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Jakob Ladegaard

Luxurious Laughter: Wasteful Economy in Ben Jonson’s Comedy Volpone, or the Fox (1606)

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In the 16th and 17th centuries, London became an international centre of commerce. The trade in exotic luxury goods played a significant part in this process. In contemporary society, the taste for luxury and the economic, social and cultural changes it embodied were viewed with both fascination and distrust. The new shopping centres where luxury goods were on display were thus accused of corrupting public morality and damaging national trade. The public debate about luxury was in part conducted on the stage of the commercial Elizabethan theatre, especially in the new genre of so-called city comedies that portrayed, parodied and criticized social life in the expanding city. Ben Jonson was a master of this genre and his most famous comedy, Volpone or the Fox (1606), dealt with the contested issue of luxury. In contrast to many previous readings that have interpreted the play in terms derived from later liberal and Marxist economic thinking, this article analyses the theme of luxury in relation to contemporary economic and moral debates. I will argue that the play depicts the main character Volpone’s taste for luxury and the way he acquires it as both morally and economically damaging for an economy such as the English one, which at the time was built on personal debt and credit and therefore heavily reliant on credibility and reciprocal social obligations. However, this lesson is complicated by the fact that Volpone itself was in fact part of the economic relations Jonson criticized, since it was a commodity – and, in the eyes of many contemporaries, indeed a luxury commodity – on London’s thriving theatre market. I argue that Jonson is aware of this contradiction without being able to resolve it. Ultimately, then, Volpone is an ambivalent comedy intended to provoke reflection in the audience about their consumption of spectacular luxury both inside and outside the theatre.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Review
Pages (from-to)63-71
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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