Chapter Seven: Sustainability Intersections & Early Modern English Theater

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • Build familiarity with Elizabethan dramatic works, including the allegory, satire, and mock epic
  • Identify literary and poetic devices in drama, like the allusion, the unities, and the soliloquy.
  • Practice textual analysis of allegorical characters in satire & consider ecocritical approaches.

black and white sketch with a castle tower in the center of a circle of texts.a black and white sketch of three people performing on a raised stage surrounded my audiences two levels and white sketch of a performance in progress with the stage in the center surrounded by three levels of seating.

1400s staging of a medieval morality play (left), Staging of Merchant of Venice (center), & 1596 drawing of English theater CC

On the Historical Context of Elizabethan England

When Elizabethan theater arose out of medieval theater in the 1500s, Western thought in Europe had been shifting. The impact of the Protestant Reformation challenged the Catholic Church’s static placement of humanity toward the top of the Great Chain of Being and the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo propelled a scientific and technological revolution. English colonialism also enhanced and began to expand across the Atlantic and the African Continent to influence the Transatlantic Slave Trade, an expansion to the West Indies by the Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch, and French.

“The 1588 English defeat of the less armed Spanish Armada marked the beginning of the British global presence, starting with the Caribbean” (Illik 2006).

Resembling a remnant of heliocentrism, the globe of the Earth became an English icon of colonialism when Sir Francis Drake’s 1580 circumvention around the earth and the sun demonstrated English maritime presence that rivaled Spain. European education was also shifting since the advent of the Renaissance, and by the late 1500s in England as well.

“English grammar schools and university students studied extensively the plays of Plautus and Terence” (Devlin 2017).

Definitions and understandings of humanity had been changing as well from medieval notions of the human soul, demonstrated in Introduction of the Kabbalah by Reverend Jean Thenaud’s illustration (see below).

llustration has Jesus Christ of Nazarthe who states in a forest above all animals and trees with arms spread out.

1536 illustration from Introduction to the Kabbalah by Jean Thenaud, Bibliothèque de Genève, pour e-codices 2008. CC

On Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama and its Classical Influences

Painting of a white face woman dressed in a ornate robe with a crown on her head. Also holding a staff on her right and a cross in her left.Black and white sketch of a towering building in the foreground and a row of darker buildings in the backgroundBlack and white sketch of the title page "The Workes of Benjamin Jonson"

1558 Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, 1600 Rose Theater where Ben Jonson began his career, and Jonson’s 1616 Folio. CC

English Renaissance theater arose during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) and James I (1603–1625). The milieu of London’s theater district thrived by the 1590s, along the Thames River. Several theaters in this district in London, England produced theatrical works and performances by playwrights like William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe, including The Rose Theater, The Children’s Royal Chapel, The Globe, and Fortune Theater. These theaters were close to other public attractions like outdoor public pulpits where people gathered to listen to Protestant sermons. Close by were underground meeting houses that drew in religious dissenters.

In addition to English historical chronicles, the European Renaissance inspired Elizabethan dramatists to incorporate classical literature for their subject matter and literary aesthetics and theory. However, there were also influences from medieval miracle plays and Roman playwrights and poets like Seneca, Virgil and Ovid. Classical and Near East story collections also influenced Elizabethan drama with allusions to Aesop’s Fables and the One Thousand and One Nights throughout the plays. By the late 1590s, Elizabethan dramatists modified Aristotle’s unities from Poetics and adopted the classical narrative structure of five acts. By the early 1600s, English Renaissance literature “derived from Horace’s dictum in Ars Poetica that poetry should mix the useful with the sweet” (Greenberg 15). Theatrical productions are usually set in classical history or outside of England, while themes address close to home concerns.

a mosaic of a man dressed in a white robe in a sitting position with scroll in left hand surrounded by one woman standing on the left and one standing on the right dressed in dark robes.painting of performing actors on stage surrounded by a crowd of people two levels high.old painting of two people in the forest. On the left, a person leaning on a tree playing a flute and at the center, a standing person pointing at the other person with his right hand and holding a goat by its horn with his left. Below are written scripts.

