Ben Jonson was a socially conscious artist. He knew very well that he had to write to the tastes of contemporary society to remain a successful playwright. At the same time, he had his duty to point out the evils pervading society. The realization of that dual duty is clearly seen in the “Prologue” where he says to the audience that his intention is “to mix profit with your pleasure”. Yes, “amusement and instruction” of society and its reform were the aims of Jonson.
The play Volpone has shown the negative side of the Renaissance. Jonson found the newly sprung views causing degeneration of contemporary life during the Renaissance. He saw that greed or avarice is a cardinal vice, giving birth to other vices. In Volpone Jonson presents this vice, how it flourishes, and how it comes to its own end by internal flight among the forces of evil. For presenting such a story he chose Venice, as the setting because that city was notorious in Jonson’s time for vulgar and immoral life. However, the evils he presented in the play were those found in contemporary England. The story of a certain captain Thomas Stutton who exploited several people by giving them hopes of becoming his heir was popular in Jonson’s England. There were several like Sir Anthony Shirly, the adventurer, and Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice, known to Jonson, who caused a wave of Italianisation in England. Many more such contemporary incidents and people might have prompted Jonson to write a play like Volpone. A close examination of the play will reveal that the satire in the play is directed against the English society he lived in.
Jonson in the play ridicules the fashions. Lady Would-be is presented with the aim of ridiculing the fashion-loving and vain English ladies of the time. Volpone’s remark: “Of the bold English, that they dare let lose/ Their wives to all encounters” is an obvious criticism of the forwardness of those English women. Mosca too comments on how the lady “affect(s) strange airs”. Her becoming angry with the maids for “one hair a little here sticks out”, is really ridiculous behavior of the fashion-mongers. Her self-contented, but tedious, talk irritates Volpone who tries to pack her off. Later she ludicrously mistakes Peregrine to be a disguised courtesan and abuses him. On realizing the mistake she apologizes and invites him to her house telling him to “use her”. Then we find her falsely testifying against Celia in the most heinous way. Still later, humiliated by Mosca, she goes home and decides to leave Venice. In all these we find sharp criticism of the vain and conceited ladies of contemporary England.
We find in “Volpone” a skillful combination of Satire and comedic. It follows the tradition of classical comedy, where motifs, situations, and characters contribute to the fun in the play. The situations in the play, at times, become too much for a comedy. However, they lend themselves more to dramatic irony than to satire; and gives the comedic effect even when the situations are murky and gloomy. They amuse the spectators giving relief from the highly tense atmosphere. When Volpone and Mosca laugh at the folly of the fortune hunters, the spectators laugh with them. But we also laugh at them, for they too are under the grip of the same folly they are laughing at. The satire is a moderate one, ameliorated by fun arising out of dramatic irony. It seems Jonson is able to write as a play where satire and fun together will instruct and amuse and he succeeded in the aim.