Essay: Plays of Ben Jonson

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Ben Jonson

Intertextualities: The Influence of the Classics in Ben Jonson's Volpone

Ben Jonson is a writer who was deeply influenced by earlier novels in both themes and structures. In the opening of the Prologue to Volpone, the play of interest in this paper, Jonson invokes Horace and Aristotle, promising to "mix profit with your pleasure" and to observe the "laws of Time, Place, Persons"

what is known as classical decorum. There are plenty of critics who see a balance in Jonson's work, as he invokes the classics when and where he deems it appropriate to the contexts of his writings. There are other critics, however, that would argue that Jonson not only based his work on classics, but essentially copied them. While this is one opinion, it is better suggested that Jonson did not copy, but rather, he shaped Volpone and its meanings by using other texts. Jonson borrows themes and motifs from several classic writers and writes Volpone in a way that feels like a response to earlier works. For this reason, the post-modern notion of intertextuality can be applied to Volpone. Baskervill wrote that Jonson "seized upon ideas and methods which had run through English literature almost unconsciously and yet with increasing strength, and that after his own fashion brought them to consciousness and to the dignity if a type and formulated the laws of that type." Thus it cannot be merely assumed that Jonson was a plagiarist, lacking in originality. "Technically considered, no one of the Elizabethan poets is more original than he."

Taking these comments into account, this paper will serve the purpose of showing how Volpone is rife with intertextuality, being influenced by Catullus, Plautus, Juvenal, Dante and Horace -- among others.

Intertextuality is a way of communicating and it occurs when an author refers to other texts within his own text expecting that his readers will understand the references as part of the strategy of the text. The ideal reader will not only be aware of these references but will also understand that the author is aware of their presence in the text as well as the reader's awareness of them. "This form of intertextuality will therefore as a rule be intended, distinct form non-intertextual passages, and marked, and it is held to be different from influence as well as from plagiarism."

In some cases, it can also work to legitimize a piece of literary work.

The postmodernist concept of intertextuality can best be characterized by this classic quotation of Julia Kristeva's:

Tout texte se construit comme mosaique de citations, tout texte est absorption et transformation d' un autre texte. A la place de la notion d'intersubjecctivite s'installe celle d'intertextualite, et le langage poetique se lit, au moins, comme double. (Every text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations, every text is an absorption and a transformation of another text. Thus the term 'intersubjectivity' is replaced by the term 'intertextuality,' and the language of poetry has to be read, at the least, as double).

The text of Volpone is literally filled with imitations of famous classical writing. One example can be seen in the legacy hunting (the main plot of the play), specifically in its combining attacks on the captators (legacy hunters, grasping people) of imperial Rome in Horace's Satires 2.5, several of Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead, and a part of Petronius's Saturicon, with some smaller elements taken from Juvenal. The characterization of Lady Would-be Politic as a chatterbox also comes straight from Juvenal's misogynistic Satire 6, with elaborations from Du Mulier Loquaci (a Latin translation of a Greek declamation by Libanius of Antioch which became the major source for Epicoene or the Silent Woman). The first entertainment performed by Volpone's attendants, Nano, Androgyno, and Castrone parodies Pythagoras's doctrine of reincarnation, combines Lucians Somnium with details taken from the De Philosophorum Vitis of Diogenes Laertius. There are also quite a few lengthy speeches that are purposefully based on popular classical models. One example is at the beginning of Volpone when Volpone parodies Ovid's description of the Golden Age in Book I of Metamorphoses; his description of old age is a reworking of Juvenal's Satire 10, and his wooing song to Celia translates -- but also corrupts a famous love poem by Catullus. Volpone is a play filled with classical echoes and reminiscences, which are transformed by placing them in different contexts. During the Renaissance, this intertextuality was called "imitatio" and it represents how classical texts and themes manifested themselves in Renaissance literature.

One of the Latin writers whom English love poets have obviously admired is Catullus. Blevins notes that during the 1920s and 1930s, there was very little recognition concerning the significance of Catullus' poems and their impact on English writers. However, in 1939, James McPeek wrote a book entitled, Catullus in Strange and Distant Britain, and it remains to this day one of the most detailed works in illustrating the influence of Catullus on English poetry. In the book, he alludes to very specific passages in Catullus' poems and how they were used later in Renaissance literature including Jonson's Volpone.

The one place where Catullus' influence on Jonson cannot be denied is in the song that Volpone sings to Celia in an attempt to seduce her. While this is readily the most apparent use of Catullus intertextuality, it can also be argued that Catullus influences the entire play when it comes to themes and motifs. Catullus goes back and forth between love/hate in his feelings for Lesbia in Carmina, just as Volpone and Corvino do in relation to Celia. These vacillations in both works, in the end, depict a certain readiness to degrade relationships to merely financial ones, which puts the woman -- Lesbia in Catullus' case and Celia in Jonson's -- in the position of a prostitute.

Jonson uses contaminatio -- the combining of discreet sources into a text to make a wholly new work -- in Volpone more than in any other of his plays (though he also uses it to a large extent in the Alchemist as well). Erasmus' in Praise of Folly, Petronius' Satyricon, Lucian's satires, and beast fables are commonly cited as sources for Jonson's Volpone.

All of these sources are a major part of the Volpone and they have all gotten their share of attention because of this. Catullus' poem, however, does not receive as much attention, in general, when it comes to citing sources for Jonson's play. The poem, when closely examined, gives Jonson everything he needs to structure the world of corrupt Venice in the play.

Volpone's song of the attempted seduction of Celia (though he fails and thus tries to rape her) is taken straight from Catallus' carmina 5 -- one of the most well-known kiss poems. However, Shelburne

notes that critics' assessment of the relationship between the play and the poem are incorrectly based on a fractured evaluation of Catullus' poems and of the relationship between the poem and the play. Talk of Jonson's contaminatio generally reflect upon how Volpone perverts the expression of love that Jonson takes from the poem -- taking what was sweet and innocent and putting it into the mouth of Volpone, making it greedy and lustful. Slights states:

Volpone continues his virtuoso performance with the famous carpe diem lyric adapted from Catallus…[which is] charming in itself but devastating to his cause in this context… the social divisiveness that Volpone advocates in the song, harmless enough in the context of Catullus's little book of verse, but thoroughly nasty in Jonson's play, compounds itself ironically when the effect of the song is further to alienate the 'beloved.'

Jonson's revision and adaptation of the Catullan poem is probably a few of his most anthologized lines. Sara van den Berg states that the "polished redactions of the Catullan lyric…often measure the world of love in terms of the actual English world." Alexander Leggatt along those same lines argues that the Celia poem combines "traditional motifs" with the focus on a "surrounding reality" that is "more factual" and "simpler."

Jacob Blevins states, "Lesbia is quite a willing participant; Celia is not. Rape is an option for Volpone; Catullus' lover claims that he wants a real relationship based on something more than physical desire."

Blevins suggests that Jonson wrote at the start of a trend in which neo-classical poets imitated the words of their classical predecessors but not necessarily their sentiments. Stephen Orgel states that Renaissance art gave its patrons the pleasures of recognition, and he argued that this is one of the reasons why the song to Celia very clearly alludes to Catullus' poem.

Other critics feel strongly that Jonson's use is a blatant corruption of the poem. James Riddell

states that Volpone's song ends on a note that isn't "anything close to the letter or the spirit of [Catullus's] poem." He thus indicts Volpone's manipulation of language: "To employ Catullus's lovely poem to such perverse ends is to deny what poetry's chief aim must be, to delight and to teach… [END OF PREVIEW]

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