Volpone or The Fox by Ben Jonson (1606)

Michael Jamieson edited the old Penguin paperback edition of Ben Jonson’s three greatest hits which are Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1614). Jonson is often depicted as Shakespeare’s greatest rival in the second half of his career, as Christopher Marlowe (d.1593) was the leading figure right at the start. Maybe – but there were other notable playwrights around during this period, such as Beaumont and Fletcher.

The real point of linking their names is that Jonson was working in a completely different comic tradition from Shakespeare and so his comedies present the sharpest possible contrast with Shakespearian comedy.

Shakespeare’s comedies are light and graceful, generally set in a fantasy world (Midsummer Night’s Dream) or a faraway land (the fictional Illyria of Twelfth Night) and, although they do include lower-class characters who are clumsy, stupid and bawdy, for the most part the plot is about fine lords and ladies (the Duke of Athens, the Queen of the Amazons and the like), who speak in elegant poetry, and the plays’ comic complications are rounded off by wonderful marriages.

The humour is light throughout. They are Romantic comedies. They aim to delight by transporting you into an often magical otherworld.

By contrast, Jonson’s humour is harsh and satirical. His plays aim to instruct the audience by exposing the errors of city dwellers. They are set very much in the contemporary world – two of his three greatest hits are set in contemporary London. The characters are low lives, thieves and deceivers, frauds and imposters, their gulls and victims, and although they do speak in blank verse, it is a less elegant verse, stuffed with the street argot and slang of the time. And none of his plays end in happy marriage celebrations – the reverse, they end in the exposure and humiliation of the central crooks.

Shakespeare’s comedies have to do with festivals and magic. Jonson’s aim is completely different, he comes from a tradition which, as the poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney (d.1586) put it, believes that:

Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life, which the poet presents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be.

In the prologue to his earlier play, Every Man In His Humour, Jonson very clearly distinguishes between the two traditions, one of wonder and fancy, one of realistic satire. He dismisses the first type as dominated by special effects and impossibilities, where babies are born, grow to manhood and old age all in one play, where huge wars are represented by a couple of actors with rusty swords who nip backstage to get fake blood put on fake wounds, the kind of plays which:

… make a child now swaddled, to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years; or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster’s king jars,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scars.

He [the current author] rather prays you will be pleas’d to see
One such to-day, as other plays should be;
Where neither chorus wafts you o’er the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeard
The gentlewomen; nor roll’d bullet heard
To say, it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;

Instead Jonson vows to  portray the everyday world as it actually is, as his audience actually experiences it:

… deeds, and language, such as men do use,
And persons, such as comedy would choose,
When she would shew an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.

To ‘show an image of the times/and sport with human follies, not with crimes’ – this is a handy distinction: comedy deals with folly and stupidity, tragedy deals with crimes. That’s the dividing line. And he repeats the idea in the prose preface to Volpone itself, emphasising:

the doctrine, which is the principal end of poesie, to inform men in the best reason of living.

And he invokes the example of ‘the ancients’,

the goings out of whose comedies are not always joyful, but oft times the bawds, the servants, the rivals, yea, and the masters are mulcted; and fitly, it being the office of a comic poet to imitate justice and instruct to life.

So:Shakespearian comedy exists to enchant and delight; Jonsonian comedy is designed to teach and instruct, that was his often-expressed intention. How well does he achieve it in Volpone?

Volpone

Volpone is set in Venice, a city associated at the time with mercantile greatness, huge wealth and great corruption. (According to Martin Seymour-Smith’s edition of Every Man In His Humour, Venice was described in another contemporary play as ‘the best flesh-shambles in Italy’ and ‘Venetian whores the best in Europe’).

The central character Volpone, is a monster of greed and duplicity. In fact Jonson provides a verse summary of the plot in the form of a seven-line acrostic poem spelling out his name:

Volpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs,
Offers his state to hopes of several heirs,
Lies languishing: his parasite receives
Presents of all, assures, deludes; then weaves
Other cross plots, which ope themselves, are told.
New tricks for safety are sought; they thrive: when bold,
Each tempts the other again, and all are sold.

I.e. Volpone persuades a series of dupes to make him gifts of gold, jewels etc, leading all of them on to believe they will be made heirs to his fortune when he dies. In other words, they are as greedy and selfish as he is.

Cast

VOLPONE, a Magnifico.
MOSCA, his Parasite.
VOLTORE, an Advocate.
CORBACCIO, an old Gentleman.
CORVINO, a Merchant.
BONARIO, son to Corbaccio.
SIR POLITICK WOULD-BE, a Knight.
PEREGRINE, a Gentleman Traveller.
NANO, a Dwarf.
CASTRONE, an Eunuch.
ANDROGYNO, an Hermaphrodite.
GREGE (or Mob).
COMMANDADORI, Officers of Justice.
MERCATORI, three Merchants.
AVOCATORI, four Magistrates.
NOTARIO, the Register.

LADY WOULD-BE, Sir Politick’s Wife.
CELIA, Corvino’s Wife.
SERVITORI, Servants, two Waiting-women, etc.

Animal imagery in Volpone

Anyone with a smattering of Italian would have realised the main characters have names which are simply Italian words for animals, and in any case each animals name is translated and explained on the character’s first appearance: Volpone = fox, Mosca = fly, Voltore = vulture, Corbaccio = raven, Corvino = crow. Mosca refers at one point to a physician named Signior Lupo = Mr Wolf, Lady Would-Be is at one point referred to as a kite, at another to a she-wolf.

But these are not just any kind of animals, these are all animals which feed on carrion, i.e. other dead animals and rotting meat. Volpone knows this – at one point he consciously plays the part of an almost dead, already rotting corpse, in order to attract society’s scavengers:

Now, now, my clients
Begin their visitation! Vulture, kite,
Raven, and gorcrow, all my birds of prey,
That think me turning carcase, now they come;

Mention of wolves echoes or maybe deliberately invokes the Latin proverb which dates back at least as far as Plautus in the 2nd century BC, namely: ‘ Homo homini lupus est’ meaning ‘A man is a wolf to another man’, or people are wolves to each other, or simply – humans are like wolves. That is very much the worldview of the play.

Act 1

It opens with Volpone waking up in the big bed which dominates the stage and asking his servant Mosca to throw open the cabinet full of his wealth, a scene in which Volpone explains his situation (parentless, wifeless, childless) and how he has been duping his greedy clients out of precious gifts for three years, by pretending to be at death’s door and implying he will leave them each, everything.

This draws new clients daily, to my house,
Women and men of every sex and age,
That bring me presents, send me plate, coin, jewels,
With hope that when I die (which they expect
Each greedy minute) it shall then return
Ten-fold upon them;

Volpone and Mosca mock people who work for a living, poor fools. Volpone’s way is far better, better even than robbing churches!

Almost immediately Mosca brings on Volpone’s servants consisting of a dwarf, a eunuch and a hermaphrodite, vivid symbols of the unnatural infertility of Volpone’s household, and they perform a ridiculous little masque mocking, of all things, Pythagoras’s theory of the transmigration of souls.

Then visits are paid by some of the greedy scavengers, namely Voltore the lawyer who has brought Volpone a golden plate, and Corbaccio who brings him a bag of bright chequins i.e. Venetian gold coins. The comedy – and it is very funny – derives from the way Mosca plays on the hopes of these deluded fools, and the extent to which he can push them e.g. he persuades doddery old Corbaccio to draw up a will disinheriting his own son, and naming Volpone his heir. Mosca assures him that Volpone will do the same and he is bound to predecease him, at which point Corbaccio will inherit all.

There is plenty of theatrical business such as Volpone hurrying to get dressed in old man’s clothes before he sees Voltore, and psyching himself into the role of an ailing old man at death’s door; or simple gags such as Corbaccio is hard of hearing and keeps comically misinterpreting Mosca who is forced to shout, but which allows him to mutter insults which the audience can hear:

MOSCA [quietly]: Your worship is a precious ass!
CORBACCIO: What say’st thou?
MOSCA [loudly]: I do desire your worship to make haste

This could be a line from panto or Allo Allo, from broad farce four hundred years later.

Next to pay a visit is Corvino, who has brought a precious pearl. To all of them Volpone acts as at death’s door while they chat to Mosca who leads them on and strings them out with a world of false promises. Directly contrary to Jonson’s comedic theory, a lot of the pleasure derives from watching two expert con-men at work.

After Corvino pushes off, Mosca and Volpone rejoice at their morning’s work. Lady Politic Would-be the English nobleman’s wife arrives at the door but Volpone doesn’t want to see her. He wants to drink and revel like the Turk. The conversation turns to Corvino’s wife, a legendary beauty named Celia. Immediately Volpone says he must have her. Mosca warns that she’s protected by a guard of ten spies each. Hmmm. They’ll concoct a plan.

