Similarities in Othello and Volpone
Upon reading Shakespeare's l604 tragedy, Othello, the Moor of Venice and Jonson's l606 comedy, Volpone, or The Foxe, a reader will notice both similarities and differences. In both plays, we meet characters of "rare ingenious knavery." Indeed, Iago, Volpone, and Mosca are uncommonly similar in nature. An elaborate "con game" is practiced in each play through intriguing dramatic inventiveness. However, the focus of Shakespeare's tragedy is upon a noble and heroic figure; the focus of Jonson's comedy is upon a monster of depravity, a genius in crime.
Comparisons between these great plays continues to pale when Jonson's script is held up to scrutiny. Whereas Shakespeare's seventeenth century work in comedy would turn continually toward soft edges, romance, and the pastoral, mixing both the serious and the humorous, Jonson established a reputation as one of the major social satirists of the English dramatic tradition. In fact, Jonson's comedies establish the tradition of social comedy on the English stage. In Volpone, although the satire is ultimately moral, its immediate aim is mostly social or legal. The play unmasks the artificial features of respectability, exposing vice and the manipulations of hypocrites. To his credit, Jonson did not altogether excuse the imperceptiveness of the victims in the play. Jonson's central characters are among the early models of "anti-heroes," a term generally restricted to characters found in Dostoevski, Sartre, or Camus. The specimens dramatized in Volpone are not merely fools, but money-hungry, lustful, morally despicable knaves. Their names immediately suggest their depravity because they are identified with the world of beasts. Thus, the lawyer, Voltore, is named for the vulture, the deaf old Corbaccio for the raven, the violet Corvino for the crow, the parasitical Mosca for the fly, and the sly, scheming Volpone for the wily fox. This kind of deception continues to the purely comic characters of the subplot: the Knight Sir Politic Wouldbe, a wholly gullible social climber, is reduced to Sir Pol, the parrot; his wife, Lady Politic Wouldbe, chatters endlessly in the manner of the parrot; and the traveler, Peregrine, is named for a hunting falcon. Only Celia and Bonario escape animal imagery, but they are morally typed by their names (Celia means heavenly and Bonario means good-natured).
The wicked central character, Volpone, is incapable of either generosity or self-knowledge. He only fails in his greedy aspirations because of the tendency of vice to overreach itself. In the play, the mainly passive, virtuous characters are practically defenseless against scoundrels cloaked in propriety and skilled in legal dodging. The good-natured guardians of the law are dull-witted, and the true innocents, Bonario and Celia, finally escape only because the knaves ensnare themselves. If the laws of the state are vindicated, it is a hollow victory.
The comic ploy of...