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Byline: Sarah Syed Kazmi

Volpone by Ben Jonson was written in the Jacobean age. It imbibes the ethos of the age in being a commedia dell'arte, or a satire on social norms. The Elizabethan age witnessed the peaceful settlement of conflict between the puritanical reformists, seeking to reform the Church of England, and the Catholics who placed the Pope on a high pedestal. The Elizabethan religious settlement, sought to maintain a careful balance between rigid religiosity and papal ascendency. Ben Jonson, writing in an era dominated by new religious interpretations, scientific discoveries and novel philosophical trends, wove some of these ideas into the plots of his plays. The dramatists in the Elizabethan age did not enjoy complete freedom of expression, as their works were subject to close scrutiny by the Master of Revels1.

Jonson's deep interest in classical literature is evident in the didactic appeal of his plays. Jonson's devotion to classics, led him to espouse the pedantic notion that comedies served a moralizing purpose. His comedies were modeled along the lines of Greek and Roman classics. Jonson's allegiance to classical models in drama, did not allow him to experiment with the form and genre of drama. His characters remained 'types', and did not develop as 'round characters', evolving through the complex course of the storyline. The characters in the drama function as 'types', true to their given nature, and their actions are predictable. The audience understands Jonson's characters with facility, without being confronted by the psychological predicaments of tragic heroes.

Ben Jonson was William Shakespeare's contemporary, yet Jonson's plays did not earn as much acclaim as Shakespeare's plays did. Jonson's works however were known for being original, whereas Shakespeare's plays were based on time-honoured classics and fables or drew inspiration from significant historical events. Volpone was published in 1605, which goes on to show that as a dramatist Jonson was rooted in the Elizabethan tradition, as well as in the early Jacobean age.

Volpone was meant 'to teach and to delight', evident in the names given to the characters. Jonson fuses animal and human traits, but accentuates the animal over the human and develops the storyline as a fable. The names are predominantly Italian in which Volpone, the main character stands for 'fox', Mosca, part-slave, part-servant, is the 'fly', Voltore stands for 'vulture', Corbaccio stands for 'raven' and Corvino stands for 'crow'. The one character vested with human traits is named Bonario, meaning 'benevolent'. The list of the dramatis personae unfolds like a hierarchical representation of creatural imagery, beginning from small creatures like 'Nano', the dwarf, through to the more complex fusion of animal cunning and human duplicity in Volpone himself, or the fox.

Androgyno, represents the intricate mingling of the 'man-woman' traits in one person, whereas Castrone stands for a castrated male. The dexterity with which Jonson brings together these characters, and in some cases the director-in-characters, such as Volpone and Mosca, presents a queer mix of self-reflexive elements and art in drama. This also accounts for Volpone's absence in the Act IV of the play, where the protagonist is conspicuously absent and replaced by Mosca.

Comparing Jonson's Volpone with The Alchemist, establishes both dramas as indicative of the medieval mindset. 'Alchemy' as an offshoot of chemistry was practiced in the medieval age. The main proposition of alchemy was that a baser metal could be converted into gold2. Jonson transposed this medieval notion to art, depicting art as a liberal space where the seemingly 'banal' and the base were rendered into aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating masterpieces with the application of imagination. Both the plays involve characters which are 'types' and the characteristics are reflected in their names.

The plot of Volpone is structured in a manner that 'The Argument' precedes the Prologue. The Argument of the play opens with a comment on Volpone being childless. The Argument in Ben Jonson's plays is analogous to the Prologue in the Greek playwright, Menander's plays, in that, it serves to give us a background to the play. The Argument portrays Volpone as a conniving and issueless man. Volpone is introduced as a decrepit old man who revels in deceiving the legacy-hunters:

Volpone, childless, rich, fains sick, despairs,

Offers his state to hopes of several heirs,

Lies languishing.... 3

Volpone does not have a progeny to inherit his wealth. He feigns illness and thus forges an impression of searching for a prospective heir to his wealth. The very game of legacy-hunting implies a repressed desire in Volpone to have a son who would inherit his wealth. His machinations are kindled by the absence of descendants which has given rise to a feeling of insecurity in him. His old age has made him more vulnerable so that the only prank that he can play with finesse is that of pretending to be ill and bed-ridden. By amassing wealth he tries to obtain 'security' for himself for the future.

