David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 1, Scene 1

— 1.1 —

Volpone and Mosca were talking one morning in a room in Volpone’s house in Venice.

Volpone said, “Good morning to the day; and next, good morning to my gold. Open the shrine, so that I may see my saint.”

Mosca opened a treasure chest, revealing gold and other precious metals, jewels, etc. Volpone was a very wealthy man.

Some religious people believe in beginning the day with a prayer to what the people most value. Many Christians begin the day with a prayer to God. Volpone valued seeing the Sun — that is, being alive — and he valued material wealth. He now parodied a Christian’s morning prayer.

Looking at the treasure, Volpone said, “Hail the world’s soul, and my soul!”

Some systems of thought regard the anima mundi — the world’s soul — as the most vital force in the universe.

He continued, “The teeming — pregnant — earth is glad to see the longed-for Sun peep through the horns of the celestial Ram.”

In astrology, the Sun enters the astrological sign Aries, the Ram, at the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere. With the arrival of more minutes of sunshine, the Northern hemisphere is able to give birth to the many potential plants in seeds in the earth.

Volpone continued, “But I am even gladder than the teeming earth seeing the Sun when I see my treasure’s splendor darkening the splendor of the Sun by contrast. My treasure, lying here among my other hoards of treasure, appears as bright as a flame by night, or like the first day of creation, when God created the Sun and the Moon out of chaos, and all darkness fled to Earth’s center, where Hell is located.”

In Exodus 13, God had appeared as a pillar of fire in order to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Volpone then referred to the son of Sol; Sol is the Sun, and alchemists referred to gold as the son of Sol.

“Oh, you son of Sol, but brighter than your father, let me kiss you with adoration, and let me kiss every relic of sacred treasure in this blessed room.

“Well did wise poets, by your glorious name, title that age which they would have the best.”

He was referring to the Golden Age, the best age, an age in which men lived easy lives. Life in the classical Golden Age is comparable to life in the Garden of Eden. Greed for gold, however, was not known in the Golden Age. Love of gold often leads to sin.

Referring to gold, Volpone said, “You are the best of all things, and you far transcend all kinds of joy — joy in children, parents, friends, or any other waking dream on Earth. I would rather have gold than any of these other things.

“People talk about golden Venus, the most beautiful goddess. They should have given Venus twenty thousand Cupids — such are your beauties and our loves! Gold is so beautiful that if Venus is golden, she should have been made pregnant twenty thousand times and given birth to twenty thousand Cupids, the god of cupidity.

“Gold, you are my dear saint. Riches are the dumb God that gives all men tongues. Gold cannot speak, yet all men will speak volumes — including volumes of lies — to acquire gold.

“Gold, you can do nothing, and yet you make men do all things — including evil things — to acquire you. Gold, you are the Unmoved Mover.

“Think of the price of souls. The Son of God gave his life to redeem the souls of sinners. But if a sinful life contains gold, sinners will consider Hell to be worth as much as Heaven. Gold is as valuable as the blood of Christ because both gold and the blood of Christ buy souls.

“Gold, you are virtue, fame, honor, and all other things. Whoever can get you shall be regarded as noble, valiant, honest, wise —”

Mosca interrupted, “And whatever else he wishes to be regarded as, sir. Riches are in fortune a greater good than wisdom is in nature. It is better to be lucky enough to acquire riches than it is to be born with wisdom.”

Proverbs 16:16 states, “How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver!” (King James Version). Mosca — and Volpone — disagree.

“True, my beloved Mosca,” Volpone said. “Yet I glory more in the cunning acquisition of my wealth than in its glad possession, since I gain wealth in no ordinary, common way.

“I don’t engage in business. I don’t engage in risky speculations. I wound no earth with plows, I fatten no beasts to feed the slaughterhouses. I have no mills for iron, olive oil, corn, or men, to grind them into powder.”

Men can be ground down through excessively hard work.

