Act I, scene i
The scene is Volpone's house, in the Italian city of Venice, in the spring of 1606. It is morning, and Volpone, whose name in Italian means "the great Fox," enters. He is a Venetian magnifico, or nobleman and accompanying him is his parasite Mosca, best thought of as a personal assistant/manservant/lackey. Volpone asks Mosca to unveil the shrine where Volpone keeps his treasure. Volpone, whose name means "Great Fox" in Italian, talks at length about the beauty and ethereal qualities of his gold. Then he and his parasite—whose name means "Fly"—discuss the way in which he earned his treasure: without hard work, presumably through cons. They also discuss the liberal way in which Volpone spends his treasure. He also describes the current con he is running; since he is childless, he has no heirs, and since he is extremely wealthy (from his previous cons), there is great interest into whom his estate will go to when he dies. So Volpone is pretending to be gravely ill and near death, prompting three notable citizens who consider themselves potential heirs to shower him with gifts in the hopes that he will make one of them his principal heir.
The construction of the first scene of the play is straightforward. It reveals the conceit (premise or situation) of the comedy and firmly establishes Volpone as the protagonist of the play. We find out that Volpone is rich, adores money, but takes more pleasure in gaining money than in having it, "Yet I glory / More in the cunning purchase of my wealth / Than in the glad possession." The "cunning" here arises from the fact that Volpone has gained his wealth not through honest work and toil (or, as Mosca adds, through the vicious practices of money-lending), but instead through cons, such as the one he now plays on his potential heirs. We also learn from Mosca that he is a man who "know[s] the use of riches." Mosca's description of "Candian wines" and "sumptuous hangings" imply that Volpone is a hedonist, someone controlled by his animal desires for pleasure, as does Volpone's own penchant for hyperbole, or poetic exaggeration, as when he claims that his gold shines brighter than the sun. The satire of greed and obsession with money is the play's main theme, and we are introduced to it immediately through the first speech.
It is an act of blasphemy, full of religious terms—"sacred," "relic," "heaven," "saint," and "Hail" (a term used in medieval mystery plays to announce the presence of Christ). When Volpone tells the treasure that "even hell is made worth heaven" with it, he explicitly values the worth of gold as higher than the worth of spiritual redemption and excellence—in short, gold, not God, has supreme importance for him. The substitution of money for God in the context of a prayer would have been shocking to an Elizabethan audience, though it has lost much of that sensational effect today. But the speech still reverses our expectations, by associating sacred, religious language with money usually thought to be profane (of low moral worth). As such, it is an example of situational irony, where the audience's expectations in a given situation reversed from the norm; in other words, we expect prayer to be sacred, but Volpone makes it crass and profane.
Another example of situational irony might be that of a pickpocket who, in the act of picking someone's pocket, has his pocket picked himself; the thief's role is reversed from perpetrator to victim, and instead of gaining from the action, loses by it. The use of irony is a key element of satire in general; and used appropriately, irony is perfectly suited to Jonson's intention to convey a moral message in an entertaining fashion. Irony, like a good joke, involves a reversal of the listener or reader's expectations; so irony is often funny. But irony can also have a serious purpose. The use of irony is almost always a form of attack on a certain viewpoint or way of life, by showing its inherent contradictions; and if it aims to show us that certain behavior or viewpoints are present in the thoughts and actions of everyday people in society at large, then it makes a pointed commentary on contemporary society. In other words, any thief who believes that stealing is the right way to make money can be made to look ridiculous by losing his money to theft. And a commonly held belief or way of behaving can be made to look ridiculous by showing that, in certain circumstances, it has disastrous consequences. So it is not surprising that irony is omnipresent in Volpone; not only does Jonson use situational irony to convey his message; he also uses verbal irony and dramatic irony. Verbal irony is very close to sarcasm; something is expressed whose actual meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning of the words; the difference between the two is that verbal irony is usually more subtle, relying on ambiguities in certain words and context to tip off the listener or reader to the actual meaning. Dramatic irony is the ironic effect created, for example, when someone doesn't know something you do, and says something that's normally reasonable but in the context quite stupid or funny; in other, the words or actions of a character take on a meaning different from the one they intend because of circumstances or information that character does not know.
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