Thus Volpone, in his bid to expose the legacy-hunters, exposes himself, as the legacy hunters are not credulous either. The theme of "appearance and reality", runs deep within the subtext of the play. Hoping to get Volpone's riches, as heirs, their deceit is turned back on them. Deception is on both sides. Volpone and Mosca dupe the legacy-hunters, while the legacy hunters in turn attempt at deceiving them. Voltore's futile attempt at deceiving the court lands him into trial and punishment. Corvino, is ready to inveigle Volpone by offering his own wife to him for a night, presuming, that he is old and impotent. Corbaccio, is lured into risking his son's entire fortune, thinking that in return he would multiply gains. In reality, he is left with an even lesser fortune. Volpone sets about deceiving everyone, except Mosca, who in turn, deceives Volpone. Deception is lost on all the characters, except Mosca. This becomes evident when Volpone gives in to Mosca's plot.

Volpone derives perverted pleasure from his scheming. Hence, his pleasure lies in feigning that he is on his deathbed. Ironically, while Volpone pretends to be lying on the deathbed, he is convinced that he will be able to evade the reality of death. Freud elucidates 'thanatos' or the death drive in relation to the pleasure principle in his definition of the Nirvana principle:

... [a] term for the psychological equivalent of homeostasis,.... Different from the pleasure principle in that pleasure sometimes increases with tension, and the Nirvana Principle is primarily under the sway of the death drive, whereas the pleasure principle is powered by Eros4.

In wooing Celia, a woman much younger than him, a dark side to his hedonist self is revealed. Since the pleasure principle is triggered by Eros, Volpone's wooing becomes a camouflage for the attempted rape which shows that he can stoop very low as an old lecher.

Volpone eulogizes gold in Act 1, Scene 1 of the play. He considers gold as his 'son'. His longing to hoard gold reflects his obsessive-compulsive drive to strengthen his position materially, for he is old and childless. This is evident even in terms of the metaphors and the choice of figures of speech employed by Volpone:

0, thou son of Sol

(Much brighter than thy father) let me kiss -

With adoration, thee, and every relic

Of sacred treasure in this blessed room.5

The personification of gold becomes an analogy for Volpone himself. Since Volpone is childless, he perceives himself as a 'successor' of his own father and not a father to any offspring, which could place him in a position of responsibility. Therefore, in manipulating the legacy hunters, he thinks of himself as being better off than his father (as gold is 'brighter' than it's father), for he has been able to horde greater wealth than his father had left for him. Since he does not have children, he basks in the pleasure of enjoying the wealth gained through cheating, all by himself, without having to share it with anyone. 'Sharing', for Volpone, is the equivalent of losing. Volpone's psyche presents a contrast to the instinctual thought pattern of parents, for whom spending on children's well-being is an innate drive. Volpone does not even wish to share his wealth with Mosca who has been supporting him throughout his immoral ventures.

Volpone: nay, now my ruins shall not come alone I'll hinder sure: my substance shall not glew you, Nor screw you, into a family... 6

Volpone does not entertain any sympathies for Mosca who acts as his accomplice. He does not even want to share his wealth with him, nor does he want him to get married and start a family, as evident from the afore-mentioned lines. He wants Mosca to live an issueless existence like himself. The role of Mosca is significant, as he acts not only as an accomplice to Volpone, but is also a parasite.

Mosca's soliloquy in the beginning of Act III offers insight into his character. He does not have any scruples in admitting that he is leading a parasitic life. He argues that each one of us is a parasite. "O! your parasite is a most precious thing, dropt from above,...All the wise world is little else, in nature, But parasites, or sub-parasites."7 Mosca's notion that every wise person is a parasite, points to the situation where the three legacy hunters attempt at living off the fortune of another person. Mosca further highlights that it requires skill and art to be a parasite, and hence only the wise can practise the art of being a parasite. A conniving, parasitical existence is a litmus test of success for Mosca as borne by the theme of the play. Mosca is a parasite and at the same time is able to deceive Volpone. He gets hold of his entire fortune.

