Volpone

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The aging, corrupt magnifico Volpone (Italian for sly fox) operates a profitable con game. Rich and without heirs, he pretends to be on his deathbed, thereby attracting legacy hunters as carrion attracts flies. The lawyer Voltore (vulture), the old gentleman Corbaccio (raven), the merchant Corvino (crow), and the English lady Madam Would-Be woo Volpone with expensive gifts and favors, each hoping to become his sole heir. They also hope for his early death.

Assisted by his servant Mosca (fly), Volpone plays the suitors against one another. At Mosca’s suggestions, Corvino offers his beautiful young wife Celia to Volpone; and Corbaccio, disinheriting his son Bonario (good-natured), makes out his will to Volpone (in expectation of soon getting everything back). These schemes are foiled, however, when Bonario rescues Celia.

To protect themselves, gullers and gulls alike conspire to accuse Bonario and Celia of adultery and plotting murder. The play takes a near-tragic turn when, swayed by Voltore and lying witnesses, the court’s verdict goes against the young couple, but still in store are a number of other reversals which leave the couple cleared, the conspirators conspiring against one another, and the fox outfoxed.

Contributing to the play’s carrion-breeding atmosphere are its exuberant Renaissance language, imagery, and symbolism. Jonson sacked the annals of Roman decadence, such as Petronius’ SATYRICON, for menus, home remedies, and other sickening details of distorted values. For example, Volpone greets his gold like the morning sun and keeps the dwarf Nano, the eunuch Castrone, and the hermaphrodite Androgyno for entertainment. Jonson’s moral purpose is to inspire not only humor but disgust. In this, he succeeds memorably.

Bibliography:

Barish, Jonas A. “The Double Plot in Volpone.” In Ben Jonson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jonas A. Barish. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Analyzes the play’s structure to defend the relevance of the subplot concerning Sir Politic and Lady Politic Would-Be, which he sees as a caricature of the main plot.

Cave, Richard Allen. Ben Jonson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Devotes a chapter of analysis to the play’s plot, themes, and characters. Includes some discussion of the play’s production history.

Dessen, Alan C. Jonson’s Moral Comedy. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971. Dessen devotes one chapter to a discussion of Volpone, which he sees as pivotal, marking a shift in Jonson’s perceptions away from the influences of the old morality plays such as Everyman and toward a satiric comedy that examines the moral implications of human failings.

Miles, Rosalind. Ben Jonson: His Craft and Art. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1990. Discusses Volpone with particular attention to the techniques of Jonson’s satire, noting that nothing is exempt from his dark vision of human beings as jungle animals, quick to prey on one another.

Summers, Claude J., and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Ben Jonson. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A general introduction to Jonson and his work. Includes a discussion of Volpone that concentrates on the play’s satiric themes and structure.

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