Ben Jonson's Volpone: Summary, Analysis & Characters

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Edward Zipperer

Eddie has an MFA in English from Georgia College where he has taught scriptwriting, English 101, English 102, and World Literature since 2007.

Volpone is a comedy play written by Ben Jonson that explores the theme of greed and the lengths that people will go to satisfy the impulse of avarice. Learn about the characters, themes and plot, and read an overall summary and analysis of Jonson's comedy play. Updated: 09/14/2021

What Happens in Volpone?

Ben Jonson's Volpone begins with the con-man Volpone and his partner-in-crime Mosca visiting Volpone's treasure. In hilarious fashion (akin to Scrooge McDuck swimming through his bin of gold coins) Volpone launches into a passionate speech filled with religious imagery, praising the beauty of his gold:

'O thou son of Sol,
But brighter than thy father, let me kiss
With adoration, thee, and every relic
Of sacred treasure in this blessed room.'

We find out that Volpone has been accumulating riches by pretending to be ill, and greedy folks all over Venice send him gifts in hopes that they may be remembered in his will.

In the first few scenes of the play, the audience is treated to a display of Volpone's confidence game. First, the lawyer Voltore comes in and presents Volpone with an 'antique plate bought of St. Mark.' To Volpone's face, Voltore wishes 'Would to heaven, I could as well give health to you, as that plate!' Then, privately to Mosca he says, 'Am I inscribed his heir for certain?' Mosca promises him that he is, prompting Voltore to continue, 'But am I sole heir?' Mosca assure him that he is, and he responds 'Happy, happy, me!'

Next, Corbaccio enters. Not only does Mosca accept a bag of cecchines (valuable coins) from Corbaccio, he also convinces Corbaccio to disinherit his son, Bonario, and name Volpone heir to his estate. Corbaccio agrees to this under the reasoning that sick Volpone will die long before him, so he will actually be doing his son a favor. In reality, Mosca informs the audience that Corbaccio is actually 'more impotent than this [Volpone] can feign to be.'

Finally, Corvino, a merchant, brings Volpone a diamond and a pearl. When he's gone, the discussion between Volpone and Mosca turns to Corvino's wife, Celia. Mosca informs Volpone that she is the most beautiful woman in Italy. Volpone's covetousness turns suddenly from Corvino's property to Corvino's wife, and he decides that he must see her. He disguises himself as a mountebank - a quack doctor who puts on a show to sell useless medicines - named Scoto of Mantua and performs a medicine show beneath Celia's window.

Celia drops her handkerchief from her window to make a purchase from the mountebank (who is actually Volpone of course). But then, her husband, Corvino, comes out in a rage. He accuses Scoto of Mantua (not knowing he is Volpone) of trying to cuckold him. The audience sees for the first time here that Corvino is an extremely jealous man and very possessive of Celia.

In the next scene, Volpone confesses to Mosca that he is in love with Celia. 'Angry Cupid, bolting from her eyes, hath shot himself into me like a flame.' He then asks Mosca to help him steal Corvino's wife! Mosca devises a plan for this. He goes to Corvino and tells him that Scoto of Mantua's oil has cured Volpone. The final part of the doctor's plans, Mosca tells him, is to find a beautiful woman for Volpone to sleep with in order to 'warm his blood.' Still eager to be the heir in Volpone's will, Corvino offers up his own wife: 'the party you wot of shall be my own wife, Mosca.'

Mosca informs Bonario that his father is planning to disinherit him and brings him back to Volpone's house. He hides him there to overhear confirmation of his disinheritance from Corbaccio's own mouth. While Bonario is hiding, Corvino brings Celia to give her to Volpone. Celia protests saying, 'Sir, kill me rather: I will take down poison, eat burning coals, do anything.' Corvino rages at her and insists that she do as she is told. When Celia and Volpone are finally alone, Volpone leaps off the couch, dropping his game of feigning ill. He attempts to seduce Celia by offering her pearls, jewels, exotic cuisine, and other wealth, but she'll have none of it:

'I, whose innocence
Is all I can think wealthy, or woth the enjoying,
And which, once lost, I have naught to lose behind it,
Cannot be taken with these sensual baits.'

After a short argument, Volpone sees that he has failed in his attempt at seduction, and he tells Celia, 'Yield, or I'll force thee.'

Celia is saved from Volpone's attempt to rape her by Bonario, who has been hiding in the room all along. He grabs Celia and takes her away saying, 'Lady, let's quit this place, it is the den of villainy.'

Bonario and Celia tell the story of what happened to the avocatori - a group of judges - in an attempt to have justice brought to those that have wronged Celia. But Voltore (who is a lawyer) makes the case that Celia and Bonario are lovers and the 'lies' they've told are a part of their plot to be together. The avocatori believe Voltore, and Celia and Bonario are arrested.

In the final act of the play, Volpone wants to quit his game of being sick, so he plans one final scheme. He tells Mosca to inform the town that he has died and left all his money to Mosca. Volpone disguises himself as a Venetian guard in order to enjoy the reactions of Voltore, Corvino, and Corbaccio. But this is when everything falls apart for Volpone. Mosca locks Volpone out of the house. He has been named the heir of the supposedly dead Volpone, and he won't let Volpone rejoin the living until Volpone agrees to pay up:

'So, now I have the keys and am possessed.
Since he will needs be dead afore his time,
I'll bury him, or gain by him: I am his heir,
And so will keep me, till he share at least.
To cozen him of all, were but a cheat
Well placed; no man would construe it a sin:
Let his sport pay for't. This is called the Fox-Trap.'

Meanwhile, having heard the rumor that Volpone is dead and Mosca has inherited his fortune, Voltore becomes so enraged that he confesses to the avocatori that Bonario and Celia were not lying and that he, Mosca, Corvino, and Corbaccio conspired against them. He adds that 'That parasite, that knave [Mosca] hath been the instrument of all.' Halfway through Voltore's confession, Volpone (still in disguise) whispers to him that Mosca's master is still alive. Voltore still has a chance at Volpone's fortune after all! Voltore, motivated as always by his greed, falls to the ground and pretends to be possessed by the devil.

Mosca shows up, and Volpone asks him to right everything by announcing that Volpone is still alive. Mosca responds, 'Will you give me half?' Volpone answers, 'First, I'll be hanged.' So, greedy Volpone, rather than give half his fortune to Mosca, takes off his disguise and outs them both.

Bonario and Celia are freed, Corbaccio is sentenced to a monastery, and Bonario is given his fortune. Volpone is sentenced to 'lie in prison' until he is actually as sick as he has been pretending. Voltore is disbarred. Corvino is sentenced to be rowed up and down the Grand Canale wearing a cap of ass's ears. He is also made to triple Celia's dowry and send her back to her father. Mosca is sentenced to whipping and to live a perpetual prisoner in the galleys.

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