Ben Jonson : Volpone (1606)

In his earlier plays, Jonson had made characters speak bitterly, expressing direct and dangerous attacks on the social manners of the higher classes. In Volpone that never happens. The Prologue boasts that it was written in five weeks (Jonson was usually a slow writer), all by Jonson himself. Then the play is compared with the more vulgar kind of play where there is horseplay and clowning:

And so presents quick comedy refined,
As best critics have designed;
The laws of time, place, persons he observeth,
From no needful rule he swerveth.
All gall and copperas from his ink he draineth,
Only a little salt remaineth. . .

The setting is Venice. Act One begins, as Volpone (the 'fox') and his close servant Mosca (the 'fly') celebrate Volpone's morning 'worship' of his gold:

VOLPONE. Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine, that I may see my saint.
(Mosca opens the curtain that hides much treasure)
Hail the world's soul, and mine! more glad than is
The teeming earth to see the longed-for sun
Peep through the horns of the celestial ram,
Am I, to view thy splendour darkening his;
That lying here, amongst my other hoardes,
Show'st like a flame by night, or like the day
Struck out by chaos, when all darkness fled
Unto the centre. O thou son of Sol,
But brighter than thy father, let me kiss,
With adoration, thee, and every relic
Of sacred treasure in this blessed room.
Well did wise poets by thy glorious name
Title that age which they would have the best;
Thou being the best of things, and far transcending
All style of joy, in children, parents, friends,
Or any other waking dream on earth.
Thy looks when they to Venus did ascribe,
They should have given her twenty thousand Cupids,
Such are thy beauties and our loves! Dear saint,
Riches, the dumb god, that givest all men tongues,
That canst do nought, and yet mak'st men do all things;
The price of soul; even hell, with thee to boot,
Is made worth heaven. Thou art virtue, fame,
Honour and all things else. Who can get thee,
He shall be noble, valiant, honest, wise--

After this blasphemous adoration, Mosca flatters Volpone, stressing that his fortune was was not made by oppressing the poor. Then in a soliloquy, Volpone exposes his method:

I have no wife, no parent, child, ally,
To give my substance to, but whom I make
Must be my heir; and this makes men observe me.
This draws new clients daily to my house,
Women and men of every sex and age,
That bring me presents, send me plate, coin, jewels,
With hope that when I die (which they expect
Each greedy minute) it shall then return
Tenfold upon them.

Shakespeare, in Richard III and other plays, had already exploited the fact that, in theatre, 'all the world loves a villain.' Volpone is a shameless villain, quite open about his deceptions, inviting the audience (through Mosca) to admire his skills at manipulating human greed. The play then has an 'interlude' in which Volpone's 'creatures' -- a dwarf, an eunuch and a fool -- entertain him in grotesque imitation of court entertainments.

The action begins with the arrival, one by one, of Volpone's 'clients,' whom he despises. To receive them he pretends to be terribly sick. The first is Signor Voltore (the 'vulture') who is a lawyer. Mosca assures him that he is Volpone's only heir. Then comes Corbaccio (the 'raven'), who is old and deaf and impatient. He offers some medecine that Mosca recognizes as a poison, then produces a bag of gold. Mosca says he will use it to excite Volpone to make a will in Corbaccio's favour, then suggests that Corbaccio should make a will naming Volpone his sole heir, in place of his son, as proof of his love. When the next client comes, Corvino the merchant (the 'crow'), Volpone seems to be at death's door, though he still has the strength to grasp a pearl and diamond Corvino has brought. Mosca invites his to shout insults at him, saying that he is quite unconscious, then suggests that they should suffocate Volpone with a pillow; this frightens Corvino, though he does not condemn Mosca for the idea. Finally, after mentioning the English visitor Lady Would-be, Mosca tells Volpone of the beauty of Corvino's young wife, who is jealously guarded. This makes Volpone long to see her.

Act Two begins with the play's sub-plot, that is often omitted in modern productions; the English traveller Sir Politic Would-be holds a conversation with another English traveller, Peregrine, showing himself to be vain and foolish. Volpone arrives disguised as a mountebank and begins a long speech boasting of the qualities of his special medicine. Corvino's wife, Celia, throws down some money from a window and Volpone tosses back his potion. Corvino suddenly appears and chases him away.
Volpone is love-struck and asks Mosca to get Celia for him. Meanwhile we see Corvino violently abusing his wife, mad with jealousy. Mosca arrives, saying that Volpone is a little better after using the mountebank's potion! The doctors, he says, have decided that he should have a young woman in bed with him, so that some of her energy may pass into him. Mosca says that one of the doctors offered his daughter, a virgin, sure that Volpone would not be able to harm her, and he urges Corvino to find someone first, since Volpone might change his will. Corvino decides to offer Celia!

Act Three begins with Mosca's praise of himself; the true parasite, he says, Is a most precious thing, droppped from above, Not bred 'mongst clods and clodpoles here on earth. I muse the mystery was not made a science, It is so liberally professed! Almost All the wise world is little else, in nature, But parasites or sub-parasites. He meets Corbaccio's son, Bonario, who belongs to a different universe; he is honest and frank, and despises Mosca. Mosca pretends to weep, and Bonario is at once touched with pity. Mosca then tells him that his father is making a will leaving everything to Volpone, disinheriting him! He offers to bring him to the place where it will be done.

