Follies and Crimes

  • Nicholas Grene


Jonson gives us what is the entirely orthodox neo-classical theory deriving from Aristotle when he tells us in the Prologue to Every Man in his Humour that it is the function of comedy ‘to sport with human follies not with crimes’. It is a definition which still influences the general idea of comedy, which, most people would feel, should be limited in the seriousness of its concerns, unless it is self-consciously ‘black comedy’. What then ofjonson’s own play Volpone: fraud, perjury, prostitution, conspiracy to murder, attempted rape — are these merely follies? Volpone has made many of Jonson’s critics uneasy and uncertain of its classification. E. B. Partridge’s comments are representative:

Comic masks are not entirely appropriate for a play which creates such a profound sense of evil that the tone seems closer to tragedy than comedy … Is it satire, burlesque, farce, comedy of humour, melodrama? … all of these critical terms have some validity, but none is wholly justifiable.1


Comic Contract Happy Ending Sweet Nature Human Folly English Audience 
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© Nicholas Grene 1980

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  • Nicholas Grene

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