Ben Jonson – “Volpone”

Volpone begins, following the Roman playwright Plautus, with “The Argument”, a short acrostic verse which summarizes the plot of the story and whose first letters of each line form the name of the title character. So we (as the readers, not the theatrical audience) know that a rich Venetian Volpone is going to fake his own terminal illness in order to attract people who would like very much to become his heirs, but in the end the wicked are going to bring about their own downfall. But in what way exactly? Well, let’s find out. After that follows “The Prologue”, a kind of a doggerel verse with uneven lines (Jonson was perfectly capable of writing good poetry, so I guess it is on purpose) in which Jonson explains his reasons for writing the play: to give his audience some pleasure mixed with profit. He also settles scores with other playwrights, because apparently the theatrical scene in his times was as full of rivalry and back-stabbing as any good reality show. (I’d love to see The Thames Shore, a gaudy kaleidoscope of fights both physical and verbal, battle rap, political and sexual intrigue and more!). It’s not true, as other playwrights said, that Jonson took ages to compose a play, because he wrote Volpone in five weeks with no help. He also did not use any cheap tricks: no custard-pies, no old jokes plagiarized from other sources, observed all the classical unities and removed all gall from his ink, leaving just a little bit of salt – that is, his wit.

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