Roman Mosaic with Clio, Muse of History (left), Shakespearean actors (center), and Virgil 400 C.E. (right) CC

On Classical and Christian Symbolism in Elizabethan Theater

Classical symbolism in Elizabethan theater is witnessed by the presence of animals, which can be allusions to Aesop’s Fables. Throughout Elizabethan theater, classical symbolism means more than just to symbolize immoral human behavior. Their representation greatly contrasts animal symbolism in earlier medieval morality plays and the classical allegory, which are understood as instances of anthropomorphism in classical Western culture. For example, one main purpose of animals in Aesop’s Fables is to both elevate human morality and supremacy and degrade animals, especially domestic livestock and forest animals. Elizabethan dramas differ in the form and purpose of the presence of animals as metaphor and allusion; meaning the use of anthropomorphism differs from classical literary works.

Serving as figurative language, the presence of animals in English dramas, while representing remnants of the classical animal fable, can serve to critique questionable moral centers of key human characters, which are not conveniently attributed to animals. And these criticisms can also translate into social critiques of human moral supremacy and disillusionments of humanism during the English Renaissance. One form and purpose of the presence of animals in English drama is through the role of bestial nomenclature through characterization.

For example in Ben Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox (1606), the names of human characters show a preoccupation with Elizabethan forms of greed. Roguish scoundrels in the play are given Italian animal names: Corvino, Voltore, and Corbaccio. In English these names mean “crow,” “vulture,” and “raven” — allegorical characters who are animals in classical fables. But in Jonson’s play, these are the names of human characters.

“A crucial question in staging the play, as in reading it, is how to balance the beast-fable allegory drawn from Aesop and suggesting by the names and behavior of many of the characters with realistic human psychology” (Watson xi).

Bestial nomenclature connotes not just trickery, but corrupt, selfish, and dishonest human qualities. Allusions from classical animal fable allusions demonstrate ideas about humanity, like preoccupations with urban wealth and morality in early modern society.

Throughout Elizabethan drama, Christian symbolism from Christian mythology is represented by the presence of the snake, a key figure in the Garden of Eden. In this tradition, the snake symbolizes a break from a timeless sense of nature and the cosmos to the physical cycles of life on Earth. Through Eve, the serpent initiates the beginning of the fall of humanity on Earth. In world mythology, the snake in storytelling traditions serves as both a literary trope and an archetype. As a trope, snakes help humanity to make sense of the links between physical aspects of nature and the abstract, unknowable mysteries of reality.

In ancient stories, representations of snakes are archetypal. The biological shedding of its skin symbolizes renewal and the temporality of life. Their presence reflects aspects of our emotional psyche that have experienced transformations, from a zygote into a multicellular embryo and then into a human infant. Throughout our lives, we continue to undergo transformations at critical stages of development.

Snakes also represent the fertility of the planet and are represented as the female gender who reproduces. In Volpone, or the Fox, by Ben Jonson the costume of Mosca is “snake-like” in many of its productions, which serves to highlight his immoral role in the play. Through Catholic symbolism, the serpent epitomizes immorality. Since Genesis, the snake as Satan represents humanity’s sins.

drawing of two rattlesnakes intertwined into a circle.stone statue of a meditating buddha with Naga in the backgroundstone relief of a gorgon wearing a belt of intertwined snakesVishnu resting on Ananta-Shesha

Twin snakes, North of Mexico (left), Snake Naga shields Buddha (left), 580 B.C.E. Gorgon (right), and 1700s Vishnu (far right) CC

On Elizabethan Theater and Satire

Satire in one shape or form is in our daily lives, from comics and television series like I Love Lucy, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Chappelle’s Show, and The Daily Show to novels by Voltaire, Austen, Gogol, and Orwell to filmed or live stage performances by George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Margaret Cho, and Sarah Silverman. Weaved in their wordplay of puns, pranks, and jokes are opportunities for audiences to hold their tongues to critically reflect while engaging in collective laughter. Traditionally, the ‘canonical model’ of satire does not just “identify vice and folly but aims to reform” (Greenberg 2019).

A common trope in satire is social criticism. This is presented by reference to characterization — like the fool, clown, trickster, rascal, and rogue, for example. A well-known satire is the mock epic by Alexander Pope titled The Rape of the Lock (1712) that inspired the satirical bildungsroman Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift and Voltaire’s novella Candide (1759).