Act 2

Scene 1 Peregrine, an English gentleman abroad and one of the few honest and sensible characters in the play, has bumped into Sir Politic Would-be and quickly realises the latter is a gullible fool, prepared to believe every conspiracy theory, and regales him with ‘wonders’ from back home in England e.g. a whale swimming up the Thames, which Sir Politic knowingly explains to Peregrine is probably a Spanish spy. The man’s an idiot.

Which is confirmed when Volpone turns up with Mosca, dressed up as a famous mountebank or snake-oil salesman, Scoto of Mantua. They set up a bank or bench, raise a crowd, and Volpone proceeds to give an extended and long-winded sales pitch.

Why he’s bothering to do it in this out-of-the-way corner of Venice becomes clear when he calls for money for his wonder, cure-all elixir and the window above him, in the wall against which he’s set up his stall, and the beautiful Celia throws down her handkerchief with money in it. Volpone sings her praises, just as her jealous husband, Corvino, arrives home and tells Volpone to buzz off, beating him as Volpone flees.

Scene 2 Back at his house, Volpone tells Mosca he’s in love. He tells his loyal servant that all his plate and treasure is at his disposal if he can find some way to get him to Celia, and ‘horn’ her husband i.e. make Corvino a cuckold i.e. have sex with Celia.

Scene 3 Enter a furious Corvino dragging Celia behind her and accusing her of being a whore for opening the window and revealing herself to the mob below. Corvino is mad with jealous rage:

First, I will have this bawdy light damm’d up;
And till’t be done, some two or three yards off,
I’ll chalk a line: o’er which if thou but chance
To set thy desperate foot; more hell, more horror
More wild remorseless rage shall seize on thee,
Than on a conjurer, that had heedless left
His circle’s safety ere his devil was laid.

Scene 4 Mosca arrives. Corvino is initially hopeful that Volpone has died and left him his fortune, but Mosca dashes him by telling him it’s the reverse: Volpone has made a recovery after taking Scoto of Mantua’s elixir. This makes Corvino even more furious, seeing as it as Scoto he caught chatting up his wife in front of a vulgar crowd.

Mosca then changes the tune somewhat, explaining that four doctors from the College of Physicians are even now at Volpone’s and, having discussed a range of colourful Renaissance cures, have agreed one common cure – Volpone needs sex with a ravishing young woman! Now, the thing is, whoever provides that young woman and cures Volpone will almost certainly be made his new heir – one of the doctors has already offered his daughter!

So Mosca now explains to Corvino it’s a race against time to remain Volpone’s heir. Corvino makes the obvious suggestion, let’s hire a whore, but Mosca was ready for that. No, he explains, it must be someone without tricks and guile: does he not know a pure simple virginal woman who he can control and guide?

Corvino steps aside to soliloquise: is it a sin? sex is a mere bagatelle, in the end. No-one will know and he stands to inherit a fortune. Mosca watches him agonise and we the audience watch the con-man work his magic.

Corvino returns to Mosca and agrees: hurry back to Volpone and tell him he will send his wife immediately. Mosca tells him to wait till he calls. Yes, dear Mosca, says Corvino, loyal Mosca, good Mosca. And Mosca hurtles off chortling.

Scene 4 Corvino calls Celia back to him. She enters weeping after the terrifying dressing-down she received earlier. Now Corvino amazes her by telling her he was just fooling! He’s not a jealous man at all! And to prove it, he tells her to dress up in all her finest outfit and jewellery and make-up, they’re invited to a feast at Volpone’s that evening.

Act 3

Scene 1 Enter Mosca with a wickedly gleeful soliloquy about how great it is to be a parasite:

I fear, I shall begin to grow in love
With my dear self, and my most prosperous parts,
They do so spring and burgeon; I can feel
A whimsy in my blood: I know not how,
Success hath made me wanton. I could skip
Out of my skin, now, like a subtle snake,
I am so limber. O! your parasite
Is a most precious thing, dropt from above,
Not bred ‘mongst clods, and clodpoles, here on earth.

Who should come along but Bonario, son of old Corbaccio who we saw Mosca persuading to disinherit in Act 1. He tells Mosca he despises him. Mosca bursts into tears and assures him he has his best interests at heart, why, even at this moment, Mosca knows that Bonario’s father is writing him out of his will. Bonario says: ‘show me’.

Scene 2 Volpone is bored. He gets his three zanies, the dwarf, the eunuch and the hermaphrodite to begin a competition to explain which of them is best and why but hasn’t got very far before a servant announces the arrival of Lady Would-Be.

Lady Would-Be is immensely vain, bullying her two serving women when she discovers even a hair out of place. Volpone is appalled at her arrival and oppressed at her domineering conversation. When he says he feels ill she assails him with a flood of medicines and remedies, then moves on to art and poetry, naming a long list of favourite poets, while Volpone gives us raging asides. Basically she is the stereotype of the unbearably garrulous pseudo-intellectual woman, the bluestocking, letting loose ‘a hail of words’. Her unstoppable verbiage and Volpone’s comic agony at her presence reminds me a bit of Captain Haddock and Madam Castafiore.

Mosca arrives in the nick of time, and relieves Volpone by telling Lady Would-be he has just seen her husband being rowed in a gondola with the most notorious courtesan in Venice towards the Rialto. She hurries out to catch him. Volpone is overcome with gratitude.

Now Mosca leads Bonario in and hides him with a view to letting him see or overhear his father disinheriting him.

Unfortunately, Corvino chooses this moment to arrive with Celia who, as we have seen, he intends to prostitute to Volpone. Mosca is appalled. He told him to wait till called. Now there’s going to be a train crash of clients. Mosca parks them on another part of the stage, then tells Bonario to walk apart in a gallery, the other end of the gallery, to wait there till called. Bonario does so but, unsurprisingly, is suspicious.

Back to Corvino. He is shown at length persuading Celia that having sex with Volpone is nothing, is good for his health, the man can barely walk, it will be nothing, if he was giving her to a lusty Italian or Frenchman, why, yes, that would be remiss – on he drones making up excuses, while Celia grows more and more horrified and begs for mercy, as he drags her towards Volpone’s bed, says she’d rather drink poison, eat burning coals.

Mosca advises Corvino to leave them, so they both exeunt and it is a tremendous moment when Volpone, who had up till then been lying feebly on a couch coughing, suddenly bounds to his feet, full of energy and life, terrifying poor Celia even more. He proceeds to give a dazzling speech about how they will be true lovers, he will give her all his treasure, they shall eat off gold and dissolve pearls in their wine, and then envisions them recreating all the Greek myths of sex before playing the parts of all the modern nations i.e. acting out a million sexual fantasies.

Celia persists in her honour and begs to be defaced or given leprosy so her beauty ceases to provoke and she can live in virtue. At which point Volpone loses patience and goes to simply rape her. At this critical moment Bonario springs out of his hiding place, throws Volpone to the floor and like a Romantic hero, takes her away from this den of infamy, vowing vengeance on the foul fiend.

On the floor Volpone, bemoans this sudden reversal and possible crushing of all his plans. Enter Mosca who has been beaten up by Bonario on the way out and is bleeding. What shall they do? There is a knocking on the doors and Volpone panics, thinking it is the police sent by Bonario, and says he can already feel a red hot brand as punishment being seared into his forehead.

Enter old Corbaccio who is surprised to see Mosca bruised and bleeding. Quick-witted, Mosca explains to Corbaccio that his son, Bonario, has heard about the plot to disinherit him and came to murder Volpone and him, Corbaccio, but Mosca fought him off. Corbaccio is taken in and vows even more to disinherit his son.

However, during this explanation, Voltore the lawyer has also entered and overheard part of this, and sneaks up on Mosca and calls him a parasite and liar, leading him on just like he’s leading Corbaccio on. So now Mosca has to think on this feet again and comes up with the story that he is egging on Corbaccio in the hope that his son murders them both i.e. his father Corbaccio and Volpone – at which point Voltore will inherit! He’s doing it for him, honest. In fact he goes on to tell about Bonario being in hiding and grabbing Corvino’s wife – who he had brought on an innocent social visit – and fighting his way out of the house with and cock and bull story about Volpone being about to rape her. If he succeeds, Volpone will be imprisoned and Voltore will never inherit!

Now Voltore is a lawyer, so he immediately starts thinking how to defeat Bonario. He and Corbaccio exit. Mosca collapses exhausted. Volpone congratulates him on spinning such a dazzling tissue of lies!

Act 4

Scene 1 A street in Venice Peregrine, ‘a gentleman traveller’, appears to be a decent honest chap, and we find him being lectured by Sir Politic Would-be who has a whole string of projects afoot, each more preposterous than the next, from a monopoly of herring to a scheme to identify whether the plague is aboard quarantined ships, a wise piece of advice to the Venetian state to ban the use of match boxes, and so on.

