David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 3, Scene 7

— 3.7 —

Mosca answered the door and discovered that he had been mistaken. He had expected Bonario’s father, Corbaccio, to come, and so he had thought that Corbaccio had knocked. Instead, Corvino and his wife, Celia, were at the door. This was contrary to Mosca’s plan. He wanted Bonario to witness his father disinheriting him; he did not want Bonario to witness Volpone sleeping with Celia.

“Death on me!” Mosca said. “You have come too soon. Why did you? Didn’t I say that I would send word to you about when to come?”

“Yes, but I feared that you might forget,” Corvino said, “and then my rivals might strike first.”

Mosca thought, They might strike first! Has a man ever been so eager to be given the horns of a cuckold! A courtier would not work this eagerly even for a sinecure — a position with much money but little work — at court!

He said, “Well, now there’s no helping it. Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

He exited.

Corvino looked behind him and said, “Where are you, Celia? Do you know why I have brought you here?”

Celia replied, “Not well, except what you have told me.”

Corvino said, “Now I will tell you in more detail. Come here and listen.”

They talked together.

Mosca went to the closet in which Bonario was concealed and knocked.

Bonario opened the closet door, and Mosca said to him, “Sir, your father has sent word that it will be half an hour before he comes, and therefore, if you please to walk to that gallery at the upper end, there are some books to entertain you and pass the time, and I’ll take care that no man shall come and see you, sir.”

Bonario replied, “Yes, I will stay there.”

He thought, I don’t trust this fellow.

He exited.

Mosca watched him go and said to himself, “He is far enough away there that he can hear nothing. And, as for his father, I can keep him away until the right time.”

Mosca then went to Volpone’s room, where Volpone was lying on a couch, pretending to be ill. Mosca entered the room and went to him.

Meanwhile, Bonario returned and reentered the closet because he did not trust Mosca. Bonario could hear whatever happened in Volpone’s room.

Corvino and Celia argued as he forced her into Volpone’s room. Volpone and Mosca were able to overhear them.

Corvino said, “Now, there is no going back, and therefore, resolve upon doing what I tell you to do. I have so decreed: It must be done. Nor would I tell you before this because I wanted to avoid all shifts and tricks that might deny me what I want.”

Celia said, “Sir, let me beg you not to continue to make these strange trials of my chastity.”

Earlier, Corvino had said that he was testing her when he “pretended” to be jealous of her and the mountebank. Celia was hoping that this was another test.

She continued, “If you doubt my chastity, why, lock me up forever: Make me the heir of darkness. Let me live where I may set your jealous fears to rest, even if I don’t have your trust.”

“Believe it, I have no such jealousy,” her husband said. “All that I speak I mean, yet I’m not mad. Nor am I horn-mad, do you see?”

A horn-mad man was afraid of being cuckolded, or he was angry at being cuckolded. Corvino was acting in such a way that it seemed he wanted his wife to cuckold him, and so he was not horn-mad.

He said, “Show me that you are an obedient wife.”

“Oh, Heaven!” Celia said.

“I say to you that I want you to do this,” Corvino said.

“Is this a trap you have set for me?” Celia asked.

“I’ve told you the reasons for doing this,” her husband said. “The physicians have determined that Volpone is impotent and is dying.”

So Corvino had been led to believe.

He continued, “Volpone’s death and his will concern me very much. I have made commitments in this business venture: I have given many expensive gifts to Volpone, and it is a necessity for me to regain those gifts and a profit in the form of a legacy. Therefore, if you are my loyal wife, be won over to my side and respect my venture by doing what I tell you to do.”

“Should I respect your venture more than I respect your honor?” Celia asked. “Is your financial venture more important than your honor?”

“What is ‘honor’?” Corvino asked. “Tut, it is only a breath. There’s no such thing in nature. ‘Honor’ is a mere term invented to awe fools. What! Is my gold the worse because other people have touched it? Are my clothes the worse because other people have looked at them? Why, this is no more.”

No more? He meant that his wife would be no worse should Volpone touch her and see her in bed. She would also be no worse if she slept with Volpone.

