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Jonson's Volpone and Dante


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

No one has linked Dante’s Inferno to Ben Jonson’s Volpone. But there are a number of reasons to think that the first canticle of the Italian poet’s epic poem was influential on Jonson’s most enduringly popular play. For one thing both works portray fraud as the root of all evil, as many other important works about morality do not.1 Dante used Aristotle to make the principal divisions of the Inferno into the sins of incontinence, malice and brutishness, the latter two classifications comprising the sins of fraud.2 Fraud, says Virgil to Dante in Canto XI when he is describing the plan of hell, “is man’s peculiar vice; / God finds it more displeasing—and therefore, / the fraudulent are lower, suffering more.” (“è de l’uom proprio male, / più spiace a Dio; e però stan di sotto / li frodolenti, e più dolor li assale” [ll. 25–27]).3 Again, both Dante’s and Jonson’s master works are called “comedies” but both also contain harsh punishments. Jonson’s play is quite distinctive here, not following in this regard his customary Roman models, and making a special effort “to put the snaffle in their mouths, that cry out, we never punish vice in our interludes.” His moral labors in Volpone also required of him “to imitate justice, and instruct to life, as well as purity of language.”4 Jonson refers to Dante in the third act of Volpone when Lady Politic Would-be, a tedious English dilettante visiting Venice with her equally shallow husband, brags of having read Petrarch, Tasso, Guarini, Ariosto, Aretino, and Dante, who, she says, “is hard, and few can understand him” (3. 4. 95). This couple, however, is such a pair of fools that her judgment of Dante can hardly be taken for Jonson’s own, and her ignorant dismissal of the poet implies exactly the opposite attitude on the part of the dramatist himself. That her remark echoes Dante’s own comment to Can Grande that his epic was “polysemous” and “not simple”5 hints at more than a secondary knowledge of Dante by Jonson. Jonson’s satiric conception of Venice as a locus of corruption, his cast of perverse characters, and his emphasis upon an appropriate final punishment for each of the evildoers combine to recall structural and thematic elements of Dante’s work. And there is one final point: Jonson was a dramatist always sensitive to the shaping influence of native English morality plays; surely, then, he would also have been drawn to the most vigorous medieval condemnation of sin composed on the continent, especially during those twelve years (1598–1610) when he was himself a Roman Catholic. All of these considerations would have made Dante’s combination of comedy and severe morality an appealing combination to Jonson and one not easily found in most other sources available to him.


1 St. Thomas Aquinas is Dante’s theological guide in the Commedia but the theologian deals with fraud much less severely than does the poet. St. Thomas does agree with St. Gregory the Great when he says that “fraud is a daughter of covetousness.” In another statement applicable to both the Inferno and Volpone St. Thomas says that of all the moral virtues it is in justice “wherein the use of right reason appears chiefly” and that the chief vice opposed to justice is covetousness (Summa Theologica, Pt.II–II, Q. 55. art. 8, in the translation of the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Westminster, MD, 1981). Cicero is one other moralist who considered fraud a worse sin than, for example, violence, saying that the former is the quality of the “cunning fox,” while the latter is the quality of “the lion”; both fraud and violence “are wholly unworthy of man, but fraud is the more contemptible” (De Officiis, trans. Walter Miller [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913], 1.13). In the sixteenth century Sir Thomas Elyot says that “of all iniuries that which is done by fraude is moste horrible and detestable, nat in the opinion of man onely but also in the sight and iugement of god” (The Boke named The Governour. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1907), 3.4, p. 207.

2 “Of moral states to be avoided there are three kinds—vice, incontinence, brutishness” (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross [Oxford University Press, 1952–63], 7.1). In this same passage Aristotle says that the contrary state to brutishness is “superhuman virtue, a heroic and divine kind of virtue”; both of these states, he says, are rarely found. But perhaps Jonson has in fact gone to the extremes in Volpone and portrayed both states: brutishness in Volpone, Mosca, and the gulls, superhuman virtue in Bonario and Celia. Jonson gives great praise to Aristotle in Discoveries, saying that he “was the first accurate critic and truest judge, nay, the greatest philosopher, the world ever had, for he noted the vices of all knowledges in all creatures…” (in The Oxford Authors: Ben Jonson, ed. Ian Donaldson [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985], 586. All references to Jonson’s works, unless otherwise indicated, are to this edition).

3 The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley: Universityof California Press, 1980). All subsequent references to both the Italian text and to the English translation are to this edition, unless otherwise indicated.

4 “Epistle Dedicatory” to Volpone, Oxford Authors, p. 3. John Creaser says the ending of Volpone is not really classical—“The harsh outcome … is therefore much more unorthodox than Jonson seems to have realised” (see his essay,“The Mortifying of the Fox,” Essays in Criticism 25 [1975], 329–56, quote on 332)—but is in keeping, we would add, with the Inferno.

5 See Robert Hollander, Allegory in Dante’s Commedia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 45.

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