David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 6

— 2.6 —

“Let him come in.”

The servant exited.

Corvino, assuming that Volpone had died and that Mosca had come to tell him that news, said to himself, “His master’s dead. There’s yet some good to counteract the bad.”

Mosca entered the room.

“My Mosca, welcome!” Corvino said. “I guess your news.”

“I fear you cannot, sir,” Mosca said.

“Isn’t your news that Volpone is dead?”

“Rather the contrary.”

“Not his recovery?”

“Yes, sir,” Mosca said.

“I am cursed, I am bewitched, my crosses meet to vex me,” Corvino said.

To Corvino, the cross that he bore in Volpone’s not dying was similar to the cross that Christ endured.

Corvino asked, “How? How? How? How?”

“Why, sir, with the mountebank Scoto’s oil,” Mosca replied. “Corbaccio and Voltore brought some of it to Volpone, while I was busy in an inner room.”

“God’s death!” Corvino said, “That damned mountebank! If not for the law, I could now kill the rascal! It cannot be that his oil should have the virtue of restoring Volpone’s health. Haven’t I known the mountebank Scoto to be a common rogue? He comes fiddling into the osteria, aka inn, with a tumbling whore, aka female acrobat or whore, whose work is tumbling in the hay, and when he has done all his forced tricks — tricks he is forced to perform to survive — hasn’t he been glad to get a poor spoonful of stale wine with flies in it?

“It cannot be that his oil is effective. All his ingredients consist of a sheep’s gall, a roasted bitch’s marrow, some few boiled insects, pounded caterpillars, a little capon’s grease, and fasting spittle. I know his ingredients to the smallest portion.”

“Fasting spittle” is a starving man’s spit. No doubt Corvino thought that Scoto was often a starving man.

“I don’t know, sir,” Mosca said, “but some of it they there poured into his ears, and some in his nostrils, and the medicine made him recover. All they did in addition was to massage the oil into his skin.”

“A pox on that massage!” Corvino said.

“And since then, to seem the more zealous and flattering of — giving him high hopes concerning — his health, there, they have had, at extremely high fees, the college of physicians consulting about him and trying to determine how they might restore him to complete health.

“One doctor wants Volpone to have a poultice of spices. Another doctor wants a flayed ape clapped to Volpone’s breast. A third doctor would have it be a dog, and a fourth doctor would have it be an oil, with wild cats’ skins.

“At last, they all resolved that to preserve him there was no other means but that some young woman who is lusty and full of juice must be immediately sought out to sleep by him.”

“Lusty” means “healthy and energetic” and “horny.” “Full of juice” means “energetic” and “wet between the legs.”

In 1 Kings 1:1-4, a young woman is brought to sleep with the very old King David to keep him warm, but he does not have sex with her:

1 Now king David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat.

2 Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.

3 So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunammite, and brought her to the king.

4 And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not. (King James Version)

Mosca continued, “And in this service, most unhappily and most unwillingly I am now employed: I have been sent to find a young woman to sleep with Volpone. I thought to pre-acquaint you with that here, in order to get your advice, since it concerns you most and because I would not do anything that might cross your ends. I don’t want to do anything that might prevent you from inheriting Volpone’s wealth. On you I am wholly dependent, sir. After Volpone dies, I will need a new position.

“Yet, if I do not find a young woman to sleep with Volpone, Corbaccio and Voltore and the physicians may report my slackness to Volpone and work me out of his good opinion, and then all your hopes, ventures, or whatsoever will all be frustrated!

“I do but tell you, sir; I am simply reporting news you need to know. Besides, they are all now competing to determine who shall first present him with a young woman to sleep with. Therefore … I entreat you to quickly decide what you will do, and I entreat you to act first and forestall them, if you can.”

“This is death to my hopes!” Corvino said. “This is my villainous fortune! It is best to hire some common courtesan — some common prostitute.”

“Yes, I thought about that, sir,” Mosca said. “But whores are all so cunning, so full of artifice, and men of old age on the other hand are doting and gullible, so that — I cannot tell for sure — but we may, perhaps, light on a whore who may cheat us all. She may inherit Volpone’s wealth!”

“That is true,” Corvino said.