Enter the equally verbose Lady Would-be with a servant, escorted by Nano. If you recall, she was told by Mosca that her husband was dallying with a notorious courtesan. Now she storms up to him and accuses him of infidelity, then turns on Peregrine and accuses him of being a woman in disguise! Sir Politic is so outraged he storms off and Peregrine stands his ground in astonishment.

Enter Mosca. When Lady Would-be says she is assailing the courtesan he (Mosca) told her about, Mosca says no no no no it is not this gentleman, he is a man and he saw him land this morning. No, the courtesan in question has been arrested and taken before the Senate. Lady Would-be humbly apologies to Peregrine, in fact overdoes it so much it seems almost like a sexual offer, before Mosca takes her off towards the Senate to see the true culprit. The viewer has a shrewd suspicion this will turn out to be Celia. Peregrine stands there astonished at the bizarre couple he has just met.

Scene 2 The Scrutineo or Senate House Mosca has assembled the three gulls, Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore, and keeps all the plates spinning by telling them all he’s working just for them. He has briefed them to lie.

Enter judges, Bonario and Celia. The four magistrates discuss what they’ve heard from Bonario and Celia i.e. the plot to prostitute her and how Bonario saved her, and all agree that the youth has a good reputation and she is of spotless virtue.

But then Voltore starts speaking and turns the story upside down, making Bonario a wicked murderer who has been having a licentious affair with the girl and stormed into Volpone’s house expressly to murder his father and claim the inheritance. He lines up his witnesses, namely Corbaccio he swears his son is an unnatural parricide, and Corvino who swears his wife is a hot whore.

It is notable that they both use animal imagery, reinforcing the sense that we are dealing with humans who have sunk to bestial level.

CORBACCIO: I will not hear thee,
Monster of men, swine, goat, wolf, parricide!
Speak not, thou viper.

And:

CORVINO: This woman, please your fatherhoods, is a whore,
Of most hot exercise, more than a partridge,
Upon record… Neighs like a jennet.

Corbaccio, Corvino and Voltore pile calumny on calumny until Celia faints in horror. Mosca is next to give testimony and says his wounds (obviously clearly visible) are proof of the young man’s violent attack. He then says there is yet another witness, this time of Celia’s debauchery, and they call Lady Would-be who enthusiastically points out Celia as a harlot, joining in the animal theme by calling her a chameleon and hyena. (She is not in on the scam; surely this is because she is just stupid and gullible. NB No. In act 5 it is made clear she, too, was briefed and lied against Celia consciously.)

Finally, Volpone is brought in on a stretcher. Voltore makes much of his feeble condition and mockingly asks if this wreck of a man could be a lecher and rapist when he can’t stand and is barely breathing. The magistrates are convinced by Voltore and when they ask Celia and Bonario for their defence the latter say they trust to their innocence and heaven, to which the magistrates, with unconscious satire, reply that that is no proof in this court.

Volpone is carried out and the two young people are sent to the cells while the magistrates tut about young people these days.

Finally, Mosca deals with each of the gulls in turn – Corvino, Corbaccio, Voltore and finally Lady Would-be herself, assuring them, one by one, that they are the sole heirs of Volpone’s riches. And so they all depart.

Act 5

Scene 1 Volpone’s house Enter Volpone and Mosca who can’t believe they got away with it. Volpone has palpitations, they’ve never done ‘the act’ before in public, and in a court of law, God, the stress! Mosca emphasises that it is their masterstroke, they daren’t go any further.

That said, Volpone immediately conceives a new height of knavery. They will pretend he’s died. He’ll get the servants to put it around town that he passed away as a result of the stress of the trial… and that Mosca has inherited it all. Quickly he asks Mosca to hand him one of the standard will templates which are in the closet and scribbles Mosca’s name into it. They cackle over how the three men and woman lied their heads off in the court.

Barely have the servants gone to raise a hue and cry about Volpone’s death than they hear the first knock on the door. Mosca arranges the desk with notes and papers as if he’s reviewing the estate and Volpone hides so he can watch the Humiliation of the Dupes.

This proceeds in a highly structured way with Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino and Lady Would-be arriving quickly to find Mosca concentrating on going through a long list of possessions. He hands them the will and one by one they pass it round, each in turn asking Mosca, ‘Surely this is a joke?’ and Mosca giving each one quite a lengthy speech describing their greed and vanity and how stupid they’ve been and telling them to go home and repent.

With each humiliation we cut away to Volpone behind the arras clapping  his hands with glee. When they’ve finally all gone, Volpone comes out and congratulates Mosca for a rare entertainment. To cap it, he suggests that Mosca dresses as a commendatoro or court official and walks the streets to find the four victims and twist the knife.

Actually, Mosca says, he knows a commendatoro personally. He’ll get him drunk, pinch his costume and bring it back to Volpone. (This reminds me of Brainworm getting Formal drunk and stealing his clothes in Every Man In His Humour).

Scene 2 At Sir Politic Would-be’s lodgings Suddenly an entirely new sub-plot. Peregrine, irked by his encounter with the Would-bes earlier, has conceived a practical joke. He has dressed up as a merchant and paid three other merchants to join in. Now he pleads hasty admittance to Sir Would-be’s presence and hastily tells him that evidence has been sworn against him that’s he’s been overheard scheming to betray Venice to the Turk. They are coming for him! They will torture him!

At that moment the three merchants Peregrine has recruited start banging on the door and shouting. In a mad panic, Sir Politic begs Peregrine to help him clamber into a giant tortoise shell he keeps in his rooms. He will pretend to be a tortoise! He quickly tells his servant to burn all his notes lest they incriminate him.

The three merchants burst in and ransack the place then come over to the giant tortoise. They play their role of state officials and Peregrine pretends to be an innocent bystander. They start kicking and goading the tortoise. Slowly it moves and in doing so reveals garters and gloves i.e it is a man. They lift the shell off him and fall about with laughter.

Peregrine takes off his disguise, introduces himself as the man he and his wife plagued this morning, says now they are quits, and departs. Sir Politic, by himself, laments that the story will be told in pubs and piazzas and he will become the laughing stock of the town. He will leave Venice.

Scene 3 Volpone’s house I suppose that little sketch gave Volpone and Mosca the stage time they needed to have got hold of their costumes. Now we see Volpone masquerading as a Commendatore and Mosca as a Clarissimo. They congratulate each other on their disguises and Volpone exits. At which Mosca soliloquises that he plans to scam his boss and become owner of all. This final scam is called The Fox Trap.

Scene 4 A street Volpone in disguise encounters and badgers Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore, guying them by congratulating each in turn on coming into their fortunes now the old fox is dead. Of course this drives them to distraction with chagrin and humiliation. Corvino, for one, threatens to turn violent but, at key moments, Mosca walks across the stage, now wearing the fine clothes of a Clarissimo. The point is that these fine clothes denote his new rank as a member of the aristocracy, putting him on the same rank with the three dupes, he – a former servant – to their vast chagrin.

Scene 5 The Scrutineo The magistrates and most of the cast, being Bonario and Celia, Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore. His final galling encounter with Volpone-in-disguise seems to have turned Voltore’s brain. It appears to be at that moment that he realises what a fool he’s been.

VOLPONE: When I provoked him, then I lost myself.

Now, in front of the whole court, he recants all his former testimony, says it was a lie and he was put up to it by Mosca. Celia thanks heaven. The other two gulls, Corvino and Corbaccio, swear Voltore’s gone mad, cleaving to their story even when the magistrates question them.

Scene 6 A street Volpone alone curses his stupidity on always wanting to take the joke further.

VOLPONE: To make a snare for mine own neck! and run
My head into it, wilfully! with laughter!
When I had newly ‘scaped, was free, and clear,
Out of mere wantonness! O, the dull devil
Was in this brain of mine, when I devised it…
… These are my fine conceits!…
What a vile wretch was I, that could not bear
My fortune soberly? I must have my crotchets,
And my conundrums!

Indeed. Now he bumps into the dwarf and eunuch and hermaphrodite who tell him that Mosca told them to go and holiday,m and give him the keys. In a flash Volpone realises that Mosca means to seize his house and fortune. And remembers that he gave him a version of the will with his name written into it!

Scene 7 Back at the Scrutineo The magistrates are now inclined to believe Voltore and that Bonario and Celia are innocent, but call for Mosca to be brought. Volpone is still in disguise and makes a few answers about Mosca, but then reveals himself to Voltore – says he is still alive and that Voltore is still his heir.

One of the magistrates had earlier referred to Voltore acting like a man obsessed. Volpone now suggests that he really do act like a man possessed, fall to the floor, froth at the mouth, then return to the original story (Bonario is a would-be parricide, Celia is a whore), save Volpone and be made heir to his fortune.

