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Volpone was first brought out at the Globe Theatre in 1605 and printed in quarto in 1607, after having been acted with great applause at both Universities, and was republished by Jonson in 1616 without alterations or additions. Volpone is undoubtedly the finest comedy in the English language outside the works of Shakespeare. Daring and forcible in conception, brilliant and faultless in execution, its extraordinary merits have excited the enthusiasm of all critics. The great French historian of English literature, Henri Taine, has devoted to it some of the most splendid pages of his famous work. “Volpone,” he exclaims,
œuvre sublime, la plus vive peinture des mœurs du siècle, où s’étale la pleine beauté des convoitises méchantes, où la luxure, la cruauté, l’amour de l’or, l’impudeur de vice, déploient une poesie sinistre et splendide, digne d’une bacchanale du Titien.
In none other of his plays, not even in The Alchemist, in Bartholomew Fair, or in The Silent Woman, is Ben Jonson’s prodigious intellect and ardent satirical genius so perfectly revealed as in Volpone. The whole of Juvenal’s satires are not more full of scorn and indignation than this one play, and the portraits which the Latin poet has given us of the letchers, dotards, pimps and parasites of Rome, are not drawn with a more passionate virulence than the English dramatist has displayed in the portrayal of the Venetian magnifico, his creatures and his gulls. Like Le Misanthrope, Le Festin de Pierre, like L’Avare, Volpone might more fitly be styled a tragedy, for the pitiless unmasking of the fox at the conclusion of the play is terrible rather than sufficient. Volpone is a splendid sinner and compels our admiration by the fineness and very excess of his wickedness. We are scarcely shocked by his lust, so magnificent is the vehemence of his passion, and we marvel and are aghast rather than disgusted at his cunning and audacity. As Mr. Swinburne observes, “there is something throughout of the lion as well as the fox in this original and incomparable figure.”
Volpone’s capacity for pleasure is even greater than his capacity for crime, and Ben Jonson has added to these two salient characteristics a third, which is equally dominant in the Italian—the passion for the theatre. Disguise, costume, and the attitude have an irresistible attraction for him, the blood of the mime is in his veins.
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One of the most striking features in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is the wonderful knowledge which our poets possess of the Italian nature, but it is generally upon the more gloomy side of that nature that they have dwelt with the greatest success.
In Volpone we find the beau-idéal of manhood as the seventeenth century in Italy conceived it. “Faire de l’homme un être fort, muni de genie, d’audace, de presence d’ésprit, de fine politique, de dissimulation, de patience, et tourner toute cette puissance à la recherche de tous les plaisirs, de luxe, des arts, des lettres, de l’autorité, c’est-à-dire, fermer et déchaîner un animal admirable et redoutable”, such, in the words of Taine, was the aim of polite education in the days of Benvenuto Cellini.
The qualities which the Latin nations admire most are beauty, strength, cunning and versatility, and Volpone is Latin to the finger tips. He is as perfect an epitome of the Southern races as Hamlet is of the Northern.