David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 1, Scene 2

— 1.2 —

Mosca arrived with Nano the dwarf, Castrone the eunuch, and Androgyno the hermaphrodite. The three had been summoned to entertain Volpone. Nano was holding a paper.

Nano the dwarf said, reading from his notes, “Now, make room for fresh performers, who want you to know, they bring you neither play, nor university show.”

They were giving a performance, but it was not like a play in a theater, nor was it like a university show that would display vast learning. Actually, their show would display vast learning, but it would do so in a satiric manner. They would mock the belief in progress, using the Pythagorean idea of reincarnation, or the transmigration of souls.

Nano the dwarf held the notes as he recited, “Therefore we entreat you that whatsoever we performers rehearse, may it not fare a whit the worse, for the false pace of the verse.”

By “rehearse,” he meant “recite,” but sometimes performers regard each performance as the rehearsal for the next performance.

Nano the dwarf recited, “If you wonder at this, you will wonder more before we pass, for know, here in the body of Androgyno the hermaphrodite is enclosed the soul of Pythagoras, that divine trickster, as hereafter shall follow.”

Nano the dwarf now explained the origin of this particular soul and how through the process of reincarnation it came to be Pythagoras’ soul and eventually became Androgyno the hermaphrodite’s soul.

Nano the dwarf recited, “Pythagoras’ soul, fast and loose, sir, came first from the god Apollo.”

Apollo was the classical god of prophecy, music, archery, medicine, plague, and more.

The soul was fast and loose. In reincarnation, it was connected fast to a body and then became loose and so was able to travel to another body. “Fast and loose” was also a con game in which a chain or string was placed on a table with the chain or string making loops. The sucker was supposed to pick the loop that was fast, but the con man could arrange the chain or string in such a way that whichever loop the sucker picked, the loop would be loose. Similarly, since humans are mortal, the soul always eventually comes loose from the body.

Nano the dwarf recited, “And then the soul was breathed into Aethalides, Mercury’s son, where it had the gift to remember all that ever was done.”

Aethalides was the herald of Jason and the Argonauts, who are famous for traveling to acquire the Golden Fleece. Mercury was the herald of the gods, and he gave Aethalides perfect memory. Because of this, all who had the soul, including Pythagoras, were able to remember all his or her previous incarnations.

Nano the dwarf recited, “From Aethalides the soul fled forth, and made quick transmigration to goldy-locked Euphorbus, who was killed in good fashion, at the siege of old Troy, by the cuckold of Sparta.”

Euphorbus, who decorated his hair with gold clips, was the first warrior to wound Patroclus, the beloved friend of Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan War. Euphorbus was killed by Menelaus, who was cuckolded by Paris, Prince of Troy, who ran away with Menelaus’ wife, Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.

Nano the dwarf recited, “Hermotimus was next (I find it in my notes) to whom the soul did pass, where no sooner it was missing but with one Pyrrhus of Delos it learned to go a fishing, and from him did it enter the sophist of Greece.”

Hermotimus was a philosopher, and Pyrrhus was a fisherman. The sophist of Greece was Pythagoras himself, who is famous for the Pythagorean theorem, among other things.

Nano the dwarf recited, “From Pythagoras, the soul went into a beautiful piece of ass named Aspasia, who was a meretrix, which is Greek for ‘prostitute.’ She was a meretrix who performed merry tricks and who was the mistress of the Greek statesman Pericles. And the next toss of her — the soul — was from a whore to a philosopher again.”

The “next toss” meant both “next sexual bout” and “next reincarnation.”

Nano the dwarf recited, “As the soul itself does relate, the soul became Crates the Cynic, a disciple of the Cynic philosopher Diogenes. Since then the soul has resided in kings, knights, and beggars, knaves, lords and fools, and the soul has resided in ox and ass, camel, mule, goat, and badger, in all which it has spoken, as it has in the cobbler’s cock.”

Lucian of Samosata was a satirist who wrote in Greek. In his work “The Dream, or the Cock,” he wrote about a cock — a rooster — that claimed to be the reincarnation of the soul of Pythagoras. The cock also recounted many other reincarnations of the soul. The work is a Cynic sermon that praises poverty and argues that wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness. In this work, a cock awakens Micyllus the cobbler. He threatens to kill the cock, but the cock makes him invisible and shows him how the rich live in private, proving that he, a cobbler, is better off than the wealthy.

