Sir Politic: I did so. Sir,Jonson's play, on the face of it, is just another comedy about conspiracies raveling and unraveling. It's a good one, certainly: the plot is wound tightly, and the various static allegorical characters all get their fitting comeuppance. The various intertextual winks and allusions to classical tropes are nice too. All in all, though, it's a little thin. I don't imagine that an audience that had the option of seeing Shakespeare "live" instead would have willingly cast its groats in Jonson's direction--his characters have witty lines, but no depth to speak of. Hence, most likely, the rather apologetic prologue and (highly abbreviated) epilogue.
I knew him one of the most dangerous heads
Living within the state, and so I held him.
Peregrine: Indeed, sir?
Sir Politic: While he lived, in action.
He has received weekly intelligence,
Upon my knowledge, out of the Low Countries,
For all parts of the world, in cabbages;
And those dispensed again to ambassadors,
In oranges, musk-melons, apricocks,
Lemons, pome-citrons, and such-like: sometimes
In Colchester oysters, and your Selsey cockles.
Peregrine: You make me wonder.
Sir Politic: Sir, upon my knowledge.
Nay, I've observed him, at your public ordinary,
Take his advertisement from a traveller
A conceal'd statesman, in a trencher of meat;
And instantly, before the meal was done,
Convey an answer in a tooth-pick.
How could this be, sir?
Sir Politic: Why, the meat was cut
So like his character, and so laid, as he
Must easily read the cipher.
Sir Politic: No. This is my diary,
Wherein I note my actions of the day.
Peregrine: Pray you let's see, sir. What is here?
A rat had gnawn my spur-leathers; notwithstanding,
I put on new, and did go forth: but first
I threw three beans over the threshold. Item,
I went and bought two tooth-picks, whereof one
I burst immediatly, in a discourse
With a Dutch merchant, 'bout ragion del stato.
From him I went and paid a moccinigo,
For piecing my silk stockings; by the way
I cheapen'd sprats; and at St. Mark's I urined."
'Faith, these are politic notes!
Sir Politic: Sir, I do slip
No action of my life, but thus I quote it.
- from Ben Jonson, Volpone, or The Fox (1606)
There is one thing I find interesting. Nowhere in the Bard, the invention of the human notwithstanding, have I found much of an echo of the emerging social technologies of his time. To be sure, the fact that his plays are set in other times and places generally excuses him from depicting limited-liability corporations or the pamphlet trade--yet there seems to be something in his constitution that makes him resistant to such novelties. Habermas's great epic The Birth of the Public Sphere, Out of the Spirit of Commerce doesn't find cause to mention him except in the negative ("public opinion" or the like never appears in his work!).
In Volpone, though, there is a strange subplot--the dialogue between Sir Politic Wouldbe and Peregrine, commercial Englishmen living in Venice and scheming about getting rich quick. It links to the main plot only tangentially: Wouldbe's wife is busy trying to cuckold him with Volpone for the sake of cash, while Peregrine and Politic run into a costumed Volpone at one point. It's almost like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. As the play goes on, Peregrine plays a neat trick on Politic and the two exeunt never to be seen again. That much is only marginally of interest.
Sir Politic, though, was probably among the first staged representations of the transcontinental mercantile society that was to produce the public sphere. He obsessively schemes and plans, gathering information and passing it around; his most priceless possessions are his notes. In fact, the resolution of his subplot hinges on their destruction--and also on the odd circumstance that a "statesman" uses the word "intelligence" where a lay person would use the word "tidings." (Or so my copy helpfully notes; it is this "intelligence" that would soon fill the various Gazettes and Mercuries of seventeeth-century London.) Like everyone in this comedy (except Peregrine), Sir Politic comes off as frankly ridiculous. He will believe anything and try anything for commercial advancement, and the fact that he records everything in his diary is ludicrous enough to serve as a joke in itself. We still have another half-century before Pepys.
Could Jonson have anticipated the historical role of these hoarders of information? Would he have believed that taking part in the world that they created would soon become a non-negotiable condition for being a man of letters? Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but it's strange to think that he had no clue. Our contemporary obsession with latching on to the next informational big thing--one year it's Second Life, the next it's Twitter--may end up being just as vain. The Mesoamerican civilizations did know about the wheel, but they only used it for their children's toys.