VOLPONE BY BEN JONSON
Volpone or The Fox is a very famous play written by Ben Jonson. This play is a comedy and is often called Ben Jonson’s darkest comedy. The emerging capitalism in the Jacobian England of James I could be seen as the playwright’s immediate focus, directing merciless moral scrutiny on the values and customs of contemporary English society. Jonson’s choice of the Venetian setting is also not without significance since Renaissance Italy was the centre of trade in Europe with all the attendant problems of an acquisitive society with moral degradation. After you finish reading this unit, you will note that the subject of Volpone is money or greed for money, and the corruption it breeds in man. The unit thus seeks to analyse this great play in terms of its theme, dramatic structure, characterisation and style.
ACT WISE SUMMARY OF THE PLAY
Act I of the play revolves around the central character Volpone who is a rich Venetian nobleman, childless and without an heir. He feigns sickness to play tricks with the help of his trusted and capable assistant Mosca on the greedy legacy hunters who present gifts to Volpone in order to inherit his vast wealth. The three major gulls are Corbaccio, Corvino and Voltore – all birds of prey – who rival one another in their ambition to be appointed as Volpone’s heir. Voltore is a lawyer; Corbaccio is an old miser whose one foot is in the grave and Corvino is a rich merchant with a beautiful wife. Besides these three, there is another legacy hunter Lady Politic Would-be, wife of Sir Politic Would-be who is an English knight. As the play opens, Volpone is seen worshipping gold as “the best of things” but he does not use the ordinary means like trade, agriculture, industry, money lending etc. to get rich; he rather uses the clever tricks of extracting rich gifts from the gullible legacy hunters. Each of them harbours the hope of being Volpone’s successor to inherit his wealth. Nano (‘dwarf’ in Italian), Androgyno (hermaphrodite) and Castrone (eunuch), the natural or deformed fools, entertain Volpone. Nano and Androgyno describe the transmigration of the soul of the Greek philosopher Pythagorus entering the body of Androgyno. Nano and Castrone sing a song in praise of fools. The fools are described when Volpone and Mosca hear a knocking at the door by Voltore (vulture) who bring up Volpone a gold plate. Voltore is followed by Corbaccio, an old man with insatiable greed, bringing a sleeping medicine for Volpone. But Mosca suggests that he should his property to Volpone by disinheriting his son Bonario. Since Volpone is going to make him his heir, Corbaccio, sure to survive Volpone, would get the money back as well as that of Volpone. The gullible old man loses no time to hurry home to propose the will in favour of Volpone. Corvino, the rich merchant, comes next, whom Mosca tells that he has been made the heir. The visit of Lady Politic Would-be is announced but Volpone has no mood to receive her. Mosca mentions Corvino’s beautiful wife Celia whom the jealous husband keeps shut up at home. Volpone’s interest for Celia is instantly aroused and he plans to see her even at her window by disguise.
In Act II Scene I Sir Politic Would-be is introduced. He wants news about England from Peregrine, a fellow Englishman visiting Venice as a tourist. Sir Politic confesses that he has been living in Venice in compliance with the wishes of his wife. The English knight is shown as foolish in his insistence on Stone, the fool as a Machiavellian secret agent. As they were engaged in conversation Mosca and Nano came to set up a platform for Volpone, disguised as Mountback ‘Scoto of Montana’ to deliver a speech apparently to the crowd but actually to attract Corvino’s wife Celia’s attention appearing at the window. Volpone offers her not only oil but also powder for maintaining her beauty and keeping herself young forever. Corvino’s sudden entry interrupted Volpone’s description of the virtues of power. The jealous merchant beats away Volpone. In scene II, Volpone confesses to Mosca how he has been smitten by the beauty of Celia. In the next scene (III), Celia is severely rebuked by Corvino for having encouraged
the Mountback. Mosca comes to Corvino’s house to inform him that Volpone’s health has improved with Scotto’s oil brought by Corbaccio and Voltore and that the doctors attending on Volpone suggested that his best cure lies in the company of a young woman ‘lusty and full of juice’. Corvino, to outdo the rivals in providing such as a woman to Volpone, offers his Celia and convinces her to accompany him to Volpone’s house in her “best attire and choicest jewels.”Act IIIAct III opens with Mosca telling Bonario, Corbaccio’s son, about his father’s plan to disinherit him as a bastard. He asks him to come to Volpone’s house to see for himself. Bonario follows Mosca to Volpone’s house where Volpone, waiting anxiously for Mosca’s news of Celia, is being entertained by Nano and Androgyno. Lady Politic Would-be comes and inflicts verbal torture on Volpone whom, Mosca, at last rescues by telling the lady that her husband has been seen “rowing upon the water in a gondola with the most cunning courtesan of Venice”. The Lady leaves the scene at once provoking Mosca to comment that “they that use themselves most licenses are still more jealous”. Mosca keeps Bonario in hiding so that he could see his father’s transaction. Instead of Corbaccio, Corvino comes with his wife before Mosca sends for him. Celia is shocked to know the intention of her husband to bring her there. When Celia is left alone in Volpone’s chamber, Volpone leaps from his bed and after having failed to woo her he ventures to seduce her but Bonario appears from his hiding and rescues Celia and leads her away. Corbaccio knocks at the door and is told by Mosca that his son Bonario had threatened to kill him and Volpone for the will. Voltore, following Corbaccio, overhears this talk of will but the wily Mosca has no problem in convincing the lawyer that Corbaccio’s will is in fact in his own interest as he will inherit both Corbaccio and Volpone’s wealth. The gullible lawyer is also convinced about Bonario’s plan to frame Volpone in an attempted rape case against Celia and agrees to defend Volpone in the court.
This act begins with Lady Politic Would-be confronting her husband and Peregrine taking the latter to be the courtesan in disguise. The Knight at once leaves the scene making Peregrine suspicious of the plan. Mosca, however, clears the Lady’s doubt about Peregrine being the street woman, following which the Lady offers her apology to Peregrine in the most ambiguous language-” Pray you, Sir, use me. In faith/the more you see me the more I shall conceive”. Peregrine decides to avenge his insult. In the court scene that follows when the three gulls and Mosca appear before the Venetian officers of justice, Voltore defends Volpone against the charges of Bonario and Celia by saying about the adulterous relationship of Celia with Bonario who has been disinherited by his father for the same reason. Corvino calls his wife a whore and Lady Politic Would-be claims to have seen her with her husband. Volpone is carried to the courtroom. He is seen to be too sick to be able to commit rape. The court punished Celia and Bonario by sending them to jail. On returning home Volpone and Mosca celebrate their success in the court. They now devise a new plan to ‘vex’ the clients. Nano and Castrone are sent to spread the news of Volpone’s death. Volpone makes Mosca his heir and stands behind the curtain to see the disappointment of his victims. Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino and Lady Would-be arrive one by one and discover that Mosca has been made the heir. In the meantime, Peregrine, in order to take revenge on Sir Politic, comes to Sir Politic’s house in the guise of a merchant to inform Sir Politic about Peregrine being a Venetian agent who has reported that Sir Politic is plotting against the Duke. As Sir Politic hears a knock he hides in a tortoise shell and some merchants disguised as search officers pull off the shell and Peregrine took off his disguise. Sir Politic and Lady Politic decide to leave Venice. Mosca inheriting Volpone’s wealth now decides to become the master of the house. Volpone goes to the street to tease all the legacy hunters.
In the second court scene, Voltore confesses to the court that his earlier story was false. The judges are convinced that Volpone is dead and Mosca is the true heir. They regard Mosca as truly respectable now and regret sending their messenger to fetch him. The messenger is Volpone in disguise and in the street, on his way to fetch Mosca, he meets Nano, Androgyno and Castrone and sends them to tell Mosca to see him in the court. In the third court scene, the judges reject Volpone’s plea of impotence while Volpone himself (still in disguise) asks Voltore to tell the court that Mosca is coming. Voltore confesses to the court that Volpone is alive. On Mosca’s entering the court, dressed as a Magnifico, the judges show their respect to him and one of them even offers him his daughter for marriage. Despite Volpone’s asking Mosca to tell the court that he is alive; Mosca refuses to recognise him and tells the court that he came from his patron’s funeral. In a whisper to Volpone, he demands half of his wealth and then goes on increasing his demand. On Mosca’s complaint, the court orders the ‘messenger’ (Volpone) to be whipped. Finding him in the most hopeless situation of being whipped and of losing all his wealth, Volpone decides to reveal himself as well as Mosca, to expose all other villains and asks the court to pass sentence. The judge’s order different punishment for the offenders: Mosca to be whipped and sent to jail for life; Volpone’s wealth to be given to a hospital and he is to spend the rest of his life in prison to become really “sick”; Voltore to be debarred from his profession; Corbaccio’s property is to go to his son Bonario and he himself has to go to a monastery and Corvino is to be rowed around Venice wearing ass’s ears. Celia would go to her father with her dowry trebled.
Jonson is commonly acknowledged as the master of dramatic structure in English drama. He allows a complex pattern of events to dominate his plays with classical Unities complied with some minor departure here and there. Aristotle prescribed a straightforward progression of events with direct evolution from one to the other; but in Jonson’s plays, particularly in Volpone, the parts do not automatically grow in a sequence. These are separate scenes with each of the legacy hunters in the first act in Volpone, which can be seen only as a succession. The play begins with the dedication made to the two Famous Universities namely Oxford and Cambridge where the play was staged and applauded. The Dedication throws light on Jonson’s own views on the state of poetry and drama in the days. Jonson says that the poetasters of his time had too much license and thereby they have degraded poetry. He maintained that a good poet must be a good man, “A teacher of things divine no less than human, master in manners”. His own satire, which was sharp and at times merciless, especially in Volpone, was directed not against individuals but at vice in general. According to Dedication, Jonson’s aim was to reform the stage by restoring the virtues of classical drama. The dedication is followed by the Prologue, which is spoken by an actor mediating between the author and the audience. Possibly the speaker was Nano, the dwarf. The author wants to mix “profit with pleasure”. The play is written according to “the taste of our time” and there is nothing of the “low taste which pleases the mob so much”. He presents “a living refined comedy according to the rules laid down by the best critics”. The “Prologue” also makes it clear that it is free from “personal rancour” but it is “only a little witty”. Besides the Dedication and the “Prologue “, there is the “Argument” coming before the “Prologue” which briefly states the theme of the play to be developed by the plot and characters. It tells the story of Volpone the principal character who is rich and childless and attracts the people to covet his riches. Each of the candidates hopes to inherit Volpone’s wealth but finally, the play ends with the undoing of both the victimiser and the victims.
LET US KNOW
The argument is in the form of an acrostic. An acrostic is a word arrangement of the first, last or some central letters, (usually the first letters) can be read down words. Acrostics are fashionable in French literature from the time of Francis I to Louis XIV, and in the Elizabethan period in English. Here in the play, the first letters of the lines in the argument spell out VOLPONE.
Jonson constructed his plot based on the classical theory, which emphasised the following of the unities of Time, Place and Action. Volpone’s plot is tightly constructed complying with these unities, though there is some criticism about the Unity of Action because of his introduction of the subplot involving Sir Politic, Lady Politic and Peregrine. The action occurs in a single day. Thus, the Unity of Time is observed as Aristotle prescribes in his Poetics. However, the action is compressed into a single day so that Jonson can give his undoing with his action speed and inevitability. Though Act I moves slowly with the opening scene when Volpone worships gold and the legacy hunters appear in succession in Act II, there is the quickened pace of the play with Volpone changing from a passive invalid into the Mountback. Act III brings the culmination of Volpone’s renewed vigour and makes the beginning of his attempted rape of Celia. Act IV shows Volpone and Mosca at the peak of their success. The Act takes place in the late afternoon. But, in the last Act (Act V), evil is defeated. This also presents one of the main problems of the play—it’s ending. In the dedicatory epistle, Jonson himself anticipated it and admits that he has not been able to gain a happy ending. The five criminals – Volpone, Mosca, Corbaccio, Voltore and Corvinohave been punished in different ways. John Dryden found this act excellent becausese in it Jonson gained the proper end of comedy – the punishment of vice. But, the play’s structure looks uneasy after the end of the 4th Act. Dryden feels the presence of two actions in the play-the first action coming to an end in Act IV and the second being forced from it in Act V. Dryden found “the unity of design…not exactly observed in it.”
7: Describe the different sources Jonson makes use of while writing the play Volpone.