“But the mock epic is not only a discrete subgenre; it can also be a satiric technique. It can function locally as well as globally. It occurs whenever a satirist uses heroic language to treat unheroic events” (Greenberg 39).

Stemming from classical satire and influences of picaresque novels like the anonymous Spanish novela The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) or Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1604) with lowly roguish or idealistic protagonists, numerous forms of satire have emerged throughout different literary traditions, cultures, and historical epochs.

For example, many well-known satires represent low status rascals and idealistic protagonists:

  • Satirical picaresque The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1887) by Mark Twain inducted American literature to the tradition of satire and humor
  • Satirical film by Charlie Chaplin imitates Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940)
  • Satirical science fiction blends wit with social critiques in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978) and Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959)
  • Satirical novels like Sir Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (1988)

When we think of ‘satire’, there are certain characteristics that seem universal:

  • It is a public artistic mode or genre that relies on dramatic irony.
  • Its vast variations as a literary mode and definitions include how satire shares traits with allegory in representation, symbolism, and moral purpose, and at times transformative.
  • Its facade of social reform: As social criticism, Jonathan Swift noted that “readers have an uncanny ability to deflect satirical criticism away from themselves and onto others” (Greenberg 2019).

In early modern drama, satire operated through comedy with themes on domestic and common life.

drawing on a rock depicting a cat waiting on a mouse with a big fandrawing of a cat in the foreground overseeing a herd of geese in the backgroundnews print page for the magazine "Punch"photo of six actors performing on stage

Two 1200s-1100s BCE Egyptian satirical ostraca (left), English Satire Punch (center), & 2007 spoof of A Midsummer Dream CC

On Ben Jonson’s Satire in Volpone; Or the Fox

After his satire Volpone; Or the Fox (1606) debuted, Ben Jonson became the most celebrated English Renaissance dramatist and poet, second to Shakespeare.

Volpone opened at the famous Globe Theater in 1606. The same cast that performed Shakespeare’s masterpieces of that period had recently performed Shakespeare’s Othello, also set in Venice. For 180 years following Volpone’s successful debut (except when the Puritans closed the theaters from 1642 to 1660), it was frequently in performance — long after most other Jacobean plays had been forgotten. (Watson 2019)

Ben Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox is an allegorical satire set in Venice, Italy, which coincidentally is the homeland of the Renaissance. Throughout the play’s plot and subplots, its main characters — ‘protagonist villains’ — con inheritance hunters, a practice known in Rome as trickery. Yet, Jonson’s satirical humor also serves as a philosophical basis to his comedy. This is accomplished through characterization.

He wanted to bring in a vital realism. He aimed at discipline, inventing it with realism, in short to mix profit with pleasure. He drew his characters by observing Puritan London. In the medieval past in the Latin world, the ancient concept of ‘humor’ was popular. Static types like the jealous husband, the stern father and cunning servant were used in Morality plays. Jonson’s comedies were concerned with these weaknesses, holding them to ridicule.(Greenberg 2019)

Writing and producing his dramatic works during “a period of extraordinary change in English society,” Jonson approached his dramas to address social criticism through allegorical satire and reached his audiences to “express the complexities of life and truth in a form that could be appreciated by the common man” (Griffiths qtd. in Hazzard).

The characters in Volpone; Or the Fox fall prey to corruption of this city by the two main villains of the play, Volpone (Sly Fox in Italian) and his foil Mosca (Fly in Italian). The conflict of the play is established in its opening scene through characterization and plot design, on the theme of urban corruption and immorality. It also sets up Jonson’s allegorical satire through dramatic irony, because while his audience responds to the immorality of its two principal characters, they also ruminate on their own moral compasses. Hence, Jonson provides insights on the problems of the day by adapting the popular ‘legacy hunters’ tale. The opening scene shows Volpone’s obsession with wealth and unveils its blinding effects.

VOLPONE: Good morning to the day; and next, my gold:

Open the shrine, that I may see my Saint.


