BEN JONSON’S VOLPONE
A friend of the First Folio family
Volpone is yet another play to examine the Puritan illness, and its healing through the ministry of the Gnostic written word. There is a particular emphasis on the interior erotic element, and the threat it brings to the ego which has suppressed the libido; and Jonson would have gained this Jungian knowledge from Bacon’s work on the inner life of William Shakespeare, and the catastrophic breakdown which had stricken him in 1587, after some eight years of enthralment by the Puritan tyranny.
Act I is a closely wrought depiction of the threat to the Puritan ego of the libido as described in the Gnostic written word. First, let us determine the allegoric values of its principal characters.
1) Volpone The Puritan subject.
2) Mosca We recall that the name of ‘Musco’ in Every Man in his Humour was derived from the Latin musca, ‘fly’, and, by transference, ‘a troublesome person’ (Plautus); and that he bore in that play the value of the libido evoked by the visual imagination of the Puritan ego, to torment him. An excellent example might be the Aphrodite-figure Fotis, and her graphically described seduction of Lucius in Apuleius’ magical masterpiece of psychic transformation The Golden Ass. Just so does Mosca bear that value here. Thus, his cozening of valuables for the benefit of his master Volpone in Act I represents the waxing of eros in the Puritan imagination, against his will (see below).
3) Voltore We recall that the character of Face in The Alchemist bears the value of the written word itself, with Subtle the unseen world evoked thereby. For the word is merely the interface between the reader and the world of the writer; and it is constantly emphasised in the First Folio that the word is useless unless based on the visual imagination, and evocative of it. This is the point, for example, of Claudius’ ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;/Words without thoughts, never to heaven go’ in Hamlet III, iii.
4) Corvino His name is derived from the Italian corvino, ‘raven-black’. He represents the underworld or unseen world: specifically, in this case, the will-to-eros.
5) Corbaccio His name is derived from the Spanish corbacho, ‘pizzle’.
You may notice a pattern emerging. Material wealth bears always in the First Folio plays, and the Jonsonian plays examined thus far, the value of the power of a principle. In Act I, the cunning Volpone, with the aid of Mosca, first cozens Voltore, then Corbaccio, then Corvino: the sequence being Gnostic written word→arousal of ithyphallos-libido. That it is the word that is involved is confirmed by the frequent mention by the comic figures Nano (Dwarf), Androgyne (Hermaphrodite) and Castrone (Eunuch), of Pythagoras and other great Gnostic writers and philosophers. Further, there is the matter of their songs: for music bears always in FF the value of the Gnostic written word, as derived from Plato’s Republic, where Socrates states that ‘music’ includes all training by means of words or sounds: speech and song, recital and repetition, reading and writing, and so on. The Gnostic word, or broader Musical Arts, is further represented in FF by the characters of Dr Bellario in The Merchant of Venice and Philario in Cymbeline: aria being of course the Italian for ‘[musical] air’; bella for ‘beautiful’, ‘good’, ‘fine’; while philo is the Greek for ‘I love’. In the last scene of Cymbeline the ‘-ario’ of ‘Philario’ is glossed as referring to Imogen, a typical Queen of Hell-Grail Queen. All of which brings us to the character in Volpone of
6) Bonario – an identical twin to Dr. Bellario: the French bon meaning ‘good’, ‘fine’. Mosca’s injunction to him in III, vii, to ‘walk, the while,/Into that gallery – at the upper end,/There are some books, to entertain the time’ is utterly consistent with this. Just as consistent is his love for
7) Celia We recall that the name ‘Celia’ in As You Like It was derived from the Greek kelai, ‘black’, to identify her as a Queen of Hell-Grail Queen: specifically – of deepest significance in relation to the tortured early life of Shakesepare – a Goddess of the auto-erotist. There is strong evidence in FF that it was the episode of the seduction of Lucius in Apuleius’ TGA – surrendered to as auto-erotism - that was the trigger to Shakespeare’s breakdown. Thus the presence of Celia in Volpone suggests that Jonson most plausibly may have had Shakespeare’s own case history in mind: for Volpone’s attempted ravishing of Celia in III, vii, represents just this act of auto-erotism, or at least the threat of it, with specific reference to the life of Shakespeare. The other great example of the equivalence of Grail Queen and Goddess of the auto-erotist is Ophelia, the prologue to whose death, when she floats supine and singing on the brook, identifies her as the Holy Spirit, Who was female in the Gnostic tradition – the Biblical ‘Spirit that moved on the face of the waters’. Closely germane to Celia is
8) Madam Would-Bee Her torrent of learned references to great Gnostic authors in III, iv - Pythagoras, Plato, Dante and so on – identifies her as the Goddess revealed in the written word. Is Gnostic terms, she is a higher Sophia to Celia’s (at this stage) lower Sophia: the world experienced as Platonic Idea rather than will. At her bottom will therefore be revealed the will, or unseen world, or underworld: specifically, in this case, the will-to-eros, which is the value born by her husband
9) Sir Politique Would-Bee That this is indeed his true weight is confirmed by the episode of his self-concealment in – of all things – a tortoise-shell, from where he is pulled into the sunlight in V, iv. This represents the revelation of the unseen world at the bottom of all things, through the ministry of the Gnostic written word (his papers aflame, set on fire in another room: cf. the similar symbolism in ). He is accompanied by
10) Peregrine - who represents, consistently, the ithyphallic principle. This is confirmed by his frequent association with “I” for the expected “Ay”, a technique we have seen in abundance in so many of the First Folio, apocryphal, and Jonsonian plays, to suggest the ithyphallos-libido, or broader unseen world. A good example is in V, iv, 34: “I,/Was a fugitive punk?” (Politique, with reference to Peregrine). There are plentiful “I’’s for “Ay”’s in Volpone: non-specific as always, and used in a wide variety of circumstances, to reflect the utter centrality of the unseen world to Bacon’s, and his favourite pupil Jonson’s, philosophy.
