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Ben Jonson's Black Comedy: A Connection between Othello and Volpone Author(s): Brian F. Tyson Reviewed work(s): Source: Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Winter, 1978), pp. 60-66 Published by: Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University Stable URL: . Accessed: 30/03/2012 05:44
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s Black Jonson' Comedy: A Connection Between Othello and Volpone Ben

BETWEEN RELATIONSHIP SHAKESPEARE ANDJONSON has alwaysbeen a point of interest and disagreement to critics: "Through the whole of the seventeenth century, Jonson's art and learning were contrasted with Shakespeare's natural gift, as in Milton's verses in the Second Folio and his tribute in *L'Allegro to Shakespeare's 'native woodnotes wild.' "1 Admittedly in the swell of praise for Shakespeare in the eighteenth century, reaching its climax in Samuel Johnson's famous Preface to Shakespeare's works, other Elizabethans were almost forgotten. Samuel Johnson, for example, had but "a passing acquaintance with Ben Jonson."2 A century later, even in reaction against the Victorian "bardolatry" of the 1890s, Shaw with typical extremism saw Jonson only as a "brutish pedant"3 whose best use was to reveal the commonplaces of the Elizabethan age that they might be discarded for whatever was unique in Shakespeare. Twentieth-century criticism, of course, acknowledges a more positive relationship between the two writers: we find Derek Traversi maintaining that the Falstaff of 2 Henry IV exhibits the "realistic, moral influence of Ben Jonson,"4 Murray Krieger arguing for the influence of Jonson's popular comedies upon Measure for Measure,5 and 0. J. Campbell seeing in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens a form and temper which owes much to Ben Jonson's Sejanus and Volpone.6 A culmination of this trend is reached in Sydney Musgrove's interesting book Shakespeare and Jonson (1957), in which a case is made for a professional relationship between the two poets, and in particular, for a connection between Volpone and King Lear, which approximately coincide in date. Musgrove traces similarities of theme and phrasing and highlights the beast imagery common to both plays. He believes that Shakespeare and Jonson may have seen one another's work in rehearsal, if not read it in
1 Kenneth Muir, "Changing Interpretations of Shakespeare," in The Age of Shakespeare: A Guide to English Literature, II (London: Cassell, 1961), 286. 2 David Nichol Smith, Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century(Oxford: Clarendon, 1928), p. 50. 3 George Bernard Shaw, Our Theatres in the Nineties (London: Constable, 1932), II, 183. 4 Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (London: Sands, 1957), p. 32. 5 Murray Krieger, "Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Comedy" in PMLA, 66 (September 1951), 775-84. 6 Oscar J. Campbell, Shakespeare's Satire (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1943), pp. 168 if.


BRIAN F. TYSON, Associate Professor of English at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, is the author of several broadcast plays and has contributed articles and reviews to such journals as Canadian Drama, Modern Drama, and The Shaw Review.

Othello AND Volpone


and concludesby saying:"If this readingof the factsis correct,the manuscript, andJonsoncameinto closerrapportaboutthe year 1605 mindsof Shakespeare than ever they had done before, or were to do again."' Though I believe he Musgroveis correct, I find it remarkablethat the play of Shakespeare's chooses for illustrationis KingLear,ratherthan Othello,a play moreprecisely coincidentin date with Jonson'sgrim comedy, and one in which can be seen piece. not merelyechoes, but parodicovertonesof Shakespeare's As usualwith playsof this period,thereare disputesover dating:the date of Othello rests on the reluctantlyaccepted Revels Accounts,which place the The earliest recordedperformanceas "HallamasDay (1 November) 1604."8 is given as 1605in the Jonson First Folio,9 firstperformance year of Volpone's and Jonson himself, in the Prologue, is at pains to point out how closely followedcomposition.If the above dates are reliable,then we do performance and Jonson were on speakingtermswhen the indeed know that Shakespeare hadjust finishedactingin Jonson'sSejanus playswerewritten;for Shakespeare Schellingthoughtwas written"in His Fall in 1603,a play which, incidentally, JuliusCaesar"threeyears deliberateemulationof the successof Shakespeare's was the "second Thereis the possibility,moreover,that Shakespeare earlier.10 Pen"which "had a good share"in Sejanuswhen it was actedon "the publicke though, as Chamberspoints out, in the absenceof the originaltext, Stage,"11 as to the identityof this "happy. . . Genius"is useless.Certainit is, conjecture in any event, that in spite of emulationand collaborationSejanuswas not a and Jonson sharedin its failure,as did RichardBurbage, success;Shakespeare providesa furtherlink who also playedin it-probably the namepart.Burbage and Jonson:for he played the lead in both Sejanusand betweenShakespeare the followOthello,probablycomposedat about the sametime and performed tragedy ing year, and he no doubt rejoicedthat the successof Shakespeare's still is the fact More interesting entirelymade up for the failureof Jonson's.12 this that this talentedactor playedthe title role in Jonson'snext play, Volpone, time a successful comedy. It seems worth asking whether some quality in Burbageis to be found runninglike a threadthroughall threeroles, a quality
that might lead us to our first internal link between Othello and Volpone."3

