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Volpone | Context

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Renaissance Art

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Europe experienced a cultural shift that became known as the Renaissance, meaning rebirth. Renaissance art marked a departure from the classical techniques of the Middle Ages, and it celebrated individual talent and composition. Artists like Italian painters and sculptors Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo rose to prominence as artistic focus moved away from generic, religious symbols in favor of naturalism, showcasing a subject's details and characteristics. Artists became known for their talents and often vied for a royal commission, such as the paid position held by Jonson under King James I. The Renaissance infused art into every aspect of people's lives. Where society had previously valued religious virtue and modesty above all else, the naturalist movement favored detail, flamboyance, and individualism. For the first time, people became interested in their self-images, crafting unique wardrobes and personal style, much the way Lady Politick does in Volpone.

One of the main characteristics of Renaissance literature was the author's desire to change society using words. This was made possible thanks to the invention of the printing press in 1439. People no longer had to travel to their churches or town halls for a crier to read them the news. They could read the news, editorials, and imagined stories from the comfort of their own homes. The desire to inspire social change can clearly be seen in Jonson's moral messages, including the lesson about greed delivered at the end of Volpone.

The English Renaissance differed from the Italian Renaissance in its religious views. As England experienced a religious reformation—transforming from a Catholic to Protestant nation—English artists questioned religious authority and man's relationship with God. In Italy, however, society moved away from religious texts in favor of rediscovered philosophical texts that focused on human interaction.

Renaissance Venice

Venice, where Volpone is set, flourished during the Renaissance thanks in large part to its geographical position. Its trade routes connected Europe to Asia and the Arab nation for the first time. Venice became a trading hub for merchants from around the world. Its markets boasted goods from Egypt, Spain, Byzantium (modern-day Turkey, Greece, and Syria), France, and England. Venice was also home to the world's largest banking system, confirming its reputation as the wealthiest city in the world. Venetians paid exorbitant taxes on their income, which often led to corruption. Additionally, with its multicultural population, society was influenced by cultures around the world, creating a more liberal society than what was found in most of Europe at the time.

The Great Chain of Being

One philosophy to emerge from the Renaissance was known as The Great Chain of Being. This philosophy essentially asserted that everything on earth has a place of belonging preordained by God. The general hierarchy saw stones and minerals at the bottom, followed by vegetation, animals, humans, and divine bodies such as angels. Within each grouping was its own hierarchy: slaves, for example, were well below merchants in the human hierarchy, who were well below royalty. The social hierarchy was so entrenched that people believed any attempt to change social order was an unnatural betrayal of divine order.

This belief helps explain the legacy-hunters' outrage over Mosca's attempt to be seen as a nobleman at the end of Volpone. However, the Renaissance also provided merchants and tradesmen the opportunity to work for wealthy patrons, as individual talents became valued. Much like artists, merchants and tradesmen could hone their craft, make a name for themselves, and potentially earn a lot of money. Money afforded them the opportunity to change their living conditions and better their social standing. Some men even made enough money to buy themselves political titles, as the audience learns Sir Politick has done in Volpone when he refers to himself as a "poor knight."

Style

Volpone is written with a clear nod to the animal fables written by Aesop, a Greek slave believed to have lived in the 6th century BCE. Animal fables are typically short, allegorical stories starring animals whose foolish behaviors lead to moral lessons. The fables often include the stereotypical trickster fox, deceptive snake, or brave lion. Volpone functions as an animal fable first by giving the characters animalistic names—Volpone is the fox, Mosca is the fly, Voltore is the vulture, Corbaccio is the crow, and Corvino is the raven. But it also ensures the audience understands the clear moral message: greed will destroy a person. In this animal fable, three legacy-hunters greedily circle a dying man in the hopes of snatching up his wealth when he dies. Jonson creates strong parallel images to the legacy-hunters as carrion birds circling an animal, waiting for it to die so they can feast on its carcass. The dying animal, of course, is a trickster fox that fools the birds out of their much-desired "meat."

Volpone is also clearly written as satire, a literary style that uses exaggeration and farce to highlight the weakness or flaws in a society. Voltore's over-the-top courtroom performances criticize the corruption of law, Corvino's treatment of Celia criticizes society's view of women, and Volpone's insatiable greed highlights the corruption of one's morality.

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