Hail the world’s soul, and mine! more glad than is

The teeming earth to see the long’d-for sun

Peep through the horns of the celestial Ram,

Am I, to view thy splendour darkening his;

That lying here, amongst my other hoards,

Shew’st like a flame by night; or like the day

Struck out of chaos, when all darkness fled

Unto the centre. Gutenberg version of “Volpone; Or the Fox”

Through allegory and satire, Jonson’s characterization of Volpone is extravagant. His excess is in both wealth and a lack of a moral compass.

“When, in the opening monologue of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, the title character prays to his hoard and compares the gleam of his gold to the first glow of light in the creation of the universe, he is elevating money to the level of the divine, calling attention to his (unheroic) greed” (Greenberg 39).

Illustration of a man standing on the left facing a cat and a foxIllustration to Aesop's Fables: The Fox & the CraneIllustration of a tiger with an arrow in its mouth in the center. Below is a fox looking in the direction of the tiger. In the background is a face of a hunter in the bushes

1800s Fox in Pinocchio (left) and 1600s Aesop’s Fables’ The Fox and the Crane & The Tiger and the Fox (center and right) CC

On Theme and Allusion in Ben Jonson’s Volpone; Or The Fox (1606)

Jonson’s use of allegory and dramatic irony also alludes to the theme of the systemic culture of greed in urban settings, whose scale goes beyond simply accumulating wealth, “but to all objects of our desires” (Greenblat). Through allegorical satire, Jonson transforms his drama into multidimensional social critiques on contemporary hypocrisy, greed, and abuse of power.

While the Church formally denounced trade and usury and glorified poverty, Leonardo Bruni (d. 1444), the Florentine Chancellor, formulated a defence of acquisition of wealth. He used Aristotle and Juvenal to prove that poverty distorts and demeans but the wealthy man alone could be in a position to exercise virtue. “From then onwards humanists provided citizens with a reasoned defence of riches…(Hay qtd. in Bhattacharya)

Unlike the corrupt and inhumane superstructure within royal families where both Hamlet and Hermione suffer moral injustices in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (1599) and in the comedy The Winter’s Tale (1610) respectively, Jonson’s comedy implicates any character. Critics argue that Jonson satirizes contemporary English society, especially Protestant England.

“Venice built its economy and identity entirely around exchange. So, it provides a perfect setting for a sophisticated understanding of greed as desire that has broken loose from real objects and real needs — an apt lesson for Jacobean London, which was rapidly moving from a feudal system toward a capitalist one” (Watson xix).

On the Role of the Animal Fable in Volpone; Or the Fox

Scholarship on the intersection between biblical scripture and the representation of nature by ecocritics Armbruster and Wallace in Beyond Nature Writing (2001) enhance literary studies on ethics, because Elizabethan dramatists, like Ben Jonson, also address concerns surrounding morality and organized religion through allusion and the animal fable.

Jonson in Volpone; Or the Fox enhances negotiations on morality by its classical allusions like the animal fable, at a time when Renaissance humanism emerged in England and Christian religious doctrines were controversial.

For example, instead of simply presenting an allegory, Jonson uses allegorical elements in Volpone; Or the Fox (1606) to satirize humanity’s obsession with newfound wealth; avarice — an urban cultural trend associated with and attributed to non-Christians throughout Europe.

The animalistic side to the play enables you to develop a very visual, sensuous way of delineating the characters. By drawing on both their animal qualities and the commedia dell’arte [early comic form of Italian drama] tradition you can create a rather alarming, exotic, fun kind of world for both the characters and the audience. The animalistic side in the play encourages actors to explore their characters’ obsessional drive and the ways in which they are both blinkered in what they want and the way in which they prey on each other. (Director Hersov qtd. Watson xi)

In doing so, Ben Jonson’s comedy is less like an allegory and more like satire, because its allusions of bestial allegory exposes the inhumanity of its human characters. Jonson inverts classical anthropomorphism. While the animal fable in Aesop’s Fables rely on what is disassociated from humans — animals, Jonson exposes the inherent degrading influences of excessive wealth in his own work. The fascination with excessive wealth in Jonson’s play dehumanizes them, as stated by Marion Robles Ortiz. The representation of animals, if anything, is about how humans became human. Jonson’s play simply puts up a mirror for the audience to see their own animality.

