Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1220
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 imprisoned until he does in fact become sick and lame.
Jonson’s work is based on a popular beast fable of the fox that feigned death, but its complexity can be fully explained only by reference to the Roman institution of legacy hunting and such diverse works as Aesop’s Fables, the Bible, and Desiderius Erasmus’s Mori encomium (1511; The Praise of Folly, 1549). The comedy can also be seen as a morality play within its beast-fable guise. Volpone, like the fox pretending to be dead, traps unwary birds of prey, who are, of course, greedy men hoping to benefit from his death. Jonson’s theme and real concern is the unnaturalness of sin. His strong moral intent is driven home by a constant reference to the beast fable in the speeches of Volpone and Mosca.
The dramatist’s artistic purpose, as the play’s prologue confirms, is to entertain and enlighten the audience while observing the unities of time, place, and action. Strictly speaking, however, Jonson violates his own artistic rules. The action all takes place in Venice within the course of a single day, but classical symmetry is destroyed by the inclusion of a subplot involving Sir Politic Would-be and his fellow Englishman, Peregrine.
The setting of the play, Venice, was probably chosen by Jonson for its reputation as a city full of carnival-like attractions, much like Jonson’s own London. Volpone’s household includes abnormal human pets, and at one point he disguises himself as a mountebank or quack to catch a glimpse of Celia. It is a Venice teeming with Renaissance life, zestful and curious, a magnet for English travelers such as Peregrine and the Would-bes.
The atmosphere is right for the deceit and trickery practiced by Volpone and Mosca on the callous, hypocritical legacy hunters. Volpone is, of course, no less perverse than his victims. In fact, his opening salutation to his gold, which he venerates as a saint, grotesquely distorts normal human values. As long as his victims are greedy fools, however, Volpone’s ingenuity makes him more rogue than villain. Only when Bonario and Celia become enmeshed in his intrigue does he grow ripe for the comic unmasking that marks the play’s grim finale.
Volpone works through an admirable use of sustained dramatic irony, which is a powerful theatrical device. The audience, recognizing the deceptions practiced by Volpone and Mosca, delights in their clever manipulation of their victims. The irony leads to some hilarious moments, as, for example, when Mosca prompts Corvino to vilify Volpone to his face after convincing him that the fox is nearly in a coma, or the scene in which Mosca must yell at the deaf and feeble Corbaccio to get him to understand anything at all.
Threaded through the play, the farcical subplot of Sir Politic and Peregrine offers a humorous counterpoint to the fierce, unrelenting satire on compulsive greed in the main plot. In Sir Pol, Jonson pokes fun at harmless fanatics who find conspiracy afoot everywhere. Among other fantastic disclosures, Sir Pol tells Peregrine that he knows how to sell Venice to the Turks. After Peregrine becomes convinced that Sir Politic is actually a pimp for his wife, Lady Pol, he decides to get revenge on him. In the disguise of a merchant, he leads Sir Pol to believe that Peregrine is really a Venetian secret agent who now plans to arrest him. He then helps Sir Pol hide inside a ridiculous contraption made of a tortoise shell before revealing his true self and mocking the silly knight.
Sir Pol’s asinine delusions and his fanciful “projects” are in the tradition of burlesque and mimicry, appropriate to the parrot, his beast-fable counterpart. Lady Pol, in the fortune hunt, is more directly related to the main plot, but she, too, is a mimic, aping the dress and manners of Venice and trying the Italian seduction game as if it were a mere extension of Venetian fashions. The topicality of the Sir Politic plot makes it easy to overlook its important function in the play. It contrasts English folly with Italian vice and adds texture and density to the whole. It also clarifies the relationship between vice and folly, showing how each is a species of the unnatural, which is, after all, Jonson’s central, unifying theme.
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