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Home » , » Discuss the plot construction of Volpone, Bringing out its merits and its faults
The plot of Volpone is built around the theme of avarice. The construction of the plot is characterized by an observance of the three classical unities and by a logical development of events with a growing suspense and already increase in tempo. There are various threads in the story but they become intertwined as the play proceeds. Each character in the play has his or her own miniature action, which is nevertheless an integral part of the whole. The plot-construction shows much artistic skill but cannot be said to have achieved perfection.
the plot construction of Volpone

The three unities were supposed by critics to be useful in contributing to the realism of a play. The action of " Volpone is restricted to one day. The play opens at sunrise : "Good morrow to the day", says Volpone in the very first speech. At the end of Act I Lady Politic Would-be is asked to come three hours later, and when she returns in Act III Scene IV, it is afternoon. Volpone tells Celia that he had played the mountebank only that morning, and the first trial scene promises that the judgement of the court will be delivered before night. Some minor inconsistency there may be, but everything points to the action taking place in one single day. The unity of place has been observed, too, as the entire action takes place in the city of Venice though different localities are the venus-Volpone's house, Corvino's house, the Senate House, and so on. The unity of action demands that a play should be so closely knit that no part of it can be removed without causing damage to the whole. Volpone does not entirely fulfil this condition. The scenes between Sir Politic and Peregrine are not essential to the total structure or to the total effect. But these scenes were needed for other reasons as will be shown below.

The first Act itself shows Jonson's complete control over his material. The opening is rather slow, and the story begins only when Voltore knocks, after about 170 lines. But by this time three important facts, have been brought out. First, the theme of avarice has been introduced in the very opening speech of the play. Secondly, it has been indicated that the possession of his wealth is not the only interest which Volpone has : he rejoices "more in the cunning purchase of wealth than in the glad possession" ; and he tells us how he is extracting "plate, coin, jewels" from the legacy-hunters. Thirdly, there is the strange interlude of the dwarf, the eunuch, and the hermaphrodite. The drama of the maniacal obsession with wealth of the three legacy-hunters is preceded by display of three mis-shapen and deformed human begins living in Volpone's house.

The first Act then offers three absolutely parallel scenes in which appear the three birds of prey. The first visit, that of Voltore, is presented without complexity. In the second, Corbaccio's gloating over Volpone's "sickness" is made more grim, and at the same time more farcical, by his own senile deafness. In the third visit, Corvino shouts his frenzied taunts in the ear of the supposedly dying Volpone : "His nose is like a common sewer, still running" . The pitch has been rising uninterruptedly, and reaches an alarmingly high note in the third visit. The three visits are not repetitions of each other in respect of their pattern, but are carefully graded in intensity. A remarkable concentration and power are achieved by the end of the third visit. Before Act I closes, two other threads are introduced. Lady Would-be is told that she should come some three hours later. And Mosca excites Volpone's curiosity and list by his eloquent description of Celia's beauty, thus paving the way for the mountebank scene and the scene of the attempted seduction of Celia.

Act II develops, from the structural point of view, what is to be a recurrent pattern, with tension relatively low at first, rising progressively to a peak higher then that of Act I. Sir Politic provides some relief from the fever at the close of the preceding scene. Not only that, his conversation with Peregrine shows a reversal of the earlier interviews between Volpone and the legacy-hunters: while the legacy-hunters proved to be Volpone's dupes, Sir politic invents material for his own self satisfied gullibility to work upon. This conversation introduces naturally Volpone's impersonation of the mountebank. Volpone is here in his raciest and most light-hearted mood, obviously enjoying himself and sharing part of this enjoyment with the audience. Jonson here ingeniously relieves the possible monotony of his chief character remaining confined to a feigned death-bad. At the same time, Volpone's performance provides an affective parallel with the antis of the deformed persons in Act I. His energy, wit and resourcefulness are dramatically displayed and he will subsequently find another occasion for their display in his lyrical outburst to Celia.

With Corvino's arrival on the mountebank scene, we get some savage comedy. The structure is wonderfully integrated as we realize how convinc-ingly Volpone's desire for Celia is related to Corvino's desire for the legacy. It is Volpone's presence as a mountebank which stirs Corvino's jealousy, and he builds up a fantastic image of Celia's wantonness. But this mad fit of jealousy is no more than a prelude to his getting ready to sacrifice Celia's virtue for the sake of his greed. We see the complete reversal of his attitude when he urges Mosca to report to Volpone that his decision to surrender Celia was spontaneous and instantaneous: "mine own free motion". Act II ends with Corvino swearing to Celia that his jealousy had been feigned, and he behaves thus because he now intends to act as her pimp himself.

Act III opens with a boastful speech by Mosca in praise of himself as a perfect parasite. Act III, the plotting reaches its first climax, and its first crisis which is averted by Mosca's quick-wittedness.

Bonario's suspicious attitude towards Mosca strikes the first jarring note in this Act. Mosca pacifies him with some of his most outrageous lies, and then proceeds to draw him into new snares. However, it is not clear at this stage what Mosca is aiming at and what is his motive in this scheme against Bonario.

This scene is followed by an interlude provided by the trio of grotesque figures. This interlude is not strictly relevant to the plot, though one ingredient in it-the arrival of Sir Lady would-be has its justification. Lady Would-be chatters, in the next scene, about Volpone's sickness and the medicines that can cure him ; she chatters about philosophy and poetry; and she speaks about the sole man in the world with whom she had an affinity. All this is neither here nor there, but Lady Would-be is a legacy-hunter too, and she is therefore allied to the more sinister birds of prey. She lends additional force to the theme of avarice. She provides, too, an effective contrast to Celia. Mosca's trick upon Lady Would-be subsequently leads to a complication in the relations of Sir politic and peregrine. Corvino now arrives with Celia. She refuses to do his bidding in spite of his appeals, pleadings and threats; but at Mosca's suggestion, he leaves her alone with Volpone, and the scene is set for the great volup-tuary's magnificent wooing of a virtuous woman. Celia is ultimately rescued by Bonario, and dramatic interest centres on the ruin with which Volpone and Mosca are now threatened : "Fall on me, roof, and bury me in ruin", says Volpone. Mosca suggests suicide : " Let's die like Romans,/Since we have lived like Grecians. " But with a flash he sees his opportunity, and converts the disaster into a new achievement. At one stroke he discredits Bonario, and confirms Corbaccio's determination to disinherit the young man. Once again we note the skill Jonson shows in his dramatic construction : the various parts of the villains' schemes begin at this moment to catch up on each other, so that a series of crises develops. Voltore enters, overhears Mosca's talk with Corbaccio, and feels suspicious of this "knave" . But Mosca pretends to be offended with Voltore for suspecting his loyalty, and Voltore has to apologize. The Act ends with everything still under control.

After the tense close of Act III, we witness a rather longish dialogue between Sir politic and peregrine, interrupted by Lady Would-be who, in the role of a jealous, aggrieved wife, makes a complete fool of herself. Lady Would-be's jealousy is in direct contrast to Corvino's intentional bargaining with his wife's virtue.

The court scene in Act IV is technically a great feat in so far as it offers the opportunity to the dramatist to exhibit all the dupes together. It is the expected climax, the natural end to the sequence of events, fully satisfying the dramatic idea of the partnership between Volpone and Mosca. Mosca manipulates all the puppets, one after the other. Truth is deliberately sup-pressed by them all in the court, and facts twisted and distorted. Corbaccio disowns his son publicly. Corvino depicts his wife as a woman of insatiable sexual appetite having an adulterous affair with Bonario. Lady politic falsely describes Celia as a courtesan : Lady politic's role is an organic part of the plot. Jonson shows superb judgement in keeping Volpone at the dramatic centre here : Volpone's entry on a stretcher is made the crux of this scene. Voltore's conduct as an advocate is morally perhaps the most shocking.

The triumph of the villains at the end of Act IV forms the preface to their downfall in Act V. The two villains have touched the highest point of their achievement. But Volpone craves for some more fun; he must try to achieve still more. Mosca has no hand in this final and superfluous piece of planning; he seizes the chance to build upon Volpone's blunder though he does not engineer the opportunity. But he prepares his own downfall by underestimating his master.

The first scene in the final Act is an excellent example of Jonson's keen dramatic imagination. The problem was how to show an extension of the power and skill of the two master-minds after they had already touched the height. Yet from an unpromising situation, Jonson builds up a comic climax which also highlights the central motifs of the play. This comic climax is reached in the manner in which all the legacy-hunters are dismissed by Mosca after their shocking discovery that Mosca himself is the heir. A new series of crises then begins, longer and more dangerous even than those at the end of Act III. First, Voltore the advocate, feeling disillusioned, decides to speak the truth. Volpone saves the situation by telling Voltore that the Magnifico is still alive. Secondly, Mosca betrays his master. The former partners are now at each other's throat. Volpone is not the man to submit. He would rather lose all than be outwitted and cheated by his parasite.

The punishment awarded by the court are severe. Mosca will be a perpetual prisoner on Venetian galleys. Volpone will be put in irons; the birds of prey are banished or disgraced. Jonson winds up the play quickly, without an anti-climax.

The link between the sub-plot and the main plot has been indicated above. Yet the sub-plot has generally been treated as a flaw in the play because its connection with the main theme seems rather loose. In a penetrating analysis, an eminent critic has established the importance of the sub-plot to the play as a whole by showing the sub-plot to be a parody of the central theme. Sir politic is a combination of folly, monstrosity, and mimicry, as the principal characters of the play are. He is mortified in the tortoise-sheel scene, as Volpone and Mosca are mortified at the end of the play. The sub-plot, thus viewed, becomes relevant to the total design of the play.

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