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Ben Jonson was probably the most learned of the Elizabethan-Jacobean playwrights. He is of the opinion that comedy is not the trickling of with buffoonery. Nor is it merely the pleasant dallying with a romantic love story, varied with interludes of fun. Comedy for him has a high and serious purpose. He sums up the means and ends of comedy as:

"Deeds and language, such as men do use, And persons, such as comedy would choose, When she would shew an image of the times, And sport with human follies, not with crimes.

"The play  may by considered Volpone as a dark comedy because Jonson depicts the black side or negative side of human character in this play. Every man in the play is either knave or fool, degenerate or deluded, sometimes both. There is no positive value to set against these negatives. Avarice and stupidity rob men if their humanity. The corruption of the would of the play is repeatedly shown as the result of unnatural behaviour.

Volpone's Passion

The sordid would of Volpone is a would debated by meanness and greed. Volpone, the title character of the play is moved by two powerful passions-- passion for money and sexual passion or lust. He has indomitable passion for gold. He offers worship to gold. We are shocked to find that Volpone invokes his treasures of gold in a manner which may be regarded as impious, even blasphemous:
 "Good morning to the day: and next, my gold: Open the shrine, that I may see my saint."

To him gold is the source of virtue, fame and honour, and a man who possesses it is considered noble, brave, honest and wise. It is for his passion for money that he pretends to be sick and dying to draw gifts from his would be heirs. Volpone's passion for woman is more powerful than his passion for money. He is a great sensualist who cannot resist the charms of a woman. Carried away by Mosca's praises of the personal charms of Celia, he puts on the disguise of a mountebank and performs the role of Scoto  Mantuano with rare gusto and realism beneath the cannot resist his lust. He tries to convince her by means of his flattery speeches. But Celia remains unmoved by his greedy offerings. Then he wants to rape her by force:

 "I should have done the act, and then have parlee'd. Yeeld, or I'll force thee.

"Thus Volpone is entirely corrupt and his inner corruption has been externalised in the deformed shapes of dwarf, eunuch and hermaphrodite, who are reported to be Volpone's illegitimate children from beggar-women and gypsies.

The three legacy hunters

Volpone, Corvino and Corbaccio are the three legacy hunters who are thoroughly depraved and corrupt. Voltore is an able advocate but he uses all his gifts to gratify his own lust for gold. He tells lies in the court and tries to prove Celia and Bonario corrupt and immoral. He dishonours his profession of law when he would "plead against his Maker" for a few pennies.

Corvino is another legacy hunter who is more depraved that Voltore. The lust for gold has made him thoroughly immoral and callous. To be the sole heir of Volpone's wealth he is ready to proustite his own wife Celia. To Corvino, honour is nothing. He did not want honour but gold. When Celia speaks of honour, he says--

Honour! but, a breath: There is no such thing in nature; a mere term Invented to awe fools. What is my gold The worse for touching, clothes for being looked on! Why this's no more.
Corbaccio, the oldest of the three legacy hunters, is equally deprived. In the hope of fortune, he agrees to disinherit his own innocent son, Bonario. He does not mind telling lies and defaming his own son in order to remain in Volpone's favour. In the court he does not hesitate to accuse his son of immortality, and of trying to murder him. When the advocate wants to know Bonario's offence, Corbaccio accuses his son of being-- utter stranger to my loins Monster of men, swine, goat, wolf, parricide!

Sir Politic and Lady Would be

The characters of sub-plot are a great source of humour. Sir Politic is an entertaining character because of his sheer absurdity. His wife Lady Would be is also an amusing character. She is motivated by avarice and wants to inherit Volpone's property. Later on in the play Mosca cuts short her meeting with Volpone by arousing her jealousy when he tells her that her husband has been rowing in a gondola with the most cunning courtesan of Venice. As the story develops, we see that she suspects Peregrine to be the same courtesan in male disguise. Peregrine also wrongly thinks that Sir Politic has deliberately set his wife to seduce him. Though she suspects her husband and Peregrine we find her making several Freudian slips of her tongue and making overtones to Volpone. To be the heri of Volpone's property, we find her ready to surrender her body to Mosca. In the court she gives her false evidence against innocent Celia. She gladly accuses Celia of the base virtues and censures her in the following words--

Out, thou chameleon harlot! now thine eyes Vie tears with the hyena.
Lack of Morality
There is no specific religious theme at all in Volpone. On the contrary religion is satirised in the play. The adoration of gold in the beginning of the play is a parody of the act of Christian worship. The reference to the day of creation, calling gold Son of sol, imitating the son in the trinity and the kissing of his riches like Christian cleric would be kissing, touches profany. Later we find Nano describing a Puritan-

A precise, pure, illuminate brother. Of those devour flesh and sometimes one another And will drop you forth a libel or a sanctified lie Betwixt every spoonful of a nativitie.
Moral indignation
Thus Volpone goes beyond the scope of comedy as Jonson conceives it. His avowed aim in comedy was to laugh at contemporary follies and expose them. But in this play he is not "sporting with human follies" but with crimes. All the principal characters in the play are capable of any crime. They are mean and greedy and ready to stoop to any act of depravity to fulfil their selfish ends. The play represents men as beasts who have lost human attributes and become monsters of wickedness due to their greed or lust. By all standards of judgment Voltore, Corvino and Corbaccio are criminals. So Jonson broke his own rule that comedy should deal with follies not with crimes" when Corvino tries to prostitute his innocent wife or Corbaccio testifies against his loyal son. As a result Volpone testifies against his loyal son. As a result Volpone has been felt to be no comedy at all. Some critics "regard it as a species of satirical tragedy", and some others as a satirical comedy, and yet others as closer to the " black comedies" or dark comedies of the twentieth century.


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