English Literature: 1590-1798



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Volpone epathsala

Section 2: Plot Synopsis
Volpone is set in seventeenth century Venice and the action of the play unfolds in the course of a single day. As Jonson himself informs us in the Prologue, the play adheres to the


4 classical unities of time, place and action. In the opening scene, we are introduced to two of the main characters in the play, Volpone and his servant Mosca, who are busy hatching a plot to dupe three legacy hunters, Voltore (a lawyer, Corbaccio (a miserly old gentleman) and Corvino a rich merchant, who have arrived with lavish gifts for Volpone in the hope of winning his favour and inheriting his fortune. In what is veritably a parade of fools, these men make their appearances one after the other, only to be subjected to Mosca’s biting satire once they are gone.
Volpone himself is an avaricious conman and pretends, with the aid of his cunning servant, to be on his deathbed in order to fleece thesegulls.Mosca even convinces Corbaccio to disinherit his own son Bonario by luring him with the prospect of becoming Volpone’s heir. Mosca also describes the beauty of Corvino’s wife Celia in glowing terms to Volpone, which makes him very curious and becomes the germ of another plot complication. In the second act, we see
Volpone disguised as an Italian mountebank, “Scoto of Mantua” and expertly peddling his new oil that is supposedly a cure for all maladies. Just as Celia drops her handkerchief from her window to make a transaction with him, Corvino arrives on the scene and drives “Scoto” away in a fit of jealous rage. He suspects Celia of being unfaithful and threatens to put her under house arrest meanwhile, Volpone returns to his house and complains to Mosca of being sick with lust for Celia. Mosca promises Volpone to deliver Celia to him and to this effect, he goes to Corvino and convinces him that if he lets his wife sleep with Volpone as a restorative for his ill health,
Volpone will make him his heir in return. In the third act, Mosca informs Bonario that Corbaccio intends to disinherit him and takes him back to Volpone’s house to witness his father signing off his fortune to Volpone. Mosca hopes that upon seeing this, Bonario would kill his father in a fit of rage and Volpone would thus gain immediate possession of his fortune. In the meantime, Lady Politic, the wife of a ridiculously nave English knight Sir Politic Would-Be, also arrives at Volpone’s residence and drives him to desperation with her talkativeness. Mosca diverts her by telling her that he has spotted her husband with a courtesan on a gondola. In the meantime, Corvino brings Celia to
Volpone’s house, ignoring her protests and commanding her to do her duty. When Volpone is finally alone with Celia, he jumps out of his bed and tries to seduce her when she resists his advances, he tries to rape her. She is saved just in time by Bonario, who has been hiding in the room in anticipation of his father’s arrival. Mosca contrives a story to save his master from being arrested he convinces Corbaccio that his son is out to kill him and Corvino to testify in court that


5 Celia is a lewd woman. Together, they accuse Bonario of having forced Celia to falsely accuse
Volpone of attempted rape and the two of them of being lovers. At the beginning of the fourth act, Lady Politic confronts her husband and his fellow Englishman, Peregrine, whom she mistakes fora courtesan in disguise. When she realizes her mistake, she apologizes to Peregrine but he takes offense and swears to avenge himself for the insult. In the meantime, Bonario and
Celia’s appeal against Volpone is dismissed by the court in the face of the false accusation brought against them. Mosca also convinces Lady Politic that the courtesan her husband was spotted with is indeed Celia. Volpone appears in the court on a stretcher, thereby proving his infirmity to defend himself against the charges. Though he is acquitted by the court, Volpone wants to pull off one final trick in the final act he asks Mosca to proclaim that his master is dead so that the fortune hunters assemble in the hope of claiming his fortune, only to discover that
Mosca has been nominated as the heir. The three men are enraged and bring the matter to the court, accusing Mosca of contriving the whole plot to trick them. Mosca intends to carry on with the story of Volpone’s death so that he gets to enjoy his fortune but Volpone reveals the truth to thwart his plan. In the end, the judges send Mosca to the gallows, confiscate Volpone’s property and sentence him to be confined to a hospital for incurables. Voltore is debarred, Corvino is separated from his wife and Corbaccio is deprived of his fortune. Celia is sent back to her father’s house with her dowry trebled and Bonario is given possession of his father’s fortune. The plot of Volpone is constructed as a series of intrigues, one leading to the next, from the beginning to the end. The action is thus driven ahead by means of dramatic irony, which not only generates situational comedy but also encourages the audience to view the characters critically in the light of the knowledge they have of what is happening onstage. Thus, for example, while the tricks played by Peregrine and Mosca on Sir and Lady Politic Would-Be lead to hilarious situations, they also expose the pitfalls of the vanity and affectation that these characters suffer from. Such developments in the subplot mimic the action in the main plot, which is also essentially about the duping of flawed characters by means of exploiting their weaknesses and ignorance. Significantly, the final tricks played by Mosca and Volpone, who have been the puppeteers controlling most of the characters throughout the play, turn against them in an instance of ironic reversal of the power and knowledge they have been misusing. The circumscription of all their intrigues by the limited space and time in which the events of the day unfold is a form of dramatic compression of action and character that suggests the excessive


6 indulgence in the pursuit of pleasure that must find its logical and moral resolution in the way the play concludes. Thus, the dramatic structure of the play is intended, as Jonson states at the outset, to amuse as well as instruct the audience.

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