca arrives and refuses to corroborate Voltore's latest statement, maintaining that Volpone is dead. Mosca's plot seems as if it will succeed: he will not bargain with Volpone-not for half, not for all he has. Mosca will, however, negotiate with the fourth avocatore for his daughter in marriage.34 The avocatori side with Mosca, and the disguised Volpone is ordered away to be whipped. This is as far as Mosca's drama proceeds; this is as far as Volpone will fall. Faced with the threat of becoming an object in another's drama, with becoming the object of another's domination, Volpone realizes that objecti- fication would be nothing less than a total loss of identity. The only defense he has against this loss, against this fall into anonymity, is the assertion of his identity, even at the cost of punishment at the hands of the avocatori. Thus only through his self-damning declaration-"I am Vo1pone"-does he regain control of his drama and re-establish himself as master. Volpone imagines this declaration fulfilling, enough so, in fact, to enable him boldly to speak his epilogue; but the declaration seems like a grand flourish because it is also a defeat.35

Volpone's performance succeeds in his self-creation only partially and not permanently; his aggression-and the domination of which it is the mark-prove hopelessly self-reflexive. Volpone's is the will to dominate, the will to write himself within his own drama, even if such control can last only an instant, and even if it must lead to his punishment. The alternative to this self-damning is the voicelessness and anonymity of objectification: the trans- formation from a subject of one's own drama to an object in another's, from the agent of domination to its victim.36


'William Shakespeare, Othello,ed. M.R. Ridley (London: Metheun, 1958). Subsequent references to this play are to this edition.

ZBen Jonson, Volpone, or the Fox, ed. Alvin Kernan (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1962). Subsequent references are to this edition.

3The relationship between Othello and Volpone is complicated and rich, and the two mountebank scenes (only one of which is staged, though both, it can be said, are fantasized) represent one of the many points of contact between these two Venetian plays: both present servants in problematic relation to their masters, both turn upon the women at their centers and the ways in which they are exchanged between men, and both involve a "treachery" of a handkerchief. Desdemona's handkerchief may well be the most fetishized object in Renaissance drama-so fetishized that it perhaps transmigrated (like the soul of Pythagoras that comes to find its most perfect lodging in the body of Volpone's hermaphrodite) from one body to another, from one play to another.

'For an important discussion of the metaphoric significance of the handkerchief in Othello, see Lynda E. Boose, "Othello's Handkerchief: 'The Recognizance and Pledge of Love,' " ELR 5, 3 (Autumn 1975):360-74.

5Leah S. Marcus, "Report from the Opposition Camp: Jonson Studies in the 1980s," JDJ 4, 1 (1985): 121-44, 139.

6For this term I am indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's influential work, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985). For an important recent study from a feminist psychoanalytical perspective of domination see Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988). For studies of patriarchal ideology in Shake- speare and Renaissance drama, see Janet Adelman, "Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies," in Shakespeare's Rough Magic: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C.L. Barber, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppklia Kahn, (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1985), pp. 73-103; Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley: Univ. of California Pess, 1985); Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981).

7Marcus, p. 136, critiques John Gordon Sweeney 111's essentially Freudian reading of oedipal configurations and conflicts in Jonson's theater. See Sweeney's book, Jonson and the Psychology of Public Theater: 'To coin the spirit, spend the soul"' (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985).

$For discussions of opposition/containment see, for example, Stephen Greenblatt, "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V," in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 18-47; Leah S. Marcus, The Politics of Mirth (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987); Richard A.Burt, "'Licensed by Authority': Ben Jonson and the Politics of Early Stuart Theater," ELH 54, 3 (Fall 1987): 535-54; and Lynda E. Boose, "The Family in Shakespeare Studies; or-Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or-The Politics of Politics," RenQ 40, 4 (Winter 1987): 707-42.

gJean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 9.

1OAgnew offers a revision of the argument which uncritically and unself- consciously asserts the inevitability of the formation of the market as if it were the "logical fulfillment of sociobiological needs" (p. 5), and emphasizes instead the antagonistic nature of market exchange which serves to divide producer and consumer in an endless series of exchanges. Agnew invokes Benjamin Nelson's work on usury and "otherness," extending Nelson's interpretive paradigm to include one's partner in the market exchange, and suggests that this split between self and other becomes internalized so that the individual can be said to "enter into a perpetual process of internal bargaining" (p. 4). Through this alienation people come to view themselves as alone and solitary in a polymorphous world constituted by others who have become wholly Other.

"See, for example, L.C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (London: Chatto and Windus, 1937); Don E. Wayne, "Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson: An Alternative View," RenD 13 (1982): 103-29; Sweeney (cited above, note 6); and Katharine Eisaman Maus, "Satiric and Ideal Economies in the Jonsonian Imagination," ELR 19, 1 (Winter 1989): 42-64.

l2Frank Whigham, "Interpretation at Court: Courtesy and the Performer- Audience Dialectic," NLH 14, 3 (Spring 1983): 623-39. For a similar discussion of this relationship in terms of Jonson's poetry, see Stanley Fish, "Authors-Readers: Jonson's Community of the Same," Representations 7 (Summer 1984): 26-56.

13Whigham, p. 631.

14While Iago's relationship to Othello is that of servant to master, it is Iago's ambition to subvert, through the overthrow of Othello, the social, political, and economic hierarchy that this dialectic asserts. Iago will invert the master-servant dialectic through his theatrical and protean capabilities. "I am not what I am," he declares, and in him we glimpse the chaotic and iconoclastic potential of a liquidity that promises only impersonation and subversion.

15This is, of course, even more problematic when that audience is the King, as it was for Jonson's plays produced at court and his masques. See Stephen Orgel's important work on Jonson's masques: The Jonsonian Masque (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1965) and The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975).

16Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950; rpt. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969), p. 286, quoted in Whigham, p. 629.

"Whigham, p. 631.

'$For a discussion of Jonson's anti-theatricality, see Jonas A. Barish, "Ben Jonson and the Loathed Stage," in A Celebration of Ben Jonson, ed. William Blissett, Julian Patrick and R.W. VanFossen (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1973), pp. 27-53, and The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: Univ. of Califronia Press, 1981). For discussions of Jonson's self-publication and its connection to his antitheatricality see Richard C. Newton, "Jonson and the (Re-) Invention of the Book," in Classic and Cavalier: Essays on Jonson and the Sons of Ben, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Pittsburg: Univ. of Pittsburg Press, 1982), pp. 31-55; Richard Helgerson, Self-crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton and the Literary System (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1982), Joseph Lowenstein, "The Script in the Market- place," Representations 12 (Fall 1985): 101-14; Timothy Murray, "From Foul Sheets to Legitimate Model: Antitheater, Text, Ben Jonson," NLH 14, 3 (Spring 1983): 641-64; and Murray's book, Theatrical Legitimation: Allegories

of Genius in Seventeenth-Century England and France (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987). lgBen Jonson, "On My First Son," in Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975), p. 48.

ZOE.Pearlman, in his essay "Ben Jonson: An Anatomy," ELR 9,3 (Autumn 1979):364-94, discusses Jonson's practice of intrusion as an outgrowth of his egotism which, in the case of this epitaph, overrides Jonson's classical rigor: "The poem achieves the impossible, for it manages to wed classical restraint and self-abnegation to monstrous egocentricity" (p. 390). See also Don E. Wayne's discussion of the presence of the poet in Penshurst: The Semiotics of Place and the Poetics of History (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984), pp. 78-80.

ZIIt is interesting to contrast this poem, however briefly, with Jonson's other great epitaph on the death of a child, "On My First Daughter" (Parfitt,

p. 41). In this epitaph, Jonson's conception of the daughter's genealogy is radicallv different as he admits the child's mother both into the act of reproduction and into the poem. What is absent from the poem about the girl child is the assertion that children and poems are the same thing, as well as Jonson's claim to exclusivity over the child's generation.

22Stephen J. Greenblatt, "The False Ending in Volpone," JEGP 75, 1-2 (Jan.- April 1976): 90-104, 95.

23Hege1, in his discussion of the master-servant relationship, speaks of self- consciousness and being-for-itself as the master's objectives, while the servant exists only as a consciousness for another. He theorizes that this relationship is not static, but perpetually unstable and in transition as the very expectations of the dialectic (for both master and servant) deny the supposition which each asserts: the master believes he defines himself through his domination of the servant, and the servant believes that he defines himself through his subservience to the master:

the unessential consciousness is for the lord the object, which constitutes the truth of his certainty of himself. . . but. . . the object in which the lord has achieved his lordship has in reality turned out to be something quite different from an independent consciousness. What now really confronts him is not an independent consciousness, but a dependent one. He is, therefore, not certain of being-for-itself or the truth of himself. On the contrary, his truth is in reality unessential consciousness and its unessential action.

There is also a second inversion: the servant becomes the master as his "consciousness [is] forced back into itself, [where] it will withdraw into itself and be transformed into a truly independent consciousness" (G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomonology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller and ed. J.N. Findlay [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19771, pp. 116-17). While this model of the dialectic is useful, I would like to suggest that at least in terms of Volpone the dialectic does not invert naturally, but is, rather, inverted by a "disruption" from without. Jessica Benjamin, in her study of rational and erotic domination, suggests that both Hegel's dialectic and Freud's theory of differentiation (the Oedipus complex) are in fact phallogocentric conceits that "harbor the crucial assumptions of domination" engendered by the denial of female subjectivity, and that hence domination (both erotic and rational) is always a "gendered domination" that insidiously provides the "ultimate rationaliza- tion for accepting all authority" (Benjamin, The Bonds of Love, pp. 135-36, and p. 7).

24In Othello, Iago discusses with Roderigo the dynamics of the master- servant relationship:

0,sir, content you.
I follow him to serve my turn upon him:
We cannot be all masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly follow'd.


for sir,

It is as sure as you are Roderigo,

Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:

In following him, I follow but myself.


See also Anne Barton's discussion of the master-servant relationship in both Sejanus and Volpone in Ben Jonson, Dramatist (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984).

25In his essay "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed," in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 123-42, Peter Stallybrass discusses the "surveillance of women" as focused on "mouth, chastity, [and] the threshold of the house": "These three areas were frequently collapsed into each other. . . . Silence, the closed mouth, is made a sign of chastity. And silence and chastity are, in turn, homologous to woman's enclosure within the house" (pp. 126-27).

Z6The commodification of Celia that the play enacts reaches its most perverse moment in these lines and the subsequent scenes at Volpone's, as the feast to which Corvino invites Celia will center on-or so he, Mosca, and Volpone hope-the "consumption" of Celia to appease their own greedy appetites.

27Ben Jonson, Epicoene, ed. Edward Partridge (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1971). 28As this reaction suggests, Volpone fears impotence. His most obvious analogue in this respect is Corbaccio, as we see in Mosca's comment:

Now shall we see

A wretch who is indeed more impotent

Than this can feign to be, yet hopes to hop

Over his grave.

(I.iv.2-5) This fear of impotence also manifests itself in the device Volpone uses to view Celia: Scoto's discussion of the ravages of age and his oil that will insure perpetual youth. While Volpone as Scoto discusses at great length the virtues (and monetary worth) of the Oglio del Scoto. Nano explicitly describes its virtues as an antidote to impotence and age. Greenblatt (pp. 103-104) notes Scoto's plea as a "disturbing self-mockery" of Jonson's dedicatory epistle to


29For a discussion of the issue of Renaissance subjectivity and contemporary critical approaches, see Carol Thomas Neely, "Constructing the Subject: Feminist Practice and the New Renaissance Discourses," ELR 18, 1 (Winter 1988): 5-18.

30Mosca proposes a death pact as the only escape: "Will you be pleased to hang me, or cut my throat? /And I'll requite you, sir. Let's die like Romans / Since we have lived like Grecians" (111. viii.13-15).

SIFor a fine discussion of public versus private desires in Volpone, see Jonathan Goldberg's chapter "State Secrets," in James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), especially the provocative claim that "in Volpone private desires followed to their ends would undermine the state" (p. 74).

%ee also Sweeney's assertion that Volpone and Mosca "embody two opposing aspects of theater: Volpone, theater as expression of self and prosecution of self-interest; Mosca, theater as self-annihilation, the selfless enactment of roles created by others" (pp. 77-78). My point is that not only are these roles fluid and that each character inevitably plays the other's part, but that there is, finally, no difference between them: self-projection, in the manner of Volpone, and self-effacement are inexorably the same.

33Volpone plays the dramatist in this plot more than in any of the others- from costuming and directing Mosca ("Hold, here's my will. / Get thee a cap, a count-book, pen and ink, / Papers afore thee; sit as thou wert taking / An inventory of parcels" [V.ii.80-83]), to motivational words to his actor ("Play the artificer now, torture 'em rarely" [V.ii.lll]), to placing himself in the audience (''I'll get up / Behind the curtain, on a stool, and hearken; / Sometime peep over, see how they do look, / With what degrees their blood doth leave their faces" [V.ii.83-861).

%"lpone realizes that Mosca's impending marriage would ruin him (Volpone), "They'll be allied anon; I must be resolute" (V. xii.84), and it is this impending liaison that finally triggers Volpone's revelation: "The fox shall here uncase. [He puts off his disguise.] Nay, now / My ruins shall not come alone; your match / I'll hinder sure. My substance shall not glue you, / Nor screw you, into a family" (V.xii.85-88).

s5See Alexander Leggatt's discussion of Volpone's "uncasing" in Ben Jonson: His Vision and His Art (London: Methuen, 1981): "The gesture is at once self-destructive and self-fulfilling. 'I am Volpone' is not an admission of defeat but a flourish of defiance" (p. 29).

3% his declaration of identity Volpone repudiates the possibility of sharing Celia's fate. But for Celia, Volpone's guilt and punishment in no way either vindicates or liberates her; at the play's end she is once again shuffled between men as part of the avocatori's judgment against Corvino:

And to expiate

The wrongs done to thy wife, thou art to send her

Home to her father, with her dowry trebled.


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