In Ben Jonson’s play Volpone, the characters are sharply distinguished between the dupes and the duped. The three dupes, Voltore, Corvino and Corbaccio, are as thoroughly depraved and corrupt as the two cheats to whose machinations and cunning they fall easy victims. They are drawn in less detail but with a no less incisive and powerful hand. They stand clearly and unmistakably apart, but not because they differ a jot in the quality or degree of their greed. Raven, crow, vulture they represent but a narrow class even among birds of prey. They differ in their circumstances, not in their natures.
Voltore, one of the three legacy hunters, is an able advocate, but he too is blinded by greed and lure of worldly wealth. He comes to Volpone with costly gifts and easily believes Mosca, that he, and he alone, is the sole heir of Volpone. As an Advocate, he is eloquent, intelligent, and self-confident. But he uses all his gifts, not in the cause of truth and justice, but to gratify his own lust for gold. He tells lies in the court, and with the help of witnesses, whom he knows to be false, he establishes that it was not at all a case of rape, but that both Celia and Bonario are entirely corrupt and immoral and that they tried to blackmail a helpless old man. Entirely callous and stony-hearted, he does not hesitate to sacrifice the two innocents to serve his own ends. He is a ‘vulture’ in the true sense of the word.
In the end, when he finds that he has been cheated and that not he, but Mosca, is the heir of Volpone, he pretends to be conscience-stricken and comes out with the truth. The result is that everything is exposed, justice is done to the innocents and Mosca, Volpone and the legacy-hunters are befittingly punished. He himself is deprived of his right to practise as an advocate and is banished from the state of Venice. Thus poetic justice is meted to him.
Even more depraved than Voltore is Corvino. The lust for gold has made him thoroughly immoral and callous. He is a jealous husband, who harshly rebukes and threatens his innocent wife, Celia, simply because she has dared to look out of the window. Her movements are already restricted, and now he prohibits her from ever coming to the window and looking out of it. She is to remain confined to the four walls of the house, for the rest of her life. Yet so powerful is the lure of gold for him that he readily agrees, to prostitute her to Volpone’s lust in order to gain his fortune-and, he is even persuaded that there is no “shame” in this, that his “honour” is safe as Volpone is impotent. Corvino shows his vileness in the speeches, and more particularly in the punishments, which he envisages for her when she refuses to obey him:
Death I will buy some slave
Whom I will kill, and bind thee to him, alive,
And at my window hang you forth, devising
Some monstrous crime, which I, in capital letters,
Will eat into thy flesh……
Poetic justice is also meted out to him. He is to be taken out in a gondola around Venice with an ass’s ears over his head. He is to be made to stand on the pillory, so that the people may pelt him with rotten eggs and stones. He is also to be deprived of his wealth, which is to be given to his innocent wife, Celia, who is to go back to her father’s house and live there.
Old Corbaccio, deaf and dull, is equally depraved. He is as easily duped as the other two legacy-hunters. No doubt, initially, he is hesitant in carrying out Mosca’s suggestion of disinheriting his worthy son Bonario and making Volpone his sole heir. He succumbs to the suggestion when Mosca tells him that in this way he would win the favour of Volpone, and get back not only his own property but also that of Volpone, for that his master would surely reciprocate his (Corbaccio’s) own generosity, and make him his sole heir. This temptation is too strong for him, and he sacrifices his innocent son to his own avarice. In the court, he does not hesitate to accuse his son of immorality, and of trying to murder him. He is thus easily gulled by the two cheats and becomes their willing tool.
In the end, poetic justice is meted out to him also. His son Bonario is to get all his property, and he himself is to pass all his remaining days in a monastery where he may learn to die well, though he could not learn to live well.
Thus the rougery of the three dupes is skilfully discriminated, and so is the punishment awarded to them.