"I Would I Could Forget I Were a Creature":
Humanity and Unnatural Humans in Volpone

Ben Johnson’s Volpone is a play full of curious creatures. The title character has a human menagerie of upon which he depends for entertainment – a dwarf, a eunuch, a hermaphrodite. The remaining members of the cast of characters, however, are not-so-subtly depicted in terms that make them appear inhuman, and given actions to match. Comparisons between the more literal “subhumans” of Volpone’s household and the more figurative freakishness of the sycophants who surround him are not terribly productive. The physically deformed humans are given so few lines and such little personality that they tend to serve only as one-dimensional markers of irony, hints that there are far more monstrous characters existing in the play. However, examining the nature of the charges leveled against the innocents in the play – Celia and Bonario – and weighing them against the characters of the accusers does lead to a more fruitful line of inquiry. An examination of the strains and rumors of unnaturalness associated with different individuals leads, ultimately, to a revelation of human nature and the attitude towards society that is embedded in the play.

When Celia and Bonario are accused in the court by those hopeful of inheriting Volpone’s fortune, the charges are not simply legal accusations about their acts; each of the defendants is, in turn, condemned as an unnatural beast, certainly less than human. Celia is described initially by Voltore, in his opening argument, as “This lewd woman, / That wants no artificial looks or tears / To help the visor she has now put on . . . a close adulteress”(4.5.34-37). This description, while untrue, describes her still as a wicked woman; as the case proceeds, her attackers begin to lower her status to that of an animal. Her husband Corvino proclaims to those present that Celia “is a whore / Of most hot exercise, more than a partridge”(4.5.117-118), and that she “neighs like a jennet”(4.5.119). Voltore stops speaking of her specifically as human or female and reduces her to merely “a creature of most professed / And prostituted lewdness”(4.5.143-144), and Lady Politic Would-Be, on her entrance into the court scene, immediately screams, “Out, thou chameleon harlot! Now thine eyes / Vie tears with the hyena”(4.6.2-3). It seems as though the accusers, most of whom are given intentionally bestial names to identify their characters, cannot bear to allow any one else to retain humanity. Bonario is similarly treated, although more briefly. Voltore describes Bonario, at first, in terms of human evil: he is a “lascivious youth,” and Voltore repeatedly refers to Bonario’s status as Corvaccio’s son in order to emphasize the terrible nature of his plot. When Corvaccio steps forward to deliver the only testimony given against Bonario, he firmly, quickly dehumanizes him: not only is Bonario not a true son, he is a “Monster of men, swine, goat, wolf, parricide!”(4.5.111-112). It seems important to Volpone’s gaggle of toadies that they not only prove the guilt of the accused, but that the plaintiffs are also made out to be incredible monsters.

Of course, at heart, Celia and Bonario are anything but monstrous. Celia, especially, is portrayed as innocent. Despite her husband’s constant suspicions, she is faithful to him, leaving the house only to go to church, refusing to commit adultery even although he asks her to. She withstands Corvino’s threat of torture, protesting that she would rather be martyred than sin, and Volpone’s promise of riches, with the claim that “I, whose innocence / Is all I can think wealthy, or worth th’ enjoying, / And which, once lost, I have nought to lose beyond it, / Cannot be taken with these sensual baits”(3.7.206-209). Bonario is similarly, although again more briefly, shown to be virtuous: surprising Volpone’s attempted rape of Celia, he rescues her and refuses to take his own vengeance on Volpone, as the right to punish the would-be rapist belongs to the law of the land. Like Celia, Bonario is an innocent, easily misled by Mosca’s false tears, and believing that his case will win in court simply because it is true. Bonario and Celia are more, however, than simply one-dimensional victims. Their characters stand in important contrast to the deceivers of the play, and help to establish the drama’s stance on the nature of humankind.

