Volpone

Volpone: plot and character overview

Volpone is today Ben Jonson’s most performed play, and its savage portrayal of human greed, self-interest, selfishness and lust is as biting as it was in 1606. Set in Venice, the play is both a city comedy and a type of beast fable, in which the wily and gold-obsessed trickster Volpone, or ‘fox’, dupes a range of foolish Venetians and foreigners with the help of his clever servant Mosca (‘fly’ or ‘parasite’).

Volpone pretends to be a wealthy old man who is bedridden and close to death, and courts the attentions of three eager gold-diggers, the merchant Corvino (‘crow’), the lawyer Voltore (‘vulture’) and the elderly gentleman Corbaccio (‘raven’), who believe that they have a shot at being made heir to his immense fortune. He extracts extravagant gifts from Corvino and Voltore, and persuades Corbaccio to disinherit his own son, Bonario, in favour of Volpone. Learning that Corvino has a beautiful wife, Celia, Volpone visits her in disguise and decides to seduce her. He convinces Corvino that his illness will only be cured by sleeping with a young woman. The greedy Corvino agrees to ‘lend’ him Celia, because Volpone promises to make him his heir. When Celia is not seduced by Volpone’s offers of wealth, he attempts to rape her, but is interrupted by Bonario. In the ensuing court case Mosca and Voltore conspire to acquit Volpone, and it is Celia and Bonario who are arrested for adultery. Bound up in the play’s ‘cross-plots’ (Volpone, ‘Argument’) are a foolish English couple, Sir and Lady Politic Would-Be, and their savvier acquaintance Peregrine, a newly arrived traveller from England. Mosca and Volpone manipulate the vain and easily deceived Would-Bes for their own benefit.

As a parting trick, Volpone has Mosca announce his death and that he (Mosca) is his heir, so that he can gloat at the fortune-hunters’ disappointment in disguise. But this last scam spirals out of control. The truth of the earlier court case starts to be revealed, and Mosca refuses to give up Volpone’s fortune: Volpone is ‘dead’, after all! Volpone decides that he must reveal everything to the authorities, and everyone is roundly punished.

When was Volpone first staged and published?

Volpone was first performed at the Globe by the King’s Men in 1606. It was printed in 1607, prefaced by poems praising its excellence by poets including John Donne, and was also included in Jonson’s collected Workes in 1616.

Creator:
Ben Jonson
Published:
1606
Forms:
Drama, Play
Genre:
Renaissance drama
Literary period:
Renaissance

Related articles

An introduction to Volpone

Article by:
Sean McEvoy
Theme:
Renaissance writers

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.

Key features of Renaissance culture

Article by:
Andrew Dickson
Themes:
Renaissance writers, Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s life and world

Andrew Dickson follows the progress of the Renaissance through Europe, and examines the educational, religious, artistic and geographical developments that shaped culture during the period.

‘O Rare Ben Jonson!’

Article by:
Andrew Dickson
Theme:
Renaissance writers

Ben Jonson went from a classically educated schoolboy to an apprentice bricklayer and solider, before becoming one of the 17th-century's most eminent playwrights and poets. Andrew Dickson recounts Jonson's eventful life, and how his success was often marred by a difficult relationship with alcohol, with fellow playwrights and actors, and with theatre itself.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Created by: William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Theseus, Duke of Athens, eagerly anticipating his marriage to Hippolyta, ...

Coriolanus

Created by: William Shakespeare

Coriolanus is a tragedy following the fortunes of Caius Martius: a Roman general distinguished in the field of ...

Doctor Faustus

Created by: Christopher Marlowe

Doctor Faustus: plot and character overview Would you sell your soul? And, if you would, for what? Doctor Faustus ...

Edward II

Created by: Christopher Marlowe

Edward II: plot and character overview Outraged by Edward’s elevation of his male favourite Gaveston, ...