The metamorphosis of characters in the play is inextricably intertwined with the game of manipulation. Volpone appears strongest when disguised as a mountebank. The strength of the characters grows in a linear fashion, along with deception. Volpone's constant impersonation takes away from his character, any element of genuine identity, so much so that Act V of the play presents a poignant moment, when he exclaims, "I am Volpone !", leaving the audience to wonder if at all that is the real Voplone. The unfolding of malevolence in the characters is proportional to their vicious traits and deception provides them the necessary impetus. Bonario and Celia, stand out as characters, full of humane qualities and by contrast with the others come out as 'fixed' in their goodness. Ironically it is vice which is more robust and lends itself to evolution and innovation.

Mosca is also an alter ego to Volpone. Towards the conclusion of the play, Mosca is successful in avenging Volpone for his treachery. Mosca tells Volpone of his intention to share the embezzled wealth with the dwarf, the eunuch and the hermaphrodite, coaxing Volpone into sharing his wealth with Mosca. Volpone however loathes sharing:

Mosca: You loathe, the widow's, or the orphan's tears

Should wash your pavements; or their piteous cries

Ring in your roofs...8

Volpone: Right, Mosca, I do loathe it.

Mosca makes the revelation about Volpone's illicit relations with women, of whom he begot Nano, Castrone and Androgyno. All of these characters externalize the internal vices of Volpone. They do not function as offspring whom Volpone can fall back on. The psychological benefit of parental love reinforces the reciprocal care that children confer upon their parents with the advent of old age. Despite his illicit relations with women, Voplone had not been able to enter into a legitimate marriage. His self-centredness did not allow him to accept a spouse on an equal footing, let alone beget children. Margaret Mead in her book Male and Female discusses parenthood and the impulses that arise within patriarchal communities:

Passion and responsibility are so blended that children are loved and cared for and reared in... families that do not rely on some slender tenuous tie between two parents for their security.... To ensure a stability and continuity of relationship that would constitute a family, each society must solve the question of competition among males for females... 9

Volpone beguiles the legacy-hunters with his treachery. This is tantamount to sado-masochistic pleasure. Katrien Jacobs states that 'masochism is read as the desire to formally repeat and reconstruct a regeneration rite10. The sado-masochistic tendencies in Volpone reveal his desire to 'regenerate' himself, but on the familial level.

Volpone recognizes the loss of virility with reluctance. His adamant wooing of Celia uncovers his obsession with machismo. Volpone while compelling Celia to surrender is 'competing' for her, whereas due to his old age he stands little chances of being successful. She despises the very prospect of the old, senile Volpone wooing her. On the contrary if Bonario, the 'good-natured' had wooed Celia, she might have given in. Bonario, rather enters as a saviour of Celia, while Volpone tries to overpower her physically.

Volpone turns out be a 'comedy of humours', which can be contrasted with a 'comedy of manners'. Humours refer to the prototypes of vice and virtue embodied in the characters. Since medieval philosophers believed that the human body was a mix of four humours, that is, blood, choler, phlegm and melancholia, artists drew on this theory and depicted human personality as being melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic or sanguine, depending on these four humours. Jonson mastered the genre of comedy of humours by crafting characters as 'types'. Comedy is generated as the humours are not in sync, and hence the comic effect, and the lack of order. This lack of balance on the physical plane is embodied in the characters of Nano, Castrone and Androgyno, whereas the cerebral challenges are evident in Volpone, Voltore, Corvino, Corbaccio and Mosca.

Volpone disguised as a mountebank catches Celia's attention. Ironically, Celia drops her handkerchief before Volpone, when disguised as a 'mountebank'. Whereas, when Volpone woos her as his real self, she despises him. Celia is a young wife who is confined within the four walls of her room by her husband. Her only escape is to look outside the window, and she is fascinated by the disguised mountebank. Psychoanalysts would read into this gesture, the notion of 'fetishism'. Fetishism has been defined as an abnormal or unnatural fixation on an inanimate object or body part that is not primarily sensual in nature, yet the compulsive impulse for its use in order to obtain sensual gratification11.

Volpone's mind does not accept the fact that he is old. The idea of having a young and alluring woman such as Celia by his side would further strengthen the false feeling of machismo, which he wants to hold on to. Even while wooing Celia he says, "Think me cold, frozen, and impotent...?"12 Hence his preoccupation is with proving that he is not so old as to be impotent, and being 'childless', qualifies him as a 'bachelor'. Castrone, Androgyno and Nano only serve as figures of 'comic relief', rather than supplementing his being, as off-springs do:

What should I do,

But cocker up my genius, and live free

To all delights, my fortune calls me to

I have no wife, no parent, child, ally...13

This shows that Volpone, in claiming not to have parents, wife and children is free of all responsibility that comes with these relationships. He even goes on to negate the existence of any friend in his life, hence justifying the title, 'Volpone', or the fox, who leads a selfish existence. Volpone does not even consider Mosca as a friend, rather, he sees him as co-conspirator.

Volpone's attempts at belying his old age are evident in the following lines.

Feels not his gout, nor palsy; feigns himself

Younger, by scores of years, flatters his age..14

Corbaccio and Volpone are old and both display a narcissistic impulse while belittling each other in a condescending manner. Paradoxically, narcissism tends to increase with the advent of old age when human faculties are on the ebb. Jeffrey Satinover discussing the Jungian concept of narcissism writes:

Narcissism refers to a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. But, in its more universal sense, narcissism can be found at the core of almost all psychological dysfunction, for it represents the way we all, like the Greek god Narcissus himself, can "fall in love" with ourselves to hide our own inadequacy and thereby make ourselves feel strong and competent15.

Volpone's treatment of gold is significant. He refers to gold as a 'golden lard'16, in which he wishes to swim. Here gold assumes a fluid form, much like water. Gold is the 'oil' or 'olio del Scoto', the elixir of life, he proclaims under Celia's window. Interestingly, Volpone enumerates the miracles of this oil, the foremost being the property of keeping mankind perpetually young. He reposes his faith in the miraculous properties of gold, which is the lifeblood that keeps him an 'eligible bachelor'. This also brings out the alchemical qualities of gold. Drawn from speculative philosophy, it was believed that base metals could be turned into gold through alchemy. It was widely believed that success at alchemy could also lead to the discovery of an elixir which would restore youth and life. Thus Jonson fuses these medieval notions in Volpone's impersonation of a mountebank.

Since Volpone knows that now he is too old to beget a child, he is busy belying this reality by amassing gold. He deludes himself into believing that he would have an everlasting life which would enable him to use for 'his' benefit the gold he has amassed. That is why, he stands in sharp contrast to Corbaccio, whose behaviour is also cunning and deceitful, but who wishes his son to be the beneficiary of his ill-gotten gains. Both Corbaccio and Volpone are similar in that they belie their old age, for their respective ends. This becomes an interesting phenomenon, as it is commonly believed that women are more inclined to conceal their age than men. The play portrays the subversion of the common social order, as both Corbaccio and Volpone not only belie their old age, but Volpone also disregards the impotence that sets in with old age.

Volpone like Faustus is an over-reacher. Mephistopheles allures Faustus by offering him Helen of Troy and thus arousing in him sensual pleasures. Similarly, Volpone yearns for Celia while Mosca assumes a Mephistophelean role, acting as an accomplice to Volpone by making attempts at overpowering Celia. Likewise, Volpone's avarice for the wealth of other people is insatiable. Volpone is ready to philander with Lady Would-be Politic, till Mosca inveigles him into seeing Celia, who is young and pretty. Volpone asks Mosca to send in Lady Politic only "when I am high with mirth, and wine...".17

Volpone's lust for Celia is aroused partly by the references to her beauty by Mosca, and the fact that she is chaste and loyal to her husband, unlike his own promiscuous nature. The obsessive preoccupation of Volpone, the old lecher, with Celia's chastity, is similar to Chandramukhi's obsession for Devdas, in the Bengali novel, Devdas written by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. Poonam Arora dilates upon this phenomenon as follows:

Devdas initially despises Chandramukhi for her sexual promiscuity and refuses her. Chandramukhi falls in love with Devdas precisely because she idealizes his chastity.18

Volpone's avarice for gold is illustrated in his use of metaphors for the metal. He deifies it as 'god'. Celia is also compared to gold by Volpone. While courting Celia, he pleads to be coined into gold, as is evident in the phrase 'coin me, too'19. In return, he asks for her surrender. The 'New Speak' employed by Volpone is replete with references to gold. Gold is his alter-ego, his god and his 'potency' to relish sensual pleasures in old age. As Alexander Leggat says, "There is finally something sterile and self-enclosed about Volpone"20. The mobility of Celia, who is young and pretty, is restricted by a chastity belt, whereas, Volpone who is old and impotent wants to win Celia, by tempting her with the wealth he has gotten hold of through deception. Alexander Leggat puts it this way: "The sheer length of Volpone's speech suggests an attempt not so much to seduce Celia as to dominate her". Hence Volpone wants to satisfy his male chauvinistic instinct by winning over Celia.

It is not 'love' but 'lust' that motivates him to win Celia even at the expense of the money he has amassed through his plotting. As Leggat further says,

And Volpone can think of nothing to do with his wealth but waste it: offering jewels to Celia, he invites her to 'dissolve, and drink 'hem... wear, and lose' hem21....

Volpone thus wants to reinforce his machismo by forcing Celia to yield. He calls her husband, Corvino, a cheat, for the latter offers Celia to Volpone out of sheer greed. Still, Volpone is careful in iterating that providence has gifted Celia an 'honest' lover in the person of Volpone; in this way he tries to conceal his own rapacious nature:

Why droops my Celia?

Thou hast in place of a base husband, found

A worthy lover22

Corvino also shares Volpone's greed for wealth, as he first imprisons her, but later lends her for prostitution. The juxtaposition of bondage and prostitution highlight the phenomenon of 'wife assault', carried out by Corvino to satiate his chauvinistic impulses. He is convinced that Volpone is an old, decrepit wretch, "That ha's no sense, no sinew...."

Donald G. Dutton of Columbia University states:

A critical review is made of feminist analyses of wife assault, which postulates that patriarchy is a direct cause of wife assault. A relationship exists between structural patriarchy and wife assault. It is concluded that patriarchy must interact with psychological variables in order to account for the great variation in power-violence data. It is suggested that some forms of psychopathology lead to some men adopting patriarchal ideology to justify and rationalize their own pathology.23

Although the characters and audience believe Volpone to be an old, decrepit being, it is ironic that Volpone, in a bout of stark self-delusion, perceives it as deliberate pretension. His diction abounds with figures of speech to mask the truth. When he talks about the pleasures of duping men he says, "O, more than I had enjoyed the wench/ The pleasures of all womankind's not like it".24 This shows Volpone's attempt to camouglage the reality. No woman ever considered him an eligible bachelor, hence he finds an outlet for his lascivious tendencies in philandering with Lady Would-be Politic or Celia. Apparently, the craving for power, and the loss of virility can cause psychological problems in the male psyche.

In the Encyclopedia of Psychology, a quotation by Abraham Maslow highlights the drive for power; the quotation is as follows:

Beyond the details of air, water, food... Freud laid out five broader layers: the physiological needs, the needs for safety and security, the needs for love and belonging, the needs for esteem, and the need to actualize the self, in that order25.

The progeny that Volpone had been able to beget through his illicit relations with different women further highlight his profile. They are ineffectual as 'children', handicapped in one way or the other. The only thing that they have been able to inherit from Volpone, a so-called father to them is the ability to 'mimic'. As Volpone assumes different roles and guises, they also do so, in order to entertain Volpone. Mosca takes on the two-fold role of a director-writer, who furthers the enactment of the play before Volpone takes upon himself to act. The one thing in which Volpone is adept is role-playing, and he is termed as a consummate actor by critics.