For if the externalconnectionsbetweenthe two plays are impressive,their internal resemblancesare even more striking. Both plays are Venetian in
7 Sydney Musgrove, Shakespeare and Jonson, Auckland University College English Series No. 9, Bulletin No. 51 (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1957), pp. 38-39. 8 Although J. C. Maxwell argues for an earlier date in "Shakespeare: the Middle Plays" in The Age of Shakespeare, p. 201. 9 C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson, eds., in Ben Jonson, Vol. V (Oxford: Clarendon, 1937), conjecture that this might, on Jonson's reckoning, be early in 1606, a date supported by several internal topicalities. 0 Felix E. Schelling, ed., Ben Jonson's Plays (London: Everyman's Library, 1910), pp. xvii-xviii. Ben Jonson, Epistle to 1st. 4to. of Sejanus (1605), quoted in E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon, 1930), II, 206. 12 For an interesting account of contemporary audience reaction to the two plays, see Leonard Digges' Commendatory Verses to Shakespeare's Poems (1640): "Sejanus too was irksome, they pris'd more / Honest Iago, or the jealous Moore." Jonson's own admiration for Shakespeare's tragedy can perhaps be seen in The Masque of Blackness (performed at Court in January 1605), which presented Niger "in forme and coullor of an Aethiope blacke: his haire and rare beard curled; shadow'd with a blew and bright mantle" (Ben Jonson, Vol. VII [Oxford: Clarendon, 1941], p. 195). 13 The question gains in importance when one remembers Gildon's statement that "Shakespeare put some words and expressions 'perhaps not so agreeable to his Character' into the part of lago, for the benefit of the comedian who played it." E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, p. 461.