“…where the animality of animals is not the obverse of civilization but its raison d’être. Civilization, in this reading, is that compensatory effort made by slow, brainy primates with little fur and unremarkable sense of perception to make due in a world full of wild animals whose ‘pure talents’ we both fear and secretly covet” (Robles Ortiz 72).

A play disguised as an allegorical animal fable, Jonson’s Volpone offers a social critique of the temptations of wealth in Protestant England. Mosca, the fly, rhetorically deceives everyone and leads them to their own downfalls, including that of his master Volpone, the fox. Volpone’s humiliation of himself is the play’s climax. The use of allegory creates a sweetness of satire by its laughter and lightness, while reserving the bitterness of satire to sink into the intellects of the audience. Yet, unlike “The Fox and the Grapes” in Aesop’s Fables, Jonson’s use of allegory does not resolve; “in the end, the world the play inhabits will continue to be guided by avarice” (Ortiz Robles 69). At the end of Volpone; Or the Fox (1606), Jonson reinforces his moral message through animal imagery.

Throughout the play’s plot, Jonson’s two main characters attempt to transform themselves by accumulating wealth only to subvert their own morality; and, even their humanity. No growth ensues. The main character Volpone represents a degenerate early modern version of the classical allegorical fox. Jonson’s allegorical dramatic satire critiques social norms throughout its society whose ideology encourages and sustains greed and rewards wrongdoing, such practices that will spread to an insatiable scale and threaten the society itself, as colonialism gains momentum in the 1600s.

How does Elizabethan Theater Inform Ecocriticism?

Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox is fruitful for ecocriticism. Ecocritical approaches can further inform how the play represents human greed and corruption through the representation of nature. Recent ecocritical studies on the Elizabethan dramatic works of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, among others, build on earlier studies on the representations of nature throughout the setting of the nonhuman aspects of nature.

For example, current literary ecocritical approaches to Shakespeare’s The Tempest build on American literary critic Leo Marx’s 1964 seminal study of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in The Machine in the Garden (1964). Not only do ecocritics address the actual torrent in The Tempest, but they also demonstrate intersections between 1600s English colonial projects with recent atmospheric disruptions due to climate change. Ecocritics — like dramatists — read ‘the storm’ in metaphorical terms to understand an ecological imbalance.

“Leo Marx (1964) proposed that William Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Tempest (1611) be considered an allegory for the New World, in the midst of the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s” (Gray 2020).

Not only has Shakespeare based his entire play on the aftermath of a hurricane in the Caribbean, but he also negotiates characterizations to represent how to regulate English civility, while tempering the erratic state of nature through Ariel and Caliban, otherworldly creatures native to the island.

The Tempest functions as an ambiguous allusion troping the blessed isle’s nightmarish inversion from pastoral to industrial” (Lanone 2008).

Throughout Elizabethan drama, themes also address the intersection between social regulation and human behavior through trickster characterizations and animal fable and classical mythology — like Robin Goodfellow in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Volpone in Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox (1606).

On Humanism and Ben Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox

Coined in the 1800s as Renaissance humanism, England’s Elizabethan and Jacobean theater also underwent a humanistic revival that was informed by Greek and Roman literature, like Roman poet Virgil. Virgil’s works were greatly revered throughout the European Renaissance, especially for their themes on human ‘civic’ (public) virtue — a perspective on secular society that both intrigued and inspired Renaissance playwrights and poets alike — especially Ben Jonson.

In the Aeneid, human ‘civic’ virtue is demonstrated throughout Virgil’s literary epic, while it celebrates Emperor Augustus’ values of social order, loyalty, and public virtue. Classical humanists also viewed humanity as reigning supreme, demonstrated by 340 B.C.E. Aristotelian philosophical scheme, known as the Great Chain of Being; a worldview Renaissance philosopher René Descartes later developed an understanding of its scala naturae in the 1500s (Pressbooks on Descartes).

By 1637, Descartes embraced Aristotles’ views of the ‘ladder of being’ to equate human thought as the substance of life itself, as cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am. Modifying classical humanism, Descartes fundamentally privileges the mind over the body, a hierarchical positioning of the human mind to determine human nature, through our rational capacities. Cartesian dualistic thinking ensued.

