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Volpone

Ben Jonson

Act V, scene x–scene xii

Act V, scene v-scene ix

Important Quotations Explained

Scene x

The scene now shifts to the Scrutineo. The four judges, the notary, the guards, Bonario, Celia, Corvino and Corbaccio enter; we are witnessing the sentencing hearing for Bonario and Celia. As the judges prepare to declare the sentecne, Voltore and Volpone enter, Voltore driven to distraction by Volpone's teasing. He demands forgiveness from the judges, and from the "innocents" Bonario and Celia. He then begins to confess to the deceit that he and Mosca engineered earlier that day. Corvino interrupts him, asking the judges to ignore Voltore, claiming that the lawyer acts out of pure jealousy over the fact that Mosca has inherited Volpone's fortune, now that Volpone is dead. Volpone's "death" takes the judges by surprise. Voltore insists that he is telling the truth, and hands over what seems to be a handwritten confession to the judges. The judges decide to send for Mosca, but cautiously, since they now believe that he may be Volpone's heir, and to insult would be a grave offence.

V.xi

Volpone paces to and fro on the street. He realizes that his gloating has resulted in Voltore's confession. He curses himself for his "wantonness" (V.xi.4), his obsessive need to seek pleasure in everything, and hopes aloud that Mosca will help him out of this mess. He runs into Nano, Androgyno and Castrone, who tell him that Mosca told them to go play outside, and took the keys to the estate. Volpone begins to realize that Mosca may be looking to keep the estate for himself, and again curses his foolishness; he decides that he must try to must give Voltore "new hopes" (V.xi.21), in other words convince the lawyer that he could still inherit the estate, because Volpone is still alive.

V.xii

Back at the Scrutineo, the judges are thoroughly confused. Voltore and Celia maintain that Voltore is telling the truth, while Corvino continues to insist that Voltore is possessed by a demon. Volpone, still in diguise, enters, and informs the judges that the parasite (Mosca) will soon arrive, before turning to whisper in Voltore's ear. He tells Voltore that Mosca has informed him (the guard Volpone pretends to be) that Volpone still lives, and that the faked death was a test to determine Voltore's resolve; Voltore realizes with chagrin that he has failed. But Volpone suggests that if Voltore corroborates Corvino's contention that he is possessed by falling to the ground and writhing on the floor, he may yet prove his loyalty; Voltore complies immediately. Volpone tells everyone to stand back, and ask them if they see the demon flying out of Voltore's mouth (there is, of course, no demon; it is another one of Volpone's tricks). Voltore then asks "Where am I?" (V.xii.34), and claims that, though his confession is written in his handwriting, the contents of it are false. According to Voltore post-collapse, Mosca is just as innocent as Volpone- who, the lawyer goes on to assert, is not dead. Everything seems to be going well for Volpone, until Mosca enters. For Mosca refuses to corroborate Voltore's claim that Volpone is alive. According to Mosca, the funeral preparations are underway as he speaks. Volpone is shocked. Mosca offers to help Volpone for half his fortune; Volpone says that he would rather "be hanged" (V.xii.63) than cut this deal. Volpone, still in disguise, asserts to the court that Volpone is alive, while under his breath acquiescing to Mosca's demand for half; but now Mosca will not accept even this offer. When Volpone insists that he is not dead, in direct contradiction of Mosca, he is taken away to be whipped for his insolence. Realizing that with a legal will in place, there is nothing else for him to do, Volpone reveals himself to the Senate. The judges realize that they have been deceived, and order Bonario and Celia to be let go. They condemn Mosca to life as a galley-slave for impersonating a nobleman of Venice, and send Volpone to prison. Voltore is disbarred, Corbaccio stripped of all his property (which is handed over to Bonario), and Corvino sentenced to public humiliation: he will be rowed through the canals of Venice, wearing donkey's ears. The scene ends with a polite request to the audience to show their appreciation for the play through their applause.