Corvino continued, “Volpone is an old decrepit wretch, and he has lost the use of his senses. He has no strength. He has to be fed his food with other people’s fingers. All he knows is to open his mouth when his gums are scalded with hot food. Volpone is only a voice, a shadow. How can this man hurt you?”

Celia prayed, “Lord, what evil spirit has entered my husband?”

Corvino said, “And as for being worried about your reputation, that’s such a laughable excuse. As if I would go and tell what you will have done, and shout it out loud on the Piazza! Who shall know what you will have done, except Volpone, who cannot speak and tell anyone about it, and this fellow Mosca, whose lips are in my pocket? He serves me, and so he will be quiet about this. Unless you yourself proclaim what you will have done, I know no other way that others shall come to know about it.”

Celia asked, “Are Heaven and saints then nothing? Will they be too blind to see this, or too stupid to understand what they see?”

“What!” Corvino said.

“Good sir,” Celia said, “continue to be jealous about me. Emulate Heaven and the saints. Think about what hate they burn with toward every sin.”

“I grant that if I thought this were a sin, I would not urge you to commit it,” Corvino said. “If I would offer this to some young Frenchman, or some hot Tuscan blood who had read Aretine, conned all his pornographic prints, knew every twist and turn within lust’s labyrinth, and were a professed expert in lechery, and if I would look upon him and applaud him, then this would be a sin.

“But this here is the contrary of a sin. It is a pious work, a good deed, and complete charity that will help an ill man, and it is an honorable course of action to assure that I will get my own.”

What he considered “his own” were the gifts he had given to Volpone and the legacy he expected to receive when Volpone died.

“Oh, Heaven!” Celia said. “Can you, Heaven, endure such a change as this that has occurred in my husband?”

Corvino had gone from being overly jealous of his wife to being overly eager to place her in a position in which she could willingly commit adultery — or be raped.

Volpone said quietly, “You are my honor, Mosca, and my pride, my joy, my tickling, my delight! Go and bring them near.”

Mosca went to Corvino and said, “Please come near, sir.”

Corvino said to Celia, “Come on.”

She stood still, and he said, “What! I won’t allow you to be rebellious! By that light —”

Mosca said to Volpone, “Sir, Signior Corvino has come here to see you.”

“Oh!” Volpone said weakly.

Mosca said, “And hearing about the medical consultation held so recently about your health, he has come to offer, or rather, sir, to prostitute —”

One meaning, now obsolete, of “to prostitute” was “to offer selflessly with complete devotion.”

“Thanks, sweet Mosca,” Corvino said.

Mosca continued, “— freely, unasked, and unentreated —”

“That is well said,” Corvino said.

Mosca continued, “— as the true fervent instance of his love for you, his own most fair and proper wife, the beauty only of price in Venice —”

Celia was Corvino’s fair and proper wife. She was beautiful, she was his legally married wife, and she was proper in her behavior. She was seemly, decorous, and respectable. To Corvino, however, she was “only of price.” What he valued was only the wealth she could bring him by sleeping with Volpone.

“Only of price” also means “unique in value.”

Corvino said to Mosca, “You have stated that well.”

Mosca continued, “— to be your female comforter, and to preserve and save you.”

Volpone said weakly, “Alas, I am already past being saved!”

Some readers may agree.

He continued, “Please thank him for his good care and promptness, but despite his good care and promptness, it is a vain labor even to fight against Heaven, and to apply fire to stone —”

He broke out in a fit of coughing: “Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!”

“To apply fire to stone” was an expression denoting uselessness. It is useless to apply fire to stone in an attempt to make the stone catch on fire.

However, “stone” was also a slang word meaning “testicle,” and bringing Celia to Volpone was applying sexual fire to Volpone’s testicles.

Volpone had started coughing in order to keep himself from laughing at his own pun.

Volpone continued, “— or to make a dead leaf grow again.”

A part of Volpone’s body that was supposed to be dead would start to grow again if Volpone were left alone with Celia, if Volpone had his way, and his way with her.

Volpone continued, “I take his wishes kindly, though, and you may tell him what I have done for him.”

Corvino listened closely, thinking that Volpone had definitely made him his heir.

