Class and Identity Flexibility in Ben Jonson’s Volpone

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Upon first impression, Ben Jonson’s Volpone has the most authority out of all the characters in the play. Indeed Volpone’s initial high social rank provides him the privilege to morph into various identities without tangible social consequences. On the contrary, Mosca’s rank confines him to the role of Volpone’s parasite. He constantly aids Volpone in transformation, but he can never partake in transformation himself. However, when Volpone finally falls, the parasite usurps Volpone’s master identity and seemingly gains the benefits of his rank. His new habit as a clarissimo affords him greater respect, “Here comes the gentleman; make him way” (V.xii. 48). Yet after Mosca receives the license to transform, he displays a dire need for fixity. Mosca must solidify his transformation by grounding his status in reality. As long as Volpone lives, Volpone maintains some agency of his former identity and he can unmask himself and the con. This places Mosca in a vulnerable, liminal role between parasite and host with the threat of social reorder looming over him. The comedy’s first scene indicates Volpone’s high status has afforded him identity flexibility. Jonson presents Volpone as a nobleman whose status exempts him from securing his fortune in a less than “noble, valiant, honest…way” (I.i. 27). In particular, Volpone makes a direct connection between class and money by commenting on how others must labor for their wealth, but his status permits him to “glory/More in the cunning purchase of my wealth/Than in the glad possession” (I.i. 30-31). Through this line, Jonson implies that Volpone’s high social rank relieves him of financial anxiety and enables him to engage in elaborate disguises and immoral schemes. Jonson further disp... ... middle of paper ... ...." Project MUSE - "Monstrous Manner": Style and the Early Modern Theater. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014. "common, n.1." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 5 May 2014. Hyland, Peter. Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Pub. Co., 2011. Print. Jonson, Ben, and Richard Harp. Ben Jonson's plays and masques: authoritative texts of Volpone, Epicoene, The alchemist, The masque of blackness, Mercury vindicated from the alchemists at court, Pleasure reconciled to virtue : contexts, backgrounds and sources, criticism.. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print. Maltby, Robert. "Classical Receptions in Drama and Poetry in English from c.1970 to the Present." Classical Receptions. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.
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