Subjectivity in Ben Jonson’s Volpone
This Is an attempt to understand the different modes through which power and subjectivity plays Its role In Ben Jackson’s play “Pollen”. When we try to understand the structure of power it would be fruitful to understand the different modes by which the human beings are made subjects. To achieve this end I would like to base my ideas on Michel Faculty’s essay “The Subject and Power”. According to Faculty, the human beings are made subjects by taking certain actions which, in turn, would influence the action of others.
He states that power Is “the way in which the conduct f Individuals or of groups might be directed” (Faculty. 790). In other words the ability to Influence the path or the decision making process of others Is one of the ways to exercise power. This could be through words and manipulation, wealth, violence etc. For the sake of convenience I would like to divide the modes, through which power acts in Jackson’s “Pollen” as follows, Salvation and Subjectivity: Till Renaissance, the church exercised absolute power over the human beings In English society.
All the people were Its subjects in one or the other way. The major tool used by the
The aim was no longer to attain salvation in the afterlife but Instead to achieve It In this life. For the Renaissance man, salvation was health, security, well-being (In terms of wealth, property and social status) and knowledge . Hence we see his constant urge to accumulate wealth, health, knowledge and lofty social position. But the church had not lost everybody to this change and had its own subjects. Hence Renaissance was a time of struggle between the rigid followers of church and the men of questions and change.
This struggle exists in Jackson’s “Pollen” in a very subtle manner. One of the criticisms that Johnson received In his time was that of a mimic. He was accused of copying his society the way It was, he was accused of being “a mere empyrean, one that gets what he hath by observation”2. It would be a speculation to say that his play reflects his society as it was but a plausible one. In the play, the majority of the characters are governed by the change or the shift mentioned above as they constantly change themselves, their moral understandings to attain the salvation in this world.
Pollen, the central character, is completely involved in gaining wealth/possession. I mention possession because a woman, her beauty Is also a kind of property to him as he Indulges himself In trying to possess Celia, The characters surrounding him, Corning, Acrobatic or Voltaire are also trying to achieve the same end and they would instantly try to please Pollen in the hopes that he would make them their heir. This is how the power works. The subjects try to please the one with power so that the power would be transferred to them in time.
The transfer of power is one of the major issues that come between the master and the subjects. In the play, the examples of the ever changing men to attain the ‘salvation’ in their life. If we examine carefully, the dialogues of each of these characters we find them to be materialistic in nature, who ridicule the rigid ideas of honor, honesty, innocence, chastity and royalty with their actions. Their ultimate aim is to gain power through wealth. Pollen exploits this aim to achieve his own goal. He takes an actions, he pretends to die and thus controls all those who desire his wealth.
He uses protection and wealth as tools to exert his power. As opposed to them, Johnson creates two characters of rigid stand, who would not bulge to the bribes and manipulations of the changing society. Celia, Corning’s wife, and Binaries, Sirocco’s son, do not change their stand even when they are tried in court. I would like to read them as the subjects of rigid tat set by the church. These two characters are in fact rattled because of the change. They are worried and their dialogues reflect their concern for the changing society.
Celia is the only character in the play who refers to god and talks about the virtues required for the spiritual salvation. But the other characters understand virtues in a very materialistic way. Corning, who lectures his wife Celia of the honor and chastity, changes his stance altogether in order to attain his goal. He is ready to prostitute his wife to do so. Later Corning remarks when Celia talks about honor, Honor? Tutu, a breath; There’s no such thing in nature: a mere term Invented to awe fools. What, is my gold The worse for touching?
Clothes, for being looked on? Why, this is no more. An old, decrepit wretch, That has no sense, no sinew… Monsoon, 30) If we observe Cilia’s remarks they are critical in nature towards the changing society. She keeps referring to God, His angels, heaven and saints in a society which no longer believes in them. She questions, Are heaven and saints then nothing? Will they be blind, or stupid? Monsoon, 30) She further remarks, Good sir, Be Jealous still, emulate them; and think What hate they burn with, toward every sin.
Monsoon, 31) Thus she becomes the preacher who would like to guide her husband to the spiritual salvation. But the change in her husband becomes too great for her to understand. She wonders what spirits might have entered her husband’s body. She asks her husband, “Oh heaven! Cants thou suffer such a change? ” Monsoon, 31) This change she is addressing, we may speculate, is the change in the renaissance society. But her views are best reflected in her conversation with Pollen. She does not give up on her views as she laments, Oh God, and his good angels!
