This is my review of my reading of the script of this play
Volpone is written in a variety of forms. Volpone himself uses blank verse, as do most of the others, but there are moments on unevenly scanned rhyming couplets (it is as though Jonson seeks either rhyme or scansion but sees both as a luxury to be doled out as meagrely as might be, for example in the Epilogue) and occasionally prose.
Volpone, the Fox, loves gold. The very first two lives are:
Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine that I may see my saint.There follows a paean to gold:
Thou canst do naught and yet mak'st men do all thingsHe gets it by fraudulence. He pretends to be "turning carcass" on his death bed. His servant, ("his parasite") Mosca, the Fly, persuades Volpone's even more avaricious friends to give Volpone presents with the aim of inheriting Volpone's fortune.
In Act One the friends approach Volpone one by one. The first is Voltore, the Vulture, a lawyer with a keen nose for death. The second is old, partly deaf Corbaccio, the raven, the bird of death, who tries to persuade Mosca to give Volpone some medicine which Mosca fears is poison. Mosca persuades Corbaccio to write a will disinheriting his own son and naming Volpone as the sole legatee; after all the invalid Volpone is bound to die before Corbaccio. The third is Corvino, the Crow.
Mosca has some fine lines is cynicism:
Hood an ass with reverend purple,
So you can hide his two ambitious ears,
And he shall pass for a cathedral doctor.
When you do come to swim in golden lard,
Up to the arms in honey, that your chine
Is borne up stiff with fatness of the flood,
Think on your vassal; but remember me.
Those filthy eyes of yours, that flow with slime
Like two frog-pits, and those same hanging cheeks,
Covered with hide instead of skin ...
That look like frozen dishclouts set on end!Brilliant stuff!
In Act Two, Volpone pretends to be a famous doctor (a 'mountebank', so called because he stands upon a bench) and tries to persuade the gullible to buy his quack remedy. Peregrine observes:
I have heard they are most lewd imposters,
Made of all terms and shreds
At this time lewd meant ignorant. The terms and shreds sounds like an echo of Autolycus in The Winter's Tale.
Volpone fulminates, in prose, against rival medicine men:
Those turdy-facey-nasty-patey-lousy fartical rogues ... want not their favourers among your shrivelled, salad-eating artisans which is a great insults! These physicians prescribe nothing but water cocted with aniseeds. This term cocted means boiled as, presumably in concoct.
Death of mine honour, with the city's fool?
A juggling, tooth-drawing, prating mountebank
And at a public window? Where, whilst he
With his strained action and his dole of faces
To his drug lecture draws your itching ears,
A crew of old, unmarried, noted lechers
Stood leering up like satyrs?
Well, you shall have him, yes!
He shall come home and minister unto you
The fricace for the mother [a massage for hysteria]. Or, let me see,
I think you'd rather mount? Would you not mount?And he proposes drawing a line around her like a conjuror would around a spirit (as in Dr Faustus by Marlowe) so she is trapped within the magic circle.
However, Mosca persuades Corvino that Volpone is recovering his health and so less likely to die and leave his money to Corvino; the only solution is to furnish Volpone with a young lady (Mosca pretends that Volpone is impotent); Corvino hits on the scheme of pimping his own wife and, having berated her for immodesty, tells her to dress herself gorgeously for a feast with Volpone.
Mosca begins Act Three with some classic lines:
I fear I shall begin to grow in love
With my dear self ...
... I know not how,
Success hath made me wanton. I could skip
Out of my skin, now, like a subtle snake,
I am so limber. Oh, your parasite
Is a most precious thing
He then persuades Bonario, a good person and Corbaccio's son, to hide in a balcony so he can observe his father disinheriting him. Meanwhile, Corvino tries to persuade Celia to sleep with Volpone. Dragging her to the house he tries to force her into Volpone's bed. She is incredulous. Does he intend to watch her make love to Volpone?
Celia: Before your honour?
Corvino: Honour! Tut, a breath.
There's no such thing in nature; a mere term
Invented to awe fools. What is my gold
The worse for touching?
I grant you, if I thought it were a sin
I would not urge you. Should I offer this
To some young Frenchman or hot Tuscan blood
That had read Aretine, conned all his prints, [Aretino had published pornographic sonnets which accompanied erotic prints]
Knew every quirk within lust's labyrinth
And were professed critic in lechery,
And I would look on and applaud him,
This were a sin; but here 'tis contrary,
A pious work, mere charity, for physic,
And honest polity to assure mine own.She is still reluctant so he threatens her with terrible tortures and tries to bribe her with promises of jewels, asking (with heavy irony)
Will you disgrace me thus?He is persuaded by Mosca to leave her there so that the husband might not witness the wife's shame. When he is gone, Volpone leaps off his couch, reveals himself as the mountebank, and tries to seduce Celia but she still resists. In the nick of time Bonario intervenes, wounding Mosca in the face and running off with Celia.
Act Four. Bonario and Celia are on trial accused by Volpone, in absentia, represented by Voltore; Corbaccio and Corvino are the perjured witnesses, trying to cover up their shame by heaping guilt upon son and wife. They prevail, Bonario and Celia are taken away to be sentenced.
Act Five. Volpone now dreams up his final jest: he will 'die' having written a will in favour of Mosca. In an echo of Act One the suitors each come to see Mosca only to discover that they have been left nothing. Reeling from the disappointment, Voltore now goes back to court to retract the statements he made but Volpone, revealing only to Voltore that he is actually alive and therefore still able to name Voltore his heir, persuades Voltore to fake a fit and pretend to have been possessed, so retracting his retraction. Keeping up? Mosca continues to say that Volpone is dead. Volpone realises that he has tricked himself out of his own fortune by leaving it to Mosca; in revenge he reveals himself to the court. Mosca is sentenced to the galleys, Volpone to imprisonment, Voltire is debarred, Corbaccio forced to leave his fortune to Bonario and retire into a monastery and Corvino is made to divorce his wife, returning her to her father with three times her dowry.
It's not Shakespeare but it is a damned fine romp and full of many delightful touches (foreshadowings, ironic twists etc) that turn this farce into dramatic art.
February 2016; 208 pages
Other contemporary plays reviewed in this blog include:
- The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd: the forerunner to Hamlet? Jonson is supposed to have played the part of Hieronimo.
- Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
I also saw the RSC production of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist at the Barbican Theatre (close to Blackfriars, where it is set) on Saturday (matinee) 17th September 2016