Jonson, Ben. Volpone; or, The Fox.
Characteristics and Source of the Play
A dramatic satire on human greed. Set in Venice, but targeted at London as a place devoted to commerce and mired in corruption. Protests the inhumanity not just of greedy people but of greedy laws, i.e. laws made by the greedy to protect the acquisitions of the greedy.
Draws on several sources: The classical satirist Lucian provides the theme of a rich old man playing with the money-grubbing scoundrels hoping to inherit his wealth. The medieval legend of Reynard the Fox contributes to the character of Volpone and the play's animal imagery. Roman comedy supplies some of the other characters, e.g. Mosca the parasite, Voltore the unscrupulous lawyer and the voluble Lady Would-Be. The Italian commedia dell'arte is echoed in some of the scenes, e.g. Volpone's wooing Celia in disguise as a mountebank.
Note on the Characters' Names
Most of the names are Italian and suggest the characters' natures.
Volpone (a magnifico) = fox.
Mosca (his parasite) = fly.
Voltore (an advocate) = vulture.
Corbaccio (a gentleman) = raven.
Corvino (a merchant) = crow.
Peregrine (a gentleman traveller) = falcon.
Bonario (Corbaccio's son) = good.
Celia (Corvino's wife) = heavenly.
Comprises a septet rhymed aabbccd which summarizes the plot of the play.
Consists of a single extended stanza rhyming aabb. The poet introduces his play, claiming that he is to mix profit with pleasure (Horace's idea). He admits that there are no comic routines included (e.g. thrown eggs or custard pies), but believes that the audience will still find the play amusing.
The scene opens with Volpone worshipping his gold treasure in his secret sanctuary. With the help of his servant Mosca, Volpone spreads the news of his being on deathbed. Beasts of prey in human form pay him visits and present expensive gifts, hoping to be included in his last will.
First Voltore, or the vulture, arrives with a gift of a gold plate. Voltore is ensured by Mosca that he is Volpone's sole heir. Then Corbaccio, or the raven, arrives, bringing Volpone a medicine, probably poisoned. Corbaccio is talked by Mosca into disinheriting his son Bonario in favour of Volpone. Finally Corvino, or the crow, arrives with a gift of a precious pearl. Corvino is ensured by Mosca that he is Volpone's sole heir.
Volpone learns about Celia, the beautiful wife of Corvino, and disguises himself as a mountebank (i.e. an itinerant entertainer and medicine salesman), erecting his stage under Celia's window. He successfully makes his performance and Celia throws him money bound in a handkerchief to buy his medicine. (It was then common for the customers to knot their money in a handkerchief and toss it on stage where the money was replaced by the medicine and the handkerchief was tossed back to the purchaser). On seeing this, Corvino beats Volpone away and makes Celia a jealous scene.
Mosca promises Volpone to win him Celia. He seeks out Corvino, supposedly for an advice in the matter of finding Volpone a mistress to recover him from his illness. He rejects the idea of hiring a prostitute, since she could play a trick on them all and cheat them out of the heritage. Corvino decides that it is safest to offer his wife.
Mosca intimates to Bonario that his father is about to disinherit him and hides him in Volpone's house so that Bonario could witness the scene of Corbaccio changing his will in favour of Volpone. Meanwhile Nano the dwarf, Castrone the eunuch and Androgyno the hermaphrodite entertain Volpone with songs. The performance is interrupted by the arrival of Lady Politic Would-Be who tries to enchant Volpone but almost makes him actually sick with her incessant talk. Mosca rescues Volpone from the lady by claiming he has just seen her husband with a courtesan.
Corbaccio is late to arrive, while Corvino and Celia arrive sooner than they were meant and destroy Mosca's plan. Corvino presses Celia to entertain Volpone but she refuses to have her honesty damaged. Volpone tries to win Celia by offering her all thinkable luxury, but Celia refuses. Volpone approaches Celia but suddenly Bonario storms into the room and rescues her. Corbaccio arrives only when Bonario has already quitted the house.
At the court of justice, Voltore charges Celia and Bonario of being secret lovers. Bonario is also charged with an attempted parricide which he was supposed to have attempted at Volpone's house on learning about his disinheritance. Corbaccio and Corvino give false witness to support Voltore's charge. The couple is proven guilty.
Volpone further elaborates on his jest and has the news of his death spread. Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino and Lady Politic all arrive and are shocked to learn that Mosca is Volpone's sole heir. Volpone disguises himself and leaves the house to see how the disappointed heirs-would-be bear the news. He seeks each of them and teasingly congratulates them on their inheritance. Meanwhile Mosca gets hold of the keys, dismisses Nano, Castrone and Androgyno and decides to act as if he were truly Volpone's heir.
At the court of justice, Voltore takes back his false witness and reveals the truth. Celia and Bonario are declared innocent and released. Mosca is sentenced to the galleys, Volpone is sentenced to prison. Neither of them is likely to survive the harsh conditions for long. Voltore is banished from Venice, Corbaccio is to be sent to a monastery and Corvino is to be ridiculed by wearing ass's ears instead of horns inscribed to a cuckold.
The conclusion of the play is a rhymed sestet rhymed aabbccd recited by Volpone who asks the audience to appreciate the play with applause.
Form, Setting and Subject
A blank verse satirical play in five acts, each of them divided into several scenes. Preserves the unity of time, place and action. Manifests some features of a fable, but is not one: the characters are not animals but human beings symbolically named for animals.
Though set in Italy, London is the obvious target of satire: the play includes some English characters (e.g. the Lady Would-Be) and mentions contemporary issues of London (e.g. in the form of news provided by Peregrine, the traveller from London).
Elaborates on the question of how far greedy men can go when they hope for profit: Corvino prostitutes his wife, Voltore accuses two innocent people at the court of justice, Corbaccio disinherits his son etc.
Presents mostly stock characters who are either completely wicked (the set of the beasts of prey including Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino) or completely innocent (the falsely accused Celia and Bonario). Mosca and Volpone are more ambiguous characters.
Volpone cruelly teases the greedy heirs-would-be, which may be seen as a rightful moral lesson on account of their greediness. However, he also gains his wealth by dishonest means, feigns he is about to die to win expensive presents from the hoping inheritors and tries to seduce other man's wife.
Mosca starts as a rather sympathetic clever character who ingeniously stages his master's masquerade and does not seem to make claims to Volpone's wealth. Nevertheless, at the end Mosca turns out to be equally greedy as the others, when he makes use of the situation and gets hold of Volpone's fortune.
The concluding victory of justice and punishment of evil is rather inconsistent with the play's satire.
Perhaps the author meant to keep within the genre of comedy with his happy conclusion, or to give expression to his optimistic hope, or to avoid upsetting or annoying the audience.
AuthorBenjamin Jonson. (1572 - 1637).
Full TitleVolpone; or, The Fox.
First PerformedLondon: Globe Theatre, 1606.
FormSatirical blank verse play.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.
Jonson, Ben. Volpone; or, The Fox. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 1304-1393.