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Volpone and Mosca are master Characters


Cunning is the keynote of the characters of both Volpone and Mosca. They put all their minds and energies into cheating the fools and enjoying those pleasures of the sense and the mind which are available to them. But the particular form their cunning takes is of central importance in the play. They are above all master actors. They are not, however, the kind of actors who learn their lines beforehand and move according to a pre-established plot. They are improvisers who devise their words and actions spontaneously and make up the plot as they go along.

Volpone is an unusually impressive acverge He plays a sick and dying man to perfection. He coughs at the right moment, seems to recover slightly when necessary, moves his hands weakly, or lies perfectly motionless, as the situation requires. When his lust for Celia is aroused and he wishes to see her, he assumes another disguise, that of a mountebank; and he plays this role so well that the real mountebank himself could not have been sure that this man was an impostor. After Bonario interrupts the attempted rape of Celia, Volpone is required to play his most difficult part, the part of an absolutely impotent and dying old man. It is now necessary for him to lie absolutely still and look as if were on the verge of death; and splendidly does he do so. And, finally, in order to torment the legacy-hunters still more, he puts on the costume of a sergeant of the court and plays an excellent clown.

But excellent as Volpone is, he is surpassed as an actor by Mosca who can "change a visor swifter than a thought". Mosca's great dramatic quality is flexibility. He can shift his role from moment to moment. He can in rapid succession pose to be the humble servant of the legacy-hunters; the sympathetic friend of virtue, informing Bonario that his father is about to disinherit him; the smiling pimp; the modest but stern inheritor of Volpone's fortune; the im-pressive and sober Magnifico. There seems no end to the resources, and whatever role he plays admirably. He is what he chooses to be. But even beyond the range of his acting, we must not forget that most of the time he is playing two roles simultaneously; to Volpone he plays the subtle and humble servant; to the fortune-hunters he plays whatever the occasion requires him to be;  but underneath he remains the clever opportunist simply waiting for a chance to befool his master.

Mosca has other theatrical abilities as well. He is an excellent make-up man who carefully anoints Volpone's eyes to make them appear rheumy. As a customer he arranges Volpone's fur robes on the "sick" man, and later finds a sergeant's uniform for him. As a producer he erects the mountebank's platform below Celia's window. As a director he shows his talent in the court-room when he makes sure that all the defence witnesses-----Corbaccio, Corvino, and Lady Would-be-----as well as the advocate Voltore know the lies they have to tell. And at just the right moment he has the apparently dying Volpone carried into the court. No wonder that Mosca considers his role in this court-scene to be his master-work.

But Volpone is not content to let the deception and here. He goes on to direct two more "plays" himself, though both these lead to disaster. The first is the scene in which he retires behind a curtain while Mosca pretends to be the heir to the fortune and drives away each of the fortune-hunters in turn. The second is his pretence of being a sergeant of the court. Both these perform-ances are failures judged by the theatrical standards set up within the larger play. All of Mosca's plays convey to the fools flattering images of themselves; and the results are highly satisfactory : gold, plate, and jewels find their way into Volpone's possession. But Volpone has a Savage, satirical streak in him, and as a result the legacy-hunters stand exposed as the downright fools and corrupt persons they essentially are.

As Volpone proceeds, the "acting" theme is strengthened by villains' constant use of the language of the theatre----plot, forced posture, epilogue, sense, feign, mask, zany, action, Pantalone. We begin to get the odd feeling that we are watching a play within a play. The grotesque interlude presented by Nano and Androgyno in Act I and the performance of Volpone as a moun-tebank on the platform in the Act II are examples of plays within a play.

The idea of "playing" is thus the central theme of Volpone. All the other details feed this master image. Gold, for example, which is no prominent throughout, is finally only one of the many false shows. Its worshippers treat it as a god, the sum, a symbol of honour, virtue and learning. But in the long run it proves to be no more than a dull, heavy, and spiritless metal. The classical references which Jonson works into the text frequently refer to some instance of acting----Jacob covered with goatskins pretending to be Esau to cheat his brother of his blessing; Jove disguised as a shower of gold in order to rape Danae; Lollia Paulina covered with jewels to look star-light .

The repetition of the theme of "acting" or "playing" shows that the world and the people given over entirely to materialism are unreal, mere pretences. But Jonson's purpose goes deeper. For men like Volpone and Mosca, "playing" becomes the exercise of a god-like power. Volpone's belief in the powers of acting appears most clearly in his sensuous and passionate temptation, which is one of the best-known speeches in Renaissance drama. His imagination runs riot as he pictures for Celia the incredible wealth they will enjoy and the sensual pleasures they will share, if only she will submit to him. All the world will be plundered to supply them with delight-a jewel, a rate dish, a luxurious bath; and then they will pass on to the greatest of pleasures, namely, love which they will enjoy in different guises such as Europa and Jova, Mars and Venus. His appetite for infinite variety and his fertile imagination hurry him onward to describe even more shapes which she will assume: some sprightly same of France, brave Tuscan lady, proud Spanish beauty, Persian. Turk, courtesan quick negro, cold Russian; and he, too, will assume many shapes to make love to her.

Mosca's acting talent makes him equally proud of his disguises. He can "skip out of his skin, like a subtle snake"; he can rise and stoop at the same time like an arrow, shoot through the air like a star, turn suddenly as does a swallow, and " be here, and there, and here, and yonder, all at once ". Not only can he be anything he wishes; he can be several persons in several places at once!

Acting is for Volpone and Mosca a magical power, a short cut to the fulfilment of boundless desire which avoids such unpleasant realities as old age, decay, satiety, poverty. Acting opens up for them a brave new world of the imagination where man can contend with the gods themselves, as Volpone boasts to Celia : " In varying figures I would have contended with the blue Proteus. ...." If their worship of gold shows the materialism of Volpone and Mosca, their faith in acting shows them as believers in the theory that man can make of himself whatever he wills to be, even a god.

Volpone and Mosca believe that their genius is most fully expressed in their ability to act, to play a part, to make of themselves what they choose. Each role raises them higher, until in Volpone's case he becomes nothing less than a god: Proteus, Mars, Jove; while Mosca thinks that he is able to rise altogether above the limitations of the flesh through a skill which enables him, like angels or other pure essences "to be here, and there, and here, and youder, all at once". But their " rise " is in fact a degradation. In social terms this is immediately evident. Volpone begins as a Magnifico, a nobleman of Venice occupying a place of dignity and responsibility in the state. In Act II he appears in the role of a wandering mountebank, a mere quack living by his wits and without an accepted place in society. From this disguise he passes on to playing a clownish sergeant of the court, a minor hireling of the state subject to whipping. In the end he is reduced to the status of a life-long prisoner confined in irons---but this is no role: it is the form which shows finally the dangerous beast which Volpone has made of himself. Mosca's case proceeds somewhat differently, for as Volpone appears to decline socially, Mosca appears to rise. His proper place in society is that of a servant. By his treacherous acting he rises to the position of a parasite, a trusted dependent of a great man and the agent of other great men. Ultimately he occupies Volpone's vacated place and becomes a Magnifico about to marry into one of the city's great families. But this meteoric rise is all pretence, and it finally melts away to the reality of the galley-slave, the punishment imposed upon him by the court. The way up is thus the way down. Each step upward in defiance of nature becomes a step downward. Mosca, perfectly, though unintentionally, describes this progress when he says that he can rise and stoop almost together. And by the end of Volpone, despite all attempts to cover the truth and all skill at "playing" or acting, reality asserts itself once more.

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