'Vice is like a fury to the vicious mind, and turns delight itself into punishment'
'Volpone' is one of Ben Jonson's major plays, yet it took him only a little more than a month to write, and it was performed in the spring of 1606 by the 'Kings Men'. It was an immediate success.
The names of the main characters were Italian, their choice in keeping with the personalities they portrayed.
The play was staged to be Venice, then known for its cosmopolitan charm, as well as its cosmopolitan vice. In fact Venice also seems to be targeted by Jonson in 'Volpone'.
Volpone, (large Fox) a rich Venetian miser determined to accumulate more wealth by unscrupulous cunning, feigned illness and the wish to make out his will to several inheritors- each one being led to believe that he or she was the unique heir.
Mosca (the Fly) is his henchman and parasite. His aid in beguiling the would-be inheritors is most ingenious and thus precious to Volpone.
Voltore, (the Vulture) is the dishonourable advocate prepared to entirely betray his profession to become Volpone's only heir.
Corbaccio (the Raven) is willing to disinherit his only son for Volpone's favour.
Corvino (the Crow) is even ready to go as far as to offer Volpone the pleasure of his beautiful wife for the privilege of becoming his only heir.
And Lady Would-be Politic, voluble wife of Sir Would-be Politic, (a naive and stupid Knight) also seems ready to prostitute herself for Volpone's favour.
Corvino and Corbaccio bestow valuable gifts on Volpone, both convinced that they will soon retrieve them.
It is a scathing and very amusing satire based on the timeless theme that 'the love of money is the root of all evil'. *
Jonson not only portrayed greedy people, he shed his theatre lights on the corrupt, 'civilised' world that creates laws to protect the gains of the greedy. Indeed over four centuries later, the world is still suffering from a major economical crises that seems to have been concocted from basically the same ingredients.
That Venice should be Jonson's choice lieu de scène implies much regarding the worldly reputation of Venice at that epoch. Venice was also famous, amongst its other attractions, for its courtesans who were then considered to be the most beautiful of Europe. But the ageless 'root of all evil' theme is also generally evident in the historic facts that led to the diabolical sack of Constantinople (the Fourth Crusade) that took place five centuries earlier. It was also used by Shakespeare in his 'Merchant of Venice'.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was an actor, poet, playwright, scholar, critic, translator and man of letters. He was the first writer to establish a literary school ('Sons of Ben'). He was a giant in every way.
Educated at Westminster School by the great classical scholar William Camden, Jonson left his studies to join the army and fought the Spanish in Flanders, at times at perilous close quarters. On his return to England, working as an actor and playwright, he killed a fellow actor in a duel. He managed to escape capital punishment by pleading 'benefit of clergy' (proving he could read and write which allowed him the privilege of being tried by a more lenient, ecclesiastical court).
He was often a fierce opponent of other playwrights and as he had converted to Catholicism, he was even suspected, if not accused, of being involved in the famous Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
He mellowed with the years however, and reconverted to Anglicanism. He also became the king's pensioned poet, a good friend of Shakespeare, Donne, Beaumont, Seldon and Bacon, and one of the favourites of the Court and the aristocratic society.
His school, in fact, was to become a reference and a source of inspiration (Cavalier School) and such poets as Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew and Sir John Suckling were honoured to consider themselves 'Ben's sons'.
This is the opening summary- 'The Argument' of Volpone.
V olpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs,
O ffers his state to hopes of several heirs,
L ies languishing; his parasite receives
P resents of all, assures, deludes; then weaves
O ther cross plots, which ope themselves, are told.
N ew tricks for safety are sought; they thrive: when bold,
E ach tempts the other again, and all are sold.° °deceived
The next excerpt is the last part of Volpone's brilliant verbose performance disguised as 'Scoto of Mantua', a 'mountebank' charlatan in Act 2, Scene 2. This is the scene where he sets up his mock stage outside Corvino's house and sees Celia, the wife of Corvino, for the first time. He desires her, and has Mosca succeed in persuading Corvino to 'loan her' for his master's enjoyment.
Lady, I kiss your bounty; and for this timely grace you have done your poor Scoto of Mantua. I will return you, over and above my oil, a secret of that high and inestimable nature shall make you forever enamoured on that minute wherein your eye first descended on so mean, yet not altogether to be despised, an object. Here is powder concealed in this paper, of which, if I should speak to the worth, nine thousand volumes were but as one page, that page as a line, that line as a word; so short is this pilgrimage of man (which some call life) to the expressing of it. Would I reflect on the price? Why, the whole world were but as an empire, that empire as a province, that province as a bank, that bank as a private purse to the purchase of it. I will only tell you: it is the powder that made Venus a goddess (given by Apollo), that kept her perpetually young, cleared her wrinkles, firmed her gums, filled her skin, coloured her hair; from her derived to Helen, and at the sack of Troy unfortunately lost; till now, in this our age, it was as happily recovered, by a studious antiquary, out of some ruins of Asia, who sent a moiety of it to the court of France (but much sophisticated¹), wherewith the ladies there now colour their hair. The rest, at this present, remains with me; extracted to a quintessence, so that wherever it but touches, in youth it perpetually preserves, in age restores the complexion; seats your teeth, did they dance like virginal jacks,² firm as a wall; makes them white as ivory, that were black as---'
Spite o' the devil, and my shame! (To Volpone) Come down here; Come down! No house but mine to make your scene?
Signor Flaminio, will you down, sir? down?
What, is my wife your Franciscina,³ sir?
No windows on the whole Piazza here
To make your properties, but mine? but mine? (beats away Volpone, Nano, and co.)
'Heart! ere tomorrow I shall be new christened,
And called the Pantalone di Bisognosi¹
About the town. (Exit Corvino, and the crowd disperses.)
² The woods in which quills were set that plucked the strings of harpsichords. Their bouncing motion provides 'Scoto's' metaphor.
³ Flaminio- one of the characters (a lover) in la commedia dell'arte. Franciscina- another of the characters- the ever available and attainable servant girl.
¹ Pantalone of Paupers. An senile, old fool in constant terror of being cuckolded, also in la commedia dell'arte.
*Chrisopher Marlowe reminds us that there are other sources of evil, one of which is still apparent today in different parts of the world- the love of power and the murderous means those so seemingly obsessed stoop to using in order to retain it.
Text © Mirino. Source- The Norton Anthology English Literature. Excerpts from Volpone, with grateful thanks. Portrait of Ben Jonson by Abraham Blyenberche c. 1617. Drawing title page for Volpone (1898 edition) by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898). With thanks also to Wikimedia Commons. April, 2011