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Volpone

Ben Jonson

Act II, scene iv–scene vii

Act II, scene ii and scene iii

Act III, scene i and scene ii

Act II, scene iv

Volpone returns to his home, moaning about how beautiful Celia is, and how sick he is with love for her. Mosca listens to him and promises that he will make Celia Volpone's lover, if only he has enough patience. Volpone is pleased by Mosca's determination; he then asks him whether or not he was good in his performance as Scoto. Mosca assures him the entire audience was fooled.

Act II, scene v

The scene is within Corvino's house. Corvino berates Celia for tossing her handkerchief to Scoto Mantua. He feels he has been made a fool of in public and accuses his wife of harboring a desire to be unfaithful to him and of making excuses in order to meet with her paramours. She begs him not to be jealous and protests that she never makes such excuses, that she hardly even leaves the house, even to go to Church—but this is not enough for Corvino. From now on, he says, she will never be allowed out of the house, never allowed to go within two or three feet of a window, and forced to do everything backward—dress backward, talk backward, walk backward. If she fails to obey, he threatens that he will dissect her in public as an example of a woman without virtue.

Act II, scene vi

Mosca arrives at Corvino's house, and Corvino assumes he brings good news: news of Volpone's death. But Corvino says that, on the contrary, Volpone has recovered—thanks to the medicinal oil of Scoto Mantua. Corvino is frustrated. Not only that, adds Mosca, but he has now been charged by the doctors with the task of finding a woman to sleep with Volpone in order to further aid his recovery. Corvino suggests a courtesan (prostitute), but Mosca rejects the idea; prostitutes are too sly, too experienced, and they might trick both of them out of any inheritance. Rather, he suggests that a woman of virtue is required, someone whom Corvino can command. Volpone's parasite further mentions that one of the doctors offered his own daughter. Boldened by this, Corvino decides that Celia will sleep with Volpone and declares this to Mosca. Mosca congratulates Corvino on ensuring that he will be named heir.

Act II, scene vii

After Mosca leaves, Corvino finds his wife crying. He consoles her, telling her that he is not jealous and was never jealous. Jealousy is unprofitable, he says, and he promises that she will find just how un-jealous he is at Volpone's house, cryptically alluding to his decision to prostitute her.

Analysis

Celia provokes what can be termed "grotesque" reactions from both Volpone and Corvino, and we can compare andcontrast these reactions better understand each character. Volpone used religious imagery in the description of gold, but now he has found a new "better angel" in Celia. And the "gold, plate, and jewels," which Volpone addressed in tones of worship at the beginning of the play, Volpone gives to Mosca so that he can use them to woo Celia; the all-important gold has been subordinated to her conquest. His desire for her is instinctual, not refined or rational, and we are now merely seeing the lustful, hedonist side of Volpone that was only hinted at in previous passages. For the language in which Volpone describes his love for Celia is grotesque; it is the language of sickness, not love. He feels a fever, a "flame", trapped inside his body. "My liver melts," he exclaims, and Mosca describes his situation as a "torment." That the "sick" Volpone now suffers from a lovesickness is another example of situational irony, and, through this irony, Jonson demonstrates that Volpone's light-hearted, lustful ways are not as innocent as they may appear, since they can easily develop into an unhealthy, and unnatural, sexual obsession (remember from Act I that the grotesque can serve as an indication of something unnatural, hidden underneath the surface of a character or situation).

Corvino also has a pathological, grotesque response to Celia's body. Corvino's description of the handkerchief-tossing incident is rife with intense, sensual imagery suggesting that Corvino may be in the grip of some sort of sexual psychosis; he feverishly describes "itching ears," "noted lechers," "satyrs," "hot spectators," "the fricace" (a type of massage), before he verbally imagines Celia and Scoto Mantua engaged in the act of intercourse. By contrast with Corvino, Volpone's earlier outburst seems tame. Corvino ends his first diatribe with a threat of murder, indicating that sex and violence are thus firmly linked in his psyche. Like Volpone, Celia's body causes a sickness in him, except that his sickness is characterized by violence and rage whereas Volpone's is characterized by physical agony. Corvino's grotesque sexual obsession is firmly linked to his sense of property, for he considers Celia to be his property. When he says, "I will make thee an anatomy, / Dissect thee mine own self and read a lecture / Upon thee to the city and in public," the vocabulary of science—"anatomy," "science," and "lecture"—serves to convey the grotesque image; this language strongly associated with the rising bourgeois merchant class of Jonson's day. And when he threatens to kill her entire family as relatiation for her supposed infidelity, he uses the language of law: those murders would be "the subject of my justice." Corvino's rage is that of a merchant who feels that he is being ripped off, whose property has been stolen and who wants the thief put to death. To put it in psychological terms, it is that of a sociopath who feels his power threatened; Corvino lashes out in a sadistic and brutal manner in order to maintain control.

So this scene serves to link Corvino's materialistic values to grotesque, unnatural and violent sexual obsession. But more than that, it also shows the fundamental hypocrisy of those values, through irony. When Mosca tests which impulse is stronger in Corvino—his sexual jealousy or his desire for material possession—he quickly discovers that it is the latter. To lose Celia to a lover would send Corvino into a murderous rage, and he condemns her for her perceived infidelity using moral concepts such as "justice"; but to use her in order to gain Volpone's fortune is "nothing." The justice of the situation is determined, it seems, by whether or not Corvino makes a profit, not on any moral issue, and the virtue of his wife for a vast amount of fortune is a more than equitable trade. Corvino's reversal is an example of situational irony, which reveals Corvino's talk of justice to be hypocritical, a means of exercising power over people, like Celia, who care about such things.

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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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