Contrary to his usual practice, Ben Jonson has introduced a sub-plot in his famous play Volpone. This sub-plot has been usually criticized as being irrelevant and as being not well integrated with the main plot. It has been regarded as something superfluous, having no organic connection with the main plot of the play. However, a careful reading of the play shows that the sub-plot is a well-worked out parody of the main action and that it has also been well integrated with it through parallelism and contrasts and that it much enlarges and enriches the texture of the play.
This sub-plot in Volpone consists of the doings of Sir Politique Would-bee and Lady Would-bee, English travelers on a visit to Venice. Their presence is first hinted at in Act I, Scene V when Lady Would-bee comes to visit Volpone like the other legacy hunters and is asked by Mosca to come again later in the day. It will not be out of place to mention here that just as Corvino and Corbaccio are ready to sacrifice their wife and son to their lust for gold, so also Lady Would-bee is ready to sell her body to Mosca for this reason. When in the end Mosca sends her away disappointed by merely threatening to expose her, we enjoy her comic discomfiture. Thus the episode becomes a burlesque of the main action. It should also be borne in mind that like Corvino and Corbaccio, she too bears false witness against the two innocents in the play, and all because of her lust for gold.
There are contrasts as well. Lady Would-bee is sharply distinguished from Celia, who is chaste and would not like to part with her chastity at any cost; Lady Would-bee, on the other hand, is ready to sell it for a handful of gold. Further, the action of Corvino in beating and driving away Volpone (disguised as Mountebank) for he is jealous and suspects Volpone of having an affair with his wife, is paralleled later in the play in Lady Would-bee’s action in rebuking Peregrine, whom she suspects to be a prostitute in disguise. But as contrasted with Celia-Volpone affair, Lady Would-bee- Peregrine affair has a comic end, for it is soon discovered that Peregrine is no lady in disguise, but an English-traveller. The Lady at once apologizes to him, and she goes to such an extreme in her apologies that Peregrine begins to suspect that she is making sexual advances to him, that she is trying to entrap him, and that she must be doing so at the instance of her husband. He, therefore, decides to have his revenge, and he does so through the tortoise-shell episode. The former episode is full of tragic possibilities, the latter one is entirely comic.
Parody of the Main Plot
Sir Politique Would-bee is one of those projectors who frequently appear in the plays of Ben Jonson. He is an English traveller in Venice, and in Act II, Scene I, when he makes his first appearance in the play, he is seen talking to Peregrine, another English traveller newly arrived in Venice. He seeks to instruct him as to how to conduct himself in Venice as also to enlist his active support for the carrying out of his projects, for the good of Venice as also for his own good (in the shape of profits.) One of the most ambitious of his plans is the use of onions for keeping Venice infection-free. Of course, the plan is absurd with no chance of success, and this is quite apparent to Peregrine. Volpone and Mosca, on the other hand, float a number of schemes to cheat the legacy-hunters with rare success and get costly presents from them. In this respect also, the sub-plot is a parody of the main plot. As one critic puts it, “Sir Politique is a comic distortion of Volpone. As his name implies, he is the “would-bee” politician, the “would-bee” speculator, the unsuccessful enterpriser. Volpone, by contrast, is the real politician, the successful enterpriser, whose every stratagem succeeds almost beyond expectation. Sir Politique, like Volpone, is infatuated with his own ingenuity, and like Volpone he nurses his get-rich-quick schemes; but none of these ever progresses beyond the talking stage. While Volpone continues to add to his treasures with gifts that pour in from his dupes, Sir Politique continues to haggle over vegetables in the market and to write notes on the purchase of tooth picks.
Likeness to a Beast Story
Volpone has been called a beast fable and this is true both of the main plot and the sub-plot, and their respective characters. Most of the characters in this play have, what Volpone himself calls, “moral emblems” to their names which are Italian words for beasts and birds. Thus “Volpone” means fox; “Mosca”, fly, “Voltore”, “Corvino” and “Corbaccio” vulture, crow and raven, respectively. Sir Politique Would-bee is Sir Pol, that is, a parrot: and Peregrine, the single sensible person in the play, surely is the Peregrine falcon. Besides, the alternative title for the play is “The Fox”. Volpone himself mentions the association of birds and beasts early in the action. He refers to his clients as “vulture, kite, raven, and crow,” “all my birds of prey”, who come to him under the belief that he is about to turn into a carcass, i.e., dead flesh for them to peck at. Also, Volpone, like an animal, wears furs, and the dialogue tells that stage-business between him and Mosca prolongs the process of dressing the fox in his skins to receive the birds of prey.
There are profuse indications in the dialogue that none of the characters walk like a man. They prance, skip, creep, more closely resembling beasts or maimed men than any upright human being. Sir Pol twists natural phenomena into dire warnings. A fantastic creature supposedly flies from Voltore during the trial. Finally, poor Sir Pol becomes literally a reptile on stage when he takes refuge under his shell and Peregrine deliberately mistakes him for a turtle. Characters in both the plats have beastly, sub-human, distorted, and twisted natures, and in this respect, they symbolize the corrupt and beastly world of Venice against which the action of the play is set.
Laughter at Human Folly
Ben Jonson was a classiest and as such his comedies do not aim merely at, “laughter, more laughter, and nothing but laughter”. His aim was, “to sport with human folly” and “not with crime”. However, in Volpone, he has both sported with folly and lashed at crime. He has lashed at crime through the main action, and laughed at folly through the subplot. In this way the scope of the play has been much enlarged, its texture enriched and the charm of variety imparted to it. In this way, some of the light and playful atmosphere of the earlier humour comedies has been introduced into the play.
In short, the Sir Politique–Lady Politique Peregrine sub-plot is neither irrelevant nor lacking in coordination with the man-plot. Through the main plot, he has lashed at Italian crime and vice; through the sub-plot he has exposed and ridiculed the folly of English travellers who not only aped Italian fashions but also imitated the vice and crime of Italy. The two worlds have been well-contrasted and have also been brought together to serve the dramatist’s comic purpose.
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