Ben Jonson

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Volpone Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ben Jonson's Volpone. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson’s life started out dramatic and difficult. When Jonson was born in 1572, his father, a clergyman from London, had already died. As a youth, Jonson studied at the Westminster School under William Camden, where he grew to love classical learning. After leaving the Westminster School he was forced to become a bricklayer, which he left in favor of joining the army. Back in London after his service, his early career as a dramatist was chaotic: he went to jail for writing a controversial play, and after his release, he killed another actor in a duel. Jonson was a controversial figure, and he heavily satirized English society while slowly climbing the social ranks. Though he continued to have qualms with English authority, he gained prominence in court by writing masques and successful plays, until he was given a yearly pension from King James I, establishing him as England’s unofficial Poet Laureate. Jonson was friends with William Shakespeare, and it’s Jonson who famously wrote that Shakespeare was “for all time.” Towards the end of his life, Jonson served as a mentor to a group of younger poets (such as Thomas Carew and Robert Herrick) called the “Sons of Ben.” Jonson continued writing until his death in 1637.
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Historical Context of Volpone

Volpone was written and performed in 1606, three years after King James I assumed the throne, and only one year after Jonson was imprisoned for suspicion of involvement with the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 (an attempt to assassinate King James). Jonson wrote at a time when a new capitalist-oriented order seemed to be developing, in which the English viewed Italy (and Venice, in particular) as money-obsessed and morally corrupted. At this point in his career, Jonson was in fierce competition with his contemporaries, and he uses the play’s Prologue to make fun of playwrights Thomas Dekker and John Marston.

Other Books Related to Volpone

Ben Jonson used many sources in writing Volpone. The characters’ animal names and some of the themes are taken from medieval beast fables about a fox named Reynard, as well as a story in Aesop’s Fables in which a fox plays dead to trick a crow into dropping cheese. The notion of an old rich man toying with greedy people who are hoping to inherit his money comes from Lucian, an ancient Greek rhetorician and satirist, and many of the characters (like a dishonest lawyer) are based on classic tropes in Roman comedy. Jonson also draws on the Italian commedia dell’arte, which was a form of comedic drama in Italy in which performers wore masks. Like in commedia dell’arte, masks are often used in productions of Volpone to emphasize the animal nature of the play’s characters. Volpone has been performed and adapted numerous times, including with a changed ending in which Mosca receives all of Volpone’s wealth.
Key Facts about Volpone
  • Full Title: Volpone, or The Fox
  • When Written: 1606
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1607 (Quarto), then 1616 in Works
  • Literary Period: English Renaissance (Jacobean)
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Setting: Venice, Italy
  • Climax: Volpone’s ruse is revealed in court.
  • Antagonist: Volpone, Mosca

Extra Credit for Volpone

“Works.” Volpone was first published in 1607 in a quarto (essentially a small pamphlet), but modern texts are primarily based on the version that Jonson published in his 1616 book titled Works. It might seem standard today for plays to be published as literature, but in Jonson’s day it was extremely controversial. Shakespeare, for example, published none of his plays during his lifetime. With Works, Jonson tried to claim a literary status above his contemporaries by establishing himself as a professional writer. This helped give his plays their literary status.

Neck Verse. Jonson might have been executed as a young man if not for the legal loophole called the Benefit of Clergy, which allowed defendants to be tried in religious instead of secular court, since a religious court was much less likely to give a death sentence. After Jonson killed another actor in a duel, he pled guilty but was able to use the Benefit of the Clergy. The only requirement to receive this benefit was the recitation of a Bible verse in Latin. This verse, Psalm 51, is known as the neck verse, since by saying it in secular court, one could avoid hanging and be tried again in a religious court.