background; and Shakespeare has, unusually for him, devised accurate Italian names. Both plays are dramas of contemporary life. The Turkish attack on Cyprus, featured in Othello, took place in 1570; and Sir Politic Would-Bee is still threatening to "sell this state, now to the Turke; / Spight of their galleis . . ." (Volp., IV. i. 130-31)14 in Jonson's comedy. In Othello it has been noted, too, that the characters are taken from lower life more than are the characters of Shakespeare's other tragedies: the highest in rank, the Duke of Venice, a parallel to Jonson's Magnifico. Structural and thematic similarities immediately strike one too: it is in Othello that Shakespeare comes nearest in his tragedies to observing the unities so beloved by Jonson.15And more than one critic has remarked upon Othello's unusual reliance on intrigue and accident, both staples of Volpone. When W. H. Auden says of Othello, "I cannot think of any other play in which only one character performs personal actions-all the deeds are lago's-and all the others without exception only exhibit behaviour,"16 one is tempted to cite Jonson's play, in which, substituting Mosca for lago, the same generalization holds equally true. In addition, parallel themes exist in the two plays. In Shakespeare's tragedy the primary project would seem to be gulling or deceiving: lago gulls Othello, Roderigo, Emilia, and Desdemona. The play's impact derives mainly from the success of lago's deceit, which results in insensate jealousy-Othello believing that his wife, Desdemona, is a strumpet, though she is innocent, Roderigo feeling jealous of the Moor over Desdemona, and even lago at times claiming similar feelings with respect to Emilia. In Jonson's comedy the themes are identical: Mosca deceives Volpone, Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino, and Bonario. From Corvino's genuine jealousy over his wife Celia, we pass to his feigned jealousy at the trial (at which he accuses his innocent wife of being a whore), an accusation echoed by Fine Madam Would-Bee, who suspects Celia of seducing her husband. Moreover, there are actual incidents in the two plays that are similar: and it is at this point that the possibility of conscious parody occurs. Almost a hundred years ago, Gervinus in his Shakespeare Commentariesmade the point that Shakespeare in Othello "with wonderful psychological perception ... created a magnificent tragic field for the passion of jealousy, which commonly belongs rather to man's petty self-love and is better suited to comic treatment."917And Thomas Rymer, in 1693, queried derisively why Othello was not called "The Tragedy of the Handkerchief." The handkerchief which fans the flame of Othello's anger, causing him to accuse his wife of harlotry, is transmuted for comic effect in Volponeinto the handkerchief thrown by Celia to the disguised Fox, an act that incenses her husband, who instantly accuses her of harlotry. In both plays an innocent young man is accused with the heroine: Cassio in Othello, Bonario in Volpone. The evidence and false witness in both plays are supplied by scheming underlings; and whether or not "beloved Mosca" was played by the same actor who represented "honest lago," the
All quotations from Volpone are from Herford and Simpson, Ben Jonson, Vol. V. M. R. Ridley in his introduction to the Arden edition of Othello (London: Methuen, 1958) makes this point. 16 W. H. Auden, "The Joker in the Pack," in Shakespeare. Othello. A Casebook, ed. John Wain (London: Macmillan, 1971), p. 199. 17 G. G. Gervinus, Shakespeare Commentaries, trans. F. E. Bunnett (London: Smith, Elder, 1877), p. 506.
14 15

audiencein 1605 would surely have recognizedthe irony in the appellation "beloved." Jonson's play reveals grotesque reflections of Shakespeare'sat several points: reflectionsof language, of setting, almost of shape. Voltore's lying is strongly speechto the Scrutineo(Volp.,IV. v) concerning Celia's"lewdness" reminiscent of the baitingof Brabantio(Oth., I. i). Corvinohere plays lago's into crudetermswhat Voltore/ role, which is to interjectremarks,translating Roderigoput more formally.Thus, Roderigosays that Desdemonais
with no worse nor betterguard Transported But with a knaveof commonhire, a gundolier To the gross claspsof a lasciviousMoor. (Oth., I. i. 124-26)18

Similarly,Voltore says of Celia:

... she baited A stranger,a graue knight,with her loose eyes, And more lasciuiouskisses.This man saw 'hem Together,on the water,in a gondola. (Volp.,IV. v. 146-49)

Corvino excitedly interrupts,claiming that Celia "Neighes, like a iennet" (Volp., IV. v. 119), a statementthat preciselyechoes the words employedby lago as he taunts Brabantio,"you'll have your nephewsneigh to you; you'll have coursersfor cousins, and gennetsfor germans" (Oth., I. i. 112-13). Even the probablestaging,with Brabantioand the Avocatorioccupyingthe gallery and being addressedby speakers from the platform below, would serve, I audience. think, to reinforcethe parallelto a contemporary Another parallelconcernsthe near discoveryof the deceiverby one of the deceived. Voltore's suspicion of Mosca's duplicity (Volp., III. ix) parallels Roderigo'ssimilarsuspicionof lago (Oth.,IV. ii), to whom, in similarfashion, he has givenjewels in expectationof a greaterreturn.Both Mosca and lago brazen it out, and actually succeedin persuadingthe gull to believe an even greaterlie. Indeed,to overcomethe implausibility of havingthe suspiciousgull become trusting again so soon, both dramatistslet the completion of the deceptionoccuroff stage:Mosca'spromiseto explainthingslater("Ile tell you how, anone") beingthe sameas lago's "go along withme;I will show you such a necessity.. ." (Oth., IV. ii. 239-40). A third example of parallel setting concerns the climax of Shakespeare's play. While Othello is in the very act of killing Desdemona (and the First Quarto stage direction"he stiflesher" remindsone of the talk of stiflingthe sick Volpone),he is interrupted by the arrivalof Emilia,who excitedlyknocks on the door (Oth., V. ii). In what looks like parodicmimicry,Jonsonmanages the actionin such a way that Corvino,whilehe is threatening the life of his wife Celia in his jealous fit, is interrupted by the arrivalof Mosca (Volp., II. v-vi). Moreover,both Othello and Corvinoare waiting for news of a much-desired death. Othello's fearful whisper "'Tis like she comes to speak of Cassio's death"(Oth., V. ii. 92) is echoedcomicallyby Corvino's"Let him come in, his
18 All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. B. Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).




