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Nano serves several uses for Jonson here while Volpone waits anxiously for Mosca to return. Nano stage manages a playlike scenario for the three of them to discover which of them has won the favour of “the rich man”. This happens to be the basic situation on which Volpone as a play is built, and is a valuable re-emphasis of the play’s structure in the midst of the developing farce. Androgyno and Castrone immediately claim favouritism for themselves individually, revealing self-interest impulsively as principles of character. Nano, however, differs from them by way of a longish and seemingly extraneous account of how the shape and presence of himself as dwarf should prevail. He pronounces in effect that “small is beautiful” and that “small” permits “imitation” of creatures and creations larger than himself. It opens up for Jonson a justifiable and rewarding theory on the process of artistic creativity. This has historical and literary ramifications.
For all Nano’s self-deprecations, what he says here is a plausible statement of why Jonson became influential throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in certain respects more influential than Shakespeare. To move from Ben Jonson to Alexander Pope is to see in the iambic pentameters of the heroic couplet so favoured in the Augustan period a distinct line of continuity. It reveals “small” writ “large”, a triumph of nanotechnology in writing. In his own day it also aligns Jonson with Francis Bacon, whose introduction of the essay form to English literature, at the same time as Jonson was making his mark with his Humour plays in the late 1590s, points to a shift in English cultural taste. Bacon’s influence on the rise of English scientific interests is the high point of this cultural change, but the emergence of new secondary genres such as the “character” studies of Joseph Hall and the city comedies of several of Jonson’s contemporaries serves to underline this “shift in scale” where Volpone offers an invaluable focus.
Ben Jonson uses Nano the dwarf in a somewhat arbitrary yet deft way to touch on wider themes and styles than the rest of the play seems to demand. In Act 1, scene iii it opens up what may be said is a humanist vantage point that cuts across the closed and wilful world of Volpone and Mosca; in Act III, scene iv it has a dramaturgical point to it of Jonson being aware of how Volpone as a play belongs to the world of theatre then at a peak with Shakespeare’s plays. Jonson, in this context, uses Nano to reduce reality, to see it small, to disclose fields of human and social energy underlying the words and concepts inherited from medieval and Elizabethan cultures, to exploit the old generic naming of characters while, paradoxically, moving in an opposite way with the changing nominalism and particularities of the Baconian emerging culture. Nano is Touchstone and Jacques rolled into one. He lets Jonson see the Shakespearian underbelly, crystallising his great colleague’s richer world of people and events into concepts and caricatures, into “quick comedy refined”.