17th Century Soap Operas

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, England went through some drastic changes. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 after reigning for half a century, and her death effectively changed the entire social and economic make-up of England. The majority of her reign was characterized by civility, prosperity, and her complete control of the nation. After her death, James Stuart of Scotland inherited the throne, and he could not have been more different from his predecessor. Where Elizabeth was ordered and decorous, James was rowdy and luxuriant. As a result of this huge change in the monarchy, the country also made a huge transformation in its economic and religious policy. James encouraged the settlement of colonies and expanded Elizabeth’s support of merchants and the business class. Because the wealth of the nation was spread among merchants and the emerging middle class, much of the popular literature and theatre also changed to reflect the tastes of newly wealthy citizens.

Playwrights such as Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton gained new popularity among King James’s court and their writing styles of deception and bawdy humor catered directly to the rising merchant class. Their plays, Volpone and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, respectively, characterize the use of middle class characters lying, cheating, and whoring their ways into nobler and wealthier families. However, neither play lacks moral value. Both Volpone and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside have a few more virtuous characters who, at the end of the play, are the happiest. Jonson and Middleton use symbolic names, vulgar humor, deception and consequences to accentuate the point that good does win over evil, even in seventeenth century London.

Jonson tells the audience from the start what sort of people his characters are with the use of symbolic names. The word “volpone” is Italian for fox, and the title character in Jonson’s play exemplifies many traits of a fox. He is extremely cunning in the way he deceives his associates into believing he is dying. He also sets up an elaborate scheme to get more money out of all of them by telling each of them that he will make them his sole heir. As each of his associates arrives to see him in the morning, Volpone has Mosca get:

…[his] feigned cough, [his] phthisic, and [his] gout,

[His] apoplexy, palsy and catarrhs,

Help, with your forced functions, this [his] posture,

Wherein, this three year, [he has] milked their hopes (I.ii.126-129)

Volpone follows his animal instincts rather than any kind of moral convictions in much of his actions. In Act 2, scene 2, Volpone enacts a grand performance as a mountebank for the sole purpose of catching a glimpse of Celia. He even has Mosca trick Celia’s very possessive husband into pimping her out to him.

All of Volpone’s scheming would never have worked at all if he didn’t have the help of his servant, Mosca. In Italian, mosca is the word for a fly, and no other animal represents Mosca’s traits better. He spends his days flying about between Volpone and his associates, spreading lies like disease and making each man promise to reward him in the end. To him, the whole set up is more important than it is to Volpone. Mosca even tells Volpone to “Contain/ Your flux of laughter…” (I.iv.133-134) because Mosca realizes that his fortunes rest in making this scheme work. He is a complete parasite and when things start to fall apart at the end, he tries to get away with all of Volpone’s money for himself.

The three men who are trying the hardest to become Volpone’s heir, Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino, are all named for carrion-eating birds. Like their namesakes, these three “gentlemen” spend a great deal of time hovering over Volpone, waiting for him to die so they can snatch whatever wealth they can get. A fact, of which, Volpone is well aware. Like carrion birds, Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino are not exceptionally intelligent. The clever Volpone and unassuming Mosca deceive them easily and even trick the trio into giving up some prized possessions, including riches and family members.

The two main characters who are not doing their best to deceive everyone else are Bonario and Celia. Bonario is derived from