Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Jonson's Volpone and Dante

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Jonson's Volpone and Dante

Article excerpt

No one has linked Dante's Inferno to Ben Jonson's Volpone. But there are a number of reasons to think that the first canticle of the Italian poet's epic poem was influential on Jonson's most enduringly popular play. For one thing both works portray fraud as the root of all evil, as many other important works about morality do not. (1) Dante used Aristotle to make the principal divisions of the Inferno into the sins of incontinence, malice and brutishness, the latter two classifications comprising the sins of fraud. (2) Fraud, says Virgil to Dante in canto 11 when he is describing the plan of hell, "is man's peculiar vice; / God finds it more displeasing--and therefore, / the fraudulent are lower, suffering more" e de l'uom proprio male, / piu spiace a Dio; e pero stan di sotto / li frodolenti, e piu dolor li assale [ll. 25-27]). (3) Again, both Dante's and Jonson's master works are called "comedies," but both also contain harsh punishments. Jonson's play is quite distinctive here, not following in this regard his customary Roman models, and making a special effort "to put the snaffle in their mouths, that cry out, we never punish vice in our interludes." His moral labors in Volpone also required of him "to imitate justice, and instruct to life, as well as purity of language." (4) Jonson refers to Dante in the third act of Volpone when Lady Politic Would-Be, a tedious English dilettante visiting Venice with her equally shallow husband, brags of having read Petrarch, Tasso, Guarini, Ariosto, Aretino, and Dante, who, she says, "is hard, and few can understand him" (3.4.95). This couple, however, is such a pair of fools that her judgment of Dante can hardly be taken for Jonson's own, and her ignorant dismissal of the poet implies exactly the opposite attitude on the part of the dramatist himself. That her remark echoes Dante's own comment to Can Grande that his epic was "polysemous" and "not simple" (5) hints at more than a secondary knowledge of Dante by Jonson. Jonson's satiric conception of Venice as a locus of corruption, his cast of perverse characters, and his emphasis upon an appropriate final punishment for each of the evildoers combine to recall structural and thematic elements of Dante's work. And there is one final point: Jonson was a dramatist always sensitive to the shaping influence of native English morality plays; surely, then, he would also have been drawn to the most vigorous medieval condemnation of sin composed on the Continent, especially during those twelve years (1598-1610) when he was himself a Roman Catholic. All of these considerations would have made Dante's combination of comedy and severe morality an appealing combination to Jonson and one not easily found in most other sources available to him.

Modern criticism has sometimes seen the punishment of Volpone and Mosca as inconsistent with their sportive playfulness with folly and avarice. The point has also been made that the punishments are too harsh for the crimes. (6) But Dante has many persons in the Inferno who are admirable in many ways, such as the adulterous but winningly sympathetic Francesca, the fraudulent counselors but still upright and noble Jason and Ulysses, and the inciter to rebellion but lighthearted and gifted Bertran de Born. All these and many others in the Inferno have been given their final hard punishment because of an overriding vice that finally determined their character and which they desired more than their virtues. Neither Dante nor Jonson held the view that one's own personal sympathies or admiration of intellect or energy should shape a final judgment of character.

Jackson Campbell Boswell has recently shown knowledge of Dante to be much more extensive in England than was previously thought. (7) Boswell has found 322 literary allusions to the Florentine in English books published between 1477 and 1640, a number of them by persons Jonson admired or knew well, such as Sir Philip Sidney and John Florio. …

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