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Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot

Reviewed by Sean McEvoy

Richard Dutton, Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot. Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-521-87954-5. 178 pp. 19 b/w ills., £52.00 ($93.00)

[1]  Ben Jonson was not a man to go drinking with. Apart from the dangerous quantities involved (‘drink’, reported Drummond, ‘is one of the elements in which he liveth’), supping with Jonson could presage disaster, it seems. The story of Shakespeare’s final night out in April 1616 with Jonson and Michael Drayton is almost certainly apocryphal, but there is no doubt that early in the Michaelmas Term of 1605 Jonson’s drinking companions at William Patrick’s house in the Strand included Robert Catesby and Thomas Winter. Following the events at Westminster on 5 November 1605, Catesby was shot dead ‘resisting arrest’ on November 8. His cousin Thomas Winter was hanged, drawn and quartered on 31 January 1606.

[2]  It has puzzled biographers that Jonson should have been socializing with the very men whom the Privy Council asked him to help track down in the days following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. According to Drummond, Jonson was a Catholic in 1605. Robert Cecil, who was taking the opportunity to manipulate anti-Catholic feelings to his own advantage, headed the Privy Council. Richard Dutton’s book is not concerned with speculating about Jonson’s personal involvement in the plot and its aftermath. Rather, it sets out a very persuasive case that Jonson’s attitude to the events of the winter of 1605-6 are an important, if not central subtext to his most popular comedy, Volpone, which was first performed in March 1606. In particular, Dutton sees Volpone as Jonson’s act of poetic resistance to his own patron, Robert Cecil. To his detractors, Cecil had much in common with the comedy’s Venetian protagonist. Cecil was, in Dutton’s words, ‘an aristocrat of dubious breeding, who made money by fraud and questionable commerce’ (115). In the case of the Gunpowder Plot he was also suspected, in the words of Jonson’s Avocatore, to have been ‘the chiefest minister, if not plotter, / In all these lewd impostures’ (V.12.108-9: references to Volpone are from Ian Donaldson (ed.) The Oxford Authors: Ben Jonson (Oxford University Press, 1985)). It was and still is widely asserted that even if Cecil and his agents did not initiate the conspiracy, then it was at least penetrated and encouraged by them.

[3]  There is a sense, then, in which Volpone was Cecil; but a sense in which Volpone was Jonson, too. Central to Dutton’s case is that the dedicatory poems and Epistle to the Reader published in the 1607 quarto of Volpone celebrate Jonson’s skill in mocking and outwitting the powerful of the city. Unlike in the cases of The Isle of Dogs, Sejanus or Eastward Ho! however, this time Jonson gets away with it. Dutton’s book is not at attempt to map the characters and action of the play onto historical personages and events in a simplistic way, as can be legitimately done with John Day’s deliberate provoking of anti-Cecil ‘application’, Isle of Gulls (1606). Volpone, writes Dutton, ‘is not ad hominem satire. It is the dissection of a phenomenon, a study of evil in action in all its ramifications’ (65). Dutton amply demonstrates the play’s dissection of a living paradigm of acquisitive, amoral machiavellianism, and elucidates Volpone’s subtle but undeniable associations with Cecil. Even so, I am not convinced that the play’s moral schema, such as it is, presents ‘evil’ quite so starkly.

[4]  Yet Dutton is surely right to claim that because the play goes beyond specific satire ‘it has outlived the moment that brought it all together in Jonson’s brain in the way that Day’s Isle of Gulls has not’, and that ‘the more we understand the circumstances of that supreme moment of creation, the better we can understand and appreciate its achievement’ (65). Dutton suggests that it took this crisis in Jonson’s life to summon the muse who inspired the marvellous Volpone. John Donne recognised the brilliance of this comedy when he wrote in his dedicatory poem to the 1607 quarto ‘Priscis, ingenium facit, laborque / Te parem’ (‘genius and effort put you on a par with the ancients’, in Dutton’s translation).

[5]  Dutton begins with Jonson’s use of the Dedicatory Epistle in the quarto, where the poet claims innocence from any malign constructions which others may put on his words: once the state has authorised publication of his works, a limit has been set to what others are permitted to find in them. Jonson deliberately quotes from the letters asserting his personal uprightness which he wrote to Cecil when successfully bidding to obtain release from prison after the Eastward Ho! fiasco in 1605. When claiming the protection – covertly here, the complicity – of the highest authorities he is also asserting his right as a poet to speak for himself. Citing the humanist dictum which proclaims ‘the impossibility of any man being the good poet without first being a good man’ (ll.19-20), Jonson claims the state’s authority in support of the virtuous subject to underwrite his own voice, but he also invokes the ancient duty of the poet to speak whatever his muse directs him to express.

[6]  The commendatory verses which accompany the quarto register the comedy’s political context and intentions. Edmund Bolton’s poem explicitly connects Volpone with Sejanus, a play denounced by the Earl of Northampton for its ‘Popery’ and which also employed a very detailed reconstruction of the culture of a foreign city for contemporary political purposes – or so it was construed. Furthermore, Donne’s Latin panegyric in the prefatory material will prompt the reader to recall Donne’s scarcely covert attack upon Cecil in stanza 7 of his poem ‘Metempsychosis’ when he or she comes to Mosca’s satirical routine about the transmigration of the soul in Act One of Volpone.