Quite unbelievably Voltore agrees, promptly falls to the floor, froths, raves etc. The other two desperate liars, Corvino and Carbaccio, egged on by Volpone (in disguise) swear they see a devil fly out of his mouth in the shape of a bat. Then he slowly recovers his wits and, when the magistrates ask if he recognises the paper in which he has written down the (true) series of events says that, Yes, he recognises the hand (Volpone watching all this trembles) but everything written in it is false (Volpone silently cheers) throwing the magistrates into even deeper amazement, and Celia back into despair.

At this point Mosca arrives, dressed very grandly, in fact so grandly that one of the four magistrates makes an aside that he’d make a good husband for his daughter. Volpone has room to elbow his way over to him and whisper in his ear that things are desperately hanging in the balance (‘All’s o’ the hinge’), Voltore spilled the beans once, but now he’s got him safely back onside. Mosca must reveal that Volpone is still alive.

But he doesn’t. Despite Volpone hissing in his ear, Mosca answers the magistrates with the candour of a sad and honest man that, alas, poor Volpone is dead. There follows a furiously frenzied interplay as Mosca dolefully tells the magistrates his master is dead, while Volpone hisses in his ear that he’ll give him half his estate. Not enough, Mosca whispers back.

At that point there’s a further complication because when the magistrates ask who told them that Volpone was still alive, some of them turn to Volpone-in-disguise-as-an-officer and say it was this officer. Well, declare the magistrates, have him taken away and whipped for a liar.

Thus it is, that facing the prospect of an immediate whipping, facing the prospect of Mosca inheriting his entire estate, and overhearing the fourth magistrate musing out loud about marrying his daughter to Mosca, blow it! Volpone decides he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and strips off his disguise, revealing to an astonished cast that he is still alive!

Swiftly he accuses Mosca and the three men as being conspirators and gulls. To be honest I don’t think he gives nearly enough of an explanation to clarify the full sequence of events but, be that as it may. the judges proceed to pass swift and exacting justice.

Mosca, as a servant masquerading as a citizen, is ordered to be whipped and condemned to the galleys for life.

Volpone is told that, as a gentleman, he cannot be whipped, but his entire treasure will be confiscated and given to a hospital. And since he has acquired his fortune by faking the symptoms of gout, palsy etc he will be thrown into prison and set in chains until he does actually develop those symptoms.

Voltore will be struck off as a lawyer and exiled.

Corbaccio is deprived of all his estate, which is given to his son, and sent to a monastery to study how to die well.

Corvino will be rowed around the canals wearing a hat with long asses ears before being put in the stocks, and is ordered to send his much-wronged wife back to her father with her dowry trebled.

Let all that see these vices thus rewarded,
Take heart and love to study ’em! Mischiefs feed
Like beasts, till they be fat, and then they bleed.


Thoughts

Volpone is obviously a big leap forward on Every Man In His Humour in terms of dramatic coherence and power. The central figure of Volpone and the trope of his gulling all the ‘clods and clodpoles’ unifies the play, and the double act of Volpone and Mosca has tremendous verve and power.

So much so that the critique I developed for Every Man seems even more true here, namely the fundamental contradiction which I’ve tried to summarise as Jonson’s Divided Morality.

What I mean is that, on the surface – in his prologues and introductions and dedicatory epistles and other critical writing – Jonson insisted that comedy plays a didactic role and should aim to mock and ridicule foolish, crooked behaviour onstage in order to leave the audience feeling chastened by seeing their own foibles and pettinesses taken to extremes and made absurd onstage.

However, what you see onstage tends to have the opposite effect. Everything in the poetry and action and dialogue and gags and scams that you actually see onstage attracts you to the baddies, makes you laugh or gasp at their outrageous scams, and you find yourself cheering whenever they reappear after an absence. Imaginatively you are on the side of the huge outrageous liars.

That said, this neat dichotomy is complicated by the fact that, maybe it’s the dupes who are meant to play the role of instructing the audience.

I can see how, for example, the audience watching Corvino hot to prostitute his wife for a fortune, or Corbaccio who is constantly on the verge of suggesting to Mosca that they actively murder Volpone – watching either of these grotesques, members of the audience might detect in themselves thoughts which have, in some times and places, tended along the same lines and so be horrified to see them taken to such outrageous extremes. Maybe that is what Jonson intended.

Everyone who sees or reads the plays agrees that the punishments seem very harsh. There’s a surface-level way of assessing them for their time and place, comparing them to actual punishments in Italy or England for the kinds of ‘crimes’ the malefactors have committed.

But there’s also a more psychological interpretation. I’m tempted to think that Jonson-the-moralist, in dishing out such aggressive humiliation and punishment to his creations, is overcompensating for the moral laxity and imaginative indulgence which Jonson-the-playwright has given his characters all along.

At some level, Jonson the strict moralist is administering a beating to his own wayward, anarchist imaginative impulses. He is punishing himself.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston (1605)

Six salient facts:

1. Eastward Ho and Westward Ho were the cries of the watermen who plied on the Thames, telling customers which way they were headed.

2. Eastward Ho! was a collaboration between three leading playwrights of the era, George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston. Scholars have been arguing for centuries about who wrote which bit.

3. Eastward Ho! was staged at the Blackfriars Theatre by a company of boy actors known as the Children of the Queen’s Revels, granted a patent by King James I in 1604. Boy actors! So imagine everything that follows being played by boys! All the double entendres and jokes about pricks and purses, Gertrude making eyes at Quicksilver, Sindefy the whore, all the vamping… boys.

4. Eastward Ho! was performed at the Blackfriars Theatre. This was an enclosed theatre which catered to a financial elite, charging sixpence admission, compared to 1 pence at the more popular and open-to-the-elements Globe Theatre.

5. Eastward Ho! includes references to and parodies of popular contemporary plays such as The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine and Hamlet. Even the play’s title is a reference, a riposte to the recently performed Westward Ho! by Thomas Dekker and John Webster, who then went on to write Northward Ho! as a response to Eastward. Jacobean theatre was a tightly packed, highly competitive, self-referential little world.

6. The play contained scathing satire on all manner of subjects to do with contemporary London life, but one of these was the widespread animosity against the many Scots who had accompanied the new king, James VI of Scotland who became James I of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in March 1605, down to London. Chronically poor from the start of his reign, James quickly became notorious for selling knighthoods for £40. 900 were sold in the first year of his reign. This created a mercenary atmosphere of corruption, that all that mattered was money, a sense that you could get rich and climb the social ladder overnight by clever scams. This is the corrupt vision which lures Quicksilver, Petronel and Security, the play’s three baddies, who all hope to get rich quick by various scams – and who are balanced by Touchstone, standing for the bourgeois virtues of hard work, and Golding, who stands for loyalty and honesty.

Having read the play I’m surprised that the handful of satirical references to the Scots and the selling of knighthoods are relatively trivial, you could blink and miss them.

1. When Sir Petronel Flash is washed up on the Isle of Dogs two passing gentlemen mock him, and then one – out of tune with his preceding remarks – says something in a Scots accent:

FIRST GENTLEMAN: On the coast of Dogs, sir; y’are i’th’ Isle o’ Dogs, I tell you, I see y’ave been washed in the Thames here, and I believe ye were drowned in a tavern before, or else you would never have took boat in such a dawning as this was. Farewell, farewell; we will not know you for shaming of you. I ken the man weel; he’s one of my thirty pound knights.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: No, no, this is he that stole his knighthood o’ the grand day for four pound given to a page; all the money in’s purse, I wot well.

It’s peculiar the way this one-off remark and its odd Scottish impersonation sticks out from the text around it, as if it’s been cut and pasted onto the rest of his speech in English. It’s an oddly random moment in the text

2. In the pub, the gentlemen who are joining the expedition to Virginia ask Captain Seagull what it’s like and he sets off on a long deceitful description of how it’s overflowing with gold,m in the middle of which he suddenly segues into a passage about Scots, and the jokey idea that it would be lovely if all the Scots in London could be magically transported to America.

SCAPETHRIFT: And is it a pleasant country withal?
SEAGULL: As ever the sun shined on; temperate and full of all sorts of excellent viands: wild boar is as common there as our tamest bacon is here; venison as mutton. And then you shall live freely there, without sergeants, or courtiers, or lawyers, or intelligencers, only a few industrious Scots, perhaps, who indeed are dispersed over the face of the whole earth. But as for them, there are no greater friends to Englishmen and England, when they are out on’t, in the world, than they are. And for my part, I would a hundred thousand of ’hem were there, for we are all one countrymen now, ye know, and we should find ten times more comfort of them there than we do here.

Someone reported the playwrights to the authorities as disrespecting the new king. Marston got wind of it and went into hiding, but Jonson and Chapman were briefly imprisoned for lèse majesty.

Ten years later, Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden (a Scots writer who he stayed with on a visit to Scotland) that they thought they might have their ears and noses slit.