Volpone continued, “Indeed, my state is hopeless. I wish for him to pray for me, and to use his fortune with reverence, when he comes to have it.”

“Reverence” means “deep respect.” Corvino’s actions showed that he had no reverence for Volpone, Celia, or God.

Mosca said to Corvino, “Did you hear that, sir? Go to him with your wife.”

Corvino tried to make Celia go over to Volpone’s bed, but she resisted.

He swore, “Heart of my father! Will you persist in being thus obstinate? Come, please, come. You can see that it is nothing, Celia.”

He meant that she could see that Volpone was too ill to be able to engage in sex.

Corvino continued, “By this hand—”

He raised his hand in the air and threatened her with it.

He continued, “— I swear that I shall grow violent. Come, do it, I say.”

“Sir, kill me, instead,” Celia said. “I will swallow poison, eat burning coals, do anything —”

Corvino interrupted, “Be damned! Sweetheart, I’ll drag you away from here to home, by the hair. I will cry out in the streets that you are a strumpet. I will rip your face from your mouth to your ears, and I will slit your nose like I would slit the nose of a raw rotchet!”

A rotchet is a fish that is now called the red gurnard. Its head is bony, and to cut it requires much force.

He continued, “Do not provoke me. Come, yield to me, I am loath —”

He was loathsome.

Corvino continued, “By God’s death I swear I will buy some slave whom I will kill, and I will bind you — alive — to him, and I will hang you outside my window. I will imagine some monstrous crime that I, in capital letters, will use acid and burning corrosives to eat into the flesh of your stubborn breast. Now, by the blood you have incensed in me, I’ll do it!”

“Sir, what you please, you may do,” Celia replied. “I am your martyr.”

“Don’t be obstinate like this,” her husband said. “I have not deserved it. Think who it is who is entreating you to do this. Please, sweetheart, you shall indeed have jewels, gowns, clothing and headdresses. Think of what you want, and ask for it. Only go and kiss him, or just touch him … for my sake … at my request … just this once. You won’t! No! You will not! I shall remember this. Will you disgrace me thus? Do you crave — thirst for — my undoing, my ruination?”

Mosca said to Celia, “Gentle lady, be persuaded.”

“No, no,” Corvino said. “She has watched for the right time she can strike and ruin me. By God’s precious blood, this action of hers is scurvy, it is very scurvy, and you, Celia, are —”

“Be calm, good sir,” Mosca said.

Corvino continued, “—an arrant locust, by Heaven, a locust! A plague of locusts! Whore, crocodile, you who have prepared your tears in advance, anticipating the best time that you can let them flow —”

Crocodiles were thought to cry tears in order to draw their prey toward them. Earlier, Mosca had shed tears in order to manipulate Bonario.

“Please, sir,” Mosca said. “She will consider your request.”

Celia said, “I wish that the loss of my life would serve to satisfy —”

“By God’s death!” Corvino swore. “If she would just speak to him, and save my reputation, it would be something, but she spitefully desires my utter ruination!”

Mosca said, “It is true that you have now put your fortune in her hands.”

In other words, Celia must sleep with Volpone, or Corvino will be ruined.

Mosca continued, “Why, truly she is holding back because of her modesty. I must acquit her of having any other motivation. If you were absent, she would be more forthcoming.”

He thought, And she would be more cumming.

He continued, “I know it, and I dare undertake to say that for her. What woman can before her husband?”

Can what? Commit adultery.

Mosca continued, “Please, let us depart, and leave her here.”

Corvino said, “Sweet Celia, you may still redeem everything. I’ll say no more. If you don’t, consider yourself as lost.”

Corvino and Mosca began to leave.

Celia tried to follow them, but her husband ordered her, “No, stay there.”

Corvino and Mosca exited.

Celia said to herself, “Oh, God, and His good angels! To where, where, has shame fled from human breasts? How is it possible that with such ease men dare put off your — God’s and the good angels’ — honors, and their own? Is honorable marriage, which always was a cause of life — a reason to live, and an honorable way to bring children into the world — now placed beneath the basest circumstance? Is honorable marriage now valued less than the worst situation? And has modesty been made an exile because of money?”

