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Portrait of Ben Jonson
When Nano the dwarf bursts on the stage in Act 1 scene 2 of Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1605), along with his companions, Androgyno and Castrone, he has an important message for his audience:
Now, room for fresh gamesters, who do will you to know, / They do bring you neither play nor university show.
Jonson may have had Shakespeare and Seneca in mind here in Nano’s dismissal, yet conceals any too serious intent in the self-deprecating way Nano continues:
And therefore do entreat you that whatsoever they rehearse may not fare a whit the worse, for the false pace of the verse.
Nano is playing the Fool and goes on doing so for thirty lines in a stand-up comedian’s or late night television spruiker’s monologue. His subject is a history of the Fool from Pythagoras onwards, told in a parody of scholarly seriousness, but one that lets the audience know that fools are everywhere and at all times and take all forms of human and creaturely identity. It is a routine with which Erasmus, the Dutch humanist scholar of a century earlier than Jonson, had caught the ear of the European literati with his Praise of Folly. Jonson is, in effect, nailing his colours to the mast of European humanism with this bold and seemingly gratuitous intrusion by his trio of figures who are meant to be immediately laughed at, then on second thoughts laughed with.
Dwarf, hermaphrodite and eunuch have an eighty line chance to do a stand-up comedian routine as if a Jacobean Goon Show. After the monologue comes the banter, then a song; three distinct parts in manner and effect. Eventually, Nano breaks off from talking about Pythagoras “discourse of that matter…his music, his trigon, his golden thigh, / Or his telling how elements shift” to confront Androgyno with what would have been in the winter months of London in 1605-1606 a most sensitive issue:
but I/ would ask, how of late thou hast suffered translation,/ And shifted thy coat in these days of reformation?
It is a brazen and dangerous joke on Ben Jonson’s part. These were the days after the Gunpowder Plot and Trial of the Catholic conspirators (those still alive) and Jonson would have seen the heads of men he knew well on public spikes. As recently as 1598 Jonson had converted to Roman Catholicism while in prison on a life-threatening charge. He remained a recusant for a dozen years before returning to the Anglican fold, but at the time of writing Volpone was strongly resisting pressure from the authorities to change his faith.
In the banter between dwarf and hermaphrodite at this point there are no holds barred:
Androgyno. Like one of the reformed, a fool, as you see, /Counting all old doctrine heresy.
Nano. But not on thine own forbid meats hast thou ventured.
Androgyno. On fish, when first a Carthusian I entered.
Nano. Why, then thy dogmatical silence hath left thee?
Trading insults equally in opposite directions- at Catholic and at Puritans- the dialogue bounces along until it finds and embraces a reductio ad absurdum in the state of the Fool as “the only one creature that I can call blessèd/ For all other forms I have proved most distressèd”.
The interlude is rounded off with Castrone’s song:
Fools, they are the only nation/ Worth men’s envy or admiration./Free from care or sorrow-taking, /Selves and others merry-making, /All they speak or do is stirling.
The song goes on with this manner of neatness and lucidity, the opposite of the horse play style in which Nano had begun. When Castrone sings, “And he speaks truth free from slaughter”, there is a sense of an authorial voice stronger than that of any of his bizarre trio of fools.
Clearly, some leading questions come out of this clowning of Nano, Androgyno and Castrone. There is the barely concealed protestation of humane values within a world of cultural and religious controversy. There is Jonson’s salute to Erasmus and a distancing himself from the current xenophobia of England. But in a way that is relevant to the formal life of Volpone as a play, there is a presentation of an audience-directed dramaturgy that a modern audience since the 1950s might enjoy especially. It is the way of the stand-up comedian, of the late night interviewer-cum, entertainer, and of television’s revue style of quick changing comic scenes.
How Jonson imposed the intense unity of Volpone on what is a scramble of discrete situations is a challenge for critical understanding and stage presentation. As Nano announces it, and on behalf of more than his own little Act, his new dramaturgical logic is neither mimetic nor didactic, neither telling a story nor preaching a moral. It does both, of course, but not primarily. What happens in Volpone and why are but parts or aspects of the “quick comedy refined“, as Jonson calls it in the Prologue to the play. It is a play of play, a play on play, a play on acting.
It was Shakespeare’s actors, the King’s Men, who were being called upon to act themselves as actors in Volpone. Possibly fresh from the challenges of King Lear, Burbage and his companions were being called upon to turn themselves inside out, challenged by a new, seemingly parasitic, manner of dramatization, far from that climax of all climaxes in Shakespeare and Lear’s cry:
Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl, howl…
To Jonson and Volpone’s
How, how, how, how, how, how…
To which Mosca replies:
Why, Sir, with Scoto’s oil.