“So no, no to using a prostitute,” Mosca said. “The young woman must be one who has no tricks, sir. Some simple thing, a creature who can be made to do it, some wench you may command. Have you no kinswoman you can order to do it? God’s so —”

This expletive meant “By God’s soul” and sounded like “cazzo,” which is Italian for “cock.”

Mosca continued, “Think, think, think, think, think, think, think, sir.”

He hesitated and then added, “One of the doctors there offered his daughter.”

“What!” Corvino said.

“Yes, Signior Lupo, the physician.”

Lupo is Italian for “Wolf.”

“His daughter!” Corvino said.

“And she is a virgin, sir,” Mosca said. “Why? Alas, the physician knows the state of Volpone’s body, what it is. The physician knows that nothing can warm Volpone’s blood, sir, but a fever. The physician knows that no incantation can raise Volpone’s spirit. A long forgetfulness has seized that part.”

In other words, Mosca is saying nothing can raise Volpone’s penis; he has been impotent for a long time.

Mosca added, “Besides, sir, who shall know it? Some one or two —”

Corvino interrupted, “Please let me think for a moment.”

He walked a short distance away to think.

He said to himself, “If any man but I had had this luck. … The thing in itself, I know, is nothing. … Why shouldn’t I command my blood and my affections just like this dull doctor does? In the point of honor, the cases are all one of wife and daughter.”

“Command my blood and my affections” meant both “control my passions and feelings” and “order my relative, who is one with me and who is the object of my affections” to do something. In Corvino’s case, the relative was his wife; in the doctor’s case, the relative was his daughter. (Of course, Mosca had simply made up the doctor and daughter.)

Mosca said to himself, “I hear him coming.”

The “coming” was “coming around to the way Mosca was persuading him” and “Corvino beginning to move toward Mosca.”

Corvino said to himself, “She is my wife — she shall do it. It is done: I have made my decision. By God’s light! If this doctor, who is not engaged, unless it be for his counsel, which is nothing, offers Volpone his daughter, what should I, who am so deeply in, do? The doctor stands to make a fee, but I stand to inherit all of Volpone’s wealth. I will forestall the doctor.

“Wretch! Covetous wretch!”

Was he thinking that perhaps the doctor was making an attempt at inheriting Volpone’s wealth and was therefore a covetous wretch? Or was Corvino referring to himself?

Corvino said out loud, “I have determined what I shall do.”

“What is that, sir?” Mosca asked.

“We’ll make all sure,” Corvino said. “We’ll make me sure of inheriting Volpone’s wealth. Mosca, the party you know of shall be my own wife.”

He used the euphemism “party you know of” because he was unwilling to say “young woman who shall sleep with Volpone.”

Mosca said, “Sir, that is the thing — except that I would not seem to advise you — I would have proposed to you at the first. And now you make your count and inventory all of Volpone’s possessions, which you are sure to inherit, because with this decision you have cut all your competitors’ throats in this cutthroat competition.

“Why, this decision is directly taking a legal possession of Volpone’s wealth!

“And when Volpone suffers his next fit, we may let him go and die. All we need to do is only to pull the pillow from under his head, and he is throttled to death. It would have been done previously, except for your moral scruples and doubts.”

When people in this society were dying, their pillows were taken away from under their heads to make it easier to die. Mosca was making a joke: Removing Volpone’s pillow would make it easier for Volpone to die because Mosca would use the pillow to smother Volpone to death.

“Yes, a plague on it,” Corvino said. “My conscience fools my wit! My conscience won’t allow me to do what my intelligence tells me I need to do to inherit Volpone’s wealth.

“Well, I’ll be quick, and so you should be, lest they should be before us and find a young woman to sleep with Volpone.

“Go home, prepare Volpone, tell him with what zeal and willingness I am doing it. Swear that it was on my first hearing about it (as you may do truly) that I made my own freely made proposal.”

“Sir, I promise you that I’ll so possess him with your generosity that the rest of his starved clients shall all be banished from his house and only you shall be allowed to visit him. But do not come, sir, until I send the OK to you because I have something else to ripen for your good — but you must not know what it is.”

Mosca did not want Corvino and Celia to arrive early. He first wanted to get Corbaccio to disinherit his own son. Of course, this was not for Corvino’s benefit.

Corvino said, “Be careful not to forget to send the OK to me.”

“You don’t need to worry about that,” Mosca said.

Mosca exited.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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