Ben Jonson – “Volpone” Act V scene 12 (the end)

The goody-goody Celia tries to ask for mercy for her former accusers, but the first avvocatore tells her sternly that she hurts her innocence by pleading for the guilty. Mosca is sentenced to whipping and then to a life sentence on Venetian galleys, which taking into account the conditions there at least is not going to be very long. Volpone thanks the judges, but his own sentence is not going to be any lighter. Even though, being a nobleman, he can’t be sentenced to the galleys, his all possessions are going to be confiscated and given over to the hospital of the Incurabili (i.e. the hospice for the people in the terminal stages of syphilis) and since he was faking illness, he is going to be put in prison in irons until he becomes really bent out of shape. Voltore is disbarred and exiled from Venice for life. Corbaccio loses all his money to his son and is sent to live out his life at the monastery of the Holy Spirit – of course he can’t hear the sentence and an officer tells him “You’ll learn it soon enough”. Corvioo is going to be paraded around Venice in a cap with ass’ ears and then put in the pillory with a card pinned on his breast, describing his crime. He foresees gloomily he is going to then have his eyes put out by the various disgusting objects the mob usually threw at the pilloried men, but that is just as well, because he doesn’t want to see his shame. Celia is going to be sent home to her parents with her dowry trebled. Then all the defendants are led to the back of the stage and the judge moralizes a bit more about how crime doesn’t pay. And then Volpone breaks the fourth wall – as it happened very often in the early modern comedies, he addresses the audience directly, being in a way both the actor and the character at the same time. He says that even though he committed a lot of crimes in the play, at least he never hurt anybody in the audience. So now he asks them to pass their verdict – either to censure him or to release him with their applause.

Thus ends Volpone. You have to accept it for what it is  – no characters but types, and each of them could be described in two adjectives, the first one always being “avaricious”. So we have avaricious & cunning, avaricious & jealous, avaricious & senile, and so on. The only exceptions are Bonario and Celia, who can be described simply as “good”, and for that reason are probably the most boring figures in the play. The funny thing is, I read Volpone many years ago, saw a TV theatre adaptation a bit later and when I sat down a few days ago to re-read it, I was under a strong impression that Bonario and Celia are somehow going to get together – but they don’t. In fact, there are almost no interactions between them, except for Bonario’s chivalrous saving Celia from Volpone’s clutches. I guess I am like one of these people who claim they have really seen Rosemary’s baby (I mean the actual spawn of Satan in this pram, not the whole movie) – I’ve been so conditioned by all the cultural texts shipping the Official Pair in the finale that I remembered something that didn’t happen. I am not the first reader who has this problem – already Coleridge suggested the play could be much improved if Celia were Corvino’s ward or niece and Bonario her lover – but the question is, why does Jonson deprive us of the happy romantic ending the audience very much expects? Some critics claim that a happy ending would not belong in the cynical world of Volpone and that Jonson consciously challenged the conventions of his day. But I also think Jonson made them on purpose these ideals of virtue, so pure it’s unbelievable. The jarring effect arises from the discrepancy between the ideals of virtue in our and Jonson’s times. Bonario doesn’t defend himself when his own father slanders him out of filial piety, which was a far more important thing in his times (and far more strictly enforced) than in ours. Celia, in order to be this ideal of virtue, can’t even think about being with another man, even if her husband treats her like shit. My question is, does Jonson do it on purpose, i.e. showing us how destructive an otherwise admirable thing, such as spousal loyalty, can really be when abused by somebody like Corvino? Or does he just accept the ideal and really thinks that a son completely obedient to his very nasty father is the ideal one?


