skip to main | skip to sidebar
Home » , » Volpone, the Fox: his Character
Volpone is a grandee or a man belonging to the nobility of Venice.He is a magnifico or a Clarissimo. He is wealthy and influential but also, at the same time, entirely unscrupulous, heartless and unprincipled. He is moved by two powerful passions, passion for money, and sexual passion or lust. He is extremely cunning, and he uses his cunning to satisfy his ruling passions. The play is concerned with his career of crime and villainy in which he is helped and abated by his even more cunning parasite or hanger on, Mosca.

An Imposter

Volpone is a cunning cheat, but he is not all imposter. He is really wealthy, and really childless, as he professes. His imposture starts from a foundation of assured respectability. The status he enjoys facilitates his fraud and enables him to carry it to further lengths with impunity. It delays his detection, and when detected it softens the rigour of the law, in favour of one who is by and rank a gentleman, In this case at least, Jonson unhesitatingly blunted his 'moral' in order to benefit his plot. On the other hand, he has perhaps given his moral scorn for this 'Venetian gentleman' too free a rein to fee wholly true to the part. "He has given him the highest degree of the subtle craft, and the calculated cruelty, for which the government of Venice was famous; but nothing of the high-bred courtesy m speech and manner which prevailed in Venetian society, and which Shakespeare had just rendered so excellently in Othello and rather less excellently earlier in The Merchant of Venice".

An Artist in Villainy: His Poetic Soul

Volpone is an extremely greedy man, but he has also the soul of a poet, and this vein of poetry in him glorifies and transforms even his greed. Volpone is no mere amateur in roguery, but a professional expert exulting in his skill and knowledge. The artist in his is even stronger than the wealth-hunter the voluptuary, (a woman-hunter). He is not merely a grasping man of brains, who cheats with professional coolness for definite practical ends; on the contrary, he takes huge delight in the tricks he plays for their own sake, glorying,

More in the cunning purchase of my wealth, Than in the glad possession,

and carries them on when he has everything to lose and nothing to gain. His room, -crowded with the costly offerings of his dupes, is a sort of private box from which he watches unobserved the sordid comedy of contending greeds in the shape of the legacy-hunters. In the intervals of these performances he finds diversion in another yet more hideous spectacle,-the contortions of a dwarf, a eunuch, a hermaphrodite. But Volpone is too great an artist to be content with the role of the looker-on. "Like Nero, he leaps upon the stage, recites, assumes different roles, and compels the plot to move as he wishes. If Nero's colossal caprices have any parallel in literature, it is in the poetry with which the brain of Volpone invests his vices and his crimes. The morning hymn to gold, with which he first opens his lips in our hearing, transfigures avarice with the glamour of religion and idealism." The sordid taint of usury, the prosaic associations of commere, fall away from this man who boasts:

I wound no earth with plow-shares; fat no beasts To feede the shambles;...  I blow no subtill glasse; expose no ships To threatnings of the furrow-faced sea; I turne no money, in the publike banke.

His Passion for Woman

Even more powerful than his passion for money, is his passion for woman. He is a great Voluptuary and a sensualist who can not 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 window of Celia's house. His eloquent speech is very closely modelled on the speeches of mountebanks of the age, it does credit to his power of acting. Even Corvino is deceived by his disguise and his acting, and taking him to be a common mountebank gives him a severe beating. As soon as he sees the beauty of Celia he is sorely smitten by her charms, and cannot live without her. As he tells Mosca, The fight is all within me, I cannot live, except you helpe me, Mosca; My liver melts and I, without the hope Of some soft aire from her refreshing breath, Am but a heape of cinders.His passion for her is even more powerful than his passion for money: Mosca take my keyes, Gold, plate, and jewells, all's at thy devotion: Employ them, how thou wilt; nay coyne me, too; So thou, in this,but crowne my longings,

His Poetic Imagination

"When the supposed bedridden and impotent old man, throwing off the mask, leaps from his couch before the helpless Celia, he seems for a moment to have discarded with his senility the grossness and brutality of his mind; he is not the Faun gloating over his victim, but the young Antinoos whom he once played, For Entertainment of the great VALOYS, ravishing his lady's ear with Catullian songs and besieging her imagination with visions of fabulous opulence and magnificence: 

A diamond, would have bought LOLLIA PAVUNA, When she came in, like star-light, hid with Jewels, That were the spoiles of prouinces; take these, And wear, and loose 'hem: yet remaines an eare-ring To purchase them againe, and this whole State... Thy bathes shall be the juyce of July-floweres, Spirit of roses, and of uiolets, The milk ofunicornes, and panthers breath Gathered in bagges, and mixt with Cretan wines.

A Perfect Actor

Volpone is a consummate actor; it is his misfortune that he is liable to be carried away by the zest of his part. "He owes his final ruin less to rash and hasty unmasking, such as this, than to the audacious adventures he undertakes with the mask on. His passion for taking part, as it were, in his own play, and moving it on towards the consummation he desires is the mainspring by which the whole action is brought to the consummation he does riot desire. The bent grows upon him visibly, and is carried out to more and more extravagant lengths." The monstrous jest of the court official would be incredible had it not been prepared for by the farce of the sick room. "With each fresh success his temper grows more sanguine, his humour more wanton; he cannot bear his fortune soberly, but he must invent new jokes and new tricks till at last he makes a snare for his own neck and runs his head into it wilfully."

His Collapse

The dramatist Cumberland objected to this final mad freak of Volpone's as 'the weak part of the plot. But this is to demand, as the eighteenth century was too prone to do, that the persons of a drama should never act contrary to a reasonable view of their own interests. The Elizabethans had no such illusion; and Jonson had the peculiarly keen eye common in men of his vehement temperament and critical brain for the whims and follies of the over-proud. The collapse of Volpone's astuteness in the delirious joy of his wanton triumph is imagined with an irony yet more Greek than Elizabethan. While the supposed 'court official' is gaily mocking the victims he has disinherited, the spectator knows that Mosca, the pretended heir, is quietly preparing, behind the scenes,to ruin the pretended testator. And it is only by the desperate shift of stropping off his own mask that Volpone is able to check-mate the superior cunning of his formidable parasite, and send him to a doom yet sterner than his own.

Jonson seems almost to have fallen in love with Volpone's magnificence of daring and high insolence. When in Act V, the moment comes for the reversal and unmasking of Volpone, we realise suddenly what hold this magnificent insolence has laid upon Jonson's imagination. For at the last moment Volpone revolts and nearly wrecks the play. Mosca (and perhaps Jonson himself) realizes to late that it is no slave-minded base man whom he is black-mailing, but an aristocrat whose high spirit he has failed to gauge. With one last terrific gesture, utterly unbefitting a comedy and almost pushing it into a tragedy, Volpone brings down disaster upon himself and his enemy alike. In no way disabled in mind or spirit, he remains a Venetian Magnifico still. Never again did Jonson come so near feeling for a character of his own creating such admiration, and the closing scenes of Volpone are his comment on the Jacobean ideal of an aristocrat, his characteristic variant of the theme: "I am Duchess of Malft still."


Post a Comment

Back To Top