A King and No King by Beaumont and Fletcher
Morality has been one of the major themes not only of movies and plays of today but also of earlier plays. This is evident in Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Beaumont and Fletcher’s A King and No King. This paper seeks to evaluate the theme of morality using these two plays and how the characters and the events that took place can be assessed vis a vis the societal moral standards during their time and in contemporary period. Consequently, a summary of both plays will be provided as the basis for the analysis and the comparison that follows.
A King, and No King” Summary and Analysis A King and No King by Beaumont and Fletcher is classified as both a tragedy and a comedy: it is a tragedy because of the themes of love and incest, infidelity, sin and retribution and power struggle among its actors however, because of the manner by which Beaumont and Fletcher plotted and treated the characters particularly the lighter moments of the cowardly Bessus. The theme of morality is very well-defined though treated lightly in the work of Beaumont and Fletcher.
The story revolves around Arbaces (the King of Iberia), Tigranes (King of Armenia) and Panthea (the sister of Arbaces and the daughter of Gobrias) and how their love stories were intertwined with the recurring theme of power, love and morality. Arbaces having captured Tigranes bargained with the latter that he will not be imprisoned if he marries his sister Panthea. However, Tigranes refuses with the reason that he already has a love of his own in the person of Spaconia. However, Tigranes and Arbaces both retracted their words upon seeing Panthea to whom both were smitten with her sheer beauty.
Arbaces and Tigranes again clashes and competes for the love of Panthea. Despite the incestuous nature of his love; Arbaces woes his sister and openly went against societal norms and traditions. It should be remembered that in this era while incest is considered as a sin, it is not as severely punished and shunned compared today. Consequently, as Arbaces is the King, he used his clout and power to win the love of Panthea. In modern societal standards, Panthea would have refused the earthly love of his brother, her gestures and actions pointed otherwise.
In fact, Panthea had returned the love of his brother with the same earthly love. The story ended with a happy ending when the Lord Gobrias declared that Arbaces is in fact his son and therefore is not the true King of Iberia. Thus, the throne and the true heir of Iberia is Panthea. Due to this sudden twist in the story, Tigranes was left with no choice but to repent and return to Spaconia. The incestuous affair that could have irked the people of Iberia was after all, not immoral. Volpone: Summary and Analysis
Considered to be the most popular work of Ben Jonson, Volpone’s central theme is that of greed particularly the amassing of material wealth through treachery and a cycle of lies and deceptions. Each man wanting to get more riches at the expense of another man, Volpone is a comedy that exploited the self-interest and the predisposition of men to be more materialistic. The play comprises of five acts. The first act unfolds with Volpone and his trusted ally Mosca discussing the adventures of Volpone and how he had amassed so much wealth.
It is apparent this early that Volpone does not only enjoy his money but also takes pride in the manner by which he has gotten of his wealth. The cycle of deception started when a lawyer named Voltore upon knowing that Volpone is a rich man with no family or heir visited Volpone and presented him with an expensive gift. Wit the aim of receiving more expensive gifts, Volpone and Mosca conspired to make Voltore believe that if he will give Volpone an expensive gift every time he visits, he will be the heir to all of his wealth.
Blinded with the material opportunity thrown at him, Voltore fell to the plot of Mosca and Volpone. It is not only the lawyers that were victimized by Mosca and Volpone but also Corbaccio and Corvino, both rich men. The three were blinded by the deceit because of their desire to inherit Volpone’s wealth. In Acts II and III, we see the extent of immorality in Volpone when he attempted to take the wife (Celia) of Corvino by pretending that he is very ill and is going to die soon. Thus, if Celia would be taken as his mistress, he would be better and she would then stand to inherit Volpone’s fortune.
Corvino again, being blinded by material greed agreed to have Volpone sleep with his wife. The cascading events that follow include Corbaccio disinheriting his son because of Mosca and Volpone’s deceptions until they seek the senate for legal resolution of the matter. In Act IV, we see Volpone still pretending to be very ill, denied the accusation that he attempted to rape Celia. The comedy is that Volpone was able to convince the court that it was Celia who is attempting to steal his wealth and that Volpone became the victim.