Most of the other characters in Volpone are greedy, deceitful, grasping parasites, in one way or another. More importantly, they embody the charge of monstrousness that they level falsely against Celia and Bonario. All are relatively wealthy, and ultimately reveal themselves to be beasts in fine clothing, calling to mind Mosca’s characterization of fine society: “Hood an ass with reverend purple, / So you can hide his two ambitious ears, / And he shall pass for a cathedral doctor”(1.2.111-113). They are named after beasts – fox, crow, raven, vulture, fly – and they degrade themselves below humanity for much of the play. Even the morally repulsive Volpone has no trouble reducing those who fawn upon him to their basic animal natures: “Now, now my clients / Begin their visitation! Vulture, kite, / Raven, and gor-crow, all my birds of prey / That think me turning carcass, now they come”(1.2.87-90). Corvino, the crow, insists repeatedly on believing himself to be a cuckold, referring often to his metaphorical horns and sometimes even pantomiming their presence, testifying to the Avocatori that Celia is a slut and that on his head, “The letters may be read, through the horn, / That make the story perfect”(4.5.124-126). Maintaining, again and again, that he is a fabulous monster through his wife’s actions, he makes himself one – his behavior at the trial is nothing more than the irrational rage of any beast, and his final sentence of being forced to don ass’s ears only completes the transition to animal that he himself initializes. Corvaccio the raven perpetrates the near-inverse of the crime he accuses his own son of, disinheriting Bonario and allowing him to be falsely convicted, in an inhuman display of uncaring treachery; Bonario is forced to wonder how “My father should be so unnatural”(3.2.54). Vulturish Voltore, the attorney, is damned by his profession, remaining wealthy “while there are men / And malice to breed causes”(5.3.90-91). After insisting with his “forkèd tongue” at the sentencing of Bonario and Celia that he has finally found his conscience, he discovers that Volpone lives and pretends to have been possessed – with “eyes set, / Like a dead hare’s hung in a poulter’s shop,”(5.12.25-26), he appears to intentionally cast off his claim to human decency, and claim identity with the supernatural demon Volpone pretends to see, “a blue toad with bat’s wings”(5.12.31). Mosca’s perpetually proclaimed status as parasitical insect and Volpone’s irrational ability to turn away from his own fox’s tricks round out the classification of villainous characters as inhuman. Even the foolish minor-league schemer Sir Politic Would-Be ends up as a beast, cowering inside a tortoise’s shell to escape imaginary forces of justice.

For the most part, the villains in Volpone could be any play’s plotting antagonists, eventually trapped by their own machinations. But their insistence on portraying their victims as bestial and inhuman, ignoring their own obvious tendencies towards the same, and the fact that they are all eventually referred to in terms that clearly marks them as unnatural humans, moves the blame for their actions from an inherently evil human nature to an inevitably corrupting society. Bonario and Celia are portrayed, untruthfully, as both immoral and inhuman and the charges spoken against them equate the two qualities. The consistent linkage of the deceitful and greedy villains with animal or otherwise monstrous qualities does the same, establishing these vicious characteristics to be as unnatural and foreign to humanity as the appropriation of animal attributes or an alliance with evil supernatural forces. The actions of Volpone and his rapacious aviary are not the result of innate human evil, but of free-will choices and the societal circumstances of the characters. Even Mosca, who proclaims himself a born parasite, “dropped from above,” seems to be not naturally gifted in deception. Ultimately, his protests to Bonario that he is a victim of his social standing, “swayed by strong necessity, / . . . forced to eat my careful bread / With too much obsequy”(3.2.20-22) appear to be more true than he realizes; when wealth gives him the status and power he has worked for, his supposed natural skills at deception finally desert him, resulting in his entrapment. The characters who remain the same despite their financial or social circumstances, in defiance or indifference to human opinion and law, are Bonario and Celia, and their honest natures, finally, point the direction of the play’s critique. Moral monsters are bred, not born, in Volpone.

Work Cited

(Note: Any and all links in this section lead to web-published versions of these texts, which have different citations than the ones listed here.)

Johnson, Ben. Volpone. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume 1B: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. Julia Reidhead, Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000.

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