master's dead" (Volp., II. vi. 1). But when the intruders enter, the news is contrary. In Othello Emilia reports that far from being killed, Cassio has killed "a young Venetian." And Volpone, says Mosca, far from dying, "is recovered." In his anguish at this point Othello cries out: "Murder's out of tune and sweet revenge grows harsh." Corvino-not to be outdone-exclaims: "I am bewitched, my crosses meet to vex me." Though the moment and the atmosphere differ vastly in these two scenes, A. Gilbert's hint that the conversation between Neighbor and Love-Wit in The Alchemist (V. i. 35 ff.) may constitute a derisive reference to Desdemona's death scene strengthens the possibility of parody here.'9 Similar examples of apparent parody are Celia's plea to Volpone that she prizes her innocence above all else (Volp., III. vii), which corresponds to Desdemona's plea to Othello and lago (Oth., IV. ii); Voltore's feigned fit when he collapses before the Scrutineo vomiting crooked pins (Volp., V. xii), which surely must have reminded a contemporary audience of Othello's collapse (Oth., IV. i); and the "fine Devill" Mosca being led away to be whipped, a reminder of the "demi-devil" lago being led away to be tortured. Verbal parallels also point to the connections between the two plays. Othello tragically mistakes Desdemona for "that cunning whore of Venice / That married with Othello" (Oth., IV. ii. 88-89), while Lady Would-Bee comically mistakes Peregrine for "the most cunning curtizan of Venice" (Volp., III. v. 20). "Virtue! a fig!" exclaims lago, the once-jealous husband. "Honour? tut, a breath," exclaims Corvino, the once-jealous husband. Brabantio believes that his daughter Desdemona has been "abus'd, stol'n from me, and corrupted / By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks" (Oth., I. iii. 60-61)-a fate that almost befalls Celia, when Volpone, disguised as a "prating mountebank," tries to steal and corrupt her. And Othello's speech describing Desdemona, beginning "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul" (Oth., V. ii), seems mockingly answered by Mosca's speech describing Celia (Volp., I. v), with its parallel references to "stars," "blood," "white skin," and "snow". A close examination of the language of the two plays reveals that Shakespeare and Jonson frequently employ similar metaphors. Both, for example, see the destruction of innocence in musical terms: when lago says "I'll set down the pegs that make this music" (Oth., II. i. 200), he anticipates Mosca's delight in making "So rare a musique out of Discordes . . ." (Volp., V. ii. 18). As Clemen has pointed out, Othello's gradual infection with the disease of it also receives parodic jealousy permeates the imagery of Shakespeare's play;20 tribute in Volpone's astonishing array of complaints. Thus, when lago advises Cassio, "This broken joint between you and her husband entreat her to splinter" (Oth., II. iii. 322-23), he ushers in a disease metaphor which is equally central to Volpone, about whose principal character it is said that "a freezing numnesse stiffens all his ioynts" (Volp., I. iv. 43). When lago and Mosca lure people to destruction by lies and false promises, both ironically use the metaphor of medicine: "Work on, / My medicine, [work]! Thus credulous fools are caught" (Oth., IV. i. 43-45); "Yea mary, sir! / This is true physick, this your sacred medicine" (Volp., I. iv. 70-71). Mosca's claim that they "revived" Volpone by pouring Scoto's oil into his ears is a parodic actualization
19 Allan H. Gilbert, The Principles and Practice of Criticism (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1959), p. 63. 20 Wolfgang Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (London: Methuen, 1951), pp. 119 ff.