It’s very difficult for us to really assimilate the casual violence and casual death of the Elizabethan/Jacobean period. Tens of thousands died of the periodic outbreaks of plague. There were plenty of other ailments to die of in between. You were liable to be conscripted for one of the endless wars. Jonson is known to have killed a fellow actor in a duel. The plays refer to the common punishment of being whipped. And here are a couple of poets in gaol for a few weeks wondering if they’ll publicly have their ears cut off or noses slit! As I say, difficult for us to really imagine what life was like.

What happened to Jonson and Chapman? The pair wrote letters to every influential patron and person they knew asking for their intercession. These letters are included as an appendix in the New Mermaid edition of the play and very interesting reading they make, too. Eventually, they were released, whereupon they threw a big banquet for their friends and supporters.

Cast

There’s quite a large cast (all played by boys!):

Touchstone, a goldsmith.
Quicksilver, and Golding, apprentices to Touchstone.
Sir Petronel Flash, a shifty knight.
Security, an old usurer.
Bramble, a lawyer.
Seagull, a sea-captain.
Scapethrift, and Spendall, adventurers bound for Virginia.
Slitgut, a butcher’s apprentice.
Poldavy, a tailor.
Holdfast, and Wolf, officers of the Counter.
Hamlet, a footman.
Potkin, a tankard-bearer.

Mistress Touchstone.
Gertrude, and Mildred, her daughters.
Winifred, wife to Security.
Sindefy, mistress to Quicksilver.
Bettrice, a waiting-woman.
Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Gazer, Coachman, Page, Constables, Prisoners, &c.

Eastward Ho! plot summary

Master Touchstone is an honest but tetchy goldsmith. He has two daughters and two apprentices. The elder daughter, Gertrude, is ‘of a proud ambition and nice wantonness’, the younger, Mildred, ‘of a modest humility and comely soberness’. So with the apprentices who are nicely paired & contrasted, Quicksilver is a graceless unthrift ‘of a boundless prodigality’, but Golding is ‘of a most hopeful industry’, a model of industry and sobriety.

Act 1 scene 1 The play opens with Touchstone and Frank Quicksilver arguing, the latter insisting he is the son of a gentleman and is off to the pub to hang out with gallants and gull them out of money. Crossly, Touchstone says that he rose by hard work and repeats his catchphrase, ‘Work upon it now!’ Touchstone exits and Golding is left alone with Quicksilver, who insults Touchstone for being a flat-capped bourgeois, swears a lot and it is in this speech that Quicksilver says Golding shouldn’t face West to the setting sun, but look out for himself and fare Eastward Ho!

As the play develops East is associated with:

  • the rising sun
  • the mythical castle in the country which Sir Petronal Flash claims to own
  • the direction down the Thames the ship to America will take

Act 1 scene 2 Proud Gertrude is impatiently awaiting the arrival of her suitor, Sir Petronel Flash, while meek and mild sister Mildred watches her dress up in pretentious finery, mock the lowly origins of her own parents, and look forward to becoming a fine lady. Her tailor, Poldavy, encourages her to prance and bob like a ‘fine lady’. She is a type of the pretentious bourgeois.

Enter Sir Petronel Flash who quickly comes over as a superficial fool. Mistress Touchstone is as keen to be rich as Gertrude and the two of them, plus Flash, make a bevy of pretentious fools. Mistress T explains that Sir Petronel is one of the new knights, a reference to James I’s innovation of selling knighthoods. Gertrude wishes him to take her away from all this to his big house in the country. She uses the affected pronunciation of city-dames, namely saying ‘chity’ and ‘chitizen’.

The pretentious threesome exit leaving the stage to Touchstone, Mildred and Golding. Rather surprisingly Touchstone marries Golding to Mildred. She is all filial loyalty and so meekly agrees, Golding swears his devotion to his master and they go in to have a little wedding meal. Touchstone, alone on stage, explains that he is running a little experiment:

This match shall on, for I intend to prove
Which thrives the best, the mean or lofty love.
Whether fit wedlock vow’d ’twixt like and like,
Or prouder hopes, which daringly o’erstrike…

There is no mention of any love or affection whatsoever between the young couple. It is a striking example of Jonson’s didactic theatre, utterly lacking either the magical romance of Shakespeare’s comedies, or the innocent mirth of Dekker’s Shoemakers’ Holiday.

Act 2 scene 1 Next morning outside Master Touchstone’s shop. He calls Quicksilver to him, who is hungover and explains he got smashed at the party to celebrate Gertrude and Sir Petronel’s wedding. He staggers off to drink some more. Touchstone retires and listens to the conversation of Golding and Mildred which is exemplary for love and devotion. At this point Quicksilver staggers back on stage, positively drunk and asks first Golding, then Touchstone if he can borrow money.

Touchstone has had enough and throws him out, giving him his indenture and all other belongings. Very drunk, Quicksilver quotes the opening speech from Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, then swears at Touchstone:

Quicksilver: Sweet Touchstone, will you lend me two shillings?
Touchstone: Not a penny.
Quicksilver: Not a penny? I have friends, and I have acquaintance; I will piss at thy shop-posts, and throw rotten eggs at thy sign.

As Quicksilver staggers offstage, Touchstone abruptly frees Golding from his apprenticeship, offers him a handsome dowry and promises to host a marriage feast even more spectacular than Petronel’s. Golding, modest and sober, demurs, saying it would be profligate and wasteful and he and Mildred will be happy to have a small ceremony with just Touchstone present, and then consume the cold leftovers from Petronel’s feast. Touchstone remarks that his daughter is now impatient to seat off Eastward to her knightly husband’s country pile.

Act 2 scene 2 At Security’s house. Security has a little soliloquy in which he introduces himself as Security, the famous usurer, who keeps people’s belongings, in this case the fine clothes of Quicksilver, who in the past has nipped in here to swap his prentice clothes for fancy togs to go meeting his gallant mates.

Enter hungover Quicksilver climbing into his swagger clothes. The notes explain the business relationship between the two: Quicksilver pretends friendship to city rakes and gallants, lends them money, then pretends to be in debt, persuades them to sign a bond for a commodity or an exorbitantly high-interest loan payable to Security, for which they are responsible. In other words, Quicksilver dupes his ‘friends’ into getting into deep debt with Security: which is why Security keeps his clothes and minds his affairs for him.

Security is married to a young woman, Winifred but has a sexy servant, Sindefy, ‘Sin’ for short, who comes bearing the rest of Quicksilver’s posh clothes. Quicksilver calls Security ‘Dad’. After lengthy speeches about how they rely on no trade, preferring to make money out of money, (which are designed, I think, to make the audience despise them) Security lays out their latest plan: Quicksilver will get Sir Petronel Flash into his debt. They’ve learned that Flash married Gertrude to get his hands on her inheritance, to convert it to cash and take ship for Virginia as a ‘knight adventurer’.

They devise a Plan: Gertrude has not yet gone down to the country to visit her husband’s (fictional) castle, but is still in London. Quicksilver will visit her and will help the introduction of Sindefy who will take on the character of a gullible young woman just up from the country – you can just imagine this will lead to an orgy of ridiculous social pretentiousness.

Just before they pack up, Security is called offstage by his wife (?) Winnie, leaving Quicksilver alone. Out of Quicksilver’s mouth oozes pure, malicious evil, as he insults Security behind his back and says he hopes to live to see dog’s meat made of his flesh. This sounds like Ben Jonson. It is exactly the tone of vicious hatred which animates Mosca in Volpone. Coming from the bonhomie of The Shoemakers’ Holiday, this kind of thing is like treading in dog poo.

Act 2 scene 3 Quicksilver is at Petronel’s London lodging as the latter prepares to set off. He wants to flee London to escape his wife, who he can’t stand. He readily admits he has no castle in the country, something Gertrude will shortly find out. With what I think of as typical Jonsonian heartlessness, Petronel hopes Gertrude will hang herself in despair.

Quicksilver persuades Petronel to stay and get Gertrude to sign over her inheritance, give it in bond to Security who will increase its value. Enter Gertrude now dressed grandly and swanking with grand manners, telling the men when to doff their hats and when to put them back on.

Security presents to her Sindefy, demurely dressed, and preposterously describes her as a simple country girl who intended to become a nun but has come up to the big city seeking advice. In her pretentiously lofty manner, Gertrude agrees to employ her as her personal maid.

Security invites Petronal to come and dine with him but Gertrude is hen-pecking him, and refuses to let him go, insisting they dine at home so she can quickly take him to bed. Quicksilver and Security make cheeky asides about her being bossy. Finally it is agreed that Petronel will visit Security the following morning.

Act 3 scene 1 The next morning at Security’s house, he has just given Petronel a fine breakfast feast. They exchange extravagant compliments, Security promising to make Petronel godfather to his first child, while Petronel gives him a diamond to give his first-born, and Security makes his young wife, Winifred, kiss him. Security’s lawyer, Bramble, has drawn up documents.

