By Ben Jonson
Volpone was first performed in 1606 by the King’s Men at the Globe Theatre. The play is not confined merely to stupidity or pompous silliness as were many of the earlier comedies, but includes crimes, so that, as Coleridge remarks, “there is no goodness of heart in any of the prominent characters.” Nevertheless, Volpone restored Jonson’s popularity, which had been temporarily dimmed by the poor reception accorded Sejanus. The latter play had taught Jonson the necessity of a closely knit plot while the concept of legacy hunting, so popular in Roman literature, had impressed him as fertile ground for a play.
Volpone is a story of greed and the nature of men to behave like animals. The characters of the protagonists are all linked with animals of the medieval fableaux. Volpone is the fox, cunning and treacherous; Voltore the vulture (and lawyer), circling the ‘dying’ Volpone. Corbaccio is the crow, a carrion feeder, while Corvino is the raven, a bird associated with death, opportunistic theft and corruption.
From the opening scene when Volpone greets the dawn and worships his treasures, equating gold with the sun, both religious and erotic language are perverted to represent the corruption of the main characters. In essence they have abandoned traditional moral values in the pursuit of material wealth. It is these flaws that lead to their inevitable downfall and humiliation at the end of the play.
The action of the play occurs in Venice; affluent, glittering and yet corrupt. For many Elizabethans, Italy was the land of villainy and only in the sub-plot does Jonson introduce England in the persons of Sir Politic Would-Be and his wife. The main plot centres on Volpone, an elderly Venetian miser, and his servant, Mosca, aptly titled the parasite. Volpone pretends that he is dying while Mosca convinces Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino that each of them is to be Volpone’s sole heir. To make sure that Volpone continues to favour them, these false friends bring him lavish gifts which he and Mosca gleefully accept.
Eventually Volpone’s desires turn to the possession of Corvino’s wife, Celia. In one of the most blackly comic scenes of the play, she is led like a sacrificial lamb to Volpone’s bed chamber as a gift. Only the heroism of Bonario, Corbaccio’s son and heir, saves her honour. Eventually all of the men have their day in court, where disguise and lies are brilliantly employed. Ultimately, however, truth and justice prevail and all ends well…except for those whose ignorance, stupidity and moral corruption merits they receive a suitable punishment!
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