Othello AND Volpone


of Tago'simage of the way he is going to infect Othello: "I'll pour this pestilence into his ear" (Oth., II. iii. 356). Othello's excuse for desiringthe handkerchief-"I have a salt and sorryrheumoffendsme" (Oth.,III. iv. 51)is picked up in Mosca's description of his "dying" patron, from whom "Flowes a cold sweat, with a continuallrhewme,/ Forth the resoluedcorners of his eyes" (Volp., I. iv. 48-49). And even the tiny detail of the famous itself being "dy'd in mummy"(Oth., III. iv. 74) finds an echo in handkerchief Mosca's suggestionthat they should sell Volpone for "mummia,hee's halfe dust already"(Volp., IV. iv. 14). in imagerycome from the But by far the most significantcorrespondences centralmetaphorof both plays. As CarolineSpurgeonnoted long ago, "The In her main image in Othellois that of animals,preyingupon one another."21 comparisonbetweenthe animalimageryof Othelloand that of KingLear, she point that the scale of the latteris muchgreaterthan the makesthe interesting former,the animalsmore dignified;whereasin Othello"we see a low type of and preyingon each other,not out of special life, insectsand reptilesswarming Spurgeon's ferocity but just in accordancewith their natural instincts."22 symbolized imageof Volpone, descriptionappliesperfectlyto the predominant by Mosca, the Fly, circling the body of the "dying"Fox to lure the carrion to the level of beasts. people arereduced eatersin. In both Othelloand Volpone Cassio lamentsthe loss of his reputationthus:"O [God], that men should put an enemyin their mouthsto steal away theirbrains!that we should, withjoy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!" (Oth., II. iii. 289-93). On one level, of course, he refersto alcohol. But with unconscious irony he also toucheson a deep theme of the play, the powerof words over people: the enemy in the mouth of lago does indeed-at Othello'sown behest-steal away the Moor's brains,with the result that he is transformed for him Jonson takes the metaphorone stage further: into a beast. In Volpone, by vice itself is a beast, a beast that has to grow fat before being slaughtered virtue.This is expressedin the last image of the play:"Mischiefesfeed / Like beasts, till they be fat, and then they bleed" (Volp., V. xii. 150-51). Finally, what is most strikingis that the very beasts chosen by the two authorsare in rarities.Flies, moths, most cases identical. Volponeincludes Shakespearean worms, locusts, ravens, gulls, asses, crocodiles, baboons, goats, and toads in both plays,and the movementdownthe GreatChainof appearsignificantly Being is clear. Othello and Volponeexhibit too many correspondencesfor coincidence alone to accountfor them. But the questionremains:what are we to make of in intentionand effectfar outweigh them?Hereare two playswhose differences any similaritiesof structureand content:one the most painful and powerful tragedy;the othera riotous-if at timesgrim-comedy. It seemsto me thatthe facts assembled above confirm Musgrove'sthesis: Shakespeareand Jonson wereindeedin close rapportaroundthe year 1605.Moreover,it seemspossible SinceI am now that thereis a causalconnectionbetweenOthelloand Volpone. in the realm of conjecture,let me suggest what that connection may be, following up a clue in the prefatory Epistle to Jonson's play. A fervent classicist, Jonson always directed his work, not at the groundlings,but at
21 Caroline F. Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936), p. 335.

Spurgeon,p. 336.




"scholars that can judge." Volpone is dedicated to the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge, to whose austere ears the author feels obliged to explain the "reason for his play"; a reason which, he claims, lies in its subject. He immediately goes on to say: "It is certayne, nor can it with any fore-head be oppos'd, that the too-much licence of Poetasters, in this time, hath much deform'd their Mistris" (Volp., The Epistle, 13-15). In the light of this it may not be too fanciful to suppose that Jonson here is "correcting" his friend Shakespeare, deliberately emulating that tragic source of comedy beloved of the Greeks where the tragic trilogy was nearly always followed by a fourth play "in which the same material which (the author) had been treating so tragically was suddenly seized by the bootstraps and turned upside down until apples and silverware and every sort of improper thing plummeted out of its pockets."23
23 W.

P. Ker, Tragedy and Comedy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), p. 23.