Volpone said with vigorous good health, “Yes, in the case of Corvino, and other such earth-fed minds —”

He jumped off the couch and continued “— who have never tasted the true Heaven of love. Assure yourself, Celia, that he who would sell you only for the hope of gain — and that hope uncertain — would have sold his portion of Paradise for ready money, if he had met a merchant who would buy it.”

Celia, of course, was amazed to see Volpone’s vigorous good health.

Volpone asked, “Why are you amazed to see me thus revived? You should rather applaud the miracle that your beauty has made; my revival is your great work. Your beauty has, not just now, but many times raised me, in several shapes.”

One shape was the form of an erect penis; the other shape was the disguise of a mountebank. He was lying that he had assumed additional shapes, aka figures, aka disguises, to see her.

He continued, “Just this morning, I assumed the disguise of a mountebank in order to see you at your window. Yes, before I would have stopped my scheming for your love, in varying figures, I would have contended with the blue Proteus, or the horned flood.”

Proteus was a sea-god who was a shape-shifter. In Homer’s Odyssey, Menelaus tells a story of sneaking up on Proteus and holding on to him as he changed shapes and tried to escape. After Proteus gave up trying to escape, he answered Menelaus’ questions. As a sea-god, Proteus was sea-colored, aka blue.

In this culture, rivers were often called floods. The horned flood referred to was the shape-shifting river-god Achelous. Hercules and Achelous fought over the mortal woman Deianira. Achelous assumed three shapes — a bull, a snake, and a man with an ox-like face — but Hercules defeated each shape.

Volpone said, “Now you are welcome.”

“Sir!” Celia said, backing away from him as he advanced toward her.

“No, don’t flee from me,” Volpone said. “And don’t let your false imagination that I was bedridden make you think I am so. You shall not find that to be true. I am now as fresh, as hot, as high, and in as Jovian a situation as when, in that so celebrated scene, at the recitation of our comedy, for the entertainment of the great Valois, I acted the part of young Antinous and attracted the eyes and ears of all the ladies present — they admired each of my graceful gestures, notes, and movements.”

A typical Jovian situation is one in which Jove, King of the gods, transforms himself into another shape in order to commit adultery — often consisting of rape — with a mortal woman. For example, he transformed into a swan in order to have sex with Leda, who gave birth to Castor and Pollux, and he transformed into a shower of gold in order to have sex with Semele, who became the mother of Bacchus.

The “great Valois” is Henry of Valois, who became King Henry III of France. When his brother King Charles IX of France died without leaving children in 1574, Henry returned to France. He traveled through Venice, where he was royally entertained, including with theatrical entertainments.

Antinous was a beautiful young man who was a favorite of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Henry of Valois was thought to be a transvestite who would have enjoyed looking at — and perhaps more — the beautiful young man.

Volpone thought of Jove — and himself — as so good-looking that women found themselves attracted to them. But Jove often committed rape.

Volpone now sang this song:

Come, my Celia, let us prove [try],

While we can, the sports of love,

Time will not be ours forever,

He [Time], at length, our good [well-being] will sever;

Spend not then his gifts in vain;

Suns, that set, may rise again:

But if once we lose this light,

It is with us perpetual night [death].

Why should we defer our joys?

Fame [Reputation] and rumor [gossip] are but toys [trifles].

Cannot we delude the eyes

Of a few poor household spies?

Or his [Corvino’s] easier ears beguile,

Thus removed [not present] by our wile [trick]? —

It is no sin love’s fruits to steal:

But the sweet thefts to reveal;

To be taken [caught in the act], to be seen,

These have crimes accounted been.

This was a carpe diem — seize the day — song. Soon we will die, and therefore we ought to enjoy what pleasure we can. It was also a seduction song arguing that it is not the committing of adultery that is wrong — instead, getting caught committing adultery is wrong.

Celia prayed, “May some malignant mist blast me or some dire lightning strike this my offending face!”

Her face offended her because its beauty was causing Volpone to act like a beast.

