David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 1, Scene 5

— 1.5 —

Corvino entered the room. Corvino is Italian for “crow.”

Mosca said, “Signior Corvino! You have come when you were most wished for! Oh, how happy would you be, if you knew it, now!”

Corvino asked, “Why? What? Wherein?”

“The tardy hour has come, sir,” Mosca said.

“Volpone is not dead, is he?” Corvino asked.

“He is not dead, sir, but he is as good as dead,” Mosca replied. “He knows no man.”

Corvino asked, “What shall I do then?”

“What do you mean, sir?” Mosca asked.

“I have brought him here a pearl as a gift,” Corvino said.

If Volpone could not recognize Corvino, Corvino would get no credit for giving him a valuable gift.

Mosca said, “Perhaps he has enough remembrance left as to know you, sir. He continually calls for you. Nothing but your name is in his mouth.

“Is your pearl orient, sir?”

Pearls from the orient were the most valuable.

“Venice was never owner of the like,” Corvino said.

Volpone said faintly, “Signior Corvino.”

“Listen,” Mosca said.

Volpone again said faintly, “Signior Corvino.”

Mosca said, “He calls you; step over to him and give him the pearl.”

Mosca said to Volpone, “Signior Corvino is here, sir, and he has brought you a rich pearl.”

Corvino gave the pearl to Volpone, who grabbed it and held it tightly.

Corvino said to Volpone, “How are you, sir?”

He then said to Mosca, “Tell Volpone that the pearl doubles the twelfth carat.”

The pearl’s size was twenty-four carats; it was a very large and very valuable pearl.

“Sir, he cannot understand; his hearing’s gone, and yet it comforts him to see you.”

Corvino said, “Say that I have a diamond for him, too.”

Mosca said, “It’s best for you to show it, sir. Put it into his hand; it is only there he apprehends. He has his feeling, yet.”

Volpone grabbed the diamond.

Mosca said, “See how he grasps it!”

“Alas, good gentleman!” Corvino said. “How pitiful the sight is!”

“Tut!” Mosca said, “You forget, sir. The weeping of an heir should always be laughter under a mask.”

“Why, am I his heir?” Corvino asked.

Mosca replied, “Sir, I am sworn. I may not show you the will until Volpone is dead, but here has been Corbaccio, here has been Voltore, here have been others, too. I cannot number them because they were so many. All of them had their mouths open hoping for legacies: They all want to inherit Volpone’s wealth. But I, taking the opportunity given by his calling for you — ‘Signior Corvino, Signior Corvino’ — took paper, and pen, and ink, and there I asked him whom he would have to be his heir? ‘Corvino.’ Who should be his executor? ‘Corvino.’ And, to any question he was silent to, I always interpreted the nods he made, through weakness and palsy, for consent, and I sent home the others, with nothing bequeathed to them, except a reason to cry and curse.”

According to Mosca’s story, Volpone’s illness included palsy, which made him nod. Although the nods were involuntary movements caused by the palsy, Mosca had always interpreted them as being voluntary acknowledgments that Volpone wanted Corvino to be his heir and the executor of his will.

Corvino said, “Oh, my dear Mosca!”

He hugged him.

Corvino asked, “Doesn’t he perceive us?”

“No more than a blind harper would,” Mosca replied.

A blind harper such as the epic poet Homer, who strummed a lyre as he sang his poems, would perceive quite a lot.

Mosca continued, “He knows no man, no face of friend, nor name of any servant, nor who fed him last or gave him something to drink. Not even those he has begotten, or brought up, can he remember.”

“Has he children?” Corvino asked.

“Bastards,” Mosca said. “Some dozen, or more, whom he begot on beggars, gypsies, and Jews, and blacks, when he was drunk. Didn’t you know that, sir? It is the common talk of the town. The dwarf, the Fool, and the eunuch in this house are all his. He’s the true biological father of his family, in all, except me — but he has given them nothing.”

“That’s good, that’s good,” Corvino said. “Are you sure he doesn’t hear us?”

“Am I sure, sir?” Mosca said. “Why, look and listen, then give credit to your own senses.”

Mosca shouted in Volpone’s ear, “May the pox — syphilis — approach, and add to your diseases, if it would send you into the hereafter sooner, sir, because your sexual incontinence has deserved syphilis through and through, and thoroughly, and it deserves the plague to boot!”

What Mosca said about Volpone’s sexual incontinence may be true, but Volpone was pretending to be so ill that he is incapable of sexual incontinence.

Mosca said to Corvino, “You may come close, sir.”

Mosca shouted in Volpone’s ear, “I wish that you would once and for all close those filthy eyes of yours that flow with slime like two frog-ponds, and I wish the termination of those same hanging cheeks that are covered with hide instead of skin —”

Mosca said to Corvino, “Help me, sir.”

Mosca continued, “— and that look like frozen dishrags set on end!”

Corvino said loudly, “Or that look like an old smoked wall, on which the rain ran down in streaks!”

“Excellent! Sir, speak out,” Mosca said. “You may be louder still. A firearm discharged in his ear would hardly penetrate it and make itself heard.”

Corvino shouted, “His nose is like a common sewer, always running.”

“That is good!” Mosca said. “And what about his mouth?”

“It is a complete cesspool,” Corvino said.

“Oh, stop his mouth,” Mosca said. “Suffocate him.”

“By no means,” Corvino said. “No way.”

“Please let me do it,” Mosca said. “Truly, I could stifle him excellently with a pillow — as well as any woman could who should look after him.”