Volpone in the last act candidly says that he never hated his disguise as a sick man. This is a kind of masochistic tendency in him. Marianne Apostolides in her article, "The Pleasure of Pain" discusses this phenomenon at length:

People become masochistic, Freud said, as a way of regulating their desire to... dominate others. The desire to submit, on the other hand, he said, arises from guilt feelings over the desire to dominate. He also argued that the desire for sado-masochism can arise on its own when a man wants to assume the passive female role, with bondage and beating signifying being "castrated or copulated with, or giving birth26.

Volpone in being confined to bed can be likened to assuming the role of a 'female' undergoing the throes of labour. Volpone's laborious attempts only give birth to intrigues. He is passive, bed-ridden and weak when posing as a sick man and derives pleasure out of this state.

Volpone practices masquerade, and while wooing Celia claims that he would love her in 'different guises'. This shows that he would be everything else but himself. This also shows a lack of faith in his ownself.

That is why, Volpone after being interrupted upon by Bonario in his wooing of Celia, conveniently sheds his erotic feelings. He feels greater pleasure in cheating and mocking the candidates who throng his house in the hope of getting hold of his legacy. This is a pleasure which he thinks no woman can provide him. It is similar to Face's attitude in The Alchemist when he utters 'Dol Common is to be used', instantly dispensing with his passion for her in return for a large sum of money.

The subplot of the play is significant as it involves an array of minor characters like Sir Politic, Lady Politic and Peregrine. The sub-plot and the main plot are thematically linked. Greed and gullibility are both evident in the sub-plot. Usually the dramaturgy of the Elizabethan age involved sub-plots in which major characters appeared in a new light. In Volpone, the sub-plot introduces new characters. The judges administer punishments to the malicious characters. Jonson satirizes the social norms. Judges show respect to Mosca, as he finally wins the entire fortune, so much so that one of the judges is ready to marry his daughter to him. On realizing that he is actually a pauper, he is given ruthless punishment. In fact, the judges validate Mosca's claim that every wise man is a parasite, for they are respectful towards him till they think they can get material benefits out of him.

Celia and Bonario stand out in the end and Jonson is careful in conveying a clearly didactic message, that virtue and perseverance win in the face of vice.

Volpone in his role as a trickster comes to terms with the bitter reality awaiting at the peroration of the play, when he shows a certain stoic resignation in saying, 'this is called mortifying of a fox'.


1 Master of Revels was vested with the authority to regulate royal festivities, especially the content of dramas staged during royal functions.

2 Definition of Alchemy, available at

3 Ben Jonson, Volpone and The Alchemist (New York: Dover Publications, 2004), 1.

4 Craig Chalquist, Nirvana Principle in A Glossary of Freudian Terms, available at

5 Ben Jonson, Volpone and The Alchemist, 3.

6 Ibid, 119.

7 Ibid, 48.

8 Ibid, 4.

9 Margaret Mead, Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, (New York: William Morrow Publishers, 1949), 45.

10 Katrien Jacobs, Masochism, available at masochism/masochism.html.

11Definition of Fetishism available at:

12 Ben Jonson, Volpone and The Alchemist, 67.

13 Ibid, 5.

14 Ibid, 19.

15 Narcissism, available at

16 Ben Jonson, Volpone and The Alchemist, 13.

17 Ibid, 23.

18 Poonam Arora, "Devdas: India's Emasculated Hero, Sado-Masochism and Colonialism", available at

19 Ben Jonson, Volpone and The Alchemist, 39.

20 Alexander Leggatt, "The Suicide of Volpone", University of Toronto Quarterly 39, no. 1 (1960): 1.

21 Alexander Leggatt. "The Suicide of Volpone", 1.

22 Ben Jonson, Volpone and The Alchemist, 65.

23 Patriarchy and the Wife Assault available at /15503361_Patriarchy_and_wife_assault_The_ecological_fallacy.

24 Ben Jonson, Volpone and The Alchemist, 94.

25 Abraham Maslow, see

26 Marianne Apostolides "The Pleasure of Pain" available at
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Publication:Pakistan Journal of European Studies
Date:Dec 31, 2016
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