Nano the dwarf recited, “But I didn’t come here to discourse about that matter of reincarnation, or his one, two, or three, or his great oath, BY QUATER! Nor did I come here to discourse about his musics, his trigon, his golden thigh, or his telling how elements shift.”

Pythagoras believed in the importance of mathematics in understanding reality. The quaternion consisted of the first four whole numbers (1, 2, 3, 4). These numbers added up to ten, an important number. These numbers also could be used to construct a trigon, an equilateral triangle with four dots as the bottom level, three dots as the next level, two dots as the next level, and one dot as the top level. Each side would have four dots.

Pythagoras used numbers and ratios to investigate such things as the musical scale.

According to myth, Pythagoras had a golden thigh, and he believed that the four elements — air, fire, water, and earth — were constantly changing into each other.

Nano the dwarf recited to Androgyno the hermaphrodite, “But I would ask, how of late have you experienced transformation and how have you shifted your coat in these days of reformation.”

The days of reformation referred to the Protestant Reformation; the most radical of the Protestants were the Puritans. “Shifted your coat” meant “changing sides” — leaving Catholicism to become Protestant.

Androgyno the hermaphrodite recited, “Like one of the reformed, I am a fool, as you see, accounting all old doctrine as heresy.”

Androgyno the hermaphrodite was wearing the costume of a Fool, a professional jester. As a fool, he regarded the old doctrines — such as those of Catholicism — as heretical.

Nano the dwarf recited, “But have you eaten food that is forbidden to you?

Pythagoreans were forbidden to eat meat, fish, and beans.

Androgyno the hermaphrodite recited, “My soul dined on fish, when first my soul entered a Carthusian.”

Carthusians were members of a religious sect that allowed devotees to eat fish.

Nano the dwarf recited as he asked about the soul, “Has your dogmatical silence ever left you?

Pythagoreans — and Carthusians — made a vow of silence for a number of years.

Androgyno the hermaphrodite recited, “Of that an obstreperous lawyer bereft me.”

The soul had once entered a loud lawyer.

Nano the dwarf recited, “Oh, what a wonderful change, when Sir Lawyer forsook the soul! For Pythagoras’ sake, what body then did the soul take?

Androgyno the hermaphrodite recited, “A good dull mule.”

Lawyers rode mules.

Nano the dwarf recited, “What! And by that means you were brought to allow yourself to eat beans?

Although Pythagoreans were forbidden to eat beans, mules were fed them.

Androgyno the hermaphrodite recited, “Yes.”

Nano the dwarf recited, “But from the mule into whom did the soul pass?

Androgyno the hermaphrodite recited, “Into a very strange beast, by some writers called an ass. By other writers, the very strange beast is called a precise, pure, illuminate brother, one of those who devour flesh, and sometimes one another, and who will drop you forth a libel, or a sanctified lie, between every spoonful of a nativity pie.”

The very strange beast was a Puritan. Puritans are “precise” because they are strict, and they are “illuminate” because they have seen religious light. The name “Puritan” comes from their claim to be “pure.”

Puritans literally ate the flesh of animals, and they metaphorically ate the flesh of their fellow human beings through their sharp business dealings.

Puritans were fond of publishing libelous pamphlets denouncing their enemies.

Due to a hatred of Catholicism, including Catholic masses, Puritans avoided the use of the syllable “mas” and so they ate what they called nativity pie rather than Christmas pie, which was the same thing except for the name.

Nano the dwarf recited, “Now move on, out of respect for Heaven, from that profane sect of Puritanism, and gently report your next transmigration.”

Androgyno the hermaphrodite recited, “I, the soul, then entered the body you see before you. I am in the body of Androgyno the hermaphrodite.”

Nano the dwarf recited, “This body is a creature of delight, and, what is more than a Fool, it is a hermaphrodite! Now, please, sweet soul, in all your variation, which body would you choose to be in to keep up your station?

Androgyno the hermaphrodite recited, “Truly, I prefer this body I am in. This is the body in which I would tarry.”

Nano the dwarf recited, “Because here the delight of each sex you can experience? As a hermaphrodite, you can experience sex as a man and as a woman.”

Androgyno the hermaphrodite recited, “Unfortunately, those pleasures are stale and forsaken. No, it is your Fool wherewith I am so taken. The Fool is the one and only creature that I can call blessed. For all other forms I have taken have proven to be most distressed.”

