'Volpone' and the Ends of Comedy

Ian Donaldson


In Ben Jonson's late comedy The Magnetic Lady (1632) three characters sit on stage talking between the acts about the merits and shortcomings ofthe play they are currently watching. By the end of the fourth act the most censorious of these spectators, Master Damplay, feels that he knows well enough how the comedy is going to finish, and is ready to leave. 'Why, here his Play might have ended, if hee would ha' let it', says Damplay, 'and have spar'd us the vexation of a fift Act yet to come, which everyone here knowes the issue of already, or may in part conjecture.' A boy who has been acting as Jonson's spokesman throughout these discussions suggests to Damplay that he wait awhile.

Stay, and see his last Act, his Catastrophe, how hee will perplexe that, or spring some fresh cheat, to entertaine the Spectators, with a convenient delight, till some unexpected, and new encounter breake out to rectifie all, and make good the Conclusion.
(Chorus after Act IV, 21-4, 27-31)

'Perplexe', 'cheat', 'unexpected': the terms aptly indicate Jonson's characteristic fondness for narrative complexity, secrecy, and surprise. The endings of Jonson's plays are seldom predictable, and Master Damplay is soon to discover that his guesses about the resolution of The Magnetic Lady are entirely mistaken. In their final acts, Jonson's plays grow denser, busier, more perplexing, as the action moves through unforeseen complications to a final, exhilarating, and unequally unforeseen conclusion.

Full Text: