An introduction to Volpone

Sean McEvoy explores Ben Jonson's Volpone, looking at Jonson's daring, unique brand of comedy and the play's treatment of money, greed and morality.

When Ben Jonson wrote Volpone (c. 1605–06) he broke new ground in the English theatre. He produced an innovative kind of high-energy, intensely theatrical comedy which sustained both high moral seriousness and exuberant hilarity. Following the Roman writers he admired so much, Jonson set out to make his audience think about the troublingly subversive but exhilarating power of money and what it does to those who are consumed by greed for it, but also to give them a very good time in the theatre. Volpone combines its moral into a very funny, entertaining play. Jonson promises the audience that it will ‘rub your cheeks, til red with laughter’ (Prologue).The action is fast-paced, non-stop and demands our attention, and Jonson boldly breaks rules and generic conventions along the way.

First edition of Ben Jonson's Volpone, 1607

First edition of Ben Jonson's Volpone, 1607

Ben Jonson explains his views on the early modern theatre, and his moralistic motivation in writing satirical comedies in an epistle to the reader.

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Money: a different kind of beast

The play’s characters might have the names of animals in Italian, to suggest that it is a kind of fable (a story with a moral where the animals stand for human characteristics). ‘Volpone’ is the Italian for fox, for example, and ‘mosca’, the name of his servant-sidekick, means fly. But this play is about a different kind of beast. It’s about money, and how it transforms everyone and everything once it’s let off the leash.

Aesop’s Fables printed by William Caxton, 1484

Aesop’s Fables printed by William Caxton, 1484

Aesop’s Fabels contain many tales involving a crafty old fox and his gullible victims.

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Jonson set Volpone in Venice, a great and wealthy trading city known as much for the double-dealing of its merchants as for the faithlessness of its women. But London in the early years of the 17th century, where Jonson lived and worked, was also a place where an unregulated capitalism was letting rip, where speculation and profiteering ran riot, displacing many of the old certainties of life. It is against this background – which is his world as much as ours – that Jonson wrote his play.

View of Venice in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

View of Venice in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

This is a beautifully hand-coloured view of 16th-century Venice

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View of London in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

View of London in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

This is a contemporary image of the London in which Jonson lived and worked.

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Volpone: a complicated protagonist

At the heart of the play is the Fox himself. Volpone is a childless Venetian nobleman who pretends to be seriously ill so that rich fools who are even greedier than him will give him present after present in the hope that they will be the ones to get Volpone’s treasure when he dies. He’s a cunning, selfish trickster – but Jonson makes us enjoy his company, crafting a complex protagonist who both attracts and repels.

Golden casket from Venice

Golden casket from Venice

Much like Volpone, this 16th-century treasure chest looks convincingly golden, but is actually made of copper alloy covered in a thin layer of gilt or gold.

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In the opening act Volpone talks to the audience. He takes us into his confidence in his accomplished soliloquies and asides and with his hilarious upstagings of his avaricious and deranged visitors. When he next adopts a disguise (of a quack medicine seller, a nice irony) to get a glimpse of the beautiful Celia – the closely guarded wife of one of his dupes, Corvino – his flamboyant torrent of language (2.2.33ff.) stands in great contrast to the terse, coarse, sadistic threats which Corvino makes to Celia (2.5.47–72) when he finds she has thrown a flirtatious handkerchief towards the disguised Volpone (2.2.227). Volpone’s a cheat and a villain, but he’s fun. He builds a relationship with his audience by making them his close confidants, almost accomplices as he takes great risks to follow wherever his urge for pleasure takes him. The fact that his dupes are vain, paranoid monsters only makes us like him more.

A Caveat for Common Cursetors, 1567

A Caveat for Common Cursetors, 1567

Pamphlet exposing the ploys used by criminals and confidence tricksters; the woodcut shows a con artist in two of his disguises.

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To create this close relationship between Volpone and the audience, Jonson uses a great amount of dramatic irony. Volpone makes sure we know what’s really going on while everyone but Mosca is the victim of his various scams. Dramatic irony works to enhance our emotions in response to what happens on stage because of the feeling of superiority we get when being in the know. It’s only when Mosca takes his chance to double-cross Volpone (5.5.12–14) that Volpone becomes the victim of dramatic irony –and of the money-obsessed society he previously exploits. Jonson’s use of dramatic irony, like the so-frequent soliloquies and asides, brings the audience right into the world of the play, blurring the distinction between appearance and reality in this so theatrically self-conscious of plays.

Money, integrity and shifting identities

Although the audience is initially engaged and entertained by Volpone, there is, of course, another side that Jonson shows us. Volpone and Mosca have no integrity, neither in the moral sense, nor, more significantly, in the sense that they are unified, solid characters. If, as Volpone says, ‘riches’ is ‘the dumb god that giv’st all men tongues’ and ‘mak’st men do all things’ (1.1.22–23) the pursuit of it is also the reason for the constant shifting of Volpone’s identity: from well man to sick man and back again several times, to the mountebank Scoto of Mantua, to the court officer (‘Commendatore’) of the final act. When he finally gets Celia alone in his bedroom he spends his time telling her of his past acting triumphs (3.7.158–64) and then telling her how they will make love in lots of different costumes (3.7.220–34). Performance, not ‘reality’, is everything to Volpone. Later, Corbaccio’s son Bonario rescues Celia when Volpone threatens to ‘force’ her (3.7.265). Volpone escapes the accusation of attempted rape by reprising his role of moribund invalid in the courtroom. Afterwards he tells Mosca that the thrill he got from the public deception was even better than if he had his way with Celia: ‘the pleasure of all womankind’s not like it’ (5.2.11).

