English Literature: 1590-1798



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Volpone epathsala

Section 4: Themes
One of the most important themes in Volpone is avarice, which refers to greed that extends not only to money and material possessions but also to power and status. From the very beginning of the play, we observe that each character seeks to attain the objects of his desire without any consideration of the consequences of such a pursuit to himself or others. Thus, in spite of being a nobleman, Volpone himself attempts to dupe the three legacy hunters and revels in being able to outwit them in a stratagem that is driven by the greed for money. The absurd levels to which Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore are willing to debase themselves in their misplaced hope of inheriting Volpone’s fortune reveals the risks to which one stands exposed if he chooses to blindly follow material desires without applying reason or good sense to such an enterprise. Ina comedic parallel to the main plot, the subplot involving Sir and Lady Politic
Would-Be also becomes a dramatic device for representing the pitfalls of uncritical ambition and greed. Thus, while Lady Politic is ridiculous and pathetic in her attempt to ingratiate herself with
Volpone, going even to the extent of offering sexual favours in the hope of inheriting his property, her husband’s pretensions to social grace are hilarious in the way they cause him to fall prey to Peregrine’s trick. While Volpone and Mosca offer brilliantly satirical commentary on the gullibility of such foolish characters, they are themselves also driven by the same forceful greed that they mock in their victims. Volpone’s reckless indulgence in sensual pleasures – food, wealth, entertainment, sex – remains comical to the extent that it propels the dramatic action through a series of amusing situations and exposes the follies in the characters that surround him. But when he pursues his sensual instincts to the point of committing sexual violence on Celia, the situation no longer remains merely comical but turns dangerous as the ugly face of avarice is exposed. Similarly, when Mosca decides to double-cross Volpone in order to gain custody over half of his property, priding himself on his cunning and using intrigue as a means of self- promotion just like his master, it is greed that fuels his actions and ultimately becomes both their undoing. Volpone’s own words, What a rare punishment/Is avarice to itself, ultimately turn into an ironic comment on his own actions in the final dramatic reversal of his fortunes.


9 Closely aligned with the theme of avarice are the themes of disguise, ignorance, appearance and reality. The action of the play unfolds through a series of intrigues based on disguises, which are mostly orchestrated by Volpone and Mosca to get the better off their dupes. Thus, the primary ploy through which the characters are brought together is Volpone’s disguise of being a rich man on his deathbed. This in turn motivates the fortune hunters to feign loyalty and generosity towards Volpone and exposes them to financial ruin. The dramatic tension is built hereby setting up an opposition between two sets of characters, both pretending to be what they are not and using deception as a means of satisfying their greed. While Volpone’s disguise as a mountebank functions as a highly entertaining episode in his successful deception of Celia, things turn threatening when he gives up his disguise of being old and ailing and tries to force himself upon her. The tension between appearance and reality also manifests itself in more serious ways when Bonario and Celia, the only two truly virtuous characters in the play, are very easily charged with promiscuity and murderous intent through the machinations of Mosca. The underlying theme of the miscarriage of justice is one that emerges as a potentially tragic outcome of the comical game of disguise and deception that Volpone and Mosca have been playing. In fact, abstract notions like honour, conscience and chastity, which Celia invokes in her pleas to
Volpone, seem to have very little currency in asocial context where even the gatekeepers of law and justice seem to be just as gullible and susceptible to false appearances as the subjects whose interests they are in charge of safeguarding. The ignorance and lack of self-knowledge that in minor characters like Sir Politic Would-Be is simply a comical character trait becomes potentially threatening and ultimately self-destructive in characters like Volpone and Mosca as both carry their game too far in their proud self-confidence in their own wits and their relentless pursuit of material goals. In an instance of poetic justice, the very force that ensured the duo’s success throughout the play – their combined intelligence and greed – also pulls them apart and becomes the final cause of their ruin. The play implicitly examines the lack of trust and loyalty in interpersonal relationships in asocial context where the only means and index of success and happiness seems to be the self-serving achievement of material pleasure. Thus, be it Corvino’s wild insecurity about his wife’s faithfulness or Lady Politic Would-Be’s ridiculous doubts about her husbands, Corbaccio’s willingness to disinherit his son or Corvino’s to sell Celia’s body for his own profit, Mosca’s double-crossing ways of climbing up the social ladder or
Volpone’srelentless exploitation of other people’s weaknesses and ignorance, the play presents


10 the picture of a society where everyone seems to be motivated by a selfish desire for personal gain.

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