Volpone Summary and Analysis of Act Five


Act Five, Scenes One and Two

In a soliloquy, Volpone expresses his distaste for his feeble alter ego. While playing the part of the decrepit old man in the courthouse, Volpone began to actually feel some of the symptoms he has been faking for so long - a leg cramp, a "dead palsy" (5.1.7). He tells himself that he'll get over it and drinks a glass of wine "to fright / This humour from [his] heart" (5.1.11-12).

Mosca enters and revels in his triumph, saying that it is a masterpiece. Ironically, given that he is being taken for a ride himself, Volpone wonders how Corbaccio, Voltore, Corvino, and Lady Would-be have failed to realize they are being played. Volpone confesses that he nearly burst out laughing when he heard the ridiculous lies Voltore told to the Avocatori. He also admits that he was a little nervous during the whole process. Mosca suggests that, for his exemplary efforts as an advocate, Voltore deserves to be deceived. Volpone, initiating this deception, summons Nano and Castrone, Volpone and tells them to spread the word that he has died from the grief caused by the debacle at the Scrutineo.

Volpone drafts a new will naming Mosca as his sole heir. He plans to hide and secretly delight in the disappointment of Corbaccio, Corvino, Voltore, and Lady Would-be. Together, they laugh at the pains that these four "clients" have gone through, particularly Lady Would-be, who went so far as to kiss Volpone's greasy face in the courthouse. Mosca delivers a speech celebrating and personifying gold. To this, Volpone replies "I think she loves me," (5.2.106) referring to gold. Mosca, however, thinks he is referring to Lady Would-be.

Act Five, Scene Three

Voltore enters and observes Mosca walking about the house, taking inventory of Volpone's possessions. Corvino is carried in on a chair and Corvino and Lady Would-be enter the house as well. While each asks after the fortune they think they've won, Mosca says ignores them, continuing to list the various items that Volpone owned. Eventually, Mosca hands them the will and lets them discover the truth for themselves. In a series of asides, Volpone takes pleasure in the body language of his four victims. Mosca pretends not to hear as the four protest. Then, one by one, he berates them for their misguided attempts to win Volpone's inheritance. He reminds Lady Would-be that she offered to sleep with him if he would make her heir. He rebukes Corvino for willingly becoming a cuckold and Cobaccio for disinheriting his son. Finally, he scolds Voltore for betraying the law that he professes to uphold.

Each of them leaves after his reprimand and when they are all gone, Volpone emerges from behind the curtains and congratulates Mosca, encouraging him to continue the act in the streets. They plan to put Volpone in disguise so he can watch. Mosca tells Volpone to beware, saying "Sir, you must look for curses" (5.3.118). True to form, Volpone replies, "The Fox fares ever best when he is cursed" (5.3.119).

Act Five, Scene Four

At Sir Politic's house, Peregrine plans his revenge. After gaining entrance to the house in the guise of a statesman, Peregrine warns Sir Politic that the young Englishman he met earlier - that is, Peregrine - was a spy who informed the Venetian government of his plans to sell the state to the Turks. Peregrine tells him that government officials are on their way to search his house. Sir Politic orders his servants to burn his papers and hides himself in an enormous tortoise shell just as three merchants, disguised as government officials, enter the house. After the merchants discover Sir Politic under the shell, Peregrine tells Politic that he has been made a fool and leaves. Sir Politic, fearing that he will now be the subject of common gossip, plans to leave Venice for good.

Act Five, Scene Five

Back at Volpone's house, Volpone and Mosca are dressed as a court official and a nobleman, respectively. After Volpone leaves to find out the latest news at the courthouse, Mosca reveals his plan to betray Volpone. Mosca sends Androgyno, Nano, and Castrone out to entertain themselves. He then locks the door and takes the keys, plotting to hold out until Volpone shares his fortune. He rationalizes his scheme by saying, "[N]o man would construe it a sin. / Let his sport pay for 't. This is called the fox-trap" (5.3.17-8).

Act Five, Scenes Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine

In the street, Volpone, disguised as a court official, torments Corbaccio and Corvino by pretending he has heard news that they inherited a fortune. After they leave, Volpone continues the charade with Voltore as his victim. Voltore exits and Volpone returns to torture Corbaccio and Corvino just as Mosca passes by. Corvino threatens to beat Volpone, who teases him for publicly professing to be a cuckold. They exit as Mosca enters again. Voltore enters and idly threatens Mosca while Volpone continues to poke fun.

Act Five, Scene Ten

At the Scrutineo, Voltore confesses to the Avocatori that he misled them. Volpone leaves the courthouse. Corvino steps in to prevent Voltore from incriminating himself as well as the other three would-be heirs. Voltore, however, gives to the Avocatori his notes, which describe in detail the lie which Mosca, Corbaccio, Corvino, Voltore, and Lady Would-be conspired to construct. Corvino and Corbaccio deny the truth of the notes, saying that Voltore is possessed by the devil.

Act Five, Scene Eleven

In the street, Volpone worries that he has ruined himself by goading Voltore to the point of confessing before the court. Nano, Androgyno, and Castrone enter and tell Volpone that Mosca has taken the keys to the house. At this point, Volpone realizes that Mosca intends to betray him.

Act Five, Scene Twelve

Volpone, still in disguise, re-enters the courthouse and tells Voltore that has been sent by Volpone, who is still alive, to tell him that he is heir. Upon hearing this, Voltore pretends that he has been possessed all along, denying that he ever wrote the notes. As Mosca enters, Volpone tells him to affirm that Volpone is still alive. Mosca, however, implies that Volpone is dead and, speaking aside to Volpone, demands half of his fortune. Volpone at first refuses, then accepts. But Mosca insists on having more.

As he is being taken away to be whipped for lying to the court, Volpone takes off his disguise in order to bring Mosca down with him. Immediately, the Avocatori free Bonario and Celia and permanently banish Mosca to the galleys. Volpone is condemned to prison where he is to lie shackled until he becomes as ill as he always pretended to be. Voltore is disbarred and Corbaccio disinherited. Corvino, after sending Celia home to her father and paying back three times her dowry, is to be rowed around Venice wearing a hat with donkey ears.

All but Volpone exit the stage. The title character then delivers a message from Jonson, asking that he be criticized if has offended anyone in the audience, but if not, that he be rewarded with applause.


Act Five, Scenes One and Two

In 5.1, Volpone again displays his lack of moral development. As he did in 3.7 and as he will do in 5.11, Volpone expresses remorse for his misdeeds only when he is facing their repercussions. According to the theory of moral development pioneered by Lawrence Kohlberg, Volpone operates at the first level of moral thinking, meaning he is guided only by the threat of punishment. Whereas Bonario and Celia might base their ethical decisions on their consciences, Volpone only concerns himself with whether or not he will be caught.

Jonson's notion of poetic justice begins to play out as Volpone's fake symptoms become real. Of course, even if his condition is psychosomatic, it foreshadows the punishment handed down by the Avocatori in 5.12. And the dramatic irony doesn't stop here. That Volpone still laughs at his "clients" for being duped shows his unawareness of his own gullibility.

Mosca's suggestion that Voltore deserves to be deceived shows that, in terms of moral thinking, Mosca is even more debased than Volpone. While Volpone's misguided remorse is too little, too late, Mosca's is nonexistent: the "parasite" inhabits a world of utter strategy, without any sense of repercussions whatever. He operates ruthlessly on the basis of his wit alone. And he clearly has more wit than Volpone, as is clear when Mosca gives his speech figuratively personifying gold. Volpone takes him literally, wondering if his Mistress Gold might requite his love. At this point, Volpone's greed has actually consumed his mind - Volpone cannot distinguish between gold and humanity.

Act Five, Scene Three

In this scene, Mosca - somewhat ironically - becomes the voice of Jonson. Though Mosca has repeatedly proven his mendacity, he does in fact speak the truth as he berates each of the four clients. His cutting analysis of their failings is quite accurate. Clearly, though Mosca is perhaps the vilest character in the play, he is also the most acute, which makes his own crimes all the more enormous.

Moreover, considering Jonson's stated reasons for writing the play (see the Epistle and the Prologue), the playwright makes a point when he puts moral judgments in the mouth of an immoral character, because having Mosca convey morals effectually proves their universality. In other words, Mosca proves that evidently true morals are true even in the mouths of the immoral - thus it is the moral itself, not the morality of a given speaker, that rings true. Jonson aims for universality, and if even Mosca can ferret out a moral, then it's indeed likely a universal one.

Act Five, Scene Four

This scene contributes to the theme of Vengeance and consummates the subplot of the play. Though many scholars have dismissed this scene as a poor attempt at farce, Barish has pointed out its significance to the theme of Animalization. In any case, the most interesting aspect of 5.4 is Sir Politic's access to a giant tortoise shell. As Donaldson points out, the tortoise shell is an emblem of policy - a humorous representation of the kind of diplomacy that shuns risk. Donaldson goes on to argue that the tortoise can also be interpreted as an emblem of silence and an emblem of chastity. Sir Politic, then, who has been so garrulous on the subject of his strategems and acumen, silently hides in his shell when actually called upon to back up such talk. As a symbol of the English state, Politic's cowering, hollow foray into continental politics does not reflect well upon his home country.

Act Five, Scenes Five, Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine

Mosca finally articulates his plan to swindle Volpone and again displays his malevolence,, coldly weighing his options for deceit. James Redwine identifies this scene as the end of the first part of the catastasis, or climax, of the play. The second part of the catastasis is played out in scenes 6 through 9. Here, as Redwine points out, "It is Volpone himself who tortures the birds of prey" (314).

Act Five, Scenes Ten, Eleven, and Twelve

Scene 5.10 is the beginning of the denouement. Though Mosca and Volpone have extricated themselves from worse situations, Voltore's confession effectively seals their fate. Whereas before, Mosca and Volpone were working together, Mosca, the "subtle snake," has now turned against Volpone. As he himself realizes in 5.11, Volpone can no longer rely on Mosca to get him out of trouble. Thus, in 5.12, the downfall of both Mosca and Volpone is assured. Volpone's dependence on Mosca is a result of the role reversal we witnessed in 3.1. However, in 5.12, Mosca and Volpone again reverse their roles. Thanks to their excessive greed, Mosca and Volpone refuse to share the fortune. Their inability to cooperate is ultimately their undoing. And as Volpone unmasks himself, he reasserts his dominance over Mosca.

It is important to note that, in determining punishments, the Avocatori take Mosca's menial birth into consideration. In every case, however, the Avocatori use a variation of Hammurabi's Code. That is, they follow the principle of an eye for an eye. To conclude the play, Jonson again chooses an immoral character as his voice. His message, a common device of Elizabethan theater, asks simply for the approval of the audience.