Comment on the plot construction of Ben Jonson’s play “Volpone”

Ben Jonson was a classicist and, as such his comedies do not aim merely at, “laughter, more laughter, and nothing but laughter”. His aim was, “to sport with human folly” and “not with crime”. He has followed faithfully the classical rules of literary composition. The Unities of Time and Place have been fully observed. The play opens at sunrise: “Good morrow to the day,” says Volpone in the very first speech. At the end of Act I, Lady Politique Would-bee 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 judgment of the court will be delivered before night. The Unity of Place has been observed, too, as the entire action takes place in the city of Venice, though different localities are Volpone’s house, Corvino’s house, the Senate House, a street of Venice, and so on. His aim is also not mere entertainment but also instruction and moral edification of his readers and spectators. He has played not only with human folly but has also lashed at crime and vice. His moral indignation is intense, poetic justice is rendered in the end and the wicked are suitably punished and the virtuous rewarded.

The Three Strands

However, contrary to the classical practice, the plot of the present play Volpone consists of (a) the main plot dealing with the greed of various legacy-hunters, and the way in which they are befooled and cheated; (b) the sub-plot consisting of Sir Politique-Lady Politique-Peregrine story; and (c) the two interludes staged by the three deformed dependents of Volpone. However, these three strands have been skillfully intertwined to form a single whole in the play.

The Sub-Plot

The action of the sub-plot is a parody of the main action. Sir Politique also projects schemes like the characters of the main plot, and Lady Politique and also is one of the legacy-hunters. The episode comes to a comic end with the discomfiture of Lady Politique just as the main-action comes to a tragic end with the punishment of the evil-doers. Both the plots illustrate the “beastliness” that is so widespread in Venice; the tortoise-shell scene is a symbolic representation of the beastly degradation of the Venetians. There are constant links of parallelism and contrasts, and so we cannot say that the structure of the play is loose, that it lacks unity, or that the sub-plot is superfluous and can easily be taken away. Besides being closely knit with the main action, it has enabled the dramatist to impart variety to the play, and bring in human folly, too, within its compass.

The Two Interludes

Similarly, the two interludes staged by the fool, the dwarf and the eunuch of Volpone, are well-integrated with the action of the play. The three deformed creatures symbolise the moral deformity of Volpone, as well as the moral crookedness and corruption so widespread in Venice. The two interludes on the stage provide dramatic relief and serve to fill in the time gap. Moreover, the three deformed creatures also serve to advance the action of the play. Towards the end, Mosca takes from them the keys of the house and asks them to go out and enjoy themselves. This arouses Volpone’s suspicions. Thus we are prepared for Mosca’s double-crossing, which ultimately leads to the ruin of both of them. They cannot be regarded as mere superfluities, though, of course, the action of the play would not suffer much even if they are taken away.

Swift and Straightforward Movement

The action is swift and straightforward, curiosity and suspense are constantly aroused, and the theme gains in intensity as the action proceeds. The Exposition consisting of the first scene is a masterpiece, Volpone’s “hymn to gold” gives us an indication of the central theme of the play, that of greed and lust for gold. There are three absolutely parallel scenes in which appear the three birds of prey (vulture, raven, and crow). The first visit, that of Voltore, is presented without complexity. In the second, Corbaccio gloating over Volpon’e’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. Two other threads also are introduced. Lady Would-bee is told that she should come some three hours later. And Mosca excites Volpone’s curiosity and lust 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.

The action develops swiftly through Act II, and the Sir Politique-Peregrine story is introduced. The two threads converge together as they listen to the eloquent speech of Volpone dressed as a mountebank and we get the farcical comedy of Corvino driving away and beating Volpone. Thus we get an indication of his jealous attitude which, however, would soon undergo a complete reversal, as in the next act he will try to prostitute his wife, Celia, to Volpone to satisfy his lust for gold. Thus the farcical comedy of the scene prepares the readers for the climax which comes in Act III. The rape of Celia is prevented by Bonario, exposure is feared, but the crisis is averted by the ready wit and quick invention of Mosca.

The Court Scene

Bonario’s intervention leads directly to the court scene in Act IV. Readers are in suspense and are curious to know as to what is going to happen next. The suspense is maintained throughout the trial scene. Mosca manipulates all the puppets (the legacy-hunters) one after the other. Truth is deliberately suppressed 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 Politique describes Celia as a courtesan. Lady Politique’s role is an organic part of the plot. Ben Jonson shows superb judgment in keeping Volpone at the dramatic center 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 Denouement

The triumph of the villains at the end of Act IV is the beginning of their downfall in Act V. The two villains have touched the highest point of their achievement. But Volpone craves for some more fun, and so he invents ways of torturing the legacy-hunters and thus having a laugh at their expense. Mosca plays the role of the sole-heir and dismisses the legacy-hunters one by one, and the readers are much amused at their comic discomfiture. Then in three parallel scenes, Volpone disguised as a court official, rubs their wounds the wrong way to the great delight of the readers. This comic climax, which also serves as dramatic relief, soon leads to the “tragic-climax” of Act V. The court has met to pronounce judgment and the readers are on tenterhooks to know as to how the situation would resolve itself, now that Mosca is determined to double-cross his master. First, Voltore, the advocate, feeling disillusioned, decides to speak the truth, Volpone saves the situation by telling Voltore that the magnifico is still alive. Second, 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 punishments 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. Thus the denouement is reached swiftly and the play is rounded off with the moral note that crime and vice never pay.

Thus the play has a coherent, well-knit structure, still, it is not perfect and has been criticised on a number of counts.

Also read: Characters of Voltore, Covino and Corvaccio in “Volpone”