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'Volpone' in Context

'Volpone' in Context

Biters Bitten and Fools Fooled

By Keith Linley

What would a Jacobean audience have made of this grim exposure of human greed? This guide to the various contexts that situate 'Volpone' in its time, explains the Christian ethics, the contemporary socio-political scene, the literary atmosphere and requirements of comedy that inform the background of this dark play.

Paperback, 250 Pages


November 2016

£14.99, $24.95

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  • About This Book
  • Reviews
  • Author Information
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  • Table of Contents

About This Book

Duplicity and deception were essential ingredients in a comedy, and though they were not morally acceptable they reflect what happened in real life; the putting of personal obsession and private will before social and Christian responsibilities. But here, the excess of evil is there from the start and simply increases. There is little light-heartedness. It is all one sustained bitter snarl about humanity’s corruption. The tension between what people should do and what they actually do creates dramatic conflicts not just for the characters but also for the audience who may be torn between enjoying the dextrous scamming of Mosca and Volpone yet feeling they ought to be condemned and must be punished in the end. And the questions remain; should they be laughing at any of it and how can they not laugh at such a mad mixture of mistakes, such crass stupidity and such evil greed?

The fox is a creature of the night, a predator, a thief. He is a border raider, crossing from wild nature into man’s domestic domain. Nightstalker, elusive, devious, he is embedded deep in the European psyche as a trickster and deceiver. This persona goes back to ancient Greek times when the various fox fables of Aesop mix with other beast tales. The linking of humans to animal characteristics is part of the language: snake in the grass, wolf in sheep’s clothing, brave as a lion, timid as a mouse, busy as a bee, slimy toad, whoreson dog. At the most practical level, for a world almost entirely rural, he is the enemy of farmers and shepherds and individual poor households rearing just a few chickens; the feared killer who could annihilate a henhouse or ravage a warren. He was thus a food burglar, stealing vital nourishment before it could be put on the table and as such a threat to the family’s economy and perhaps even a threat to its survival.

Tragedy is as old as human misery and comedy is its not-quite-identical twin, for laughter is as old as tears. One mask may smile, the other cry, but the faces are similar and in many respects so are the two genres, though their outcomes are different. Man’s folly, his potential for evil, his potential for good, his ability to misunderstand the true values of life are common to both forms. One achieves correction of mistakes through disaster, pain, misery, the other through tears turning to laughter as folly is mocked and humiliated and order is restored.


‘Detailed and fascinating. Such clear and full explorations of its historical and cultural contexts will deeply enrich students’ understanding of the play. Vital reading for anyone interested in how the affairs, interests and obsessions of early Jacobean England parallel those of our own world, and therefore make Volpone so important for us today.’ —Ewan Craig, Head of English, Yarm School, United Kingdom

‘Linley’s book is lively, readable and illuminating; it draws you into Jonson’s world and provides insight into the forces that shaped the tour de force that is Volpone. An essential guide.’ Wendy Ellis, OCR A Level English Literature Team Leader

Author Information

Poet, painter, teacher and academic, Keith Linley has lectured at university and given papers at conferences and book festivals on a range of literary subjects.


Anthem Perspectives in Literature

Table of Contents

Introduction; About this book - What is a context? – Further Reading; Part I. The Inherited Past; Prologue: the setting;1. The historical context; 2. The world order: from divinity to dust; 3. Sin, death and the prince of darkness; 4. The seven cardinal virtues; 5. Kingship; 6. Patriarchy, family authority and gender relationships; 7. Man in his place; 8. Images of disorder: the religious context; Part II. The Jacobean present; 9. Ben in context; 10. Literary context; 11. The political context; 12. The beast fable; 13. Transgressions and sins: the biters bit.14. The venetian context: consumerism and cannibalism; Bibliography

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