Prospectus for Volpone
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,
uvre sublime, la plus vive peinture des
murs du siècle, où sétale la
pleine beauté des convoitises méchantes, où
la luxure, la cruauté, lamour de lor, limpudeur
de vice, déploient une poesie sinistre et splendide,
digne dune bacchanale du Titien.
In none other of his plays, not even in The Alchemist,
in Bartholomew Fair, or in The Silent Woman, is Ben Jonsons
prodigious intellect and ardent satirical genius so perfectly revealed
as in Volpone. The whole of Juvenals 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 LAvare, 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.
Volpones 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 Italianthe passion for the theatre. Disguise, costume,
and the attitude have an irresistible attraction for him, the blood
of the mime is in his veins. To be effective, to be imposing, to
play a part magnificently, are as much a joy to him as the consciousness
of the most real qualities and powers; and how perfectly Volpone
acts, how marvellously he improvises! He takes up a rôle with
as much gusto and sureness as a finished comedian for whom the stage
has not yet lost its glamour, and each new part gives him the huge
pleasure of developing and accentuating some characteristic of his
inexhaustibly rich nature, and of exercising his immensely fertile
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 lhomme un être fort, muni de genie, daudace,
de presence désprit, 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 lautorité,
cest-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.
¶ 1898. In addition to designing several full-page
illustrations and numerous initial letters, Beardsley also intended
to write an extended critical essay, by way of introduction to an
edition of Volpone to be published by Leonard Smithers. Volpone
proved to be Beardsleys last work, however, and he had completed
only a handful of the designs before his death. The book appeared
posthumously, with Robert Rosss Eulogy of the Artist;
in the event, the essay was written by Vincent OSullivan.
Smithers printed Beardsleys perceptive notes on the play,
together with the ravishing illustration of Volpone Adoring his
Treasure, as a prospectus for the book.