Whither, whither Is shame fled human breasts? That with such ease, Men dare put off your honors and their own? Is that, whichever was a cause of life, Now placed beneath the basest circumstance? This is a voice, as I read it, critiquing the questioning society. Pollen answers her that for a man like Corning, Salvation after death is no longer his concern as he likes to gain it in his own lifetime. Pollen remarks that Corning would have sold his part of the heaven to achieve his goal in his life.
Pollen goes on to offer Celia wealth and social status and various materials but Celia doesn’t budge. Instead she says all of those do not matter for her as she says, Good sir, these things might move a mind affected With such delights; but l, whose innocence Is all I can think wealthy, or worth the enjoying, And which once lost, I have naught to lose beyond it, Cannot be taken with these sensual baits: If you have conscience Monsoon, 34) Pollen interrupts her saying that it is a beggar’s virtue. Pollen’s understanding of the poor in his society is quite clear.
He and his followers believe that all those who follow the path to spiritual salvation would lead a poor and miserable life and the only way to lead a good life is through wealth and pleasure. But for Celia, the ultimate aim is heaven. Even Binaries has the same rigid stand as he talks about justice and honor. Though Johnson creates both type of characters, I read a subtle hint that Johnson favors Celia and Binaries. In the play all the characters who involved themselves in making wealth, are punished and those who believe in the virtues laid by the church are blessed with fortune and happiness.
Thus we may speculate that the concern and the Judgment of the author is voiced in the play that the subjects of Church will have happiness while the subjects of the materialistic state will be punished in time. Thus the power struggle between the two can be seen in the play. Health and Subjectivity: Faculty notes that medicine exerts an uncontrollable power over population which is true especially in the case of Elizabethan society. In the name of medicine, few exercised their will on people and made them their subjects.
For a long time church used medicine to control the populace. As long as one controlled medicine, the public would be under his mercy. This power was reinforced by the fact that for the Elizabethan society health became a major concern. Every Elizabethan subject wanted perfect health in terms of physical as well as mental. Hence the doctors of the Elizabethan society had a subtle power through which they would decide the ways of the society through which one could attain the perfect health. Thus they were controlling the decision making of their subjects.
In Jackson’s play we can observe the role of health and medicine in exercising power. The characters surrounding Pollen, like Anna, Androgyny and Castrate are physically deformed. They lack the perfect body or the perfect health. Hence they are under the mercy of those who have the power I. E. Those who have the perfect health and wealth. These characters can never attain the power or the social position required to do so. Hence they cling on to Pollen for social security and they constantly indulge themselves in the act of pleasing him.
To observe this further in the play, the very act of pretending to be sick shows the slip of power. As one loses health one loses power. As soon as Pollen pretends to lose his health, the birds appear, the raven, the crow and the the mountebank. He becomes a mountebank in order to possess Celia and as he comes one, he exerts a different kind of power over the population. While we study the concept of health, it is worthwhile to understand the concept of social health too. During Jackson’s time, to have a good social health was to have a social position and a perfect lineage.
It was mandatory for the subjects to have heir. This ensured the stability of power and the correct transfer of power. We must observe that Queen Elizabeth faced the same issue as she never married. Since she did not have heir, the power was unstable at the beginning. Though she used different tactics to stabilize err rule, the concept of heir in the society remained the same. If we try to read this in Jackson’s Pollen we can observe that the whole play is about the transfer of power as the central character has no heir.
The play begins with the argument “Pollen, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs… ” Monsoon, 2). The very first description of Pollen is that he is “childless” and the next one is that he is “rich”. Thus Johnson takes away the stabilizing factor in the play at the very beginning and creates a wonderful transfer of power within the play. Interestingly, the characters closely associated with Pollen are also childless and majority of them are incapable of producing one. Androgyny and Castrate are incapable while Anna and Masc. are just childless.
And since Pollen is childless, his power is deemed to be unstable and available for transfer. Pollen exploits the situation to enhance his wealth and thus, in turn, his power. The issue of Masc. operates at a different level as he is socially deformed. He does not have the social health, I. E. He does not have the proper lineage, a name in terms of family or ancestry. Hence he has no other choice but to be a parasite to Pollen. Masc., the insect, who behaves like a servant, a meek one, has a hidden agenda, to attain the power he is deprived of through wealth.