David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Cast, Argument, and Prologue


The Main Man and His Main Servant

VOLPONE, a Magnifico. Volpone is Italian for “fox.” Volpone is crafty, sly, and lacks morals. A magnifico is a wealthy, distinguished gentleman. Magnifico is Italian for “magnificent.” In particular, a magnifico is a plutocrat — his power comes from his wealth.

MOSCA, Volpone’s Parasite. Mosca is Italian for “fly.” Mosca is a human parasite; he lives on other people. Many parasites are flatterers and hangers-on, but Mosca works hard at making himself indispensable to Volpone.

The Legacy-Hunters

VOLTORE, an Advocate. Voltore is Italian for “vulture.” An advocate is a lawyer. Voltore is a legacy-hunter; he wants to inherit Volpone’s money. Vultures feed on dead animals.

CORBACCIO, an Old Gentleman. Corbaccio is Italian for “raven.” Corbaccio is a legacy-hunter; he wants to inherit Volpone’s money. Ravens feed on dead animals. Ravens were also believed to neglect their young.

CORVINO, a Merchant. Corvino is Italian for “crow.” Corvino is a legacy-hunter; he wants to inherit Volpone’s money. Crows feed on dead animals. Merchants sell things, and Corvino is willing to sell his wife’s honor.

Two People with Good Morality

BONARIO, Son to Corbaccio. Bonario is Italian for “good-tempered.”

CELIA, Corvino’s Wife. The Latin word “caelia” means “the Heavenly, aka celestial, one.”

Volpone’s Less Important Servants

NANO, a Dwarf. Nano is Italian for “dwarf.” Many dwarves made their living as entertainers.

CASTRONE, a Eunuch. He has been castrated; some boys were castrated to preserve their high singing voice.

ANDROGYNO, a Hermaphrodite. His name is based on “androgynous” — both male and female. Volpone calls Androgyno his Fool — his jester.


SIR POLITIC WOULD-BE, an English Knight and wanna-be VIP. He wants to be thought to be important in affairs of state. “Pol” is a name for a parrot. A poll parrot chatters. “Politic” refers to statesmanship and diplomacy.

LADY POLITIC WOULD-BE, Sir Politic Would-Be’s Wife. Also known as FINE MADAME WOULD-BE. She is in Venice to learn the womanly arts by studying the well-regarded Viennese prostitutes.

PEREGRINE, an English Gentleman Traveler. A peregrine falcon is a kind of hawk. A peregrine falcon is a predatory bird.

Law Officials

COMMANDATORI: Police Officers, aka Officers of Justice.

ADVOCARI: Judges, four Magistrates.

NOTARY, the Registrar to the court, aka Clerk of Court.

Other Characters

THREE MERCHANTS. Three merchants help Peregrine fool Sir Politic Would-be.

CROWD. A crowd of people watch the mountebank’s performance.

WOMEN: Lady Politic Would-be’s female attendants.



VENICE, ITALY. To the Elizabethans, Venice was wealthy, sophisticated, and immoral.


Probably February or March 1606.


Volpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, [feigns] despair,

Offers his estate to hopes of several heirs,

Lies languishing: his parasite receives

Presents from all, assures, deludes; then weaves

Other cross plots [counter-plots], which open themselves [unfold and reveal themselves and] are told [exposed].

New tricks for safety are sought; they thrive: when bold,

Each tempts the other again, and all are sold [betrayed, ruined].


The “argument” of the play is a brief summary of the plot. This argument is an acrostic; the first letter of each line spells out VOLPONE.

Volpone is a rich man who has no children. Other rich people would like to inherit his property, so Volpone pretends to be sick and near death. The other rich people give him many expensive presents, hoping to be named his heir in his will. Characters immorally compete with each other, and in the end, all guilty persons are punished.

A parasite is a person who lives off another person. Mosca is Volpone’s parasite, his main servant.


Now, if God will send us a little luck, a little wit will serve to make our book a hit, according to the tastes of the literary season and audiences. However, here in this book is rhyme, and the rhyme is not empty of reason.

This we were bid to believe from our author, Ben Jonson, whose true intention, if you would know it, in all his books always has been this measure: to mix profit with your pleasure.

His intention has not been that of some authors, whose throats fail because of their envy as they cry hoarsely, “All he writes is excessively critical.” And when his books come out, these overly prolific authors think that they can insult his books by saying that he took a year to write each of them.

To this Mr. Jonson need not say that it is a lie because all he needs to do is to point to this work of art, which did not exist two months before it was first seen — Mr. Jonson wrote it in less than two months.

And although Mr. Jonson dares to give them five lives to mend his book — depending on your opinion of his value as an author, that’s five lives to look for non-existent errors to correct, or five lives to correct all the numerous errors — let it be known that it took him only five weeks to fully write it. He did not use the services of a co-author, a journeyman author paid to write some of the scenes, a beginning author working under his direction, or a tutor to provide direction to him.

Yet thus much I can give you as a token of his play’s worth: No eggs are broken, nor are there quaking custards — quivering cowards — frightened by fierce teeth. This book contains no slapstick of the kind that delights the ordinary crowd of ordinary people.

Nor does the author drag in a fool who recites clichés and stale jokes to stop gaps in loose, badly constructed writing, and nor does the author drag in characters who engage in a great many monstrous and forced actions — such things might make the book a hit at Bedlam, the hospital for the insane. Nor has he made his book out of jests stolen from each table where joke-tellers eat, but instead he has written his own jokes as they appear naturally and fit the events that occur in this book.

The author presents quick, lively, refined comedy, in accordance with the best critics: Aristotle and Horace. He observes the laws of time, place, and persons. This book can be read in a day, and the events take place in a day. The events also take place in locations that can be reasonably reached in a day. Also, the characters remain consistent in character: Greedy characters stay greedy, and good characters stay good. Any changes that occur are those that can realistically occur.

From no needful rule does the author stray. An unnecessary rule — to be followed only sometimes — is the law of action: The book should have only one plot. This book has a main plot and a sub-plot related to the theme of the main plot, and so the law of action is obviously not a needful rule.

All gall and copperas, aka sulphuric acid — from his ink the author has drained, and only a little salt — sediment — remains, wherewith he’ll rub your cheeks, so that red with laughter, they shall look fresh for the upcoming week.

Yes, bitter gall and acid shall be absent from this book, although a little salty wit shall be present so that you shall laugh and be cheerful for a week.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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