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Influence Of Italy on the English Renaissance

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1708 words Published: 15th May 2017

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The Italian renaissance is said to be a phenomenon of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and is explained as an outgrowth of the rise of the independent city-states. It is a cultural phenomenon where the humanist ethos finds expression in culture and the arts, especially in the fields of painting and poetry. Starting from the Italian city-states, the same phenomenon is seen to have spread across Europe in the succeeding centuries, and the English renaissance is located in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It is only natural that poets and playwrights of the English renaissance be fascinated by the Italian experience, and there are several dimensions to this fascination. The renaissance itself meant a revival of classicism, where the standards of art, thought, and culture in general, are sought in the antiquity of Greece and Rome. Therefore, the gaze towards the Mediterranean shores took into account not only the present situation, but also a distant and glorious past. In fact, the inherent tensions in the comparison between past and present are what principally dictates the direction of the English renaissance, and eventually lends to it its unique character. We will study aspects of Ben Jonson’s play Volpone in order to identify some of the key dynamics of the English experience in regard to its relationship with Italy.

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It is an ideal play to study in this respect. Ben Jonson was the foremost classicist of his age, and in the play Volpone are present many of the tensions that inform the English renaissance. According to R. V. Young, “[W]ith the exception of John Milton, there is no English poet more learned than Ben Jonson, and none who makes learning such an integral part of his literary work.” [1] The principle concern of Jonson is to find the right balance between the old and the new. This is a newly emerging concern, and something that most characterizes the English experience. The renaissance was initially informed by a blind devotion towards antiquity, but in turn produced its own exemplars in the likes of Petrarch, Dante, Aristo and Tasso. Hadfield defines the renaissance as “reinterpretation and reusing of what had gone before.” [2] Jonson believes firmly in rules of art laid down in antiquity by the likes of Aristotle and Horace, whereas the new achievements remain enigmatic to him. There is more freshness and delight in the new, but it is always accompanied by a tendency to corrupt, and Jonson intends to advocate caution in this regard. His advice, in Discoveries, is to absorb the classics before the new: “When their judgments are firm and out of danger, let them read both the old and the new; but no less take heed that their new flowers and sweetness do not as much corrupt as other’s dryness and squalor, if they choose not carefully.” [3] 

The ultimate effect of the new is that it transforms the devotional approach to antiquity into a more critical one. The Poetaster is an early play of Jonson’s in which the clash between the old and the new takes centre stage. The verdict is firmly in favour of the old, but the dispute has the effect of eliminating blind devotion and putting in its place a more discriminatory approach to the classics. One result of the critical approach is that it reveals that there was criticism among the ancients too, and that the rules laid down does not make for a homogeneous set. Aristotle lays down his rules of poetics from pure considerations, whereas Horace, coming three centuries later, believes that there should be an element of entertainment mixed with strict purposefulness: “But he hath every suffrage, can apply / Sweet mix’d with sowre, to his Reader, so / As doctrine, and delight together go.” [4] The above lines are taken from Jonson’s own translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica, and it describes an approach that the Jacobean writer adopts himself. Volpone is introduced as aiming to “mix profit with your pleasure.” [5] 

The play is essentially a farce, with an abundance of incidence, and with a plethora of unsavoury characters, practicing their wiles on each other and ending up in convoluted situations. There is an explicit and straightforward moral message in the end, because Volpone and all those who covet his wealth end up caught and punished by law. However, there are more subtle readings possible, which concern the conflict between the classical order and the emerging ethos of the times. The setting in Venice is the first significant detail. The city was viewed as the epicentre of the renaissance, and therefore a perfect backdrop in which to present the new fashions. A large number of the Elizabethan and Jacobean plays are set in the prosperous and mercantile cities of Italy, and with the same object of alluding to the emerging trends at home. Jonson is more ambitious, however, and therefore introduces the travelling nobles Sir Politic and Lady Would-be, who exemplify all the abuses of classicism that Jonson would highlight. They are negative examples, like almost everything else in the play. Their presence is incidental to the plot, and the incessant chattering of Lady Would-be only infuriates Volpone. However, Jonson’s purpose is served best through them.

Early in the play Sir Politic is asked to elaborate on the purpose of his travels, and he explains that the wise man should not be limited to his native country, or even to Europe, and he essentially conveys the modern wisdom that travelling broadens the mind. In this context it must be remembered that the wisdom is essentially a modern one, and that insularity was the norm in the days when travelling was arduous and expensive. The renaissance itself can be described as a journey, from the old to the new, and to the English it most of all represented a breaking away from insularity. The travellers do indeed represent the renaissance spirit, and the rationale of Sir Politic expresses it perfectly:

Yet, I protest, it is no salt desire

Of seeing countries, shifting a religion,

Nor any disaffection to the state

Where I was bred, and unto which I owe

My dearest plots, hath brought me out. [6] 

But Jonson is always ready to point out the dangers of picking up fashions in the place of wisdom or knowledge, and this is the particular talent of Lady Would-be. Her husband points out that she is slightly different in her intentions, which are “to observe, / To quote, to learn the language, and so forth” [7] 

To Lady Would-be it is all fashion. She delights in quoting the classical authors, even though she quotes inaccurately, and is unable to differentiate one from the other. She is particular about her behaviour, and does not want to exchange animated words in public because “It comes too near rusticity in a lady, / Which I would shun, by all means” (Ibid 77). To this end she quotes Castiglione’s Courtier, a renaissance manual to proper conduct. At another place she elaborates on her concept of the enlightened lady:

I would have

A lady, indeed, to have all letters and arts,

Be able to discourse, to write, to paint,

But principal (as Plato holds) your music

(And, so does wise Pythagoras, I take it)

Is your true rapture. [8] 

Plato and Pythagoras do indeed advance theories of music, but they are very different from each other, and have very little to do with the actual practice of music. Through Lady Would-be’s cavalier quoting Jonson intends to show how classicism can be reduced to mere fashion.

The Itinerary of Fynes Moryson provides some support for Jonson’s portrayal of Lady Would-be. After observing the feminine traits across the continent he declares the English woman to be the most liberated among them: “England is the hell of horses, the purgatory of servants, and the paradise of women; because the English men ride Horses without measure, and use their Servants imperiously, and their Women obsequiously.” [9] He also lends support to Jonson’s portrayal of the English renaissance man as a traveller. “[T]hey have worn out all the fashions of France and all the nations of Europe,” he says regarding the Englishman, who is so fond of fashion that he borrows from all the nations and settles on a motley composite. [10] In a more philosophical vein, this is the attitude of Sir Politic.

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In conclusion, Jonson satirizes some traits of the English renaissance through the incidental characters of Sir Politic and Lady Would-be in his comedy Volpone. He makes classical allusions throughout the play, generally to highlight the abuses of the classical heritage, and also to impress the importance of it in relation to the English renaissance. In the final analysis, Jonson’s accomplishment is to have introduced a critical approach to classicism, which was crucial to the cultural evolution in England.


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