Nano the dwarf recited, “That is spoken truly, as if you were still in Pythagoras. This learned opinion we will celebrate, fellow eunuch, as behooves us, with all our wit and art, to dignify that whereof ourselves are so great and special a part.”

Nano the dwarf and Castrone the eunuch were part fool, as are we all.

Volpone said, “Now, that was very, very pretty! Mosca, was this your invention? Did you write this?”

Mosca said, “If it pleases you, my patron, I admit that I wrote it. But if you don’t like it, I did not write it.”

“It does please me, good Mosca,” Volpone said.

“Then I wrote it, sir,” Mosca said.

The skit was cynical. A god created the soul, but the bodies the soul inhabited varied greatly and did not progress, but if anything, regressed. Nothing was learned from ascetic and religious practices, as these varied from body to body with no consistency. The skit pointed out the soul’s lack of progress.

Readers could argue that although this is cynical, it is true. Despite millennia of religious education, many people of Ben Jonson’s day and our own seem determined to turn themselves into animals.

Nano the dwarf and Castrone the eunuch then sang this song about Fools:

Worth men’s envy, or admiration,

Free from care or sorrow-taking,

Selves and others merry making,

All that Fools speak or do is sterling.

Your Fool is your great man’s darling,

And your ladies’ sport [entertainment] and pleasure;

Tongue and bauble are his treasure.

A Fool’s bauble is the court jester’s baton, which has a face carved at the top. “Bauble” was also a slang word for “penis,” and a Fool could use his tongue and penis to entertain the ladies.

Even his face begets laughter,

And he speaks truth free from slaughter.

Professional Fools were given free speech. They could almost always say insulting things without being punished as long as they were witty.

He’s the grace of every feast,

And sometimes the chiefest guest.

Sometimes, the Fool sat in the seat of honor: at the top of the table, beside the host.

He has his trencher [plate] and his stool,

When Wit waits upon the Fool.

The master of the house, who is presumably intelligent — “wit” means “intelligent person” — waits on the Fool. Also, the god of Wit serves the Fool by making the Fool witty.

Oh, who would not be

He, he, he?

As Nano the dwarf and Castrone the eunuch laughed “he, he, he,” they pointed to Androgyno the hermaphrodite, who was wearing a Fool’s costume and who carried a Fool’s bauble.

Knocking sounded on the door.

Volpone asked, “Who’s that?”

He then ordered the entertainers to leave: “Away!”

Nano the dwarf and Castrone the eunuch exited.

Volpone said, “Look and see who it is, Mosca.”

Seeing Androgyno the hermaphrodite, Volpone ordered, “Fool, begone!”

Androgyno the hermaphrodite exited.

Mosca said, “It is Signior Voltore, the lawyer. I know him by his distinctive knock.”

Voltore is Italian for “vulture.”

Volpone needed to appear to be ill and bedridden when he saw Voltore, so he ordered, “Fetch me my gown, my furs, and my caps. Tell him that my bed is being changed, and let him entertain himself for a while outside in the gallery.”

The caps were worn for warmth. One cap buttoned under the chin and covered hair and ears. The other cap was a skullcap with ear flaps.

Mosca exited.

Volpone said to himself, “Now, now, my clients begin their visitation!”

Clients would visit their patron in the early morning as a form of respect.

Volpone continued, “Vulture, kite, raven, and carrion-crow, all my birds of prey who think that I am turning into a carcass, now they come.”

Voltore was the vulture, Corbaccio was the raven, and Corvino was the crow. These birds all ate carrion, but did not usually kill it — they waited for it to die. Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino were all waiting for Volpone to die. The kite really is a bird of prey, and if anyone is the kite, events would show that Mosca is.

Volpone said, “I am not for them yet.”

He was not yet ready to meet them, nor was he yet a corpse.

Mosca returned with the gown and other items.

Volpone asked, “What is the news?”

Mosca said, “Voltore has brought a piece of plate, sir.”

The plate was a gold utensil.

“How big?” Volpone asked.

“Huge, massy, and antique, with your name inscribed and your coat of arms engraved,” Mosca replied.

“Good!” Volpone said. “And doesn’t it show a fox stretched on the earth, with fine delusive sleights, mocking a gaping crow?”