William Shakespeare – King Lear Act II

Act ii takes place in and around Gloucester’s castle. Edmund completes his plan of framing Edgar, seizing the opportunity brought about by the announced visit of Cornwall and Regan. He asks Edgar whether he has spoken against Cornwall, implying it might be the cause of his visit, then fakes a duel with him and advises him to run away. Then Edmund tells Gloucester that Edgar wanted him to conspire with him to kill their father and drew his sword on him when Edmund refused (Edmund has hurt himself to give credibility to his story.) The angry Gloucester swears to put the ungrateful son to death and orders a countrywide search. Kent, following Regan, meets Oswald at the gates of Gloucester’s castle, abuses him with a series of finest Shakespearean abuses and beats him up when Oswald won’t duel with him. He is put in stocks for that by Cornwall, although Gloucester tries to remonstrate. Edgar, fleeing the pursuit, decides to disguise himself as a mad beggar.

Lear finally arrives and is very angry on seeing his servant in stocks. He demands to see Regan and Cornwall, but is blown off by the excuses of their being tired after the journey and not feeling well. Finally Regan and Cornwall appear, but when Lear complains of his treatment at the hands of Goneril, she advises him to go back to her sister and agree to her terms of reducing his retinue. At this point Goneril arrives; much to Lear’s dismay, Regan greets her cordially and continues that she is not ready to accept more than twenty-five of Lear’s followers. Lear then decides Goneril’s fifty is still better than Regan’s twenty-five, but then Goneril argues he doesn’t need any personal retinue at all – aren’t all her servants at his command? Lear tries to argue that even poorest people have their small luxuries and we need something more in life than just bare necessities – if clothes are just to keep us warm, why does Goneril dress so fine? Finally, in a fit of anger he storms off with his small retinue into the night – and approaching storm. The daughters comment coolly “Well, that’s his choice”. Honestly, the whole discussion seems pointless, since we could learn from the dialogue between Kent and Fool at the beginning of this scene that Lear’s followers have been dropping off, sensing the king’s fortunes have fallen low. But maybe Lear in his distraught state failed to notice that.

“Everyman” – the end.

Strength, Five Wits and Discretion are the next to go. Knowledge and Good Deeds, however, stay faithfully by Everyman, but only Good Deeds are capable of going with him to the afterworld, while Knowledge remains on the brink of the grave. I wish I knew of a study which could explain the difference to me in theological terms. I have a feeling that Discretion in this play means a kind of worldly wisdom, while Knowledge is knowing the meaning of life, which from the standpoint of the author of this play is the quest for salvation and eternal life. That would explain why Discretion abandons Everyman, while Knowledge accompanies him until almost the end. She doesn’t have to follow him into heaven, because there his life’s purpose is achieved. At least that is the way I figured this out.

Everyman ascends into heaven where his soul is greeted by an angel. At the end of the play a Doctor enters (he’s a D.D, not a medical doctor) and expounds the meaning of the play; at the end of life everyone and everything is going to abandon you, except for you Good Deeds and Knowledge. But your Good Deeds are never so strong as to help you achieve salvation on their own merit (in line with Augustine’s doctrine), so you need contrition and penance before death, because after death it is too late.

And thus ends the section on the Middle Ages! Sometimes it was a bit of struggle (Chaucer’s philosophizing poultry), sometimes it was quite interesting. I got to revisit the texts I haven’t read for a long time and some which I haven’t read at all. I think the best moments are those when from under the difficult language, religious moralizing and unfamiliar allusions the reader gets a glimmer of something like shared human experience across the ages and continents. Julian’s of Norwich comparison of the drops of Christ’s blood to the raindrops falling from the eaves comes to my mind. I think Lanval was my favourite text. with the fairy queen choosing her lover and laying down the rules of her relationship.

Be back in a few days, kicking off the Sixteenth Century section.

“Everyman” ctd.