Analysis

The way Jonson metes out punishment to his characters bears a resemblance to one of Lady Politic's less favorite Italian poets: Dante Alighieri (III.iv). The greedy Corbaccio has his estate taken away from him, Corvino, who behaves like an ass during the entire play, is metaphorically transformed into one, and Volpone, who pretended to be bedridden in order to satisfy his insatiable lusts, will now be bedridden permanently, still unable to satisfy his desires for Celia (or anything else for that matter). This fitting of the punishment to the crime in a poetic, imaginative way is similar to Dante's device of contrapasso which he employs in Inferno (Hell), book one of his Divine Comedy. The punishments there, and here, are meant to capture the inner essence of the crime itself; in other words, Volpone's greed for pleasure and self- gratification made him a prisoner of his desires, bound to be frustrated in his attempts to achieve them, long before he was ever put into chains. The judge, after administering these punishments, emphasizes their didactic purpose: "Take heart, and love to study 'em" (V.xii.150), he says of the punishments, and his comparison of vices to "beasts"(151) brings to mind the "fable" aspect of Volpone, congruent with the idea that the judge is giving us a tidy, neat moral to the story. But there are some problems with the ending of Volpone, which may serve to contradict the moral message that Jonson has fairly straightforwardly pursued up until now. There is the problem of the protagonist. This is a comedy, and protagonists in comedies should generally end up happily. The only characters who in fact end up happy are Celia and Bonario; but these characters are comparatively thin; we invest much less emotion in them than we do in Volpone, who seems a much more reasonable choice for protagonist. But then the ending is very severe for a comedy, because we are not really given full- blooded characters to sympathize with, and cheer on to a happy resolution. Such harshness is mandated by Jonson's purpose in writing the play, which was not only to entertain but also to educate. Though Jonson allows Volpone and Mosca the spotlight for most of the play, the final scene is meant to tell us that however interesting they may be, and however sympathetic they may appear, they are still worthy of the punishment they will eventually find. Volpone appears especially sympathetic towards the end of the play, when the only person he trusts betrays him. And he does manage the redeeming act of revealing himself, and thus saving Bonario and Celia, though this may be motivated more by a desire to get back at Mosca or to reassert his own identity as from any moral motivations. We can say that it in fact strengthens the moral message of the play that a sympathetic character gets punished for his vice, because our sympathy makes us identify with Volpone, and search for that vice within ourselves. But the unmitigated catastrophe of the situation for Volpone- he is going to jail for the rest of his life-has been said to give the play tragic undertones. Another problem arises with the judges themselves. They are given the job of handing out the punishments at the end of the play, distrbution Jonson's poetic justice. But Jonson satirizes them thoroughly in their treatment of Mosca. While they think Mosca has money, they treat him with the utmost respect and courtesy, and one judge hopes to marry his daughter to him. But as soon as it turns out that he has none, he is subjected to the worst punishment of any offender, "for being of no birth or blood" (V.xii.112). The 3rd judge becomes the victim of dramatic irony when he says that Volpone should be "taught [how] to bear himself/ Towards a person of his [an equal or higher] rank" (V.xii.79–80). Rank assumes supreme importance at this stage of the play; but rank seems to be ultimately determined by money. Because of his harsh punishment and his conflict with Volpone in the final scene, Mosca is a chief candidate for the play's antagonist; but the behavior of the judges does not refute, but in fact confirms, Mosca's contention, in Act Three, that the "wise" world is "nothing but parasites". While the judges believe that they can possibly gain wealth from him, they treat him kindly; as soon as it is clear they cannot, they abuse him. Jonson's problem with the judges becomes clear; he wants his play to affirm the values cherished by Celia and Bonario, those of honor and religiosity. He desires his use of irony to be stable, irony employed against a certain set of values-those of Volpone (see Act I.i)-in favor of the values of Celia and Bonario; it is a conservative form of irony, in that it hearkens back to an older idea of virtue, and attacks the modern ideas of Volpone. But the Venetian state, as he portrays it (and we know this closely mirrored his view of English society at the time) was run through with parasitism from top to bottom; everyone was a Mosca, in Jonson's eyes, or at least everyone who had influence, even symbols of wisdom such as the judges. But an ending where Celia and Bonario are punished and Volpone and Mosca escape free would have been contrary to the play's didactic purpose; showing virtue losing out to vice doesn't make virtue seem the more favorable option of the two. So Jonson is forced to compromise his unremittingly negative portrait of Venetian society in order to accommodate his need to have Celia and Bonario win out at the end. This compromise may explain a dissatisfaction produced by the ending, its feeling of being too artificial, and not "of a piece" with the rest of the play.

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Correction

by zwibble-dibble, December 10, 2013

In the final paragraph, when discussing the second court scene, it says

"Mosca pretends to faint and claims to the Senate that he does not know where he is"

However, it is Voltore who does this, not Mosca.

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