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Home » , » Discuss Volpone as a study of avarice or greed?
Volpone is admittedly and indisputably a study of avarice or greed or acquisitiveness. Gold or wealth or fortune is an obsession with all the prin-cipal characters----- Volpone himself, his parasite Mosca, the legacy-seekers : Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino, and Lady Would-be. Everything pales into insignificance beside gold in the eyes of these persons. Every action in the main plot of the play is determined directly or indirectly by greed. Even Volpone's love-scene depends on Corvino's cupidity, and his final manoeuvres in the last Act would be pointless but for the frustrated avarice of his victims. The raven, the crow, the vulture, differ in circumstances, not in bent. The senile Corbaccio clings to his ardent worldliness, and is willing to imperil or sacrifice his son's right in order to feed his flickering life with futile new possessions. Corvino is ready, indeed eager, to make a mockery of the tie of marriage by sacrificing his wife's virtue. Voltore, the man of law and therefore supposedly of justice, degrades his profession by his defence of his own and his client's crimes, demanding that the innocent should be punished instead. Jonson has dramatized actions which represent the extremes of savagely selfish materialism. When, in Act V, Voltore makes an attempt to tell the truth, Corvine cries : "The devil has entered him." Family marriage, law are not just disregarded; they are made the very instruments of destructive greed.

The crucial action of Volpone occurs in the first twenty-seven lines of the play, which contain Volpone's celebration of his gold. He elevates gold above the sun, and gold becomes for him the centre of the universe, the Prime Mover, the still point around which all existence now circles and from which it most draw its life. Having completed his new cosmology, Volpone hastens to construct his new religion, his new history, his new society, and his new man. The high priest of the new cult, Volpone kisses "with adoration" the "relics of sacred treasure" and bursts into rapturous praise of his, "dear saint". The traditional view of history was that mankind had degenerated from an innocent, simple way of life in which precious metals played no part. But Volpone as an economic historian redefines human history by speaking of mankind's best age as the golden age. As a sociologist he substitutes hard cash for the forces of blood, piety, friendship, and love which have in the past bound men together : 

           Thou being the best of things, and far transcending All style of joy in children,  parents, friends,Or any other waking dream on earth.

As a philosopher-psychologist he quickly defines man as seeker of gold, who, when he attains it, achieves at one stroke all the goals for which men in the past have struggled so confusedly and painfully,
                  Thou(gold) arb virtue, fame,Honour, and all things else. Who can get thee,He shall be noble, valiant, honest, wise-----

Volpone appears at the very outset as an apostle blessed by his " dumb god" with the gift of eloquence. He announces in the opening lines of the play a new action of creation; and as we watch the play we witness this new gold-centred world coming into existence. This brave new world begins in the house of Volpone where life is devoted a voluptuousness, fraud, and cunning; and these values create a new type of household. Here there is no wife, child, parent, ally, or servant; there are only grotesque relationships based on gold. Master and servant have formed an alliance to cheat the world; and they are ready to cheat one another too. Dwarf, eunuch, and hermaphrodite are said to be the unacknowledged bastards of the master of the house, and they seem begotten only for pleasure and meant to be used only for entertainment. To this house come "friends" hypocritically expressing anxiety about the supposedly sick Volpone but in reality longing only for his death and willing to hasten it with poison or suffocation, so that they may inherit his fortune. For Volpone these friends and fellow Venetian are no more than fools whom he can exploit for his own "profit".

From this golden centre, the house of Volpone, the infection  spreads outward, re-shaping the world beyond. In the hope of fortune Corbaccio disinherits his son, Corvino gets ready to prostitute his wife. Lady Would-be offers her body, and Volpone, who for a few pennies would " plead against his Maker", dishonours his profession of law. Judges in the court change their attitude toward men when they learn that they are rich; with money learning becomes possible, for you have only, as Mosca says, to "hood an ass with reverend purple and he shall pass for a cathedral doctor." Gold becomes a "sacred medicine" and physicians practise only for their fees, flaying a man before they kill him. Not only are individuals, professions, and social institu-tions re-made by the power of gold, but the yellow metal ultimately becomes the standard by which all things material and spiritual are measured. Celia's beauty gets its highest praise in Mosca's words when he describes it as bright like gold and lovely like gold. And her concern for her virtue when she resists going to bed with Volpone can be discredited by her husband's categorical argument : "What, is my gold the worse for touching?" In the world of this play, gold appears finally to have no limits to its miraculous power :
Why, your gold Is such another medicine, it dries up All those offensive savours ! It transforms The most deformed, and restores them lovely........It is the thing

Makes all the world her grace, her youth, her beauty*.

This gold-centred world is, of course, a grotesque image of the materialistic culture of the Renaissance, and Jonson constantly reminds us of the width of his satire by frequent reference to contemporary profession and practices. There are references to the countries who "ply it so for a place"; the usurers who coffin men alive for debt; the mill-owners who grind " oil, corn, or men" into powder; the doctors who "kill with as much licence as a judge"; the Puritans who sometimes " devour flesh, and sometimes one another "; the businessmen with such fantastic commercial schemes as " waterworks in perpetual motion".

The world of this play is crudely materialistic and gold-centred. But Volpone and Mosca, the resident deities of this world though they are, seem to transcend mere miserliness. They worship gold with a devotion usually re-served for religion or love, but they treat it not as something possessed for its own sake, the attitude of the miser, but rather as an instrument used to purchase other delights, or as a symbol of their genius. Early in the play, Volpone tells us that he glories "more in the cunning purchase of wealth than in the glad possesion". And further he explains that the proper way for a man to live is to indulge his natural bent of mind and freely enjoy " all delights fortune calls to." For him, therefore, the essence of man is the exercise of cunning in order to gain wealth.

Volpone offers Celia a diamond which would have bought Lollia Paulina. In doing so he not only reveals his own extravagant wealth and imagination, but establishes at the same time a link between the vulgar greed of the Renais-sance, which he represents, and the unlimited capacity of the ancient Roman world where entire provinces were plundered to cover the aristocratic courtesan Lollia Paulina with a quantity of jewels to make her seem like starlight. But though "hid with jewels" she remained a piece of flesh which could be "bought", just as under his rich robes and his more splendid language Volpone remains a cunning animal, the fox.

Volpone's wooing of Celia in terms of wealth fails, however. Celia's refusal is a challenge to his world of gold. Celia and Bonario are the only characters who remain untouched by the infection of the prevalent craze for gold. But these two persons are rather colourless otherwise, and their impact on the audience or the readers is slight.


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