Dualism in worldviews and on human nature has challenged the viability of ecocriticism, since nature and culture, humanity and the nonhuman, the body and mind are interconnected and of equal importance: “they constantly mingle, like water and soil in a flowing stream” of the web of life (Armbruster and Wallace 2001).

Ben Jonson’s allegorical satire interrogates the elevation of the human mind over the human heart in his play Volpone; Or the Fox through cunning. Its two main characters dress in different disguises throughout the play. Along with elements of classical allegory in his comedy, Ben Jonson also utilizes rhetorical deceptions and camouflages in characterization to present themes on morality. The conceit of shapeshifting of identities in order to trick others extends to the victims, who also ‘play act’. This extended metaphor exposes the harm avarice causes to human integrity. Through characterizations that utilize human reason to engage in a comedy of false impressions, Jonson satirizes Renaissance humanism and its ideals of human rationality. In doing so, his dramatic work offers new ways for audiences to negotiate morality and new ways to reflect on how to treat one another and nature more fairly. “This conceit allows Jonson’s comedy to satirize avarice as a form of ‘rare punishment’ to itself since no one is spared from the fox’s wiles, least of all the big fox himself” (Ortiz Robles 69).

On Ben Jonson’s Humanism and Ecocriticism

Scholars in literary studies turn to key Elizabethan comedies for ecocritical interpretations of early modern drama like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605) and Ben Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox (1606). Their works are fruitful for ecocriticism and animal studies since their plays are early modern renditions of humanism with classical allusions to works like Aesop’s Fables and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ecocritic Alex Guerrero discusses the interplay between the urban and the wilderness in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare to show the primacy of Gaia: “…what is not disputed is the influence of the forest and the faeries over the Athenians” (Guerrero 2017). This reading of Shakespeare’s work suggests an inherent awareness of humanity’s placement among nature itself. In Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox, ecocritics address the play’s preoccupation with human subjectivity and the animal fable. “Literature serves to separate humans from animals but also to confuse and conflate them” (Otiz Robles).

For example, ecocritic Iovino sheds light on how critical approaches to Jonson’s play broaden literary studies on humanism in Jonson’s Volpone. Like Ortiz Robles, Iovino also focuses on these possibilities in Jonson’s Volpone to understand the human-nature binary. What has ensued are findings of the elevation of the human mind over the human heart, as a source of a lack of cohesion; symmetry among humanity and nature; Cartesian dualism. Iovino argues that ecocriticism can offer new ways to address the intersection between social and environmental injustices, especially in understanding discourses on ‘otherness’.

Can ecocriticism indeed be a ‘discourse on the human’? And how might the idea of Otherness (an Otherness more radical than the socially constructed one) play a role in this “discourse on the human,” an implicit—and yet essential—concept in ecological culture? (Iovino 2010)

Iovino’s concerns reflect similar questions posed by Black writers and literary theorists like Toni Morrison. Morrison also recognizes that institutional racism has been established and sustained by forms of language usage that ‘others’ people, as a way to legitimize racial prejudice and to exile them or exploit them. In Western culture, ‘othered’ groups of people are given associations of ‘animal-like’ characteristics.

For example, Toni Morrison also identifies the intersection between the ‘othering’ of nature and humanity.

“Since the law deprived slaves of property and instead made them into property, their condition resembled that of an animal and not a human being” (OER African American History Pressbooks).

Morrison also explains in Playing in the Dark (1992) that the roots of the racializing of a group of people into a legal and social construction to legitimize slavery stem from the rise of the Enlightenment, which was informed by Cartesian dualism.

For example, “slavery was enforced upon colonized indigenous people throughout the Americas and such practices spread to an international scale through the human trafficking and enslavement of the peoples of the African continent” (Morrison 1992).

Morrison’s awareness of forms of race-based othering, of racism, and of its brutal and sadistic injustices, simulates the disregard of nature, too, which is a focus in animal studies.

“…in the West, the advent of industrialized modernity was decisive for the history of animals…when animals became objects of human manipulation” (Robles Ortiz).