There follows an interview between Volpone and Lady Politic Would-be, who settles down and offers to make him some medecines. Volpone finds her a torment; Mosca arrives and urges her to leave quickly because he has just seen Sir Politic rowing off with a famous prostitute! As she leaves, he brings Bonario into the house, telling him to hide in a cupboard from where he will hear his father disinherit him. Then things become complicated, Corvino arrives with Celia, earlier than Mosca had expected them. He sends Bonario out into the corridor, while Corvino tells Celia why she is here. As a noble and faithful wife, she is horrified and begs him not to ask her to do such a thing. He insists, with horrible threats if she does not obey. At last Mosca drags him out, leaving Celia alone with Volpone who leaps from the bed, and begins to woo her, even singing an erotic carpe diem song:

Come, my Celia, let us prove,
While we can, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours forever,
He at length our good will sever;
Spend not then his gifts in vain.
Suns that set may rise again;
But if once we lose this light,
'Tis with us perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumour are but toys.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies?
Or his easier ears beguile,
Thus removed by our wile? '
Tis no sin love's fruits to steal;
But the sweet theft to reveal,
To be taken, to be seen,
Those have crimes accounted been.

Volpone is almost mad with desire, and begins to describe various kinds of erotic activities they could perform. She prays for pity, and when he seizes her, screams. Bonario rushes in to save her, and carries her off, wounding Mosca on the way. Volpone and Mosca are horrified, but Corbaccio's arrival gives Mosca an idea. He tells Corbaccio that Bonario has learned of his plan with the will and is threatening to kill him; Voltore has also come, unseen, and overhears Mosca being flattering to Corbaccio. He challenges him, and Mosca at once explains that he had planned that Bonario should kill his father, whose property would come to Volpone and so to Voltore. Voltore believes him; Mosca then says that Bonario has run off with Celia, intending to say that Volpone had tried to rape her so as to discredit him. Voltore decides to bring this matter to the judges, in order to stop Bonario.

Act Four begins with the continuation of the Sir Politic sub- plot; Lady Would-be thinks that Peregrine is the famous prostitute disguised and begins to scold him. Mosca comes and tells her that she is wrong, that the woman in question has been brought to the judges. The court scene begins. As the judges enter they are on the side of the young people, and order Volpone to be brought, although Mosca and the others assert he is too weak to move.
Voltore speaks, claiming that Celia and Bonario had long been lovers, that they had been caught, but forgiven by Corvino; that Corbaccio had decided to disown his son for his vice, and that Bonario had come to Volpone's house intending to kill his father. Unable to do so, he says, he attacked Volpone and Mosca, and resolved with Celia to accuse Volpone of rape. Corbaccio publicly rejects Bonario as his son, Corvino swears that his wife has cheated him with Bonario. Mosca supports their story with his wound. In addition, he claims to have seen Celia in the company of Sir Politic, and Lady Politic bursts in, claiming that she has seen them too!
The entry of Volpone, carried in apparently dying, seemingly quite unconscious and paralysed, is decisive for the judges. The two young people are arrested and Mosca sends away the hopeful clients, each of them convinced that Volpone's fortune is their's.

Act Five finds Volpone recovering from the strain. He orders his creatures to announce his death in the streets; then he makes a will in which Mosca is declared his heir and goes to hide behind a curtain, intending to watch the effect on each one. Voltore arrives first, as Mosca is busy making a list of goods; Corbaccio follows, then Corvino, and Lady Politic. Each is surprised to see the others. Volpone comments on their conduct in asides from behind the curtain. Mosca continues to write, then hands them the will, that they read together, although Corbaccio only finds Mosca's name a while later than the others. Mosca sends Lady Politic away first, then Corvino, Corbaccio, and finally Voltore, after giving to each a moralizing summary of their previous actions.
Volpone is delighted, wishes he could see their disappointment out on the streets. Mosca suggests that he disguise himself as a common sergeant. There is an interlude where Peregrine in disguise tells Sir Politic that he has been denounced as a foreign agent. Sir Politic decides to disguise himself in a huge turtle's shell; Peregrine brings in some merchants to admire the beast, and they torment Sir Politic. He decides to leave at once. Volpone dresses as a soldier, Mosca has put on a nobleman's dress; they plan to go walking in the streets, but Mosca tells us he plans to make Volpone share his fortune with him, and stays behind in control of the house. Volpone congratulates each of the clients on their good fortune, and enjoys their fury.
They are all going to the court, where Bonario and Celia are to be sentenced. Voltore suddenly begins to repent, and is about to tell the truth, it seems. He has written certain aspects of the truth in his notes. The others claim that he has been bewitched; news of Volpone's death supports their story. As Voltore is about to speak, the disguised Volpone whispers to him that Mosca wants him to know that in fact Volpone is not yet dead and that he is still the heir. Voltore pretends to collapse and Volpone declares that an evil spirit has just left him. He rises, and declares that Volpone is alive. Mosca comes in, and insists Volpone is dead. Meanwhile, Volpone has realized Mosca's plan against him; he tries to negociate in whispers, but Mosca rejects him and asks the judges to punish him.
In despair, Volpone throws off his disguise, and everything becomes clear; Bonario and Celia are freed, Mosca is condemned to be a 'perpetual prisoner in our galleys,' prison ships where no one survived long. All Volpone's fortune is confiscated to help the sick, and he is to stay in prison until he is 'sick and lame indeed.' Voltore is banished, Corbaccio sent to a monastery to die, Corvino will be rowed round Venice wearing ass's ears then put in the pillory, and Celia is returned to her family with three times her dowry.