Volpone has long been a popular choice as a set text for students. Written by Ben Jonson, it was first produced in 1606 and billed as a comedy, although it also includes elements of tragedy and even animal fable (Volpone is Italian for 'fox'). In essence, it's a dark satire on greed and lust, and remains Jonson's most performed work.
The action takes place in seventeenth-century Venice, over the course of one day. The chief characters are Volpone, a rich libertine and conman, and Mosca, his self-seeking servant. They cause chaos with an audacious fraud designed to part the city's wealthiest from their fortunes. The tale twists and turns, as all the characters attempt to deceive each other, until the whole scheme finally collapses, with disastrous consequences for Volpone.
A great choice for students and theatre lovers
There are themes galore to explore in Volpone, a key reason for its popularity in schools and colleges. One of the most important is the power of stagecraft - Volpone doesn't merely lie, but turns his deception into a whole production, complete with make-up, wardrobe and props. This is therefore truly a play to be seen, not just read.
In addition, it's an excellent play to study alongside Shakespeare. Jonson and Shakespeare were contemporaries, although their approach to drama was quite different.
Of course, whether you're a teacher, student or simply a theatre lover, Volpone, is, quite simply, great fun - its messages clearly resonating today.
Not surprisingly, Volpone is Jonson's most performed work. As the inscription over his Westminster Abbey grave states: 'O Rare Ben Johnson' (sic) – and this play is indeed a rare treat to study and watch.
Director: Elizabeth Freestone.
Featuring: Richard Bremmer, Mark Hadfield, Conrad Westmaas, Harvey Virdi, Edmund Kingsley, Tim Treloar, Maxwell Hutcheon, Tim Steed, James Wallace, Aislín McGuckin, Peter Bankolé, Brigid Zengeni
Act II, scene ii
Mosca and Nano enter the square, disguised; they serve as the advance scout party for Volpone. They establish themselves beneath the window of Corvino's house. Sir Politic identifies the oncoming crowd as the surrounding party for a mountebank, a Renaissance Italy version of the nineteenth century American medicine-show men, hucksters who sold fake potions to cure all and any ailments; they would "mount a bank" (embankment) in order to speak to the public. He then informs Peregrine that, contrary to popular belief, the Italian mountebanks are not all liars, but are in fact very learned men and excellent physicians. Volpone enters, followed by a crowd. Disguised as Scoto Mantua, Italian mountebank extraordinaire, he takes his place underneath Corvino's window with Mosca and Nano (who mounts on his shoulders) and engages on a long history of Scoto's fictional life, detailing the difficulties he has faced thanks to the rumor-mongering of Alessandro Buttone, a fellow mountebank, who has spread the vicious lie that Scoto was imprisoned for poisoning the cook of Archbishop Bembo, as well as the extreme popularity of the new potion he is selling. He of course lists the numerous illnesses the potion is supposed to cure, sings a wonderful song about its medicinal qualities, discusses how cheap his potion is, sings another song, before trying to convince everyone that they should buy it, immediately, at a special discount price of six pence. He then asks everyone to toss him their handkerchiefs so that he can rub some of his oil on them. The lovely Celia, watching above, tosses down her handkerchief, and Scoto/Volpone engages on a long tribute to her beauty, grace, and elegance.
Act II, scene ii
Corvino enters, and he is enraged by his jealousy. He beats Volpone and the crowd away, referring to them by the names of various characters from the Comedia dell'Arte: Flaminio, the lover (Volpone); Franciscina, the serving-maid (Celia); and himself as Pantalone di besognioni, a stock buffoon character, often portrayed as a cuckold. Politic watches the events with shock, Peregrine with amusement. They leave, and Peregrine remarks that he will stay close to the hyper-gullible English knight for the sheer amusement it brings him
An essential part of Volpone's character is his fascination with disguises. Volpone assumes at least three separate disguises over the course of the play, if we count "ill Volpone" as being a disguise. He also assumes the disguise of Scoto and that of a sergeant in the final act. Furthermore, his thoughts are often obsessed with disguises, and he sees disguise—and acting—as a source of pleasure in its own right (see the analysis of III.vii). This enthusiasm for disguise has connotations both good and bad. On the one hand, his delight in constantly assuming new identities emphasizes Volpone's energy and imagination. But on the other hand, not having a fixed identity makes him appear unstable, irresponsible and untrustworthy. His love for pretending to be others sums up and connects the central traits that define-energy, imagination, and moral corruption.
But at least at this point, we should share Volpone's pleasure in his inventiveness. Especially so at this stage of the play, where his tricks are as yet harmless. After all, this is a play we are reading; dramatic art itself is partly based on the basic pleasure to be found in make-believe, something Volpone seems to feel especially keenly. But there is a conflict here, especially in the fact that Volpone is so entertaining in his deceit emphasizes the connection between stagecraft and lying and establishes a conflict between stagecraft (the art of putting on a show) and truth. Disguise can be used both to conceal and reveal, while it may conceal the external facts of a person's identity, it can reveal aspects of their inner nature which are usually invisible. We might think that as Scoto Mantua, Volpone is deceiving everyone to an even greater extent than he is when pretending to be ill. But Volpone himself said that his disguise would have to "maintain his own shape"; that is, it would have to maintain some truth about his personality, since he counted this event as his introduction to Celia. So in a perfect example of situational irony, he chooses Scoto Mantua, the mountebank—the man whose profession it is to deceive—as a representation of his true, inner self.
Similarly, the play we are reading or watching is a fiction; the characters do not exist, and the actors who play them are all in diguise. They all pretend to be someone else. But they do so in order to convey a truth, the truth of Jonson's moral message: that greed and vanity are present everywhere and that they are demeaning and ridiculous vices, worthy of contempt, no matter how attractive they may appear, and that people should look beyond shiny, golden exteriors to the inner decadence they may contain. Scoto delivers his lines in prose, not verse. This could be both because Scoto is a "low", comic character (such characters traditionally spoke in prose, as it was less ornate and structured, more direct), or because he represents a direct authorial presence in the play. The only other part of the play in prose is Jonson's initial dedication, also written in his own voice. And Scoto also makes several references to Jonson's life. Like Scoto, over the course of eight months Jonson had been slandered in public and arrested; in Jonson's case, it was for participation in a play, Eastward Ho, that had been seen as mocking the king. Thus, Scoto seems to be something of a self-portrait. And this self- portrait Jonson paints of himself, as a carnival huckster/alchemist, suggests that he viewed his art as being similar to the art of both; that he took deceit, lies, and human vices (the trade of the huckster), and, like the alchemist, transformed these valueless things into something valuable—a work of art that could entertain, as well as instruct.