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.