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Volpone

Ben Jonson

Act I, scene iii and scene iv

Act I, scene ii

Act I, scene v

Summary

Act I, scene iii

Voltore the lawyer—whose name means "vulture" in Italian—enters with Mosca, and Mosca assures him that he will be Volpone's heir. Voltore asks after Volpone's health, and Volpone thanks him for both his kindness and his gift of a large piece of gold plate. The magnifico then informs the lawyer that his health is failing, and he expects to die soon. Voltore asks Mosca three times whether he is Volpone's heir before he is finally satisfied with Mosca's answer, at which point he rejoices. He asks why he is so lucky, and Mosca explains that it is partly due to the fact that Volpone has always had an admiration for lawyers and the way they can argue either side of a case at a moment's notice. He then begs Voltore not to forget him when the lawyer inherits Volpone's money and becomes rich. Voltore leaves happy, with a kiss for Mosca, at which point Volpone jumps out of bed and congratulates his parasite on a job well done. But the game quickly starts again, as another would-be heir arrives, identified only as "the raven."

Act I, scene iv

"The raven" turns out to be Corbaccio (whose name means "raven" in Italian), an elderly man, who, according to Mosca, is in much worse health himself than Volpone pretends to be. Corbaccio offers to give Volpone a drug, but Mosca refuses out of fear that the drug may be Corbaccio's way of speeding up the dying process (in other words, some form of poison). Mosca excuses his refusal by saying that Volpone simply does not trust the medical profession in general, to which Corbaccio agrees. Corbaccio then inquires after Mosca's health; as Mosca lists off the ever-worsening symptoms, Corbaccio marks his approval of each one, except when he mishears one of Mosca's replies and gets worried that Volpone might be improving. But Mosca assures him that Volpone is, in fact, getting worse and is in fact nearly dead. This cheers up Corbaccio greatly, who remarks that Volpone is even sicker than he is and that he is certain to outlive; he remarks that it makes him feel twenty years younger. Corbaccio expresses curiosity about Volpone's will, but Mosca replies it has not yet been written. The old man asks what Voltore was up to at Volpone's house; when Mosca answers truthfully—that he gave Volpone a piece of gold plate in the hopes of being written into his will—Corbaccio presents a bag of cecchines (Venetian coins) intended for Volpone. Mosca then explain how Corbaccio can be certain of being Volpone's heir; by leaving the bag of cecchines, but also by writing Volpone as his sole heir. Mosca says that when Volpone then writes his own will, his sense of gratitude will compel him to make Corbaccio his sole heir. Corbaccio soon leaves, and Volpone mocks him afterward mercilessly for trying to inherit money from a sick, dying man when he, himself, is on the brink of death.

Analysis

Through the device of Volpone's con, Jonson makes his satiric commentary on greed, using dramatic irony, situational irony, verbal irony, and repetition. Dramatic irony is a literary device often used in tragedies; a central character behaves in a certain way in ignorance of key facts about a situation; we, however, know the behavior is incorrect (and, in a tragedy, leading toward a catastrophe) and feel tension because of our inability to stop it. But as Jonson demonstrates, dramatic irony can also be an effective tool for satire and comedy. Each "legacy hunter" is pursuing what, in the world of seventeenth-century Venice, was a sound business strategy: find a dying magnifico and ingratiate yourself with him, using expensive gifts (gifts that would be yours again when you inherited his estate anyways). As Mosca points out to Volpone before Voltore's entrance, "if you died today, What large return would come of all his ventures." It is sound strategy, if Volpone is really ill. But since Volpone is not ill (and since we know this) the behavior of each character seems ridiculous. Like the thief who is the victim of thieving, each character attempts to deceive themselves into money, by pretending they care about Volpone's health, but they are instead deceived out of their own. And we know they are all lying, because though each character reiterates the same well wishes, they also celebrate being named his heir or, like Corbaccio, express approval over his long list of worsening "symptoms." It is clear that their concern is not that Volpone gets better, but that he gets worse; and what is amusing is that their hypocrisy is being exposed (at least to the audience) by someone even more adept at lying than they are.

Volpone and Mosca are conscious, too, of the "moral" aspect of their game; and they emerge, by contrast to the three legacy hunters, as eminently likable. They are no worse than the legacy hunters; if Volpone is deceitful and immoral in his pursuit of personal gratification, then no less so are they; and if Mosca is servile and obsequious toward Volpone, well, they are too. And Volpone and Mosca are better, in that their motivations are purer; not money for money's sake, but money for the sake of pleasure, or for the sake of the pleasure of getting it-they both enjoy their machinations immensely. The repetition of would-be heirs, from different walks of life (lawyer, merchant, nobleman), indicate that greed is a characteristic of the society as whole; again, Volpone is valorized because he is the only honest about his greed. Volpone and Mosca are also both conscious of the various ironies of the game, and comment upon them. Volpone remarks on the situational irony of Corbaccio's attempt to become his heir when Corbaccio is in fact the one who is near death. And Mosca's speech to Voltore about how much Volpone admires the "legal profession" is an example of verbal irony, in that Mosca gives a speech in praise of lawyers which actually insults them, as the things Volpone supposedly "admires" are essentially the ability to deceive and equivocate; it is also dramatic irony because Voltore doesn't know that Volpone is a deceiver himself and therefore would probably admire this deceitfulness. This consciousness draws us closer to Volpone and Mosca, because we share it too; it makes us their co-conspirators, as does the frequent use of asides, or comments made directly to the audience, which set up a conspiring atmosphere between the characters and the play's spectators (when Corbaccio offers a pill to help Volpone "sleep", Volpone says aside "Aye, his last sleep, if he would take it. Volpone and Mosca play the role of a "fool", by Nano's definition, well. They too, make a living from their wit, and their way with words. They also possess (and share with us) an outsider's viewpoint on society; the knowledge that Volpone is not, in fact, ill, separates both them and us from Corvino, Corbaccio, and Voltore. And, like the fool, they do not harm the people they mock; the three prospective heirs are not made impoverished by their deceit, and no innocents are hurt.

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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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