Let us now look more closely at the remainder of Volpone.
The omens observed in England predict, on the plane of allegory, the psychological crisis to come. Stone, the Fool, is yet another in the long line of his kind in the works of Bacon’s atelier. He is dead, as his principle always is in the mind of the Puritan; and we recall Hamlet’s ‘Alas, poor Yorick…’ There is a further reference to Hamlet in Politique’s solemn advice to Peregrine in IV, i, which recalls Polonius’ to Laertes, who also represent libido and ithyphallos respectively. However, whereas in Hamlet the Puritan ego, in the absence of the ministrations of the Gnostic tradition (exit in I, i, of Francisco (Bacon) never to return) declines into paranoid schizophrenia, it will be the purpose of Jonson’s play to show his redemption. Jonson certainly had inside knowledge of the Hamlet allegory.
Stone received ‘intelligence… out of the low countries’: as the Fool is informed by knowledge of the underworld or unseen world, whence his healing power. The point of Politique’s ‘I, I, your Mamaluchi… stand fair, for fresh employment’ is clear: stand bearing its usual FF meaning of ithyphallos.
Volpone’s nom-de-crime is Scoto of Mantua. This name is full of significance, for Mantua, as birthplace of Virgil, creator of Aeneas, that archetypal Goddess-rejector of the Shakespearean mythos, bears always in FF the value of the Puritan ego; while “Scoto” most plausibly refers to Scotia, ‘The Dark One’, a well-known Greek title of the Sea-goddess of Cyprus (Robert Graves, The White Goddess). That She is a Sea-goddess would serve to make Her a Queen of Hell-Grail Queen, in terms of the FF allegory.
Volpone’s potion, source of his wealth to come, is identified with the ithyphallos-libido: ‘I, is’t not good?” (89), &c. Strikingly, the handkerchief thrown down by Celia to Volpone-as-mountebank is precisely cognate with all the napkins and kerchiefs of FF – Margaret’s Desdemona’s, Gertrude’s, &c – as symbolic of the Goddess as Woman, anathematised by the Puritan: the reference being to menstruation. The point being made here, yet again, is that the Goddess, and with her the libido, is intruding into the Puritan ego against his will.
Here is another reminder of the allegorical techniques of FF. We recall that haste or hurry always signifies that it is a thought process that is being described (e.g. Much Ado II, iii, 5); and so it is here, as Mosca describe his own allegoric value: ‘…and be here,/And there, and here, and yonder, all at once;/Present to any humour, all occasion;/And change a visor, swifter, then a thought!’
Bonario’s rejection of Mosca, followed by acceptance of him, nicely portrays the Puritan’s initial aversion from the Gnostic written word, to be dissolved by temptation, and surrender to it. Again, there is strong evidence in FF that this was precisely the scenario of Shakespeare’s breakdown of 1587 (albeit Volpone’s attempted ravishing of Celia generally rather than specifically refers to it). This is reinforced by the presence of Nano, Androgyne, and Castrone, in full form.
Here is an odd piece of punctuation:
Lady …in good faith, I, am drest
Most favourably today…
It would be entirely consistent with the allegory if this were to be yet another instance of “I” for “Ay”: for the Lady (Madam Would-Bee) represents the unseen world as idea (her fine clothes) as described in the written word (her mentions of the great Gnostic writers and philosophers). Her rejection by Volpone, followed by the episode with Celia, nicely represents the Puritan reader failing to engage the unseen world as idea, but surrendering to it as blind will.
Volpone’s song emphasises that it is the Gnostic written word that is central to all of this. Mosca’s blade-wounding by Bonario during the Volpone-Celia debacle represents, like all of its kind in FF, the invasion of the ego by knowledge of the ithyphallos-libido as described in the written word.