[7]  In keeping with the same oblique method of ‘application’, Dutton does not assert that Sir Politic Would-be is a depiction of Cecil. In fact, his character probably alludes to the diplomat Sir Henry Wotton and the adventurer Sir Anthony Sherley. But Sir Pol’s function in the play is cleverer than mere caricature. The role of the espionage-obsessed Englishman abroad ‘more or less openly alludes to the post-Gunpowder-Plot paranoia in England’ (65). The absurdity of Sir Pol’s behaviour ensures that his speeches escape the censor, but the target of his satire must have been plain to the audience. And yet Sir Pol’s advice to Peregrine on his choice of company, upon being economical with the truth, and upon avoiding any statement of opinion which might be used against him (IV.1.12-25) is perfect advice both in the world of the play and, as Dutton remarks, for those sitting at William Patrick’s table in London in 1605 (68).

[8]  Dutton makes an acute formal point when he points out that the function of the Sir Pol ‘bye-plot’ is to act as an instructive distraction from the main plot, ‘tantalizing us to look for deep plots … when the deepest of plots is in fact going on all around them’ (72). In the same way the Gunpowder Plot is an intriguing story in itself, but a distraction from the wider web of intrigue spun by Cecil, his spies and agents provocateurs.

[9]  Because the book’s focus is on the 1607 quarto as a document, there is little attention to the experience of the play in performance, beyond some reference to some suggestive moments in recent productions. This is a shame. In performance the play works to establish a series of conspiracies between different characters and the audience, in a series of concentric circles of dramatic ironies. Until the end of Act Four Mosca and Volpone are at the centre together, implicating the audience in the various plots through seductive and witty rhetoric employed in asides and soliloquies. Corbaccio’s and Corvino’s plots, which they believe will win Volpone’s gold, have in fact been prompted by their enemies to secure their destruction. In this way Volpone resembles the Catholic view of Cecil in November 1605, but the audience are actively induced to enjoy his actions. It is perhaps possible to see the Gunpowder Plotters to be gulls as foolish as Corbaccio and Voltore.

[10]  When Mosca turns on his over-reaching master, the audience tend to feel compromised. Virtue in the play, such as it is, resides in the masochistic Celia and the priggish Bonario, figures who, as Dutton says, seem to belong in another play of more conventional genre. Audiences are often left puzzled at their own reactions. They have been taken in by the energy and wit of Volpone and Mosca. They often find themselves having little sympathy for virtue, and feeling unaccountable sympathy for Volpone and Mosca as they are ‘mulcted’ with excessive punishment.

[11]  Dutton’s idea of scandalous conspiracy (Fawkes) as a distraction from the real criminal (Cecil) would apply very well to the play if and when an audience regretted their enjoyment of Volpone’s actions, came to see the wickedness of the controlling intelligence, and rejoiced in justice being done at the end of the play. But this is not always the case. Jonson’s justification of his ‘catastrophe’ is a provocation to the anti-theatricalists in as much as it provides a just but unsatisfactory ending. In the Canadian audience’s booing of Bonario’s rescue of Celia in Tyrone Guthrie’s 1964 production we can see an extreme version of this reaction, but the performance history of the text does not record a consistent sense that it is ‘evil’ which is ultimately vanquished. Dutton indeed suggests that there is something of Jonson in the Fox, and that he had an ambivalent relationship with the man who had begun to give him lucrative court commissions.

[12]  Not enough critical attention has been paid to the tradition of beast fables being employed as political comment. Dutton shows how Spenser’s Mother Hubbard’s Tale and North’s translation of Anton Francesco Doni’s Moral Philosophy may be regarded as influences upon the play’s writing and reception. Dutton also reads Jonson’s detailed creation of his Venetian setting as an attempt to deflect those who sought to see London in Venice, as he did when meticulously listing the classical sources of the events of Sejanus in the 1605 quarto. But he also shows how Jonson’s evocation of the political, religious and intellectual liberties of Venice ‘resonate by the contrast that they represent to Jacobean London’ (104). Jonson is least authentic in his depiction of the Venetian legal process, but this is where he is able to satirise the ‘kind of bench of magistrates which Jonson himself faced while he was writing the play’ (106) when accused of recusancy.

[13]  Jonson also prudently omits any allusion in Volpone to Venice’s own recent Spanish-inspired gunpowder plot, as reported by Coryat. The power of Venetian politics to ‘resonate’ dangerously in England when portrayed on stage continued for many years. The French-provoked plot against the Republic in 1618 became the basis of Otway’s 1682 tragedy Venice Preserv’d. The original production received royal approval as powerful anti-Whig propaganda during the Exclusion Crisis, but, much later, Sheridan’s 1793 Drury Lane production was closed down when it became implicated in anti-monarchical rioting, culminating in the stoning of George III’s coach on the way to the state opening of Parliament. Venice was London on stage for a long time, and Dutton shows how in Volpone Jonson knew how to exploit that analogy without taking it into dangerous territory.

[14]  The play’s repeated motif of diabolical possession not only demonstrates how the pursuit of wealth is self-destructive, writes Dutton. In its final courtroom scene Corvino’s feigned possession serves to parody Harsnett’s 1604 Declaration of Ingenious Popish Impostures. Dutton says that Jonson saw Harsnett’s book as another attempt by the state church to tell him what he should and should not believe.

[15]  Professor Dutton’s reconstruction of what most engaged Jonson intellectually, emotionally and politically at the watershed moment in his career as a dramatist is never less than fascinating. It is always most persuasive. Ben Jonson, Volpone and the Gunpowder Plot is yet more proof that Jonson’s great plays were neither the self-conscious slumming de haut en bas of an anti-theatricalist, nor aloof exercises in the ‘timeless’ classical style. They were deliberately executed events designed to have an impact in the real political world, and written by a master-craftsman in the living, political art form of the theatre.

Varndean College, Brighton, December 2009

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