Volpone continued, “I blow no subtly conceived glassware. I expose no ships to the threats of the furrow-faced — wave-wracked — sea. I make no monetary speculations in the public bank, nor am I a private moneylender —”

Mosca interrupted, “No sir, nor do you devour soft, easily manipulated prodigal sons who spend their money before they inherit it. Some people will swallow a melting heir — an heir whose wealth melts wastefully away — as glibly as your Dutch will swallow pills — mouthfuls — of butter, and never purge — take an emetic or a laxative — for it. They digest the heir so thoroughly that there is no need for such remedies, and they are able to do so without purging — being punished for — their actions.

“Such people tear forth the fathers of poor families out of their beds, and coffin them alive in some kind, clasping — fetters are clasping — prison, where their bones may be forthcoming, when the flesh is rotten. In other words, they won’t leave the debtors’ prison alive.

“But your sweet nature abhors these courses of action. You loathe the widow’s or the orphan’s tears that would then wash your pavements, and their piteous cries that would ring in your roofs, and beat the air for vengeance.”

“You are right, Mosca,” Volpone said. “I do loathe it.”

He had seen the tears and had heard the cries of distress.

Mosca continued, “And besides, sir, you are not like a thresher who stands with a huge flail, watching a heap of corn, and, although he is hungry, he dares not taste the smallest grain, but instead feeds on mallows — vegetation that is eaten during famines — and other such bitter herbs.

“Also, you are not like the merchant who has filled his vaults with fine wines from Greece and rich wines from Crete, yet drinks the dregs of bad, vinegary wine from Lombardy.

“You will not lie in straw while moths and worms feed on your sumptuous hangings and soft beds.”

In other words, Volpone knew how to spend money and enjoy himself. He was a bon vivant, not a miser.

Mosca continued, “You know the use of riches, and dare give now from that bright heap, to me, your poor servant, or to your dwarf, or your hermaphrodite, your eunuch, or what other household-trifle — menial servant — your pleasure permits to work for you.”

Volpone’s servants included a dwarf, a eunuch, and a hermaphrodite. He had hired these people to keep him entertained.

“Stop, Mosca,” Volpone said.

He took a coin from his treasure chest and held it out to Mosca, saying, “Take this from my hand.”

Mosca took the coin.

Volpone then said, “You strike on the truth in all things, and those people who call you a parasite are envious of you.

“Bring here my dwarf, my eunuch, and my Fool, and let them entertain me.”

Mosca exited to summon Nano the dwarf, Castrone the eunuch, and Androgyno the hermaphrodite, who was also Volpone’s Fool, aka professional jester.

Alone, Volpone said to himself, “What should I do, but cocker up my genius, and live free to all delights my fortune calls me to?”

By “cocker up my genius,” Volpone meant “indulge my appetites.” “Cocker up” was a fitting term because many of his appetites were sexual.

Volpone continued, “I have no wife, no parent, child, or relative to give my possessions to, so whomever I choose must be my heir, and this makes men flatter and pay attention to me. My lack of an heir draws new flatterers daily to my house, women and men of all ages, who bring me presents, send me gold and silver vessels and utensils, money, and jewels in the hope that when I die (which they expect each greedy minute) their gifts shall then return ten-fold to them.

“And some, greedier than the rest, seek to have a monopoly of me and inherit all I have, and they work to undermine their competitors who would also like to inherit all I have. They compete in giving gifts because the bigger the gift, the bigger appears to be their love for me.

“All of these things I allow to happen. I play with their hopes, and I am happy to turn their hopes into my profit. I am happy to look upon their kindness, and accept more of the gifts they bring, and look upon those gifts. All the time I take these flatterers in hand and manipulate them. I tie a cherry to a string and let the cherry knock against their lips, and I let it get close to their mouths, and then I draw the cherry back before they can bite it.”

Hearing a noise, he said, “What’s that?”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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