“Why droops my Celia?” Volpone said. “You have, in place of a base husband, found a worthy lover. Use your fortune well, with secrecy and pleasure.”

He opened his treasure chest and said, “Look and behold what you are Queen of, not merely in expectation, as I feed the hope of expectation to others; instead, you are definitely possessed of this treasure, and you are crowned as its Queen.”

Volpone held a necklace and said, “Look! Here is a pearl necklace. Each pearl is more valuable than that pearl the brave Egyptian queen caroused with. Dissolve these pearls and drink them.”

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, once dissolved a very valuable pearl in vinegar and drank it in order to impress Mark Antony. Things ended badly for them; both of them committed suicide.

Volpone held some jewels and said, “Look! Here is a ruby that may put out both the eyes of our St. Mark of Venice.”

The ruby was so valuable that, according to Volpone, it could bribe even a saint to close his eyes and not see adultery being committed under his nose.

Volpone continued, “Here is a diamond that would have bought Lollia Paulina, when she came in like starlight, hidden under jewels that were the spoils of provinces.”

Lollia Paulina, wife of the Roman Emperor Caligula, wore alternate layers of emeralds and pearls “upon her head, in her hair, in her wreaths, in her ears, upon her neck, in her bracelets, and on her fingers,” according to the Roman historian Pliny. Her grandfather had taken the jewels from the provinces he ruled. Things ended badly for all of these people. Caligula was assassinated, and both Lollia and her grandfather committed suicide.

Volpone continued, “Take these jewels and wear and lose them. There still remains an earring valuable enough to purchase them again, and this whole state of Venice.”

His words were ambiguous. They could have meant that there still remained an earring that was valuable enough to purchase again the lost jewels as well as the whole state of Venice (in which case, he was lying), or his words could have meant there still remains a valuable earring and there still remains the whole state of Venice.

He continued, “A gem that is worth only an individual person’s entire estate is nothing: We will eat the value of such a gem at a single meal. The heads of parrots, the tongues of nightingales, and the brains of peacocks and ostriches shall be our food, and if we could get the phoenix, although the bird would become extinct, it would be our dish.”

The phoenix is a mythical bird of Arabia. Only one exists at a time, and every five hundred years it sets itself on fire and is reborn from the ashes. Since only one phoenix exists, if Volpone and Celia were to eat it, it would become extinct.

Celia said, “Good sir, these things might move a mind affected by such delights, but I, whose innocence is all I can think is valuable, or worth the enjoying, and which, once lost, I have nothing to lose beyond it, cannot be captured with these sensual baits. If you have a conscience —”

Volpone interrupted, “A conscience is the beggar’s virtue. If you have wisdom, listen to me, Celia. Your baths shall be the juice of July-flowers and of the spirit of roses and of violets, the milk of unicorns, and panthers’ breath gathered in bags, and mixed with Cretan wines.”

July-flowers are clove-scented pinks, unicorns are mythological beings associated with virgins, panthers were believed to have sweet breath that attracted prey, and wine from Crete was expensive.

He continued, “Our drink shall be prepared with gold and ambergris, which we will drink until my roof whirls round with the vertigo. And my dwarf shall dance, my eunuch shall sing, and my Fool shall make up the antic, aka grotesque dance, while we, in changed shapes, will enact Ovid’s tales of changes and metamorphoses. Now you shall be like Europa, and I will be like Jove.”

Europa was a Phoenician woman whom Jove, King of the gods, lusted after. He transformed himself into a white bull, Europa climbed onto his back, and he kidnapped her by running into the ocean and swimming to Crete, where he either seduced or raped her. She became the first Queen of Crete and the mother of Minos. Europe is named after her.

Volpone continued, “Then I will be like Mars, and you will be like Erycine.”

Erycine is a name for Venus, goddess of sexual passion. A temple on Mount Eryx in Sicily was dedicated to her. In Homer’s Odyssey, a blind bard sings a story of how the two immortals had an affair, which ended badly for them. Being immortal, Mars and Venus cannot die, but Venus’ husband, Vulcan, discovered the affair and set a trap for them. While they were having sex, he threw fine chains over them, netting and trapping them. Then he called over the gods and goddesses to look at and laugh at the unhappy adulterers. The goddesses were embarrassed and stayed home, but the gods came to jeer and mock and laugh. By the way, the immortals’ Greek names are Ares (Mars), Aphrodite (Venus), and Hephaestus (Vulcan).

