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Volpone Summary and Analysis

by Ben Jonson

Act One

Summary

Act One, Scene One

Shortly after waking up in his large bed, Volpone greets both the day and his gold fortune. In his opening soliloquy, he proclaims that gold is his soul as well as the soul of the world. He declares that he is happier to see his gold than the earth is to see the spring sun at the end of winter. He vows that the sun pales in comparison to gold, its son, which gleams like light on the day of creation. He asks to kiss his treasure and insists that the Age of Gold must have been the greatest in history to be so named. Gold, he says, brings more happiness than friends or family and has the looks of Venus, the love of twenty thousand Cupids. It cannot speak or act for itself, but gold, which Volpone calls a saint, makes men speak and act on its behalf. With gold, hell would be transformed into heaven since gold is equal to virtue, fame, honor and everything. Whoever possesses it will be noble, valiant, honest and wise, says Volpone. Mosca finishes his thought by saying that it is better to be rich than wise.

Volpone qualifies his assertions by saying that he gets greater satisfaction from the clever way he obtains his gold than from the gold itself. He is proud that he is not a farmer, a butcher, a miller, a glassblower, a merchant, or a usurer. Mosca continues to fawn until Volpone interrupts him and asks him to fetch Androgyno, Nano, and Castrone. After Mosca leaves, Volpone describes to the audience how he cons "clients" (1.1.75) out of coins and jewels while they compete for his inheritance. He compares it to dangling a cherry in front of their mouths and letting it "knock against their lips" (1.1.89).

Act One, Scene Two

Nano, Androgyno, and Castrone enter and introduce their skit which follows the soul of Pythagoras, an ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician, during its transmigration, or passage from one body to another. In a final comical twist, the soul of Pythagoras at last transmigrates into the body of Androgyno, who indicates that the fool is the form he would prefer to take in his next transmigration because the fool is the "one creature that [he] can call blessed" (1.2.57). After he takes credit for the skit, Mosca breaks into a song which praises fools for the joy they bring to others through their willingness to speak and act freely. When a knock comes at the door, Nano, Androgyno, and Castrone are shooed away so that Mosca and Volpone can make preparations for Voltore, their first "client."

Act One, Scene Three

Voltore brings an antique plate to Volpone and feigns sympathy by saying "would to heaven / I could as well give health to you as that plate!" (1.3.20) While Volpone pretends to be on the verge of death, Mosca tells Voltore that he has been named Volpone's sole heir. Mosca asks that he be included in Voltore's will in exchange for his advocacy on Voltore's behalf. Mosca then explains that Voltore was chosen as heir because Volpone admires his profession, that of an advocate, or lawyer. No sooner does Voltore leave than Corbaccio comes to the door.

Act One, Scene Four

Corbaccio, a feeble, nearly deaf old man, offers Volpone an opiate to help with his sleep troubles. Mosca declines it for fear that it is poison, telling Corbaccio that Volpone doesn't trust doctors and doesn't believe in medicine. Corbaccio asks about Volpone's apoplexy and Mosca rattles off a list of ghastly symptoms. With each symptom that Mosca names, Corbaccio responds by saying "Good" (1.4.41). Ultimately, Corbaccio expresses satisfaction that he will outlive Volpone. When Mosca tells Corbaccio that Volpone's will has not yet been written, Corbaccio presents Volpone with a bag of gold coins. Mosca then assures Corbaccio that he will be Volpone's heir. Mosca instructs Corbaccio to rewrite his own will so as to name Volpone, not his son Bonario, as his heir. Corbaccio agrees to do so after Mosca convinces him that because he will outlive Volpone, Corbaccio can later change his will so that his son inherits both his and Volpone's fortunes. As Corbaccio is leaving, Mosca makes several snide remarks which Corbaccio cannot hear. Volpone showers Mosca with praise for his conniving and scoffs at Corbaccio's old age, saying "What a rare punishment / Is avarice to itself!" (1.4.143-4)

Act One, Scene Five

Corvino enters Volpone's house bearing a pearl and a diamond. Mosca informs him that Volpone is as good as dead. Volpone does not speak and, according to Mosca, cannot hear, so Mosca tells Corvino to place the diamond in Volpone' s hand in order to make him understand. Mosca tells Corvino that he is Volpone's heir and Corvino hugs Mosca. Mosca explains that Volpone has numerous illegitimate children, including Castrone, Androgyno, and Nano, but has left them nothing. In order to convince Corvino that Volpone can't hear their discussion, Mosca shouts insults into Volpone's ear and encourages Corvino to join in. Corvino calls Mosca his friend and his partner and tells him, "Thou...shalt share in all my fortunes" (1.5.80). Mosca replies, "Excepting one...Your gallant wife, sir" (1.5.82)

Volpone looks over his plate, his gold coins, his diamond, and his pearl, calling them "Good morning's purchase" (1.5.90). Lady Would-be Politic comes to the door, but Volpone asks Mosca to have her return in three hours when he will be drunk. Mosca then describes at length the beauty of Corvino's wife. When Mosca says she is "Bright as your gold! and lovely as your gold!" (1.5.114), Volpone decides he must see her. They agree to go to her heavily guarded household in disguise.

Analysis

Act One, Scene One

Volpone's opening soliloquy sets the moral tone of the play. That he wakes up and says good morning to his gold suggests that Volpone is utterly consumed by Greed. After greed, he moves on to blasphemy, calling his gold a saint. He makes a pun, calling gold the "son of Sol," (1.1.10) where Sol means both sun and a gold coin. Volpone then literally begins worshiping his gold, comparing it to the Roman god Venus. In Jonson's judgment, Volpone is not only committing the mortal sin of Greed, but also violating the first of the Ten Commandments, thou shall worship no gods before me. Volpone even goes so far as to call gold the "dumb god that giv'st all men tongues" (1.1.22). But Volpone's religious allusions are monotheistic as well as polytheistic. In describing the brightness of his gold, Volpone makes reference to the first day of creation. When he says that gold "mak'st men do all things," (1.1.23) Volpone is essentially ascribing the divine quality of omnipotence to his gold. After his opening soliloquy, Volpone commits the mortal sin of pride by showing such great satisfaction in his money-making scheme.

In this first scene of the play, the audience is also introduced to the second central character Mosca, who embodies the themes of Animalization and Parasitism. Mosca is seen flitting around Volpone, finishing his sentences and interrupting him with flattery. Notice that Volpone's opening soliloquy (1.1.1-28) as well as his follow-up speech describing the "cunning purchase of [his] wealth" (1.1.30-40) both end with dashes, indicating that he didn't quite finish before Mosca chimed in. Near the end of the scene, Volpone says, "Hold thee, Mosca" (1.1.66), hands him some money, and shoos him away like the fly that he is named for. In this first scene, Mosca truly earns the nickname he carries throughout the play - "his Parasite."

Act One, Scene Two

Scene Two marks the first appearance of Nano, Castrone, and Androgyno. Like Volpone and Mosca, they are all appropriately named. Nano the Dwarf's name means "small"; Castrone the Eunuch's name has the same root as the word castrate; Androgyno the Hermaphrodite's name has the same root as the word androgynous. In keeping with his obsession with looking and watching (see 1.1, in which he checks on his gold immediately after waking up), Volpone shows an interest in theater in this scene. Taken in context, Nano's recitation plays perfectly into the theme of Animalization. The soul of Pythagoras passing into the bodies of a mule and a donkey is consistent with the soul of Mosca representing a fly and the soul of Volpone representing a fox.

The skit also epitomizes the theme of Metatheatricality: the performance of Nano, Castrone, and Androgyno is a play within a play. This play within the play is to Volpone what Volpone is to us. That is, the character Volpone is the audience for the skit just as we are the audience for the play Volpone. Thus, the skit can be seen as Jonson's satire of Elizabethan theater. Accordingly, it is clear that Jonson does not hold a high opinion of his contemporaries. As he did in the Epistle and the Prologue, Jonson is criticizing Elizabethan theater for its supposed low quality. The idea of a philosopher turning into an ass is low-brow humor at its worst. Thus Jonson mocks the type of comic relief which Shakespeare often employed in his plays. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, the character Nick Bottom is literally turned into an ass.

The reception of the skit is as important (and satirical) as its content. Mosca, being the sycophant that he is, takes credit for writing the skit only after Volpone says that he enjoyed it. In Jonson's opinion, Mosca is akin to the Elizabethan dramatists who aimed to please their audience and, in doing so, lowered the quality of their writing. Jonson's prerogative, as stated in the Epistle and the Prologue, was to please, but first to teach.

Act One, Scenes Three, Four, and Five

In these three scenes, the theme of Parasitism predominates. Earlier, Jonson introduced Mosca as the foremost Parasite in the play. However, the characters Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino can all be considered Mosca's foils. In hoping to feed off of Volpone's fortune, they, too, are like the flies that hover around a dead body. And fittingly, they are all named for carrion birds: in Italian, Voltore means "vulture," Corbaccio means "raven," and Corvino means "crow."

When Mosca tells Voltore that Volpone admires his profession, it is foreshadowing for 5.2 in which Mosca states that, for his phenomenal performance as a lawyer, Voltore deserves to be deceived. It can be inferred that Jonson didn't have much respect for the legal profession.

As Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino each come and go, Mosca gradually unveils his plan. Mosca not only makes each of them think he is the heir, but also guarantees himself a place in each of their wills. Of course, these three scenes abound with dramatic irony. We the audience know from the Argument that Mosca is deceiving not only Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, but also Volpone. But Volpone does not know this. Thus, when Volpone says "What a rare punishment / Is avarice to itself!" (1.4.143-4) he is unknowingly foreshadowing his own demise.

In 1.5, Mosca begins his manipulation of Volpone. First, Mosca mentions Celia's name in passing. Then, he uses Volpone's own language against him. By describing Celia's beauty using the imagery of gold, Mosca purposefully appeals to Volpone's greatest desire. Mosca even uses the word "cherries" (1.5.121) to describe the sweetness of Celia's cheeks - the same word the Volpone used to describe how he tempts his would be heirs (see 1.1.89). By the end of Act One, it is clear that Mosca controls the action of the play.

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