Commedia dell’arte figures by Maurice Sand, 1860

Commedia dell’arte figures by Maurice Sand, 1860

Illustration of Pantaloon, a stock character of commedia dell’arte (a form of Renaissance Italian improvised comedy), who typically portrayed an elderly and foolish man who lusts after a younger woman.

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Mosca is similarly motivated by performance and appearance. When Mosca gets a soliloquy at the beginning of Act Three we might think we’re finally going to hear what his plan is, and whether he intends to betray his master as we suspect. But he just tells us that he takes pride in being a true ‘parasite’, that ‘can be here,/ And there, and yonder, all at once’ (3.1.26–27), and who can ‘change a visor [facial expression] swifter than a thought!’ (3.1.29). He’s all incoherent surfaces and no depth.

Greed for money dissolves identity in the play, turning people into salesmen-performers. There’s delight in Jonson’s process; it’s only afterwards we re-evaluate what we’ve been swept along by. The rule of money, which gives all things a price, requires that everything becomes exchangeable with every other thing. When money takes charge it hollows out our sense of who we are and what is right. This is how the play challenges its audience: like the ancient theatre that Jonson so admired it makes us examine our views about the kind of society we live in. Spending money brings us good things, but what does the pursuit of it do to us? The greed of Volpone and Mosca makes them lose any sense of who they are. The dupes Corbaccio, Corvino and Voltore are fools, but it’s more than just their greed that Jonson condemns. Greed corrupts their morality, turning them into monsters who disinherit a son, or prostitute a wife or humiliate themselves in public.

Costume Design for Volpone, by Ralph Adron 1960

Costume Design for Volpone, by Ralph Adron 1960

Costume design for the crow-like character of Corvino in a 1960s production of Volpone.

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Breaking conventions: the city comedy genre and the play’s ending

Audiences in Jacobean England were familiar with comedies in which an unscrupulous businessman employs all his cunning to cheat some vain and foolish city-dwellers of their money and tries to get his hands on a virtuous young woman, thwarting her path to true love. He’d always fail, and goodness would triumph. These plays, set in London, we know as ‘city comedies’. But in Volpone, Jonson adopts and subverts the genre. Volpone and Mosca are far more entertaining than the monstrous and perverted citizens whom he fleeces. Jonson gives us a virtuous young woman, but Celia’s obsession with her chastity is so exaggerated that she fails to convincingly illicit sympathy from the audience. She tells Volpone that it’s her beauty which has provoked his lust and that she would rather be mutilated and defaced than have it provoke him farther (3.7.250–56). If this is virtue it is one that repeatedly and weirdly asks to be treated with extreme violence to prove itself. Celia is a parody of the virtuous heroines that populate conventional city comedies – and thereby an ideal foil to Volpone’s lovable rogue character.

Vives' conduct book for Christian women

Vives' conduct book for Christian women

In his conduct book for the Instruction of a christen woman (1524), Juan Luis Vives foregrounds the virtues of chastity and obedience.

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Nor does Volpone end as a comedy was supposed to. Jonson wrote the ending of the play as a kind of provocation to those who blamed contemporary comedies which usually let off the wicked characters at the end (The Epistle, lines 105–10). Here, all are savagely punished – with imprisonment, torture, exile and humiliation. Volpone is to lie chained up in prison until he is ‘sick and lame indeed’ (5.12.124) and Mosca is whipped and sent to row in the galleys as a slave (5.12.113–14).

Jonson breaks yet another convention with his ending. Uniquely for a comedy of this period, rather than ending in marriage it ends in divorce: Celia is separated from her husband and sent back to her father with her dowry trebled (5.12.144). Alone in the play she gets it morally right when she tells the audience that honour is being made a slave to money:

Is shame fled human breasts? That with such ease,
Men dare put off your honours and their own?
Is that, which ever was a cause of life,
Now placed beneath the basest circumstance?
And modesty an exile made, for money? (3.7.135–39)

But her extreme chastity only makes her price go up as a rare commodity in the world of the play. Everything becomes distorted.

Joan Littlewood, who memorably directed Volpone in 1955 declared that the play is ‘the greatest comedy ever written because Jonson knew about money.’ There’s an extraordinary energy and a ferocious wit that powers through the intricate, machine-like plotting of this play, as if Jonson had tapped into the mains-current of London in 1606. It’s as alive and dangerous as the marketplace itself.

  • Sean McEvoy
  • Dr Sean McEvoy teaches literature at Varndean College, Brighton, and also at Cambridge University. He has published books for students on Shakespeare and on Ben Jonson, and has written two books introducing tragedy to sixth-formers and to undergraduates. His most recent book looks at the history of theatrically inspired violence.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.