This is a first edition of Ben Jonson’s comedy Volpone or The Foxe, printed in 1607.
Set in early 17th-century Venice, Volpone provides a merciless portrayal of a money-mad society – a theme which is as relevant today as it was in the early 1600s. Jonson created characters that are epitomised by their greed. Old Volpone is determined to acquire wealth and riches from Venetian citizens whom he, and his servant/‘parasite’ Mosca, have deceived into thinking will inherit his estate – thus all sides are motivated by money. The plot devolves into increasingly ridiculous and obscene episodes which serve to reflect the moral erosion of the characters. In this way the play becomes a farce, and the characters and their vices become the focus of laughter and disgust for the audience.
The first performance of Volpone
The play was performed at the Globe Theatre by the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting company) in the spring of 1606, and toured Oxford and Cambridge universities that summer. It was a hit with audiences and academics alike, and in the printed dedication of this edition Jonson writes of his gratitude to the universities for their warm reception.
The success of Volpone marked a turning point in Jonson’s career as a dramatist, and it is the first fully fledged example of the satirical city comedies that Jonson is famous for.
The Epistle and Jonson’s writing philosophy
In the Epistle Jonson writes directly to his audience. He uses the opportunity to explain his writing philosophy, distance himself from his contemporaries, and defend his work against criticism:
- Page 1 of The Epistle: ‘the too much licence of poetasters [inferior poets], in this time, hath much deformed their mistress’ – Jonson believed that other playwrights were lowering the tone of the theatre because they did not respect the classical structures of poetry or drama.
- Page 5 of The Epistle: ‘I have laboured, for their [other playwrights] instruction, and amendment, to reduce not only the ancient forms, but manners of the scene, the easiness, the propriety, the innocence, and last the doctrine’ – Jonson adheres to the classical concept of dramatic unity in which there is one main plot that takes place over a period of no more than 24 hours, and which is set in one geographical location. Therefore it is his belief that his work has more integrity and finesse than that of the ‘poetasters’.
- Page 5 of The Epistle: ‘it being the office of a comic poet to imitate justice, and instruct to life, as well as purity of language, or stir up gentle affections’ – Jonson insists that it is the duty of the poet, or playwright, to instruct an audience on morality by exposing vice and displaying its downfall on stage.
What is unique about this copy of the first edition?
This copy of the play was given by Jonson to his friend John Florio (c. 1553–1625), and includes a handwritten dedication:
To his loving Father & worthy Friend
Mr John Florio
The Ayde of his Muses
Ben: Jonson seakes this testimony
of Friendship & Love
Florio, the English-born son of an Italian Protestant refugee, was an elite language tutor who later made his name as a dictionary-writer and translator. In this capacity as an Italian language expert Florio probably helped Jonson with the language and Italian details in Volpone. In Florio’s Italian–English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes (1598), the definition of volpone is given as: ‘an old fox, an old reinard, an old craftie, slie, subtle companion, sneaking, lurking wily deceiver’. All of which sum up the character of Volpone perfectly.
To his Loving Father, & worthy Friend
Mr John Florio:
The ayde of his Muses
Ben: Jonson seakes this testimony
of Friendship, & Love.