Study Guide

Volpone

by Ben Jonson

Volpone Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

No work is more firmly bound to Jonson’s name than his great satirical verse comedy Volpone. It achieves the mastery of purpose claimed by the playwright and reflects his devotion to classical theories, but it remains a distressing comedy that defies easy interpretation.

The play’s predication is, however, quite simple. Volpone and his servant Mosca pretend that Volpone is dying and encourage Venetian fortune hunters to vie for Volpone’s favor in hopes of being named his heir. All visit Volpone, prompted by Mosca to bring gifts to convince Volpone of their kind concern for his health. Volpone is, of course, perfectly well, but he and Mosca put on such a good act that the legacy hunters are completely fooled. The greedy victims include Corbaccio, an old, deaf miser; Voltore, a conniving lawyer; Corvino, a rich merchant who jealously guards his young, attractive wife, Celia; and Lady Would-be, the wife of a ridiculous English knight.

Complications arise when Mosca convinces Corbaccio to claim that he is drawing up a new will disinheriting his son, Bonario, and naming Volpone his heir. After Corbaccio agrees, Mosca taunts Bonario and challenges him to go to Volpone’s house to overhear Corbaccio confirm the fact. Meanwhile, Volpone, who has been scheming to seduce Corvino’s wife, has Mosca talk the foolish merchant into leaving Celia alone with Volpone, who then attempts to force himself on her. Bonario catches him in the act, rescues Celia, and denounces Volpone and Mosca.

Fearful that the game is ended, Volpone throws himself down in despair, but Mosca devises a new scheme to escape trouble. He convinces Corbaccio that his son is out to kill him, tells the suspicious Voltore that Bonario has made Celia swear that Volpone had raped her, and gets Corvino to denounce Celia as a lewd woman. Celia and Bonario, totally innocent, are brought to court, and through the testimony of the legacy hunters and Voltore’s cunning, are found guilty in an obvious travesty of justice.

The pair of tricksters then go too far. Determined to vex the fools further, they spread the news that Volpone has died. Each would-be heir then comes to Volpone’s house to claim the magnifico’s legacy, only to be told that Mosca is the heir. Mosca knows that Volpone himself is now vulnerable and quickly makes plans to cheat him.

Seeking revenge on Mosca, the would-be heirs return to the court to claim that Bonario and Celia have been falsely charged and that Mosca has practiced criminal deceptions. Mosca is called to court, and when he refuses to confirm that Volpone is actually alive, he impels Volpone, disguised as an officer of the court, to reveal himself rather than be tricked. At last discovering the truth, the judges sentence both the tricksters and the fools to appropriate but very harsh, uncomic punishments. Mosca is to be whipped and sent to the galleys. Volpone, his wealth confiscated and given to a hospital for incurables, is to be...

(The entire section is 1220 words.)

Volpone Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Volpone and his servant, Mosca, are playing a cunning game with all who profess to be Volpone’s friends, and the two conspirators boast to themselves that Volpone acquired his riches not by the common means of trade but by a method that cheated no one in a commercial sense. Volpone has no heirs. Since it is believed he possesses a large fortune, many people are courting his favor in the hope of rich rewards after his death.

For three years, while Volpone feigns gout, catarrh, palsy, and consumption, valuable gifts are given to him. Volpone is in truth quite healthy and able to enjoy various vices. Mosca’s role in the grand deception is to assure each hopeful, would-be friend that he is the one whom Volpone honored in an alleged will.

To Voltore, one of the dupes, Mosca (which means “fly”) boasts that particular attention is being paid to Voltore’s interests. When Voltore (“vulture”) leaves, Corbaccio (“crow”) follows. He brings a potion to help Volpone (“fox”), or so he claims. Mosca knows better than to give his master medicine from those who are awaiting the fox’s death. Mosca suggests that to influence Volpone, Corbaccio should go home, disinherit his own son, and leave his fortune to Volpone. In return for this generous deed, Volpone, soon to die, will leave his fortune to Corbaccio, whose son will benefit eventually.

Next comes Corvino, who is assured by Mosca that Volpone, now near death, named him in a will. After the merchant goes, Mosca tells Volpone that Corvino has a beautiful wife whom he guards at all times. Volpone resolves to go in disguise to see this woman.

Sir Politic Would-Be and his wife are traveling in Venice. Another English visitor, Peregrine, meets Sir Politic on the street and gives him news from home. While the two Englishmen are trying to impress each other, Mosca and a servant come to the street and erect a stage for a medicine vendor to display his wares. Volpone, disguised as a mountebank, mounts the platform. While he haggles with Sir Politic and Peregrine over the price of his medicine, Celia appears at her window and tosses down her handkerchief. Struck by Celia’s beauty, Volpone resolves to possess her. Meanwhile Corvino brutally scolds Celia and tells her that henceforth he will confine her to her room.

Mosca goes to Corvino with news that physicians recommended that a healthy young girl sleep by Volpone’s side and that other men are striving to be the first to win Volpone’s gratitude in this manner. Not to be outdone, Corvino promises that Celia will be sent to Volpone.

Mosca also tells Bonario, Corbaccio’s son, that his father is about to disinherit him. He promises to lead Bonario to a place where he can witness his father’s betrayal....

(The entire section is 1136 words.)

Volpone Summary

Act I Summary

When the play opens, Volpone and Mosca are discussing the great wealth that Volpone has amassed and that he enjoys seeing and touching....

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Act II Summary

Peregrine and Sir Politic Would-be are attempting to impress each other with their relative importance in the world. While this conversation...

(The entire section is 226 words.)

Act III Summary

Mosca, who has been augmenting Volpone's plots with some of his own, meets Bonario on the street. He tells the young man that his father,...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

Act IV Summary

Sir Politic Would-be is telling Peregrine about his plots and secret plans for several inventions and ways to get rich. When Lady Politic...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Act V Summary

Volpone's success makes him even more confident of his superior intellect, and he hatches a new plan. His servants are dispatched to announce...

(The entire section is 249 words.)