- “This is called mortifying of a fox”:Volpone and How To Get Rich Quick by Dying Slowly
Why does Volpone counterfeit dying?1 For most readers, the answer has seemed obvious: he wants to make a profit. From his entrance, Volpone is marked as avaricious. His first action is to worship gold, and his fraud evokes a long tradition of literary misers extracting gifts from Legacy Hunters.2 So far, so conventional, and of a piece with Jonson’s characteristic satire of hypocrisy and greed.3 However, Volpone himself cautions against this interpretation. Both he and Mosca note the ready availability of socially accepted strategies to make money outside their peculiar practice. Volpone insists that he gains “no common way” (1.1.33), while Mosca distinguishes the scam from the actions of usurers, who “devour / Soft prodigals” (ll. 40–41) or
Tear forth the fathers of poor familiesOut of their beds, and coffin them aliveIn some kind, clasping prison, where their bonesMay be forthcoming when the flesh is rotten.(ll. 44–47)
Emphatically rejecting established paths to wealth understood as trading in the actual or simulated death of others, Volpone trades in the death of the self.4 [End Page 140]
Such distinctions between the common and the singular are precisely what are at stake at Volpone’s deathbed. Through Volpone’s counterfeit, Jonson explores how the obligations imagined to unite individuals within a community alter when a social world centered on informal local networks gives way to one composed of autonomous individuals and public institutions. To account for the fraud, I contrast the value-creating spiritual and material economies that homiletic ars moriendi texts imagine to operate at the good communal deathbed with Roberto Esposito’s account of the munus, the unending, life-threatening obligation to give embedded in an idea of community.5 Volpone, like Esposito, associates community with assumption into non-being. By imitating a dying man surrounded by concerned neighbors, he refigures such dissolution into the common as a willed act that affirms separation and autonomy. Once discovered, Volpone’s actions are punished, yet significantly, aspects of the economy he creates around the deathbed survive his condemnation. The court that sentences him does not neutralize his earlier challenge to informal community.6 Instead, it co-opts and extends that challenge by confiscating Volpone’s substance to support the public hospital of the Incurabili and imprisoning him indefinitely in a state of mortification. Ultimately, Volpone’s treatment of the nexus between property, individuality, and dying suggests distinctive aspects of the modern public sphere that emerge as alternatives to or even rejections of traditional devotional practices, but nevertheless retain core assumptions and strategies belonging to the practices they purport to supersede.
Moreover, analyzing the fraud in Volpone can clarify Jonson’s dramatic practice more generally. The interactions between the individual and the common at Volpone’s deathbed provide insight into Jonson’s understanding of the commercial theater, another space that can be seen as a site either of value-generating [End Page 141] communal endeavor or of individualistic artistic, authorial, or critical aspirations. Since Jonah Barish’s influential description of Jonson as an “anti-theatrical” playwright, suspicious of spectacle and impersonation, critics have been inclined to read a condemnation of theatricality into the depiction of Volpone’s fraud.7 However, as I show, Volpone is less concerned with rejecting morally dubious mimetic deception than with exploring the nature of a selfhood that understands itself through its ability to mimetically deceive. An ethical critique of Volpone’s actorly duplicity and avarice exists alongside an exploratory investigation into the unstable relations created between the performer’s embodied impersonation, the author’s words, and the audience’s judgment. Jonson shows how postures of institutionally mandated mortification may be proper to both Volpone and the player representing him. Reading Volpone next to the ars moriendi and Esposito, then, illuminates changes in early modern conceptions of community and the consequences of these changes for Jonson’s theatrical practice.
Dying For Profit
Volpone’s fraud exploits a well-established theological and devotional assumption that a shared experience of Christian death strengthens communal bonds...