He was imagining that a sly fox would be a suitable image to engrave on the plate. Foxes would sometimes pretend to be dead. When scavenging birds came near the fox, the fox would spring up and kill a bird and feed on it. Volpone pretended to be near death so that suckers would give him expensive gifts such as this huge plate.

Volpone was also referring to one of Aesop’s fables. A crow had a piece of cheese in its beak, and a fox wanted to eat the cheese. The fox began to praise the crow, and when the fox praised the crow’s singing voice, the crow opened its beak to caw. The cheese fell out of the crow’s mouth, and the fox gobbled it up.

Volpone laughed, “Ha, Mosca?”

He replied, “Your wit is sharp, sir.”

Volpone said, “Give me my furs.”

The furs were meant to keep an ill man warm.

Volpone, putting on his invalid’s clothing, asked Mosca, “Why are you laughing so much, man?”

“I cannot refrain from laughing, sir,” Mosca replied, “when I think about what thoughts Voltore has now, outside, as he walks. He thinks that this might be the last gift he will give to you. He thinks that this gift might be the one that will convince you to make him your heir. He is thinking that if you die today, and give him all you own, what a wealthy man he will be tomorrow. He thinks about what a large return he would get from all his gifts to you. He thinks about how he would be worshiped, and reverenced, by other people. He thinks about how he would ride with his furs on a horse wearing an ornamental cloth that reaches its hooves. He thinks about how he would be waited on by herds of fools and clients. He thinks about how he would have a way cleared for his mule that is as lettered — educated — as himself. He thinks about how he would be called the great and learnéd lawyer, and then he concludes that there’s nothing impossible.”

Volpone said, “Yes, one thing is impossible: to be learnéd, Mosca.”

“Oh, no — you are wrong,” Mosca said. “Being rich implies being learnéd. Hood an ass with reverend purple, so you can hide its two ambitious ears, and it shall pass for a cathedral doctor.”

Doctors wore purple hoods to show that they were learnéd. Hide an ass’ ears with such a hood, and people will think that the ass is learned.

An ambitious man aspires to a high position; an ass’ ears have a high position.

“My nightcaps, my nightcaps, good Mosca,” Volpone said.

He put on the two nightcaps and then said, “Bring Voltore in.”

“Wait, sir,” Mosca said. “You need your ointment for your eyes.”

The ointment made Volpone’s eyes appear to be those of a sick man. Volpone would act as if he were nearly blind, nearly deaf, and nearly dead.

“That’s true,” Volpone said. “I need to use that ointment. Hurry, hurry.”

Mosca helped him by applying the cosmetics and ointment that made him appear to be ill.

Volpone said, “I long to have possession of my new present.”

“That, and thousands more, I hope to see you lord of,” Mosca said.

“Thanks, kind Mosca,” Volpone said.

Mosca began, “And that, when I am dead and lost in blended dust, as are a hundred such servants as I am, in succession —”

He was wishing Volpone an incredibly long life, one in which Volpone would outlive him and one hundred other servants who would, one at a time, take Mosca’s place.

“No, that would be too much, Mosca,” Volpone said.

“You shall live, continually, to delude these Harpies,” Mosca said.

Harpies are half-women, half-birds who torment people by eating their food and fouling the food that they do not eat. Sometimes, they are sent to bedevil sinners. They are also a symbol of greed.

“Loving Mosca!” Volpone said. “My disguise is well done now. Give me my pillow, and let Voltore enter.”

Mosca exited to bring in Voltore.

Poets such as Homer and Virgil began their epics with an invocation to a god or gods to help them with their epic poems. For example, Homer began his Iliad in this way:


Goddess, use me to tell the story of the rage of Achilles, a Greek warrior who had the rage of a god. The rage of the son of Peleus made corpses of many men and sent their souls to the Land of the Dead. Dogs and birds feasted on warriors’ flesh, all because of Achilles and the will of Zeus, king of gods and men.

Volpone now parodied these invocations by praying not to a god or goddess for help but by praying to a number of feigned illnesses for help.

He prayed, “Now, my feigned cough, my feigned tuberculosis, and my feigned gout, my feigned paralysis, feigned palsy, and feigned watery discharges from my nose and eyes, with your artificially induced functions help this my imposture, wherein, these past three years, I have milked their hopes.

“Voltore comes; I hear him.”

Volpone then faked some weak coughs and a groan.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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