Enter the captain of the ship taking Petronel, Captain Seagull and Spendall who say they must haste and leave under cover since the ship is taken out in a false name.

Act 3 scene 2 An inn-yard where the harassed coachman and servant makes haste to prepare Gertrude’s coach. She is obsessed with being the wife of a knight and having a coach. Two city women, Mistresses Gaze and Fond, line up to watch the show and shout encouragement to Mistress Gertrude, who is accompanied by her mother, Mistress Touchstone, equally impatient to be a Great Lady.

Petronel himself arrives and asks her to wait, but she says she is impatient to decorate his castle for his arrival. Quicksilver also enters and tells Gertrude her father has just officiated at the wedding of Golding and Mildred. Gertrude is disgusted at her father for marrying her sister to a common apprentice: henceforth he (her father) will have to call her ‘Madam’.

Enter Touchstone, Mildred and Golding. Gertrude is appalled her sister got married in such a common hat. Touchstone disowns her for snobbery. Gertrude insults Golding for marrying her sister. Golding is tactful and considerate of his master.

Enter Security and his lawyers and they cozen Gertrude into signing away her inheritance, she thinking it’s a minor property in town and the money will be used to beautify the castle. She and Mistress Touchstone and Sindefy, her maid, depart in the coach. Petronel and Quicksilver discuss the very great disappointment Gertrude is going to have when she discovers he has no castle – but by then Petronel will have fled the country.

Petronel expects Security to bring him the money they’ve discussed at Billingsgate. There then follows a complicated sequence during which Petronel reveals to Security that he is in love with the wife of Security’s lawyer, Bramble. He would like, as a favour, Security to take Bramble out for a drink, while he steals Bramble’s wife away. Security enters into the spirit of the plot and exits. Only then do Petronel and Quicksilver reveal that, while Security is out with Bramble, Petronel will steal away Security’s wife, Winifred. Quicksilver and Petronel are fretting about how to disguise her, when Security unexpectedly re-enters and says the best disguise will be his wife’s cloak and hands it over.

Act 3 scene 3 Captain Seagull and his men (Spendall and Scapethrift) are at the Blue Anchor tavern, Billingsgate, awaiting Petronel. His dim men ask about Virginia and Seagull confidently tells them the streets are paved with gold, says the expedition there of 1579 was a great success and the Englishmen intermarried with the natives.

Petronel arrives and they toast the success of the voyage. Security and Bramble arrive, impressed with the toasting and confidence of the crew. Quicksilver arrives with Security’s wife in disguise and wearing a mask. Petronel explains, ostensibly for the benefit of Bramble, that it is a cousin come to see him off who doesn’t want to be recognised in a low tavern.

She is crying and so Petronel asks Security, as a favour, to comfort her. This is designed to elicit howls of laughter from the audience, as Security is all unknowingly comforting his own wife, telling her she is well shot of ‘an old jealous dotard’ and will soon be in the arms of a young lover! About six times various characters make the joke that the ship is bound that night for Cuckold’s Haven, a real place, on the Thames below Rotherhithe.

Increasingly drunk, Petronel suggests to the company that they hold their farewell feast aboard Sir Francis Drake’s old ship, and they dance round the silent, disguised woman to celebrate the idea. Bramble tells Security the mystery woman is wearing Security’s wife’s clothes, but Security just laughs at him, confident that she is Bramble‘s wife – everyone in the audience, of course, laughing at him.

Security and Bramble go their ways but the rest of the company calls for a boat to take them to Sir Francis Drake’s ship, where they’ll get even more drunk, before setting off to be put aboard their final ship. The pub’s drawer watches them go, remarking that the tide is against them and a storm is brewing and it is a fool’s errand.

Act 3 scene 4 A very brief scene, just long enough for Security to return home, find his wife not there, discover that she is at Billingsgate, make the deduction that she is the mystery woman and is sailing with Petronel, and run off yelling for a boat.

THE STORM

Act 4 scene 1 Cuckold’s Haven There’s a storm blowing and the Thames is turbulent, A fellow named Slitgut is climbing up a tree at Cuckold’s Haven to attach cuckold’s horns to it, after an ancient tradition when he spies a ship going down in the river. He gives a running commentary of a man struggling through the waves who comes ashore and proves to be Security, who moans his wretched luck and crawls away. He has been crushed down to the earth.

The Slitgut sees another person wallowing in the weltering wave, a woman, and describes how she is rescued by a man who brings her to shore. It is the drawer from the Blue Anchor tavern who came down to visit a friend at St Katherine’s and he has rescued Winifred. She asks him to go fetch her bundle of clothes which she left at the pub, but begs him to keep quiet about her or it will ruin her reputation. A would-be whore, she has washed ashore by St Katherine’s monastery.

Next out of the water is Quicksilver, washed ashore capless by the gallows reserved for pirates. He bewails the fact the storm has sunk the ship and ruined all his plans.

Next to stagger ashore are Petronel and Seagull who are drunkenly, confusedly convinced they have washed ashore in France until two men passing by assure them they are on the Isle of Dogs and briskly make off, but not before making the joke that one of them (i.e. Petronel) looks like a thirty-pound knight.

I ken the man weel; he’s one of my thirty pound knights.

This is obviously written to be said in a Scots accent and was the most obvious bit of anti-Scots satire, which caused its authors to be thrown into gaol. Petronel and Seagull are now united with Quicksilver and all bewail their fate. They had not, in fact, made it as far as the main ship which was to take them to America, but worry that that ship will now have been seized (there was something illicit about it which I didn’t quite understand).

Petronel is all for giving in, but Quicksilver suddenly changes the subject by declaring he has the specialist knowledge to make copper look like silver: he’ll restore their fortunes yet. The other two adore him and they depart.

Enter the Drawer and Winifred now dressed in dry clothes. He has brought her near to the pub where he works, and very nobly leaves her to continue alone i.e. uncompromised by being seen with a strange man. Which is when she bumps into her husband, Security! Quickly Winifred ad libs and lies that she has come out expressly to look for him, that she was fast asleep when he returned to see her (at the end of act 3) and his shouting stirred her and she was about to call back but he ran off in such a hurry. Thus, lying her head off, she is restored to her husband and he ends up apologising, promising that every morning he will go down on his knees and beseech her forgiveness. They exit.

At which point Slitgut, who has been up his tree watching each of these encounters, climbs down saying he won’t continue the ridiculous pagan custom, and bids the cuckold tree farewell.

Act 4 scene 2 A room in Touchstone’s House Touchstone has heard that Petronel and Quicksilver’s ship was sunk. He tells us he has also heard that his ungrateful daughter, Gertrude, and his wife and the maid, discovered there was no castle anywhere and so ended up sleeping in the famous coach until they crept back to London, repentant.

Golding appears and in his guileless way reports that he has been voted Master Deputy Alderman. He had already been taken into the livery of his trade, so Touchstone is thrilled that he is progressing in his career and doubts not that he will soon be more famous than Dick Whittington.

Then Golding tells Touchstone that the rascally crew were shipwrecked as they took a ferry boat down towards Blackwall, were washed ashore and are returning in dribs and drabs to London and Golding has organised a reception committee of constables. Touchstone’s reaction is what I think of characteristically Jonson, and the reason I didn’t like this play:

TOUCHSTONE: Disgrace ’em all that ever thou canst; their ship I have already arrested. How to my wish it falls out, that thou hast the place of a justicer upon ’hem! I am partly glad of the injury done to me, that thou may’st punish it. Be severe i’ thy place, like a new officer o’ the first quarter, unreflected.

Revenge, the fiercer and severer the better, is the Jonson theme. A mood continued when Gertrude and her mother and Sindefy enter. Mistress Touchstone is thoroughly mortified by the discovery that Petronel was a liar, but Gertrude remains comically obstinate, persisting in the belief she is a lady and owes nothing to her father who ought to bow to her. She flounces out.

A constable enters to announce the arrival of Petronel and Quicksilver. Touchstone is gleeful. He insists that Golding (in his new rank of deputy alderman) judges the rascals. The Shoemakers’ Holiday was about forgiveness and festivity. Eastward Ho! is about judgement and punishment. Golding lays out the accusations against both Petronel and Quicksilver in detail, and is seconded by a vengeful Touchstone. Then they instruct the constable to take them away pending further judgement.

Act 5 scene 1 At Gertrude’s lodgings Gertrude and Sindefy bewail the hard times they’ve fallen on. Gertrude has pawned her jewels, her gowns, her red velvet petticoat, and her wedding silk stockings and all Sin’s best apparel. She wishes she could sell her ladyship. She fantasises about finding a jewel or gold in the street, anything which could save her from poverty.

Her mother enters and laments all her ambitions and decisions to become a lady, but Gertrude blames her and asks how much she’s stolen from her cursed father. But she weeps bitterly. It’s not a funny scene. Eventually Mistress Touchstone advises that she goes and throws herself on the mercy of her good sister Mildred.

