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Deception in Jonson's Volpone

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Deception in Volpone

In Volpone, Ben Jonson emphasizes the fun and the humor of deceit, but he does not overlook its nastiness, and in the end he punishes the deceivers. The play centers around the wealthy Volpone, who, having no wife or children, pretends to be dying and, with the help of his wily servant Mosca, eggs on several greedy characters, each of whom hopes to be made Volpone's sole heir. Jonson's ardent love of language reveals itself throughout the play, but especially in the words of Mosca and Volpone, who relish the deceptive powers of language. Volpone himself pursues his schemes partly out of greed, but partly out of his passionate love of getting the best of people. He cannot resist the temptation to outsmart those around him, particularly when fate delivers him such perfect gulls as the lawyer Voltore, the merchant Corvino, the doddering old Corbaccio, and the foolish English travelers Sir Politic and Lady Would-Be. Mosca too revels in his ability to beguile others, remarking "I fear I shall begin to grow in love / With my dear self," so thrilled is he with his own manipulations. His self-love, however, proves his undoing, as it does for Volpone. Both characters become so entranced by their own elaborate fictions that they cannot bring themselves to stop their scheming before they betray themselves.

Jonson's audience would have recognized both the wily Volpone and the parasitical Mosca as stereotypically Italian. English playwrights frequently borrowed characters from Italian drama and from Italy's comic dramatic tradition, the commedia dell'arte. Venice, the setting for Volpone, evoked the glory of Italian art and culture, but also Italy’s decadence and corruption, which the English view...

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...trations were well known to be more than just "a little obscene," as she says.

We are encouraged to laugh with Volpone and Mosca at the pretensions and hypocrisies of Lady Would-Be and the other ever-hopeful "heirs"; but ultimately Jonson chooses to punish the deceivers and asks us to side, however reluctantly, with the Venetian Senate in condemning them. Voltore, Corvino, and the others may richly deserve to be tricked, but Volpone and Mosca are not agents of justice, and we must not confuse them with such truly virtuous characters as Celia and Bonario. Nevertheless, Jonson gives Volpone the last word in the play's Epilogue, where Volpone asks our forgiveness, and we find ourselves in complicity with him once again. We are invited in the end to revel in the delightfulness of deception, and of language, and to suspend, if only briefly, our moral judgments.
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