“Volpone” is a comedy written and produced in 1606 by Ben Jonson. It remains one of the greatest satirical comedies ever written, and this is why we’ve chosen it as our first classic English comedy publication.
Volpone is a wealthy Venitian man obsessed with money, and consumed with greed. He and Mosca his manservant and parasite, have conceived a stratagem in order to accumulate even more riches. Volpone, lying on his death bed, feigns illness and has hinted he would bequeath his fortune to the most aspiring visitors. He is then courted by Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corbino, who frequently come to visit him and try to use Mosca in order to get his favours and become Volpone’s heir. Mosca even persuades Corbaccio to disinherit his own son in order to please Volpone.
Mosca then tells Corvino the doctors have ordered that Volpone should enter in a sexual relationship with a young woman. He describes to Corvino the risks presented by such an enterprise, ie the young woman may gain the favours of Volpone and he might decide to change his mind and declare her as his heir. Mosca persuades Corvino to offer Celia, his beautiful wife, to satisfy Volpone’s appetite. Corvino agrees and forces Celia to meet Volpone for an intimate encounter. Intertwined with the main story, we also discover other colourful characters, English travellers who go by the name of Sir Politick Would be, a strange story teller, and Lady Politick Would Be, who tests Volpone’s patience with her constant babbling.
Whilst Volpone is busy convincing Celia to bow to his demands and, faced with her refusal, about to rape her, Bonario, Corbaccio’s son, storms in in order to confront his father, attacks Mosca, and then rescues Celia. It all ends in Court, with a surreal trial where the cupid and greedy, victims or guilty, are punished for their misdeeds.Got to top
Volpone: one of the famous theatrical characters, and for good reason, Volpone has become synonymous with unlimited greed and ignominy. Compared to him, Harpagon, a character invented by Molière after Plaute’s Euclion, seems a mere “obsessive compulsive”; no, Volpone would be a nice representation of evil in greed, a master in a world of thieves, crooks and scoundrels, along the lines of say, Georges Darien’s Gottlieb Krumm. But there is something excessive, nearly surreal in Volpone’s greed. He knows no limits to the fulfilment of his beastly needs, and that’s what makes him comical.
Mosca: he belongs to a long generation of man-servants from comic plays, especially strong in the Greek modern comedy, Latin comedy (Plaute, Italian comedy (Commedia dell Arte, and of course Molière, and even Beaumarchais, with such characters as Strobile, Sganarelle, Scapin, Figaro. The difference is that Mosca beats them all in cruelty and mischievousness. The other man-servant characters display a mixed personality, cowardice and inventiveness, ability to harm and humiliate tempered by a tendency to take the side of the weaker or oppressed, even if they always look for their own benefit. None of this with Mosca: he is ultimately wicked.
Corbaccio: this is one of the fun parts of the play. Whatever the reader might think of Volpone and Mosca, who will very funnily end up betraying each other, the so-called victims of their schemes are not objects of pity, as when prompted, they end up being even more wicked than the other two scoundrels. As for Corbaccio, he simply decides to disinherit his own son out of greed.
Corvino: and what about him? This goes even further. Early in the play he is pictured as the typical jealous husband who would confine his young and beautiful wife to her room for ever if it would appease his jealous temper. Thanks to Mosca’s evil genius, and to the perverse delight of the public, he ends up offering his own beautiful wife to a dying old man, Volpone.Got to top
Writers without frontiers
It had been a long time since we had last read “Volpone” when we decided to publish it. And to our surprise we discovered a mention of Michel de Montaigne, one of the most famous French writers of the Renaissance! Here you go: “All our English writers I mean such as are happy in the Italian, Will deign to steal out of this author, mainly, Almost as much as from Montagnié”. We did a bit of digging and found out that the Essais by Montaigne had just been translated in 1603 by John Florio and had exerted a major influence on English writers of the time, including Shakespeare.Got to top
Volpone, the invention of dark humour?
Ben Jonson’s “Volpone” ridicules greed and thirst for money to which many of his contemporaries would easily succumb. He does succeed. “Volpone” is a dark comedy about greed, avarice, and lust. The play follow unity of location (Venice), time (24 hours), purpose (get as much money as possible, and fleece his greedy followers: by the way, aren’t many of the modern Internet scams based on exactly the same principles, ie the unlimited greed of small people wanting to take advantage of other feeble people?). If anyone ever thought “Volpone” was just a nice classic taken from the past, one would better review the list of the greatest scams, they are always based on the same principle: the insatiable greed lying beneath the apparent friendly face of the victim. Ben Jonson has managed to depict the dark side of human behaviour in a manner never seen before. The power of his language and the crudeness of the situations he depicts are unparalleled.
© 2013- Les Éditions de Londres