Monday, February 23, 2015

Classic #6

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.

Volpone – Ben Jonson

For the title character, the having of riches is not nearly as much fun as fleecing people to separate them from their money, jewels, plate, bedding, curtain, salt-cellars and lovers. He and his favorite Mosca engage in espionage, corruption, insinuation, and treachery to make money and mischief.

The play opens as Volpone feigns illness to play on the greed of his proteges who, by bribery, expect to be made the sole heir in Volpone’s will.

Nobody is nice in this play except for the innocent Celia, who’s intentionally ignorant of the scheming ways of the world. Jonson deplores the effect of wealth on the wealthy. Near the end of the play, one dismayed character observes of the rich: “These possess wealth, as sick men possess fevers, Which trulier may be said to possess them.”

The comedy is rough to our modern ears but some scenes remain amusing. Volpone doing a turn as Scoto, a medicine show barker, extols the virtues of his unguents that will call to mind W.C. Fields – I had forgotten that the mountebank has a very long tradition. Also, Lady Politick Would-be is gabby and over-bearing in her faux-sympathetic attentions as Volpone suffers torments of dismay and boredom.

A long time ago, a prof I had emphasized that we should not confuse scripts with plays. I read the script on its own first, and frankly did not get much out of it. Then I read it as I listened to a production on Project Gutenberg. With the latter method, I got more out of the play, guided by the actors’ pace and intonation. The British English made a big difference in terms of both comprehension and enjoyment.

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