In Jonson’s ‘Volpone’ and Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, both justice and retribution are an important feature throughout the texts as whole but especially so at the end of the texts. In each of the texts it is presented in a variety of different ways.
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In both texts the presentation of justice is very much dependant on the society in which the text is set and when the text is written. The two texts are both set and written in highly patriarchal societies and this is apparent in the texts themselves. In the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ the person punishing the knight of his crime, is the queen. She does not punish him to death straight away as would have been the norm for a rape at this time (capital punishment was not seen as harsh or morally wrong in Chaucerian times and would not have been in the Arthurian times in which the tale is set), but instead gives him a chance of freedom, going against the societal norms, suggesting that maybe justice is not necessarily dependant on the society but the individual crime and prosecution. This could be a comment from Chaucer on how he feels about women in power, and considering the fact he is a male author writing for a male audience this would have been preferable to the views at the time.
However the fact a woman has an opportunity to do this contradicts this. Differing from Chaucer, and in fact, his himself and his other plays Jonson, punishes the criminals in his play. This could be for comic effect as the as the punishments are ironic presentations of the crime or it could be the fact that around the time the play was published Jonson was implicated in the gun powder plot and it could be his conformation to the law and abiding by it. Both texts are set away from the place in which the audience is, whether by time or place.’Volpone’ is set in Venice, a town, at the time of writing, well known for being corrupt and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ is set in Arthurian England, allowing the authors of the texts license to portray the message they wish to their audience without having the text set to close to home.
Both Jonson and Chaucer also have a heavy use of ironic justice in the ending of their texts. Jonson’s ‘Volpone’ implements this in the punishments/endings he gives his the characters, for example, through the entirety of the play, Celia is constantly concerned with how she is objectified and how value is placed upon her, and after the trial, her marriage is ended and her dowry tripled, completely contradicting the view she has of herself. This example is linked with the patriarchal society as previously mentioned as at this time a woman was property of her father and then when she got married, property of her husband. Similarly the rest of the players in ‘Volpone’ are punished according to their crimes, Mosca’s status as a servant is reinforced, Corvino is publicly humiliated, like he threatened to with Celia and Corbaccio’s estates are given to his son Bonario despite Corbaccio’s wish to disinherit him throughout the entire play. Chaucer presents a slightly different type of ironic justice however, as the knight who is being charged is actually let off by the official courts as he manages to tell the queen what women want.
However he is forced to marry the old hag whom told him the answer as he made a promise to her that he would. The knight himself says ‘ Allas,and weilaway! I woot right wel that swich was my biheste. For Goddes love, as chese a new request’. This is a use of hyperbole, emphasising the fact he does not wish to marry someone who is not of his choosing. This can be seen as ironic justice as he raped a maiden, taking away her choice, and now his own choice is being taken away. Saying this, by the end of the poem, the hag he is forced to marry turns into a beautiful woman, essentially negating his punishment and justifies his crime rather than punishing him and getting retribution for his victim. This is however, the woman’s choice, but it is possible that this is because she is given power, in the tale, which is what women want most, shown in the knights trial when he says ‘ “my lige lady, generally,” quod he, “wommen desiren to have sovereynetee ,As wel over his housbond as hir love, And for too been in maistrie hym above”’, this can be seen as the knight once again over powering , although this time with what he has learnt rather than physical force, and getting what he wants , another way justice is not served
Another way in which justice is distributed in the texts is the idea of justice and punishments due to the status of the ‘criminal’. This is shown in ‘Volpone’ when Mosca is punished for trying to over step his mark as a servant and elevate himself into the upper classes, by being punished forced to serve for the rest of his life. This is also mirrored slightly earlier in the play, also with Mosca, as when the ‘Avvocato’ think Mosca is of high class they are more than happy to allow him to go free and even offer their daughters hand in marriage to him, whereas just moments later when he is revealed to be a servant he is grouped with the rest of the criminals, suggesting corruption in the justice system, which links back with the fact that it is set in Venice, which money is a vital part of. Similarly in the ‘Wife of Bath’ the knight’s status is used against him but in a slightly different way. In this case, his knighthood is called into question by his wife, the hag ,as he is not following the knightly code by ignoring her whilst in bed. ‘Taak fyr, and ber it in the derkeste hous Bitwix this and the mount of kaukasous, And lat men shette the dores and go thenne; Yet wole the fyr as faire lye and brenne As twenty thousand men myghte it biholde; His office natureel ay wol it holde, Up peril of my lyf, til that it dye.’ The use of the metaphor of the fire is the knights wife saying a fire will always behave like a fire, in any situation and he is expected to do the same.
Both plays also have a justice system largely based on the punishment of ego and emotions rather than physical pain. The Knight is forced to be with someone that if he is seen in public with he will be judged and mocked and many of the crimes in Volpone are fitting of the crimes. However the rape in the tale is not put forward by the victim but instead is punished by society who takes responsibility for the nameless victim, whereas in Volpone this is not the case.
Overall justice and retribution are not really portrayed as things that are set in stone or that should be followed exactly; instead in both texts the punishments are somewhat lax for the crimes that are committed. It is clear that in each text that a comment is being made on the justice system of the time, and although both texts are set away from their writing place, obvious, especially with the heavy use of irony. Also there is a lot of hyperbole in both texts adding to the fact that the authors a commenting on the imperfections in the justice systems.