Ben Jonson’s blunt satire pierces the mind and awakens your soul to a whole new type of humor. Ben Jonson, born in London in 1572, was raised in a modest background. His father died a month before he was born and his mother remarried to a brick layer soon after (Donaldson xix). Nonetheless, Jonson was fortunate enough to attend Westminster School, a prestigious academy (Queenan, 198) and grew to become a great literary scholar, playwright, and poet. He continued his learning among literary and intellectual circles and received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University, later lecturing on Rhetoric at Gresham College (Garnett paragraph 8). Jonson was greatly known for his satirical plays including Volpone, Epicene, The Alchemist, andBartholomew Fair (Bryant, viii). Shortly after writing a neo-classical tragedy, Sejanus, a harshly criticized play by both the critics of his time and by his audience (Dessen 70), Jonson wrote Volpone, a highly complex and satirical piece that takes place over the course of a single day. He knew that in order for him to be able to recapture his audience, he needed to create a great satirical work, which was familiar territory for him (Bryant 57). Therefore, as exclaimed in Volpone’s Prologue, Volpone was “fully penned” in five weeks (Jonson 45). This paper will focus on how Jonson produces satire using Volpone as the key example.
A quality satirical play is effective in exposing a weakness, or multiple weaknesses, in man in a way that influences a wide variety of emotions and reactions in the audience. In particular, laughter, disillusionment, and self-reflection are among the most characteristic of what the audience should be feeling. Laughter is actually the easy part; it comes directly from the uncomfortable situation being presented. The satirical essence of Jonson’s writing is created through his extensive use of fairly flat characters with great follies. And while these characters seem to be abnormal or atypical in nature, it is clear that their characteristics are not peculiar to them, but are communal to all mankind. Jonson satirically stages a downward spiral for several characters of Volpone, using themes of sin, parasitism, and deception in order to point out the destructive patterns that lead to the characters’ descent.
Sin, and even more particularly, the seven deadly sins are highly thematic to the character Volpone. Most people believe that they (the people) are innocent of such incredible sins before bearing witness to this satire. Between the film and the script, Volpone commits a plethora of sin. He commits every one of the cardinal sins during the course of the play even though the play all takes place in a period of only a single day. It shocks the audience that Volpone could be such an evil person. People do not at first think that they could possibly relate to a nefarious a character as Volpone, especially many of the royalty that watch this play. Volpone has sloth, having a servant do his biddings and making money off of others instead of getting a legal job. However, plenty of people these days have maids, butlers, etc. Royalty all had such servants do their chores and personal work. And almost everyone wishes they could just win the lottery instead of having to do an honest days work. Volpone is gluttonous, as in the film Volpone, he is a rather large and heavy man with a feast worth of food for him to eat on his own at supper time (Volpone, 1980). The majority of Americans today are obese due to the excessive amount of food that we eat. The fat men were once received as the most attractive due to the fact that they had the money to be this gluttonous. Volpone is envious of Corbaccio for having as beautiful a wife as Celia, who he lusts over, and therefore forcefully and full of wrath attempts to rape. While most people might not go as far as rape, to not have lusts and to not get angry is to not be human. All people have their envies and their lusts. Volpone’s pride gets the worst of him at the end of the play when he refuses to concede to any bargaining after Mosca offered to give Volpone half of his gold back (after losing it all to Mosca). As a result Volpone lost it all. When anyone is in a position of power, they are very hesitant to give it up even if it is already lost. Again, it is only human nature. The worst of all, however, is Volpone’s greed, which is one thing there is no way to match.
Volpone is one of the greediest characters of any literary piece. This becomes obvious right from the start of the play when Volpone prays to his gold as if it were a religious idol:
VOLP: Good morning to the day; and next, my gold:/Open the shrine, that I may see my Saint./[MOSCA WITHDRAWS THE CURTAIN, AND DISCOVERS PILES OF GOLD, PLATE, JEWELS, ETC.]/Hail the world’s soul, and mine! more glad than is/The teeming earth to see the long’d-for sun/Peep through the horns of the celestial Ram,/Am I, to view thy splendour darkening his… O thou son of Sol,/But brighter than thy father, let me kiss,/With adoration, thee, and every relick/Of sacred treasure, in this blessed room. (Jonson, 1983 95-96)
Naturally this was highly disillusioning for any audience of the 17th century. Due to changing times, many of us might not realize today the extent to which this may have been a horrendous sight. But religious icons were sacred to most people at the time of the original performances of Volpone. Watching a man bow to gold feasibly may have been not only shocking, but insulting. It likely made some audience, specifically the worst of the fanatics, wonder why the man being cast as Volpone was not struck down on the spot for his blasphemy. Regardless, it is clear that Volpone has plenty of gold and he is obsessed with it. And what does he do with this gold at the end of the day? He puts it in a chest so that he can look at it every morning and shelter it from all others’ eyes (Volpone, 1980), which is in addition to greed proof of gluttony. The additional gold was clearly excessive if he never even had any plans for possible use.