“Do as you will,” Corvino said, “but I’ll be gone.”

Corvino did not want to witness the murder.

“Do as you wish,” Mosca said. “It is your presence that makes him last so long.”

“Please use no violence,” Corvino said.

“No?” Mosca said. “Sir, why not? Why should you have such scruples, sir?”

“Use your discretion,” Corvino said.

Mosca had called Corvino’s bluff. Corvino did not mind if Mosca were to murder Volpone, but Corvino did not want to witness it or get in legal trouble for it.

“Well, good sir, leave,” Mosca said.

Corvino said, “Shouldn’t I trouble Volpone now and take my pearl back?”

Mosca said, “Pooh! Nor your diamond.”

Mosca meant that Corvino should not trouble Volpone by taking his pearl and diamond back again.

Mosca said, “What a needless worry is this that afflicts you? Isn’t everything that is here yours?”

If Corvino were Volpone’s heir, as Corvino supposed, Corvino would inherit all of Volpone’s wealth, including the diamond and pearl that Volpone was holding.

Mosca said, “Am not I here, whom you have made your servant? Am I not here, who owe my being to you?”

Mosca had stated that he was willing to murder Volpone for Corvino. If this happened, Corvino would get back his two jewels quickly.

“Grateful Mosca!” Corvino said. “You are my friend, my fellow, my companion, and my partner, and you shall share in all my fortunes.”

“Excepting one,” Mosca said.

“What’s that?” Corvino said.

“Your gorgeous wife, sir.”

Corvino immediately exited. He was a jealous man, and he was leaving to check up on his wife. Soon, however, he would be willing to allow Volpone to sleep with his wife if it would get him Volpone’s wealth. Because he was willing to allow Volpone to cuckold him, it is appropriate that he gave Volpone a diamond and a pearl — two precious stones. In this society, testicles were called stones. They are still known as the family jewels.

Mosca said, “Now he is gone. We had no other way to shoo him away from here, but this.”

“My divine Mosca!” Volpone said. “You have outdone yourself today!”

Knocking sounded on the door.

Volpone said, “Who’s there? I will be troubled with no more visitors. Prepare for me music, dances, banquets, and all delights. The Turk is not more sensual in his pleasures than Volpone will be.”

The Turk was Mahomet III, the Ottoman Sultan, who was also known as the Grand Turk. He was known for taking great delight in sensual, including sexual, pleasures.

Mosca exited.

Volpone looked over the morning’s profits, saying, “Let me see. A pearl! A diamond! Plate! Gold coins! A good morning’s haul! Why, this is better than robbing churches, even. Or getting fat, by eating, once a month, a man.”

The eating of a man was metaphorical. He was referring to devouring a man by collecting the interest each month on usurious loans, or by grinding down the man through excessive hard work. One man’s ruin can be another man’s source of wealth.

Mosca returned.

“Who is it?” Volpone asked.

“‘The beauteous Lady Politic Would-be, sir. Wife to the English knight, Sir Politic Would-be.’ These are the exact words I have been demanded to say to you. She has sent a squire to learn how you slept last night and to ask whether you would be willing to entertain visitors.”

“Not now,” Volpone said. “She can visit me some three hours from now.”

“I told the squire as much,” Mosca said.

Volpone said, “When I am high with mirth and wine, then, then.

“Before Heaven, I wonder at the desperate valor of the bold English, that they dare let loose their wives to all encounters!”

Venetian men such as Corvino kept a close eye on their wives; in contrast, Englishmen such as Sir Politic Would-be gave their wives free rein.

Mosca said, “Sir, this knight had his name not for nothing. He is politic and cunning, and knows, however his wife may affect strange airs, she hasn’t the face to be dishonest.”

In other words, the knight’s wife’s face was not pretty enough to have an affair.

He continued, “But if she had Signior Corvino’s wife’s face …”

“Has she so excellent a face?” Volpone asked.

“Oh, sir, her face is the wonder, the blazing star of Italy!” Mosca said. “She is a wench of the first year! She is a beauty as ripe as harvest! Her skin is whiter than a swan all over; it is whiter than silver, snow, or lilies! She has a soft lip that would tempt you to an eternity of kissing! And she has flesh that melts in the touch to blood!”

Touching her skin would make her blush — or grow hot with sexual passion.

Mosca continued, likening her to what Volpone loved best: “She is as bright as your gold, and as lovely as your gold!”

“Why haven’t I known this before?” Volpone asked.

“Alas, sir,” Mosca said. “I myself discovered it only yesterday.”

“How might I see her?” Volpone asked.

“Oh, that is not possible,” Mosca said. “She’s guarded as warily as is your gold. She never goes out of doors and never gets fresh air except at a window. All her looks are sweet as the first grapes or cherries, and her looks are watched as closely as the first grapes or cherries are.”

The first grapes or cherries are watched very carefully to ensure that the crop is harvested at the best time.

“I must see her,” Volpone said.

“Sir, there is a guard of spies ten thick upon her,” Mosca said. “The spies are Corvino’s whole household. Each spy is set to spy upon his fellow, and all the spies have their orders to spy upon his wife. When Corvino leaves or enters his home, he has his spies report to him.”

“I will go see her, though but at her window,” Volpone said.

“If you do, wear some disguise, then,” Mosca said.

“That is true,” Volpone said. “I must maintain my pretense of being a seriously ill man. We’ll think about which disguise I can use.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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