Volpone continued, “We will change into the shapes of all the rest of the lovers in Ovid’s Metamorphoses until we have quite run through them and wearied all the fables of the gods.

“Then I will have you sexually in more modern forms. You will be attired like some sprightly dame of France, a splendid Tuscan lady, or a proud Spanish beauty. Sometimes, you will seem to be the Persian Shah’s wife, or the Grand Signior of Turkey’s mistress, and for a change you will appear to be one of Venice’s most skillful courtesans, or some sexually quick and lively Negro, or a cold Russian, and I will meet you sexually in as many shapes where we may so transfuse our wandering souls” — he kissed her, an act that in the case of spiritual love involved an interchange of souls — “out at our lips, and score up such sums of pleasures —”

He sang these lines:

That the curious shall not know

How to tell [count] them as they flow;

And the envious, when they find

What their number is, will be pined [pained].

They would kiss so many times that curious onlookers would not be able to count them and envious people, once they found out the number of kisses, would feel pain.

As she tried to escape from Volpone’s advances, Celia pleaded, “If you have ears that will be pierced — or eyes that can be opened — or a heart that may be touched — or any part that yet proclaims manhood about you —”

Volpone would think that his penis proclaims his manhood, but for Celia true manhood lay in spiritual strength.

She continued, “— if you have the slightest trace of the purity of the holy saints — or of Heaven — give me mercy and let me escape — if not, be bountiful and kill me. You know that I am a creature, here ill betrayed by one — my husband — whose shame I would like to forget it is.

“If you will deign to give me neither of these graces, yet feed your wrath, sir, rather than your lust — wrath is a vice that comes closer to manliness — and punish that unhappy crime of nature, that crime which you miscall my beauty. Skin my face, or poison it with ointments, as a punishment for its seducing your blood and passion to this rebellion against ethical conduct. Rub these hands of mine with something that may cause an eating leprosy all the way down to my bones and marrow. Do anything that will disfigure me, except when it comes to my honor — and I will kneel to you, I will pray for you, I will make a thousand hourly vows, sir, for your health, and I will report to everyone — and believe it, too — that you are virtuous —”

The thought of his being virtuous enraged Volpone, who considered it a charge of impotence.

He said, “Do you think that I am cold, frozen, and impotent, and so you will report that to everyone? You seem to think that I have Nestor’s hernia.”

Nestor was an old Greek advisor to Agamemnon, leader of the Greek troops during the Trojan War. The Roman satirist Juvenal wrote much later that Nestor had a hernia. Some hernias occur in the groin.

Volpone said, “I degenerate and abuse my nation by playing with opportunity thus long.”

By “degenerate and abuse my nation,” he meant that he had not been acting as macho as he felt Italian men should act.

He continued, “I should have done the act of sex with you, and then have conversed with you. Yield to me, or I’ll force you — I’ll rape you!”

He grabbed her.

Celia prayed, “Oh, just God!”

Volpone said, “You pray in vain.”

Bonario had been listening. Now he rushed in and separated Volpone and Celia, saying, “Forbear, foul ravisher, libidinous swine! Free the forced lady, or you die, impostor. Except that I’m loath to snatch your punishment out of the hand of justice, you would yet be made the timely sacrifice of vengeance before this altar and this dross, your idol.”

The altar was Volpone’s treasure chest, and the dross was his gold.

Bonario said to Celia, “Lady, let’s leave this place; it is the den of villainy. Fear nothing, you have a guard: me. And he, Volpone, before long, shall meet his just reward.”

Bonario wanted a law court to justly punish Volpone.

Bonario and Celia exited.

Volpone cried, “Fall on me, roof, and bury me in ruin. Become my grave, you that were my shelter! Oh, I am unmasked, dispirited and flaccid, undone and ruined, betrayed to beggary, betrayed to infamy —”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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