Act 5 scene 2 Goldsmith’s Row Wolf comes who is a gaoler of ‘the Counter’ where Petronel, Quicksilver and Security are imprisoned. He has brought letters from them begging for help and then describes their reformations. Touchstone is tempted to forgive but exists rather than give way to pity. Golding, true to his immaculate character as Good Man gives Wolf some money and messages of hope to take back to the prisoners.

Act 5 scene 3 The Counter i.e. prison. Lawyer Bramble visits Security who has gone half mad in captivity and can’t stand the light. Two anonymous gentlemen comment on the extent of Quicksilver’s reformation, who gave away all his fancy clothes, has penned a wonderful apology for his life and helps the other prisoners write petitions.

Wolf arrives back from Golding with the message of hope and a little money. Quicksilver has completely changed. He genuinely thanks Golding, then asks Wolf to distribute the money to other prisoners. The two gentlemen who have observed this noble gesture, remark on Quicksilver’s reformation.

Next, Golding himself arrives in disguise. He has a Plan. He asks Wolf to let him into the prison, then take his ring to Touchstone and say that he, Golding, has been imprisoned for a debt to some third party, can he (Touchstone) come quickly. Then they will work some kind of resolution. Wolf agrees, lets Golding into the prison, sets off with the message to Touchstone.

Act 5 scene 4 Touchstone’s house Mildred and Mistress Touchstone try to intercede on behalf of Gertrude but Touchstone insists his ears are stoppered like Ulysses’ against the sirens. Until Wolf arrives with the token, with Golding’s ring, which Touchstone recognises and instantly promises to come to his aid.

Act 5 scene 5 The Counter Touchstone enters with Wolf. Petronel and Quicksilver enter, and a prisoner and two gentlemen are present to listen to Quicksilver’s sincere and moving song of repentance. It’s a long doggerel poem and various bystanders applaud, ask for more and, at every interval. In an aside, Touchstone tells us that his hard heart is melting. By the end he is quite convinced of Quicksilver’s reformation and forgives him. He goes bail for Quicksilver, Petronel and half-mad Security and they are all released.

Gertrude, Mildred, Mistress touchstone, Sindefy and Winifred all arrive i.e. all the main characters are on stage. Gertrude finally repents and asks Touchstone’s forgiveness, and also her husband’s forgiveness and he begs her forgiveness for deceiving her. Is anything missing? Only that Quicksilver should marry his punk, Sindefy, and make a decent woman of her. Which he instantly volunteers to do.

Bad tastes

I didn’t like this play for at least three reasons:

  1. The contrasts set up right at the start between Dutiful Daughter and Haughty Daughter, and Conscientious Apprentice and Spendthrift Apprentice, feel too mechanical, to put it mildly. Like many other aspects of the play the characters of Golding, who is Peter Perfect, and Mildred, who barely exists as an individual, feel schematic and lifeless.
  2. The rascal characters are all too inevitably riding for a fall and, when they hit it, are judged very inflexibly and harshly. They don’t just fall, they are crushed into the dirt and ground underfoot, reduced to miserable penury in prison. Security goes mad. The harshness of their fate feels cruel.
  3. And at countless incidental moments along the way, the characters are vile. Gertrude’s haughtiness to her father is meant to be funny, but can easily be read as just horrible. Much worse is the way Quicksilver and Security conspire against Petronel, but then Quicksilver and Petronel conspire against Security. They’re all scum. The basic attitude was epitomised for me by the way Petronel said that, once his deceived wife discovers there is no castle, she will be so angry, that she’d be doing Petronel a favour if she hanged herself. A kind of Tarantino level of heartlessness and hate underlies the whole thing. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

The quality of justice

Feels contrived. The rascals’ repentances have no real psychological validity. Gertrude in particular is a bitch up to the last moment – and believable and funny as such, probably the funniest character in the play – till she suddenly turns up in prison right at the last minute, a changed woman. It is literally unbelievable.

In my opinion there is something necessarily shallow about Jonson’s entire view of human nature, shallow and extreme. He sees people as viciously cynical and wicked right up to the last few pages… when they suddenly undergo miracle conversions. The cynicism is unpleasant and the conversions are insultingly shallow and contrived.

But the cardboard stereotypes are an inevitable result of the strictness of his theory of comedy. He thinks comedy should hold up folly and vice to ridicule. But this is a very ideological and schematic ambition, and explains the metallic inflexibility of the play. The precise details may be unpredictable but the ultimate outcome – the crushing humiliation of the rascals and fools – is never in doubt and feels profoundly unconvincing.

As C.G. Petter points out in his introduction to the New Mermaid edition of the play, there is a marriage at the play’s end, the rather tediously inevitable requirement of any comedy – but it is the marriage of an upstart social pretender (Quicksilver) to a whore (Sindefy) whose dowry is paid by a usurer (Security). Gertrude and Petronel’s marriage is a sham from the start, he only marries her for her money. And the marriage of Golding and Mildred in the first act has absolutely no romance or emotion about it whatsoever because it is the union of two wooden puppets.

The intellectual and psychological crudity of so much of this is typified by the thumpingly crude final moral, delivered by Touchstone. Having forgiven Quicksilver after the latter has read out his very poor, doggerel poem of repentance, Touchstone offers Quicksilver decent clothes to change into from his prison rags. But the newly penitent Quicksilver nobly turns down the offer, preferring to walk through the streets of London in his prison clothes to set an example to the children of Cheapside. At which Touchstone intones the final lines of the play:

TOUCHSTONE: Thou hast thy wish. Now, London, look about,
And in this moral see thy glass run out:
Behold the careful father, thrifty son,
The solemn deeds which each of us have done;
The usurer punish’d, and from fall so steep
The prodigal child reclaim’d, and the lost sheep.

Could anyone seriously expect that plays as wooden and contrived and stereotypical and obvious as this could be expected to ‘reform’ vice and folly? What a ludicrous idea. They’re a night out at the theatre, full of jokes, lots and lots of sexual innuendo, absurd farce, ironic reversals, sentimental speeches and a big round of applause at the end.


Related links

Elizabethan comedies

Art

Restoration comedies

17th century history

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (The Plague, page 63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence), a city which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims and slowly comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city.

The plague doesn’t relent but keeps getting gets worse and worse, and Rieux plays a key role in reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city and so on.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary 1940s ideas derived variously from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, and who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these characters come into contact with Dr Rieux at one stage or another, as acquaintances who he treats or as friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of Jacques, the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t stop till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, forced to face up to the fundamental questions of existence – and Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this completely believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself The Narrator, who explains how – after the plague had finally expired – he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and so is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character of The Narrator’s account. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age when he wrote the novel, it is Rieux who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards, and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city and separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big, strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s ‘flail’ or ‘scourge’ swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Father Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. The priest offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There then follow inevitable dialogues between Father Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in a conversation with Rieux, and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Father Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Father Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. It is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Father Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which The Narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of many of the other characters such as Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level of the narrative, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, and arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter of Oran when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates throughout existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned representative of a vengeful Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the ‘injustice’ of ‘bourgeois society’, which stood up for the workers and for the humiliated everywhere. But then Tarrou found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders of his movement (presumably the communists in Spain) claimed were necessary to overthrow the unjust regime.

Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic and brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying, all chime perfectly. It is a great scene. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois, legalistic world of his father, Tarrou has also walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register which domaintes the novel – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. But a saint without a God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books, I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He was a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague struck. When the city is closed, Rambert finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers.

This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another. He is told to be ready to be smuggled out of one of the city’s gates by ‘friendly’ guards, only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches.

Presumably Camus is deliberately trying for a realistic, unromantic and unexciting narrative effect – the opposite of a Hollywood adventure movie. Somewhere The Narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion, his loyalty, his quixotic quest, are contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of most of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows just after the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-stricken Oran, Rambert has realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the political and social issues of Camus’s time, great big issues of justice and commitment, loyalty and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something, somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic stereotype of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, Grand uses his real skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by The Narrator as demonstrating precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which The Narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them as a result of an incident, when Grand telephones the doctor to tell him that he’s just found Cottard as he was attempting to hang himself. The doctor rushes round and he and Grand save and revive Cottard. Cotard recovers but, from that point onwards, is shifty and consistently evades the police and the authorities, since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in Cottard becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks together. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises the disease is bubonic plague far more quickly than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally mass produced and administered, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague or whether the plague declines because it had worked its way through the population anyway.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children around Oran. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a plague victim, Othon is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising the characters like this makes it clearer than when you actually read the novel, just how schematic they are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity.

Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types. Additional comments:

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is lucky enough to be packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife, back in Paris. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist. (Algeria achieved its independence from France after a horrific war, 15 years after this novel was published, in 1962.)