There is a great juxtaposition between how Mosca and Volpone view gold in the first scene. Volpone could not possibly understand why others would not cherish it as he does, whereas Mosca seems unimpressed and does not see any value in gold that is unused this way, viewing them as only pieces of metal. Volpone has a fixation with gold that is all devouring, while Mosca has a much healthier view of gold and the value of it. In the film Volpone that came out in 1980, after Volpone opens his chest and digs his head inside ranting about his obsession with his gold, he asks Mosca why Mosca does not “greet” the gold himself in envy (Volpone, 1980). Mosca replied “It hurts me. It is imprisoned in your chest. If I could, I would give it wings” (Volpone, 1980). Mosca speaks very sarcastically and patronizingly to Volpone. The reason for this is that Mosca actually sees the practical purposes of gold, whereas Volpone just wants to have the gold for the sake of having it, to feed his obsession and his greed with his gluttony. Mosca additionally just plays with the gold; he picks up the gold pieces and throws them back in (Volpone, 1980), again just as if they are only pieces of metal. This strongly pierces both the audience and Volpone, how Mosca could just throw the gold pieces in the chest. Volpone immediately shuts the chest and shoves Mosca away. This paves the way to show how mad Volpone truly is and where Volpone’s priorities are.
Even though Volpone was just ranting about how much gold he has, he continues to unravel plans to continue to make money at the expense of others:
This draws new clients daily, to my house,/Women and men of every sex and age,/That bring me presents, send me plate, coin, jewels,/With hop
e that when I die (which they expect/Each greedy minute) it shall then return/Ten-fold upon them; whilst some, covetous/Above the rest, seek to engross me whole,/And counter-work the one unto the other, Contend in gifts, as they would seem in love:/All which I suffer, playing with their hopes,/ And am content to coin them into profit,/To look upon their kindness, and take more,/And look on that. (Jonson, 1983 96)
Volpone uses his gold to obtain even more unneeded wealth. It does not even matter to him where the wealth is coming from in terms of who it hurts. He does not care about the fact that some of the people giving him the gold and jewelry do not even have the wealth necessary to sustain themselves. Corvino in particular is dying and does not even have the money to buy the medicines he needs. But due to Corvino’s infatuation, just like the other characters, even Corvino gives what he has. Corvino originally has a ring of high value, but instead of selling the ring for his medicine, he keeps it due to the sentimental value it possesses. This means that this ring is worth more to him than additional attempts to stay alive and as healthy as possible. Yet he still gives his ring and most valuable possession to Volpone. It is like a poor old man selling the gold locket of his dead wife in order to buy a lottery ticket, with the difference being that the poor man has a chance of winning and that Corvino does not even know that he has no chance. Volpone of course only laughs about this matter with Mosca (Volpone, 1980). The amount to which Volpone cares about how everything he does affects the lives of his parasites, is the extent to which he could laugh about it and enjoy the game. This is all a game to him, a parasitic game. Volpone, however, is not the only major parasite of this play.
Though Mosca, or the fly, is the most evident parasite in that he is directly parasitic on Volpone and his gold: to paraphrase Mosca in act III, scene ii, everyone is a parasite. Who can be the better parasite? Who will become the oblivious host? These are the games being played throughout the play. These are the themes that unfold the plot and the true forms of each character. Jonson was careful about naming many of the characters a fitting name. Corbaccio (the crow), Voltore (the vulture), and Corvino (the raven) are all greedy and gluttonous parasites that put all their energy into trying to receive Volpone’s inheritance. Their names fit them in that each name is that of a type of parasite (and as such, I will often refer to these three people as “the parasites”). However, Celia and Bornario, who are Corbaccio’s wife and child respectively, do not seem to have meaningful names at all (I have researched this thoroughly; nothing of value has come up). This could be because of the fact that they are the only innocent characters with names in the play. Corbacccio, Voltore, and Corvino, however, clearly each work hard and are willing to do horrible things to be as parasitic as they are. Corbaccio gives away his wife to be raped, Voltore gives up his honor as a lawyer, and Corvino gives up his ring. Each one gives up what is most valuable to him. They would be much better off if they decided to keep their riches and their valuables for themselves, but their pride keeps each one of them believing that he will indeed be the heir, receive their riches back, and receive enough wealth that what is most valuable them now flails in comparison.
An ironic twist is that while Volpone, Mosca, Corbaccio, Voltore, and Corvino are all trying so tirelessly to be parasitic onto their own individual hosts, it is clear that each one of their relationships are the opposite of what they intend them to be. The supposed hosts of the parasitism are the true parasites and the original parasites became their hosts. On one hand, each of the parasites Corbaccio, Voltore, and Corvino are each trying to be parasitic upon Volpone. They all think they were winning. They all think they would be receiving all of Volpone’s inheritance once he dies because they are supposedly so good at buying his affection. But none of them even have a chance of receiving any type of inheritance and were doomed to begin with. On the other hand, Volpone of course originally thinks that he is winning the game because in his mind he is in charge of the game. He set the rules. He is making all this extra gold. So Volpone is the parasite in those relationship and Corbaccio, Voltore and Corvino are the hosts. However, he never even ends up using any of it so this wealth that he obtains is useless for him, except in having fun playing the game as do the other parasites. It would seem that Volpone is being parasitic over Mosca’s life in that Mosca is Volpone’s personal servant and lackey, doing everything that Volpone commands of him. However, Mosca is the ultimate parasite in this play. His entire life is based off of feeding off of Volpone’s wealth, especially as shown at the end of the play when Mosca supposedly earns Volpone’s inheritance. Mosca also thinks things out a bit better than everyone else. Mosca plans out and carries out the large conniving plots that take intelligence, managing to trick all of the other parasites throughout the play.
Mosca is portrayed as a very different character between the original script of Volpone and the film of Volpone of 1980. It is clear that either the director or the producer took some liberties with the text and when certain factors came into play. Through some very subtle changes this way, great consequences transpire. In the script of Volpone, Mosca is simply a servant. He lives off of Volpone’s riches and he does as Volpone commands. Mosca is a yes man that obeys Volpone’s every wish. One would expect that Mosca is a completely flat character until the end of the play when Volpone’s greed has rubbed off onto Mosca and Mosca tries to keep all of Volpone’s gold. However, in the film, Mosca is the confident ring leader. Volpone comes off as a crazy old man with mad ideas that are not even generated by him. Mosca plants these ideas into Volpone’s mind and then manages to convince Volpone that they were all Volpone’s idea in the first place. Mosca is actually the one in control. Every time Volpone comes up with another idea about how to make more money off of Corbaccio, Volture, and Corvino, it is clear that the idea is clearly set forth by Mosca and then even carried out by Mosca. Even the setup where Volpone decides to try and rape Corbaccio’s wife is masterminded by Mosca so that Volpone would get caught. But Volpone, being a crazy old man, never even suspects that Mosca was ever behind any of it. In fact, he begs for Mosca’s assistance as Volpone is laying on the floor and about to be arrested. So when the idea of leaving Mosca all of Volpone’s inheritance when the time comes for Volpone to fake his own death, it seems to Volpone as if it were all his idea. This made it easy for Mosca to pick up the pieces and have Volpone’s gold for himself.
An interesting and satirical theme throughout Volpone is that through all of the deception all is made clear. Every character is out to help himself out and no one else. Therefore, at almost all times every character is being deceiving to other characters in the play. However, with each additional deception, the audience learns a little bit more about what is actually going on through the minds of all the others. Volpone’s deception to the people he is conning for more gold gives the audience depth into how greedy and awful a person Volpone is. It also explains why Volpone, or the Fox, is named as he is considering he is such a great and cunning con artist. At the same time, through this deception, Volpone learns much about each of the people he is conning. Each of them believes that he is deceiving Volpone, that Volpone actually believes that he cares about Volpone and wants him to be well. Volpone knows very well from the beginning of the play that this is not true and that all they care about is Volpone’s money. But Volpone doe
s not know how far each of them would be willing to go in order to prove his loyalty and how much each character in fact hated Volpone and wanted him dead regardless of the money. Corbaccio gets so caught up in the deception that he is willing to give his own wife away to be raped in order to a part of the inheritance. Volture tries to use his wits in creating a binding contact that would force Volpone into giving his money away to him. And Corvino is ready to go as far as to poison Volpone with “medicine,” not only to quicken the process of receiving Volpone’s inheritance, which he is supposedly sure to collect, but more importantly just so that Corvino could say once Volpone is dead that he outlived “the great Volpone” (Volpone, 1980) and be able to laugh at Volpone for it. When these characters believe that Volpone is not able to understand them for any reason, such as lack of consciousness or ability to use his ears, they make fun of him and laugh in his face. Their deceptions clearly all go too far and they all pay the price because Volpone is fully conscious and knows exactly what is going on around him at these times.
Mosca is the greatest of all of Volpone‘s characters in the use of his deceptive techniques. Mosca manages to deceive each and every character throughout the play. Depending on the interpretation of the script, Mosca deceives Volpone from the beginning of the play in each and every decision that Volpone makes. With this interpretation, Mosca is making clearer and clearer to the audience that he is in fact the man in charge and that he is up to something devious. Mosca individually tricks each of Volpone’s other parasites, besides himself of course, into believing that he is the sole inheritor of Volpone’s fortunes. Mosca also continuously convinces them that Volpone is dying, utterly disabled, and cannot comprehend what anyone says. This is difficult enough in itself, but he does even more. He brings out their true characters through these deceptions. The parasites finally act to Volpone the way they truly see him, as the scum that he is. And then Mosca manages to take those deceptions even one step further. He mysteriously finds a way to convince these parasites that it is still important for them to give away their own riches to Volpone as if Volpone would somehow understand that he is receiving riches and be able to respond accordingly when he is not able to see, hear, or feel. Volpone, being the fool as he is, which is ironic considering his name and how he is supposed to be such a fox and a trickster, actually puts his trust into Mosca knowing how deceptive Mosca can be. So at the end of the play, Volpone trusts Mosca to convince the world that Volpone is dead, trusts Mosca with Mosca’s name on Volpone’s inheritance, and trusts Mosca to be loyal. Of course Mosca then deceives the world into believing that Volpone is dead, deceives the other parasites (that believe they are the rightful heirs) along with a judge into believing that the inheritance now belongs to him and to no one else, and deceives Volpone into believing that Volpone is to make all his riches back when the time is right.
The result of all this sin, parasitism, and deception is the damnation of all people that played a part. Volpone, dressed as a commoner is believed to be a liar when he tells the truth about Volpone being alive. So he is whipped for it. Since Mosca let this happen, Volpone cannot take the pain anymore and reveals himself. But due to his deceptions and supposed death is sent to the gallows, with all his riches and property now owned by the government. Mosca joins Volpone in the gallows for his deceptions regarding Volpone’s life as well. Since Corbaccio, Volture, and Corvino do not end up receiving Volpone’s inheritance, they lose everything they gave him (to the government). Corbaccio’s wife, Celia, finds out that Corbaccio sent her blindly to be raped and therefore their marriage could not possibly end well. Volture is debarred for deceiving the judge, losing his license as a lawyer and all credibility, meaning he will not be able to work in his field ever again. And Corvino is left penniless without the means to pay for his medicine, meaning he is sure to shortly die. It turns out that the only pains anyone received from all the treacherous actions that were taken were self-inflicted pains. Everyone receives precisely what they deserve as a direct result of their actions. There is no mysterious karma like reasoning for their punishments. There is no magic or all-knowing, all-powerful force behind it all. It is all logical and expected once the doors of deception are knocked down and all is common knowledge. The only thing that is ironic is only how perfectly everything worked out in terms of what is expected in reality coming to being.
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Donaldson, Ian. Ben Jonson. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
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The MacMillan Company, 1904.
Jonson, Ben. Volpone. Edited by Bevington, David and Parker, Brian. Manchester University
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Sanders, Arnie. “Ben Jonson, Volpone (1606).” English 211. 23 Oct 2007
[Note: The last thing cited “Volpone, 1980″ is the film. Somehow, there was absolutely no more information available on the film itself or on its case for the works cited page.]