Since Elizabethan and Jacobean theater reflect a literary tradition that coincidently emerged along with Cartesian dualism, literary and ecocritical approaches to Ben Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox can be telling of the dramatist’s concerns during English Renaissance humanism. By his use of classical allusions, Ben Jonson exposes the profound cost to social justice and social order: greed.

On Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Ecocritical Interpretations

Traditionally, the animal fable in literature represents the frailties of human behavior. Yet, ecocritics and philosophers have also worked with the animal fable in the story compilations of Aesop’s Fables and the Arabian Nights to learn about the animal fable as a subgenre of folklore born out of the domestication of wild animals into farm animals.

For example, feminist philosopher Kate Soper addresses human legacies of the practice of husbandry that places its animals within a regulated worldview that defines nature, nonhumans, not only as valuable for the livelihood of humans, but also as products to be consumed, a practice in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that has nothing to do with sustenance or survival.

The call to consume less is often presented as undesirable and authoritarian. Yet, the market itself has become an authoritarian force — commanding people to sacrifice or marginalise everything that is not commercially viable; condemning them to long hours of often very boring work to provide stuff that often isn’t really needed; monopolising conceptions of the ‘good life’; and preparing children for a life of consumption. We need, in short, to challenge the presumption that the work-dominated, stressed-out, time-scarce and materially encumbered affluence of today is advancing human well-being rather than being detrimental to it. (Soper 2023)

Ben Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox demonstrates this acute awareness as well.

For example, observe the passage below from this satirical drama and note that its references to animals are quite different from the typical animal fable. Close read the passage and make queries like, What is Jonson’s use of animal fables in his satirical drama?

“I use no trade, no venture; I would no earth with plough shares; fat no beasts/To feed the shambles; have no mills for iron,/Oil corn, or men, to grind em into poulder” (I.i,33-36).

Jonson’s play has transformed the typical animal fable into a satire to critique human tyranny.

Through an intelligent anti-heroic protagonist with wit to trick characters with insatiable avarice for material wealth, Jonson’s play exposes how human corruption is self-destructive. The play becomes an allegory of destructivity on a global scale by passages that refer to domestic power and greed abroad.

 “There are metaphors here — the wounded earth, the feeding of the slaughterhouses and the grinding of men to powder” (Brockbank 1988).

The exploitation of all resources emerges as the theme behind the immorality of human corruption. Thousands of years of human activity has transformed wild animals. And this very same activity also transformed us. Humanity has become the dominant species of the world. This awareness of our impact and power over nature is witnessed in ancient epics and theological parables from the East and West. Animal fables instruct on how nature was brought into human civilization.

Topics relevant to twenty-first century sustainable goals from Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox (1606), like those outlined by the United Nations (UNSDG), include life on land and below water, gender equality, reducing inequality, sustainable communities and cities, quality education, responsible production and consumption, and good health and well being.

Born in 1572, Ben Jonson rejected his father’s bricklaying trade and ran away from his apprenticeship to join the army. He returned to England in 1592, working as an actor and playwright. In 1598, he was tried for murder after killing another actor in a duel over the play The Isle of Dogs (1597) with Thomas Nashe, and was briefly imprisoned, One of his first plays, Every Man Out of His Humor (1599) had fellow playwright William Shakespeare as a cast member. His success grew with such works as Volpone (1605) and The Alchemist (1610). He is considered a very fine Elizabethan poet. Ben Jonson is regarded as the second most important English dramatist, after Shakespeare. Volpone whilst being a satirical comedy can be considered a beast play, as all the principle characters are people, but have animal names and display characteristics of the animals they represent. Jonson was a Renaissance dramatist and poet and was concerned with classical precedent. In 1597, while in prison, he converted to Catholicism. In Volpone, the unities of time and place are observed, but the action is complicated by a subplot.

Key Points

  • Featured history of English Renaissance, as a latecomer to the European Renaissance
  • Addressed innovations that shaped Elizabethan culture & theater
  • Highlighted classical & Christian allusions and symbolism
  • Focused on Jonson’s Volpone; Or the Fox, on classical references, Aristotle’s Poetics, & allegorical satire
  • Addressed humanism and ecocriticism and animal studies, via allegory & satire in comedy
  • UNSDG  highlights concerns with responsible production and consumption, life on land, among others

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