Summary

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Last Updated May 14, 2024.

Introduction

Volpone, a hilarious and biting satire published in 1606, is one of the most well-known works by English playwright Ben Jonson. The play occurs in decadent Venice, a city notorious for pleasure-seeking and corruption. 

Jonson uses Venice as a backdrop to expose the dark side of human greed, lust, and ambition through a cast of colorful characters entangled in a web of deceit. A fine example of Jacobean-era comedies, Volpone uses sharp wit, social commentary, and despicable characters to deliver a scathing critique of more selfish aspects of human nature.

Plot Summary

The play begins with Volpone, a wealthy Venetian, admiring his wealth. Addressing his treasure, Volpone remarks:

Thou being the best of things: and far transcending

All style of joy, in children, parents, friends,

Or any other waking dream on earth

Volpone tells Mosca, his cunning servant, of his plan to trick greedy people into giving him gifts by pretending to be dying. He enjoys toying with their hopes and will never actually name them as his heir.

When Voltore, Volpone's lawyer, arrives, Volpone puts on his act of feebleness. Mosca tells Voltore how much Volpone appreciates him. Voltore brings a valuable piece of plate as a gift, hoping to gain favor and become Volpone's heir.

Volpone implies he is about to die. Mosca flatters Voltore, hinting that he is written in the will as the sole heir. Mosca says Volpone admires lawyers who can argue any side for a fee. He tells Voltore that Volpone would be lucky to have such a wise and patient heir.

Corbaccio, another old miser, arrives. He is delighted by Volpone's supposed worsening health, seeing it as an opportunity to inherit his wealth.

Mosca convinces Corbaccio to write his own will, leaving everything to Volpone. Corbaccio, convinced that he will outlive Volpone, loves this idea and rushes off to fix his will. Mosca mocks Corbaccio's greed and selfishness, revealing his own plan to ensure Corbaccio's son, Bonario, is disinherited.

Yet another greedy visitor, Corvino, arrives with gifts. Mosca pretends Volpone is unconscious. He convinces Corvino that Volpone has named him the heir, and Corvino is quite pleased.

Volpone and Mosca clearly enjoy their scheme. They plan a night of celebration with music, food, and entertainment. Consumed by the allure of Corvino's beautiful wife, Celia, Volpone hatches a lecherous plan to see her, even if it means using a disguise.

In Act Two, Volpone, disguised as a charlatan doctor, arrives on the street. He delivers a long speech advertising a fake cure-all elixir for an outrageous price. Celia throws a handkerchief down from a window to Volpone, and the huckster claims he will give her a beauty treatment in exchange.

Corvino is furious. He drags Celia in by the arm, accusing her of infidelity because she was seen talking to the doctor (Volpone) at her window. He threatens to lock her up and restrict her movements completely.

Mosca arrives and announces that Volpone has not died but has recovered thanks to a magical oil. However, the doctors now say Volpone needs a young, healthy woman to sleep beside him to restore his health. Mosca asks Corvino for advice on who this woman should be.

Mosca suggests Corvino's wife, Celia. Corvino likes this idea and sees it as a way to inherit Volpone's wealth sooner. After Mosca leaves, Corvino calls Celia back and pretends he is testing her. He tells her to get dressed for a party at Volpone's house.

Corbaccio's son and Mosca's nemesis, Bonario, enters in Act Three. He insults Mosca for his "baseness." Mosca pretends to be hurt and claims...

(This entire section contains 1099 words.)

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that poverty forces him to be so servile. He swears he is not actually so lowly and would rather work hard to improve his reputation.

Bonario is convinced by Mosca's performance and apologizes. Mosca then tells Bonario that his father is about to disinherit him. Bonario does not believe it at first, but Mosca convinces him to come and see proof with the promise of revealing a shocking secret.

Back home, Mosca hides Bonario in a closet to watch the unfolding events. Corvino arrives and has Celia see Volpone. Celia vehemently refuses and exposes the absurdity of Corvino's request. Corvino threatens and insults Celia but eventually leaves with Mosca after ordering Celia to stay.

In Volpone's bedchamber, Celia expresses her outrage at being the victim of such a ruse. Volpone, feigning illness again, tempts Celia with riches and a life of luxury. Celia remains resolute in protecting her virtue. Volpone angrily threatens her.

Bonario bursts in to defend Celia, calling Volpone a fraud. A fight ensues, and Bonario leaves with Celia. Mosca, injured, enters and blames himself for the scheme's unraveling.

Corbaccio arrives, and Mosca quickly hides Volpone. Mosca invents a story about Bonario trying to kill Volpone to inherit his money. Corbaccio is outraged and shows Mosca his will, leaving everything to Volpone.

Voltore overhears the conversation and confronts Mosca about the will. Mosca improvises another story about how he tricked Corbaccio for Voltore's benefit. Corbaccio and Voltore argue about who will inherit. Mosca convinces them to go to court, but he and Volpone worry their ruse is falling apart.

Mosca deviously sets out to repair his plot in Act Four. In a courtroom, he accuses Bonario and Celia of fraud. Mosca convinces Celia's husband and Bonario's father that the couple is cheating and plotting to steal the inheritance. Bonario and Celia are arrested.

In the fifth act, Volpone pretends to be dead, and Mosca pretends to be his heir. Mosca enjoys toying with the greedy characters who all show up hoping to inherit Volpone's fortune. He reveals their true intentions and exposes their hypocrisy, leaving them humiliated and empty-handed.

Corbaccio, Corvino, and Voltore must scramble to maintain their false stories of inheritance in front of each other. Mosca mocks them all before they head to court, where the truth and more confusion await.

In court, Voltore confesses that Mosca has tricked them all. Corvino and Corbaccio deny it, but Voltore produces evidence. Mosca tries to maintain the lie that Volpone is dead, but Volpone bursts in and reveals everything. 

The court sees through the deception, and everyone involved is punished. Mosca is sentenced to be whipped and then work on the galleys for life. 

Volpone loses all his wealth and is imprisoned. Voltore is disbarred. 

Corbaccio is stripped of his possessions and sent to a monastery. Corvino is paraded around Venice in a dunce cap. Celia is finally free, and returns to her father with her dowry tripled. 

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