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever and pain and the last-minute falling away of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically. It is described as a character with agency and intent.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto. Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends a serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus was not a philosopher. Although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to anywhere near the same level as Sartre, who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s coterie. But then, Camus himself was ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus can maybe be described as a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour, he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe.

Exile is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging.

He uses the word hope to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his later ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express, various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’ and the medical aspect, as I’ve pointed out, is medieval.

No, we read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter, at around 100 pages each. The Plague is by far the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The realisation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is much more important to Camus than the ideas around ‘the Absurd’
  3. Camus’s horribly long-winded style which makes stretches of The Plague almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post)

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18-year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England, where, by the 1970s, most people thought of ‘the Church’ as a retirement home for nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope via P.G.Wodehouse to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics.

The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its theological tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God.

Politically, the French Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them, deeply cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free – indeed that you are condemned to be free – to make your own set of values and decisions, derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this knowledge involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

So it seems reasonable to speculate that a lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something vital and life supporting – and that now it is lost.

In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is simply that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish, when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or ‘exiled’ by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse.

Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals, without feeling the need to burst into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of other facts about the world we live in, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

This line of thought was prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly ‘existential’ or ‘atheist’ worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. Christianity is key.

When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

Likewise, God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology.

This plucky godlessness only really has meaning by reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. Camus and his characters can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of the throat, some philosophical foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc? It’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before the characters finally feel able to get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity, and so on.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus.

The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his life and actions. But where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text saturated with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are a few passages about ‘the Absurd’ but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. The Law is absolutely central to these two novels, and it is a notion of the law inextricably interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice.

And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux, and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and ever since have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wonder why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and to be a member of the Resistance. That would have been of huge historic importance and also directly tied his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful.

Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels (published in 1942, 1947 and 1956) mention the Second World War, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all. Kafka was another author obsessed by the idea of law and justice.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything – a transparent reference to The Trial.)


Key terms in The Plague

Because the entire translated text is available online, it’s easy to do a word search for key terms. The following results tend, I think, to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

References to Camusian concepts

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

There are, then, surprisingly few direct references to the main concepts which made him famous.

References to Christian concepts

Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more fully expressed and explored.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

References to the law

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

Exile

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’.

This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from the (Christian) belief systems which give our lives purpose.

But it is typical of Camus that this key term is not a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word in the book is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka (1914)

Written in October 1914, this 30-page-long short story is possibly Kafka’s most harrowing and atrocious. It is also distinctly different from most of his other stories, in the following ways:

  • It does not feature a young, harrassed white collar worker
  • It is not set in Prague or a Central European location
  • It is not set over a long period of time (The Trial covers precisely one year, the Metamorphosis a number of months)

Instead the story is set in an unnamed European colony, somewhere in the Tropics, in a dry valley or canyon set amid rocky peaks and takes place in real time.

The Officer and the Explorer

The two main characters are The Explorer and The Officer.

They are inside a penal colony and since the Officer speaks French, presumably a French one. Briefly, the Officer outlines to the Explorer the nature of the big machine they’re standing next to. Prisoners who have offended against the peal colony’s strict rules are punished by being made to lie face down in the ‘Bed’ of the machine and then are firmly strapped in and have a gag inserted in their mouths.

The machine is then switched on and through an ingenious mechanical arrangement a series of sharp glass blades cut into the living skin of the prisoner, at first cutting a grim message – OBEY AUTHORITY – but then embroidering the text with an impenetrably complicated arrangement of curlicues and flourishes. The Officer shows the Explorer a piece of paper with the finished ‘design’ on it, but it looks to the Explorer like a solid mass of black. About six hours into the process the victim stops trying to scream and experiences a state of post-pain ‘enlightenment’. A few hours of further incisions later and they are dead. They are unstrapped from the machine and their body tipped into the nearby grave.

The Explorer is appalled. He keeps a dead straight face and sympathetic expression and suppresses his horror. He keeps glancing over at the condemned man who is covered in chains and kept on a leash by a soldier of the colony. The Officer tells him what brought the condemned man here. He is a servant tasked with protecting another officer. Every hour on the hour throughout the night he is meant to get up and salute the flag. One night the officer checked on him by getting up just before 2am and looking. The servant snoozed through the appropriate hour so the officer beat him, had him arrested and handed over to the Officer telling the story. It is for this ‘offence’ that the condemned man is to have the entire surface of his body covered with incised lines till he dies of shock.

So far, so horrifying. Up till about now this story gave me a strong feeling of an H.G. Wells story, because of the structure and the fact it is about a piece of machinery. By structure I mean it is told in real time, the entire story takes place in one movement without any flashbacks or change of scene. It could be very easily staged. And the focus on a fantastical piece of machinery is not unlike, for example, the way the Time Traveller explains his man-sized contraption to his hearers.

In this respect, in being a straightforward piece of exposition, the first half is oddly unKafkaesque. But about half way through the story begins to change tone, introducing two characteristic Kafkaesque qualities.

Entropy

One is decline and fall. Or entropy. The theory of entropy states that energy in a fixed system always tends towards equilibrium, towards its lowest state. In other words, the universe is running down. To put it more picturesquely, things always decay.

Thus 1. as the Officer’s exposition continues, he is forced to concede that the machine is not the perfect piece of gleaming technology it once was. A loose cog makes it appallingly noisy, spare parts are difficult to get, the gag has to be reused with successive prisoners biting down no all the previous incumbents’ sweat and vomit.

And all this is 2. symptomatic of the general decline in the penal colony itself. It used to be run by the Commandant, who the Officer reveres, who designed and had built the appalling machine. In his day the sharp glass vials which incise the skin of the victim also released acid to incise the lines deeper into their skin. The old Commandant knew about Justice and Honour, says the bright-eyed Officer. More so than the new Commandant who is inclined to be lax on the prisoners and surrounds himself with ‘ladies’ who are always begging for ‘mercy’ and who has let the incision machine run down.

Weirdness

The other element of the Kafkaesque is just the weird way that people behave. The Explorer thought he was being given a free demonstration of this appalling machine but now the Officer begins to explain his motivation. He wants to the Explorer to defend the use of the machine to the new Commandant in front of everyone, of his followers and supporters. He is spending so much time explaining its excellence because he wants the Explorer to use his independent position and his reputation to praise the machine and lobby the new Commandant for spare parts and repairs.

The Explorer refuses to do so. He says he’ll have a private word with the Commandant, and he’s due to leave soon anyway.

And then, in a Kafkaesque gesture which has nothing to do with real people or real life but is a compelling example of Kafka’s ability to incorporate dream logic into his stories, the Officer orders the intended victim (who has, by this stage, been bound and tied into the machine) to be released, and climbs into it himself, demands to be tied down (even though straps and other bits of the machine break or show signs of decay) and then the machine turned on so that he can experience the workings of the machine he fetishises.

No way would this happen in real life, but Kafka’s stories aren’t real life, they are nightmares.

And in line with Kafkaesque rule of entropy, the machine in fact begins to run riot, harrowing the Officer’s skin much more haphazardly than intended, and numerous cogs start bulging and flying out of the top part of the machinery. Within a few minutes it has blown up, its last act being to stab a long metal stud right through the Officer’s head, so that he never gets to experience the sixth-hour moment of ‘epiphany’ which he so longed for.

It is a failure, a shabby flop, like almost everything in a Kafka story.

In the last few pages the Explorer is taken back by the soldier and the prisoner, wreathed in smiles at the fate he has escaped, back to the colony proper, the populous settlement, where they show him the grave of the old Commandant before wandering off into a teahouse. The Explorer goes to the docks and descends the steps to the sea where he bargains with a rowboat to take him out to the steamer docked in the harbour which will take him away. At the last moment the soldier and prisoner come running down the steps towards him but, in the last gesture of the story, the Explorer pushes them both back and away from the boat. He is definitely not taking them with him.

Thoughts

From a stylistic point of view it is very interesting to see that Kafka could, when needed, write very clear, brief, descriptive prose. The description of the machine and the initial statements by the Officer are extremely crisp and to the point, and the Explorer’s responses are laconic and understated. It is only half way through that the Officer begins to go mad and it is fascinating to watch Kafka’s style change accordingly as the Officer stops giving an exposition of the machine, and starts making more complex, long-winded and self-justifying accusations about the new Commandant, the kind of long-winded tortuous justifications we are used to from the novels.

It is fascinating to be taken on a journey from the clear expository prose which, as I said, reminds me a bit of H.G. Wells, and then watch that slowly melt and swirl and become more imbrued with guilt and paranoia and sadism and masochism as the story turns into nightmare before your eyes, as the elements of decay and guilt and horror come to the fore and it turns into Kafka.

As to the content, I leave others to comment.


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

%d bloggers like this: