(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.)