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Paradise Lost and Volpone

Looking at key ideas common in the two texts
by

NJ Cassidy

on 28 May 2015

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Transcript of Paradise Lost and Volpone

Paradise Lost Book IX
and
Volpone Questions of Morality Paradise Lost :
A consciously moral text with acknowledged religious didactic purpose Volpone :
A theatrical entertainment with immorality mixed with inventive humour, making moral judgements awkward Paradise Lost Clear references to the Bible and consciously creating a new epic in the style of the Classics Volpone
Drawing from a theatrical tradition of comedy sourced in the commedia dell’arte, continued through renaissance drama Sources The Nature of Wrong-Doing
In Volpone, a cornucopia of sin: greed, deceit, lust, pride The Nature of Wrong-Doing
In Paradise Lost, a theoretical sin, a simple disobedience, a failure of a test This Paradise I give thee; count it thine
To till and keep, and of the fruit to eat.
Of every tree that in the Garden grows
Eat freely with glad heart; fear here no dearth.
But of the tree whose operation brings
Knowledge of good and ill, which I have set,
The pledge of thy obedience and thy faith,
Amid the garden by the tree of life —
Remember what I warn thee — shun to taste,
And shun the bitter consequence: for know,
The day thou eat'st thereof, my sole command
Transgressed, inevitably thou shalt die…
Book VIII ll.299-330 And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil… And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
King James Bible though the initial transression leads to further wrong:
…so inflame my sense
With ardour to enjoy thee, fairer now
Than ever ; bounty of this virtuous tree !
So said he, and forbore not glance or toy
Of amourous intent, well understood
Of Eve, whose eyes darted contagious fire.
Her hand he seized ; and to a shady bank,
Thick overhead with verdant roof embowered,
He led her, nothing loth ; flowers were the couch,
Pansies, and violets, and asphodel,
And hyacinth ; earth's freshest, softest lap.
There they their fill of love and love's disport
Took largely, of their mutual guilt the seal,
The solace of their sin ; till dewy sleep
Oppressed them, wearied with their amourous play.
Book IX ll.1031-1045 Whereas Volpone is clear and frank about sin and crime:

Good morning to the day; and next, my gold:
Open the shrine, that I may see my Saint.

Riches, the dumb God, that giv'st all men tongues…

…if I thought it were a sin,
I would not urge you. Should I offer this
To some young Frenchman, or hot Tuscan blood
That had read Aretine, conn'd all his prints,
Knew every quirk within lust's labyrinth,
And were professed critic in lechery;
And I would look upon him, and applaud him,
This were a sin. Death! I will buy some slave
Whom I will kill, and bind thee to him, alive;
And at my window hang you forth: devising
Some monstrous crime, which I, in capital letters,
Will eat into thy flesh with aquafortis,
And burning corsives, on this stubborn breast.

Yet feed your wrath, sir, rather than your lust

And disinherit/My son!

See here, grave fathers, here's the ravisher,
The rider on men's wives, the great impostor,
The grand voluptuary! Do you not think
These limbs should affect venery? or these eyes
Covet a concubine? pray you mark these hands;
Are they not fit to stroke a lady's breasts? The provocative attitude towards morality in Volpone is consistently apparent in the language of the play, making contentious links between sin and godliness - both Christian and pagan.

This is key to the impact of the first scene. Whereas the language Milton uses in Paradise Lost is formal, stately and decidedly unironic:

Terrestrial heaven, danced round by other heavens That shine, yet bear their bright officious lamps, Light above light, for thee alone, as seems,
In thee concentring all their precious beams
Of sacred influence: As God in heaven
Is centre, yet extends to all, so thou
Centring receivest from all those orbs; in thee,
Not in themselves, all their known virtue appears
Productive in herb, plant, and nobler birth
Of creatures animate with gradual life
Of growth, sense, reason, all summed up in man.
Book IX ll.103-112 The Bible and Milton use the snake to embody Satan the tempter in Eden Satan…
…with inspection deep
Considered every creature, which of all
Most opportune might serve his wiles, and found
The serpent subtlest beast of all the field.
Book IX ll. 83-86 Since Genesis, picked up by Milton, the snake has traditionally been used to anthropomorphise deceit, sin and evil, figuring in much art and literature. This is helped by a snake's low, sinuous movement and its dangerous poison. Milton calls it fittest imp of fraud, wily; Satan will glide obscure to find it - already a snake-like motion. Jonson takes anthropomorphism further, giving the play its title and its dramatis personae. An early Jonson play, Every Man In His Humour, characterises its cast by their essential traits or humours, as they were understood in late medieval and early Elizabethan times. Volpone takes a similar idea, but drawn from animal fables, so we have a fox, a fly, a crow, a raven, a vulture…

On the one hand this works like a moral fable, with animals chosen to indicate dominant characteristics…

…on the other hand it suggests that humanity is no better than the savagery of the animal kingdom.
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