With the knowledge that he can get away from anything, Volpone again pushed his luck and announced that he had died and Mosca had inherited his wealth. However, Volpone has severely underestimated his victims particularly Mosca. Mosca ran away with his wealth. However, after the senate decision of the cae, we see Mosca being sent to jail, Voltore losing his license, Carbaccio forced to retire to a monastery; Corvino shamed for selling his wife and Volpone losing his fortune and was sent to prison. A Comparison of Morality in Volpone and A King and No King
Morality stands as the central theme of both Volpone and A King and No King, both however, touches the very core of human instinct. Volpone talks about material greed and selfishness, A King and No King talks about incest and earthly love between siblings. The primary difference however is in the manner by which the stories ended. In Volpone, morality is redeemed by giving justice to what is good: all the characters that have used deceit and were greedy were punished by the society through imprisonment and through inability to function in their previous work.
In A King and No King, while the authors revealed that Arbaces and Panthea are not siblings, the implication is that Beaumont and Fletcher created a story that is immoral because of the very nature and motive of the characters is to fall in love despite their familial relationship. However, while these two stories diverged in their implication, the lesson is clear: morality as defined by a society should be respected and honoured to provide the necessary order and prevent moral degeneration. It is customary in earlier times to have intermarriages between Kings and people in position in order to preserve and expand their power.
Oftentimes, marriage becomes a bargaining chip in order to subject prisoners who are deemed powerful. Marriage in exchange for power has been major themes in these plays and is considered to be the norm. In Scene I, the pronouncements of Arbaces referring to Tigranes “i offer you my sister; and you answer” (Beaumont and Fletcher, 256 Scene 1, line 150). However, because he has not seen or know of Panthea yet, Tigranes declines with pronouncements such as, “i would give worlds for ransom, were they mine, rather than have her” (Beaumont and Fletcher, 257; Scene 1, line 155).
While the theme of A King and No King is that of immorality through incest, the morality issue in Volpone is that of human greed and how it can destroy the lives of people and make everyone worse off (Hirsch, 2). Volpone has no moral values in terms of acquiring wealth through using people whether through deceit or through victimizing innocent or greedy people like him. Volpone, Mosca, Voltore, Carbacio and Corvino are all seeking more wealth than what they really deserve: wealth that they have not worked for but rather are products of their lewdness and deceit of other people like them.
Along with morality, deception was one of the tools employed by both stories. For A King and No King, deceit has occurred between Tigranes and Spaconia. His unfaithfulness which was later regretted by Tigranes shows how humans would act based on their own self-interests instead of taking into consideration other people. Tigranes vowing fidelity and love to Spaconia plots to have Panthea refuse the marriage in Scene II. However, he changed his mind when he saw how beautiful Panthea is.
Similar to Volpone, the temptation of beauty and having more in life were portrayed in both stories as primal in all human beings- there is no morality or immorality in pursuing what one desires. This theme is also apparent in Panthea and Arbaces. In Act II, Panthea has been showing sign of utmost concern to her brother Arbaces though it is difficult to deem the nature of this concern whether it is love as a sibling or other form. However, in Act III, we see from the pronouncements of Lord Gobrias that Panthea is not only concern for King Arbaces as a brother but there is are also implications in the play that it is something deeper.
For instance, Gob characterized her grief while he is in battle as “she kept her chamber, wept, and could not eat until you were well” (Beaumont and Fletcher, 286: Act III, Scene I, Line 30). Upon seeing Panthea, the reaction of King Arbaces is one of bewilderment and appreciation of Panthea’s beauty. For instance, despite the talks and people around him, he was mesmerized by his sister’s beauty. Tigranes on the other hand, showed his admiration of Panthea in pronouncements such as “she is a thing both to be loved and served beyond my faith” (Beaumont and Fletcher, 288).
Thus, both men pursuing one woman show the predisposition of people to pursue their wants despite the societal norms. This is the same way with Volpone- Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore were all pursuing Volpone’s wealth to the extent that they have been sacrificing their own families and career in order to claim that riches. In the process of doing so, Corbaccio even disinherited his son, Corvino pushed his wife to Volpone’s bed and the supposed to be intelligent lawyer in Voltore was blinded by his own greed.
The disregard for the consequences of their actions was upstaged by the characters’ primacy for their own individual needs. To a large extent, while society has its given moral standards, individuals still stand the chance of pursuing what is good for them, instead of what is good for the society. The succeeding encounters would show that Arbaces is not only smitten by his sister but could not believe that it is her because she had stirred in him attraction and love that he has not felt before.
Though still fighting his feelings through his denial that it is his sister, it cannot be mistaken that from that meeting, Arbaces would no longer have Panthea marry Tigranes but wants her for himself. The recurring theme of incest is one of the major subjects tackled in the play. In the pronouncements of Arbaces, “with such unmanly sins: incest is in me” (Beaumont and Fletcher, 2004; 1). It is clear from these pronouncements that Arbaces knows the moral issues behind his love for his sister. Like people in modern society, he considers it as unmanly and called it incestuous.