Would-Bee plans to enrich the state of Venice (libido invading Puritan ego).
Here is a curious episode. The Lady mistakes Peregrine for a strumpet in disguise, and excoriates her; then Mosca arrives, to reveal her mistake, and she apologises to Peregrine and accepts him. The key to its allegorical significance lies in the ritual of the Knight of the Sun (twenty-eighth) degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite [of Freemasonry], which we have seen to inform the philosophy of FF, and of Renaissance Neoplatonism generally, which had a significant Pythagorean component (tending to asceticism). In this degree, the initiate is warned: ‘Ye who have not the power to subdue passion, flee from this place of truth’. This is also the point of the feeble nags in Don Quixote and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as well as the bony dog in Durer’s Melencolia I: both animals symmbolising the underworld (cf. the famous Socratic metaphor in Plato’s Phaedrus). For the initiate must overcome the unseen world in himself, as well as in the outer world.
For example, in Apuleius’ TGA, the reader-in-transformation must continue to engage the early seduction scene as idea, then Platonic Idea, rather than blind will. On the other hand, the Puritan scorns the Gnostic world-view, and so remains vulnerable to the underworld as will: which is precisely what Shakpser came to know in 1587, as he evidently came upon this passage, or sought it out, and surrendered to an act of auto-erotism, to plunge him into crippling psychic turmoil.
Thus, the world as idea, then Platonic Idea, as described in the Gnostic written word, would be hostile to the libido-ithyphallos (Peregrine, alongside Would-Bee); but the Puritan reader creates the seduction scene as idea in his imagination (the Lady), against his will (Mosca: the tormenting visual imagination), then succumbs to it as blind will (Lady’s acceptance of Peregrine): an outcome which contemplation of the Platonic Idea could have avoided.
The outcome of the trial will be the incarceration of Bonario and Celia (Puritan suppressing Gnostic written word as source of the tormenting libido, via the Love Goddess, Who tends, in the case of Shakespeare at least, toward the Goddess of the auto-erotist). The Lady’s brief appearance to impugn Celia, then her subsequent silence, represents the Puritan’s blaming of the world-as-idea as the source of his trouble, then suppression of it (cf. the precisely cognate silences of Cordelia, Hippolyta and Hero in FF).
Volpone and Mosca conspire to repel the advances of Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino, and Lady (threat of imagined Goddess leads to Puritan suppressing libido-as-blind will in himself, as stimulated by the written word). However, the labour of rebirth now begins, as the unseen world begins to be discerned below the surface of the visible, as described in the written word (Politique Would-Bee being pulled out from under the shell: see above).
Here is a finely crafted episode, strongly reminiscent of Bacon in FF. Volpone in disguise confronts Corvino and Corbaccio. They move to assault him, he calls for help from Mosca, and they flee. It is signficant here that Mosca does not intervene: for the margin notes in the 1916 Folio state specifically: ‘Mosca walks by him’. The point, on the plane of allegory, is rather to have Mosca visible as they flee. For it is, once again, the fear of the imagined Goddess that has led the Puritan to suppress his libido.
Voltore’s defence of the lovers is again reminiscent of Bacon in FF, as Jonson returns to square one, to portray the written word conveying the unseen world; or rather, the Gnostic reader allowing Platonic Ideas to form from it. The point of this is to allow Volpone to supposedly resurrect Voltore from a collapse, by driving out an imagined demon (‘I, the devil!’: cf. the witchunts of the Inquisition); whereupon Voltore resumes once more his impeachment of Bonario and Celia: the Puritan accusing the written word of harbouring filth.
Finally, Bonario and Celia are found innocent, and the latter returned to her father with triple her dowry: money representing here, as always, the power of a principle. That is, the Gnostic written word is feted by the ego-in-transformation; and the Goddess, - for example, Fotis the Aphrodite figure in Apuleius’ TGA, - honoured for what She is: the Grail Queen, guardian of the unseen world, not the Goddess of the auto-erotist that was the tormented Puritan.
Corvino is sentenced to be rowed through the canals of Venice, wearing ass’s ears, and with a paper pinned on his breast. The donkey or ass played a central role in the Gnostic tradition, as symbolic of the libido or unseen world, the lower self of the initiate. Thus, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, to show that he is in the process of mastering his passions; and Apuleius has his hero Lucius transformed into an ass, prior to his redemption. In this latter, ass-phase Lucius has many adventures from which he gains insights into the working of the world. Thus, he is a Christ going to his death on the Cross with eyes wide open. The papers pinned to Corvino’s breast represent the Gnostic written word; his ass-identity, the unseen world described therein: the total picture, a different way of representing the Bonario principle, with the ego of the subject – Venice – now in a state of transformation from its Puritan darkness.
 Freke and Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries.