Volpone. Volpone, Volpone, Volpone…Volpone?
Volpone – Volpone; Volpone (Volpone), Volpone…
“Volpone,” unfortunately, is not the Italian word for “sorry.” It is, however, the title of a play by Ben Jonson (first performed in 1606), and the word translates to “small fox.” If you know anything about foxes and nothing about Ben Jonson’s plays, then, you might conclude that Volpone is about trickery and cunning in some way. And if you know nothing about foxes and everything about Ben Jonson’s plays, then you’d come to the same conclusion. Hooray for collaboration!
On a more serious, “literary” note, Volpone is interesting because it captures
like every critic claims about a classic work a profound change in the society it was set in – more specifically, the rise of personal wealth and concomitant greed against the backdrop of a mercantile, capitalist economy. Jonson set his play in Venice but it’s very easy to read the story as a parable for London society, even before the radical transformations wrought by the English Civil War and the Restoration several decades later.
So what’s it all about? In short, we have the title character, a very wealthy man who decides, for his own entertainment, to manipulate several locals who are keenly interested in his vast fortune. Volpone orchestrates all of his designs through his main servant and parasite Mosca, who devises a bidding war to decide who will inherit the riches. There’s the merchant Corvino, the elderly gentleman Corbaccio, the lawyer Voltore, and the talkative Lady Would-Be all of whom display as much greed and recklessness as the man whose wealth they covet and seek to secure for themselves and no one else. To be fair, all of them are equally immoral, and if you read this paragraph alone you can probably figure out who wins in the end…
Volpone! (Oh sorry – I forgot that doesn’t mean “sorry.”)
Also tied in is a subplot featuring Sir Politic, an English knight and Lady Would-Be’s husband who tries devising his own ludicrous business schemes, and his merchant companion Peregrine. Both of them prove to be hapless, with the latter edging his mate with respect to intellect and awareness.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Volpone is suggested in the very title: animals and animal symbolism feature prominently in Jonson’s play, and personalities take on the personifications traditionally ascribed to particular animals. Indeed, a 1938 production featured the actors dressed up as their animal counterparts. There is, of course, Volpone himself as the “fox,” but we also have several flighty and ravenous characters – Mosca (Italian for “fly”), Voltore (not unlike “vulture”), Corvino (“raven”), and Peregrine (that one’s pretty clear). Other characters’ names follow the romantic tradition and mark their traits quite clearly: Politic and Would-Be live up to their names, while Celia – Corvino’s wife, who is offered to Volpone as a makeweight in the husband’s deal for the fortune – connotes heaven and chastity. Jonson’s competition thus feels not only like a fitting metaphor for contemporary England but also like a prescient foreshadowing of the social Darwinism that would accompany industrialism two and a half centuries later.
And since this is a moralistic comedy, it’s also worth asking another question: Who wins at the end of the play? I’ll try not to give away the ending, but it’s safe to say that those who deserve to be punished get punished, and those who don’t see order restored. Yet as with every other comedy, ‘restoration of order’ is the best case scenario, which leaves us – in a play centered on greed, corruption, and personal gain – with almost everything back at baseline. Is that Jonson’s point then: that material wealth inevitably plays out a zero-sum game, thus making all these swipes at flattery and sycophancy meaningless?
Or should we perhaps think about Volpone in deliberately non-materialistic terms? In other words, maybe Jonson wanted to expose the emerging mercantile economy for what it was – an animalistic masquerade, a fierce yet ultimately hollow contest over objects that people, who increasingly found means of acquiring them through fortunes of their own, came to desire more and more. It’s a bit like painting a pig (or a fox, or raven, or vulture for that matter) with the rarest and finest-quality lipstick in the world: the end product is still a pig, and whatever value we ascribe to it is borne out of some abstract, immaterial concept we call “desire.”
Then again, this is a play where actors get to dress in animal suits and make archaic jokes across five acts. So in that truly individualistic sense of the phrase…anything is possible.