This implies that while he considers it as an earthly sin, he feels powerless to contradict what his heart desires. Consequently, the issue of morality in A King and No King particularly on the theme of incest is largely controversial. A King and No King have been hailed by some critics for its skilful and theatrical portrayal including the creation complex characters. However, other scholars are more critical by the manner by which Beaumont and Fletcher are shown to be inconsiderate of the morality of their characters (Hunt, 23).
For instance, Arbaces lengthy monologues are often vague and ambiguous in order to hide his incestuous feelings towards his sister. However, it is apparent that the authors consent the feelings of Arbaces and Panthea having in earlier parts of the play shown Panthea to have earthly affiliation with her brother. For instance, the weeping and worrying shows the audience that there is more to love for a brother that Panthea is feeling. Thus, the latter acts when it was made apparent that Arbaces would like Panthea as his wife, Panthea instead of rejecting the idea of an incestuous affair even subtly consented to it.
On the other hand, Volpone’s greed and material pursuit is a much more acceptable topic in today’s society- more than the issue of incest in Beaumont and Fletcher. Jonson similar to the traditions of young urban professionals’ motto of acquiring more money at whatever price, Volpone is a classic master in materialistic society. This is because greed and money by essence are value-free and therefore, lacks morality. It is society that ascribes value and morality to these two constructs. However, even in the standards of a materialistic society, what Volpone has accomplished is beyond or over the edge.
The grave mistake is the overconfidence of shrewdness that enveloped him. This pride and arrogance is the primary driving factor for his pursuit of more wealth. His amorality or immorality for instance, is most evident of him pretending to be dead. Moreover, while the theme of A King and No King is in itself socially unacceptable, the characters also displayed attitudes that are morally grey in nature. For instance, it challenges the status quo through presentation of incest in the upper echelons of society: are the powerful exempted from the norms in the society? If so, do they have the power to change it?
This seems to be one of the more controversial issues within Arbaces who is shown to be torn between his honour as a King and as a lover. To a significant extent, we see that Beaumont and Fletcher favour Arbaces to lean towards what his heart desires. Feeling and the flaunting of such feelings is in the first place considered to be immoral. Thus, any succeeding actions that will confirm or deny the feeling are fruitless. Similar to ethical theorists, an act that is considered to be bad in the first place is considered to be bad no matter what redeeming qualities may emerge from the characters.
Thus, with the knowledge that Arbaces is her brother and Panthea his sister, Arbaces and Panthea are already sinners. This is more aggravated by their acting out of such feeling. On the other hand, all characters in Volpone have been flawed in nature: they were all portrayed to be consumed by greed and everything they do centres on it. Using the criteria of moral judgement, Volpone and the rest of the characters in the story had no good motives; they have actions that are not good which resulted in a bad consequence.
The difference between A King and No King is that in Volpone, these characters were punished, in A King and No King, the antagonists lived happily ever after. Finally, the ending of A King and No King revealing that Panthea and Arbaces are not siblings but rather are strangers to each other does not justify or redeem their earlier incestuous affair. This is in the same way that Volpone’s actions will never compensate for his goal of acquiring more material wealth.
For an act to be immoral, there are certain categories that we can use as parameters: 1) the motive of the act is bad; 2) the action or the means to achieve the ends is bad; or 3) the end is bad. Using these criteria, it can be said that A King and No King violated the first two criteria and even if the play ended in a positive note through the revelation that it is not an incestuous affair after all, the fact that at the beginning with the full knowledge that they are brothers and sisters and still they proceeded to express their love with one another makes the act of Panthea and Arbaces immoral.
Consequently, Volpone violated all three. Conclusion The moral degeneration of our modern society stems from primal wants and desires such as sex, food and material wealth. Volpone and A King and No King tackle these primal drives with the context that these are morally wrong in the society. However, in the end all characters in both stories followed their personal wants with an abandonment of the social good. This paper revealed that while Jonson’s Volpone presents with a more moral theme by making the characters of the story suffer their greed.
On the other hand, Beaumont and Fletcher were more tolerant of the incestuous affair in A King and No King and even ended the story not in a tragic note but rather in a happy ending. Essentially, both stories presented us with an invaluable lesson: moral standards do not bend to allow individual exceptions.
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