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An Ancient Roman Institution

Legacy-hunting was a peculiarly Roman institution. In ancient times the legator--a childless richman--was free to bestow his wealth on any one he liked. The result was that numerous legacy punters flocked to him flattering him and bringing to him costly gifts. Such legacy-hunters were often befooled and cheated by the legator. This institution was fraught with immense dramatic possibilities, and countless dramatists of ancient times exploited these possibilities, and Jonson, too, has exploited them in the present play.

Its Romantic Appeal 

In choosing such a subject as this Jonson, necessarily abandoned one of his surest holds upon the play going public, his powerful presentment of the London life at their doors. In Jacobean age similar greed, cunning, and credulity were not much less rife than in imperial Rome; but this particular variety of them was not yet at home there. Yet the very unfamiliarity of this 'folly' was of interest to Jacobean audience. If they enjoyed seeing London gallants and prentices, country simpletons and city wives made sport of, they were at least as accessible to the romantic fascination of strange or exotic crime. This kind of interest, however, would have been much deadened had the plot been laid in a vanished society, known only to the learned and by books. Jonson, therefore, transferred his setting from ancient Rome to modern Italy. For the Jacobeans Italy was the classic contemporary land of sensational evil-doing. Among Italian cities Venice, with Florence as the city of Machiavel, stood in the front rank for this sinister repute. To make Volpone a Venetian grandee was thus o give him and his story the best chance of being creditable. "English foibles do not indeed wholly escape the lash; but Sir Politic and his lady are introduced only as ecentric English visitors at the house of the Venetian grandee. If the scene then is laid in Venice, 'Venice' is no longer merely a transparent cloak for London. He has merely transferred to a modern milieu a situation from ancient Rome".

Goes against Jonson's Theory of Comedy

" But Volpone bears the clear stamp of its purely literary original the antique satiric stuff is everywhere visible, and the  intellectual elaboration it has undergone has been carried out in comparative detachment from actualities. The result is a work certainly wanting in the fresh charm of Every Man in His Humour; even repellent by reason of the remote, abstruse, and at times, scarcely human, types of criminality among which we move. Yet for all its strangeness, it attains, in the grip of Jonson's mind, an amazing imaginative veracity, which has made its sinister outlines only less ineffaceable in the English memory than the more splendid and passionate creations of Shakespeare "

If Volpone marks a wide departure from the realism he had earlier enjoined upon the comic dramatist, it uiolates still more strikingly his second demand, that comedy should 'sports with human follies', not with crimes. If Jonson ever sports here, it is in the somber and lurid fashion of his own sporting Kyd. There is folly enough, to be sure but it is the formidable and menacing folly of men who have capacity and resource and absolutely no scruples, and whether such men commit follies or crimes is merely a question of occasion and circumstance."

Crime and Vice

All the principal persons are capable of any crime; they are gamblers playing desperately for high stakes, and when they see their advantage, Corbaccio plays his son's inheritance, and Corvino his wife's honour. The moral repulsion however, with which they so powerfully affect us is less due to the actual crimes and vices they perpetrate than to the impression of unlimited possibilities of evil which they convey. "The air is heavy and fotid with moral disease, a passing breath of freshness and purity just stirs it when Celia and Bonario go by, but the relief is faint and ineffectual, and the total impression is not sensibly mitigated even by the catastrophe which attests that 'there is force in the decrees of Venice' to punish even these iniquities.Legacy-hunting a Form of GreedGreed and avarice assume many forms, but in the present play they assume the form of legacy hunting. The legator, Volpone, satisfies his lust for gold by befooling the 'clients' or legacy-hunters who flock to him in large numbers, each competing with the others in giving costly gifts in the hope of being nominated the soul heir of the rich legator. "The result in that Volpone's room is a veritable box over-full with gifts of gold, silver, pearls and diamonds. He worships gold and exults in his own cunning in having cheated, with the help of his even more cunning parasite, Mosca, so many would be inheritors of his own wealth".

The Two Cheats:Their Cunning

The cunning of the two cheats and the credulity od the legacy-hunters is well illustrated is well-illustrated by the way in which the four legacy-hunters Voltore, Corvino, Corbaccio, and Lady Politick Would be are cheated and befooled. Voltore is an advocate; he brings gold-plates and other costly gifts for Volpone who has given out that he, Volpone, is ill and dying. The parasite Mosca receives the gifts and assures him that he has been made the sole heir of Volpone, who is sure to die soon. Voltore believes all this. Blinded to truth by his passion for gold, he utters lies in the court, and instead of helping the cause of truth and justice, he sacrifices the two innocents, Bonario and Celia, to his lust for gold. With the help of false witnesses he establishes that they are immoral and corrupt. Bonario's own father and Celia's husband, attest to the truth of what he says. But when the Advocate comes to know that he is not the sole heir, he changes his stand under the plea that he has pangs of conscience. There is yet another Volte face when his hopes of inheritance revive. He now feigns madness, and again accuses the two innocents.

Legacy-hunters: Depraved and Greedy

The other legacy-hunters are equally credulous depraved and greedy. The old and deaf Corbaccio is ready to disinherit his son in order to acquire the wealth of Volpone, and Corvino is eager to prostitute his virtuous wife Celia to Volpone with the same end in view. Lady would-be is willing to sell her body to Mosca, if he would secure her nomination as the sole heir of his master. Mosca himself double-crosses his master and thus brings doom on his head as well as on his own.
Ben jonson

In short, Volpone is a study of the lust for gold and in the play it assumes the form of legacy-hunting. It corrupts and degrades and leads to crime and vice of various types. Contrary to his declared intention, Jonson here does not 'short' merely with human 'folly', but also lashes at crime and vice. His moral indignation is well-marked and intense.

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