Knowledge and Five Wits encourage Everyman to go to a priest to receive last rites. Five Wits delivers a long tirade about how priests are the best, they are above kings, emperors and even angels etc. because they have the power to consecrate the host and administer the sacraments, of which there are seven and Five Wits enumerates them, rather unnecessarily, since at the moment Everyman is interested only in two. Everyman goes off stage to receive the communion and extreme unction, while Knowledge says that unfortunately, there are also wicked priests who receive money for the sacraments, father illegitimate children, have sex and so on. But Five Wits counteracts with “let’s hope we don’t meet such ones, let us honour the priests, they are our shepherds and we are their sheep”. This whole exchange is very illustrative, as it combines two voices, both reflecting the rumblings of the approaching Reformation. The conservative one, with all the rather overdone praises of priests, emphasizes the sacerdotal nature of the Church, as the careful enumeration of all seven sacraments shows (as opposed to the Protestant two). The disruptive one exposes the issues troubling the Church, but I guess it’s significant he does it out of Everyman’s earshot, so as not to trouble him too much before death oh, God forbid (heh) make him doubt the authority of the Church.

Everyman returns happy and ready for death. All his companions promise to follow him. However, he soon feels faint and is ready to lie down in his grave. Seeing this, Beauty is the first to take off, tucking his skirts behind his belt to more more swiftly.

“Everyman” ctd.

Everyman continues to scourge himself energetically, which makes Good Deeds stronger and she is able to walk again. Knowledge gives Everyman a new garment of contrition, wet with his tears. Now Everyman is ready to go on his pilgrimage. Knowledge and Good Deeds promise to accompany him, but he should call on four more trusted companions: Discretion, Strength, Five Wits and Beauty. (I thought Beauty leaves one usually much earlier than just before death.) Anyway, all these allegorical personages enter the stage and they also promise to go with Everyman, who is now very sanguine about his future. He makes his testament in their presence: he bequeaths half of his property to charity and half to “be returned there it ought to be”, which I assume means his next-of-kin, although taking into account how nobody in his family was willing to accompany him, he might have second thoughts about it.

“Everyman” ctd.

Good Deeds show Everyman his book of reckoning. Unfortunately it is blotted and completely illegible. Everyman asks for help, which Good Deeds, being too weak, cannot give, but her sister Knowledge will help. Knowledge enters, saying the words that became the motto of Everyman’s Library: “Everyman, I will go with thee and by thy guide, in thy most need to be by thy side.” Knowledge takes Everyman to Confession. Everyman asks Confession to be washed clean of his sins. Confession gives him Penance symbolized by a scourge. Everyman thanks Confession for his help. Knowledge reminds him that penance has to be done fully. Everyman prays to Jesus and Mary for mercy and begins enthusiastically his penance.

“Everyman” ctd.

Goods enter and Everyman repeats his request – can they go with him on hi last journey? “Well, actually, I’d only make the matters worse”, says Goods (I think I have to refer to them in the singular, as they were represented by one actor on stage). “You loved me too inordinately and I’m actually an obstruction to your salvation. If you had given away at least a bit of your money for the poor, you would fare much better”. Goods also repeats Death’s argument about life – just like life, Goods are not ours forever, they are just on a loan. Laughing ironically, Goods exits. Everyman again bemoans his fate and then has a bright idea – he needs to address his Good Deeds. But she (yes, this is the pronoun he uses) is too weak to move – she is so bound by Everyman’s sins. Everyman says he needs her help and Good Deeds she will help him if he does what she says. “Come with me”, says Everyman. “I can’t move”, says Good Deeds. “But why?” asks Everyman. She has just told you, you fool. Let’s say the snappy and logical dialogues are not this writer’s forte. But this play is starting to grow on me, nevertheless. There’s something Beckettian about Everyman’s gradual deprivation in face of Death.

The pronoun “she” used with reference to Good Deeds is unexpected and I wish I knew what to make of it. Allegorical figures tend to be feminine in fine arts, but Goods just a few verses ago was a “he”. Also another interesting feature of medieval language is that God at some point is referred to as Jupiter, although the characters are all the time talking about undoubtedly Christian God. It’s sometimes puzzling how classical learning seeped into medieval culture.