David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 5, Scenes 1-2

— 5.1 —

Volpone was alone in his room.

He said to himself, “Well, I am here, and all this turmoil is in the past. I never disliked my disguise as a seriously ill person until this moment that just ended. Here in private my disguise is good, but out in public …

“Let me cave — take care — as I catch my breath.”

Cave is Latin for “be wary” and “be on guard.”

Volpone needed to be on his guard in case anyone — such as Lady Would-be — visited and caught him out of bed.

He continued, “By God, my left leg began to have the cramp, and I feared immediately that some power had struck me with a dead palsy.”

A “dead palsy” is serious paralysis such as a stroke can cause.

He continued, “Well! I must be merry and shake it off. Too many of these fears would give me some villainous disease if they would come fast and thick upon me. I’ll stop them. Give me a bowl of lusty wine to frighten away this sense of dread from my heart.”

He poured himself some wine and drank deeply.

“Ah! The sense of dread is almost gone already; I shall conquer it completely. Any trick, now, of rare ingenious knavery that would possess me with a violent laughter, would make me a man again.”

He drank deeply again.

“Ah! This heat is life; it is blood by this time.”

This society believed that wine turned to blood after it was consumed. As blood, it conveyed heat and courage to the person who had consumed the wine.

— 5.2 —

Mosca entered the room.

“Mosca!” Volpone greeted him.

“How are you, sir?” Mosca asked.

He then asked rhetorically, “Does the day look clear again? Have we recovered from what could have been a disaster, and have we gotten off the path of error and gotten back to our correct path so that we can see our path before us? Is our path free from obstruction once more?”

He was mocking religious language about leaving the path of moral error and getting back on the path of moral behavior. Volpone and he were now free to continue their con games.

Volpone said, “Exquisite Mosca!”

Mosca was an exquisitely ingenious scoundrel.

“Was it not carried off learnedly?” Mosca asked.

“Yes, and stoutly and bravely,” Volpone said. “Good wits are greatest in extreme crises.”

“It would be a folly beyond thought to trust any grand act to a cowardly spirit,” Mosca said. “You are not delighted with it enough, I think?”

Mosca knew Volpone well. Volpone was one to up the ante, to push things to an extreme that could break them. Mosca was usually satisfied with enough.

Volpone replied, “Oh, I was delighted more than if I had enjoyed the wench, Celia. The pleasure of sexually enjoying all womankind is not like the greater pleasure I got from deceiving the court.”

“Why, now you’re talking, sir,” Mosca said. “That’s exactly right.”

He hesitated and then said, “We must here be fixed and stop while we’re ahead. Here we must rest. This is our masterpiece: We cannot think to go beyond this.”

“True,” Volpone said, but soon he would seek to go beyond this. “You have played your prize part, my precious Mosca.”

“Yes, sir,” Mosca said, “To fool the court —”

Volpone interrupted, “And quite divert the torrent of the law upon the innocent.”

“Yes,” Mosca said, “and to make so splendid a music out of discords.” The discords were the rival legacy-hunters who had come together and made splendid music to fool the court into finding innocent people guilty.

“Right,” Volpone said. “That still to me is the strangest wonder: how you managed to do it! That these people, being so divided among themselves and not trusting each other, should not smell a rat either in me or in you, or doubt and fear the other members of their own side.”

“True, they will not see it,” Mosca said. “Too much light blinds them, I think. They ignore what should be obvious. Each of them is so possessed and stuffed with his own hopes of inheriting your money that anything to the contrary, no matter how true or apparent or palpable, they will resist it —”

Volpone sarcastically said, “— like a temptation of the devil.”

Many people will strenuously resist a temptation of the devil, but the legacy-hunters were not such people. One temptation of the devil was the hope of inheriting Volpone’s wealth.

“Right, sir,” Mosca said. “Merchants may talk of trade, and your great signiors may talk of land that yields well, but if Italy has any glebe — plot of land — more fruitful than these fellows, I am deceived.”

Volpone had gotten much wealth from the legacy-hunters.

Mosca asked, “Didn’t your advocate, Voltore, perform splendidly?”

“Oh, he did,” Volpone said.

He parodied Voltore’s performance in the courtroom: “My most honored Fathers, my grave Fathers, under correction of your Fatherhoods, what face of truth is here? If these strange deeds may pass, most honored Fathers.”

He added, “It took a lot of effort to keep from laughing.”

Mosca said, “It seemed to me that you sweat, sir.”

Volpone said, “True, I did a little.”

Volpone had been afraid.

“Confess, sir,” Mosca said. “Weren’t you daunted?”

“Truly, I was a little in a mist — a little dazed — but I was not dejected and downcast. I was always my own self.”

“I believe it, sir,” Mosca said. “Now, so truth help me, I must necessarily say this, sir, and out of conscience for your advocate, Voltore. He has taken pains, truly, sir, and has very richly deserved, in my poor judgment — I speak it with goodwill and not to contradict you, sir — to be well cheated.”

Mosca believed that Voltore deserved to be well cheated because he had lied in the courtroom. Applying the same logic to others, we have to conclude that Corbaccio, Corvino, Lady Would-be, Volpone, and Mosca also deserved to be well cheated.

“True,” Volpone said, “I think so, too, judging by what I heard him say in the latter end of the trial.”

Volpone had not been present for the first part of the trial.

“Oh, but what he said before you arrived, sir,” Mosca said, “had you heard him first make the chief points of his argument and then aggravate and exaggerate the injuries he claimed Bonario and Celia had done, and then make his vehement figures — gestures and lawyerly figures of speech — I kept expecting him to change his shirt because of his sweating.”

He added sarcastically, “And to think that he did this out of pure love, with no hope of gain.”

“You are right,” Volpone said. “He deserves to be cheated. I cannot repay him, Mosca, as I would like to, not yet; but for your sake, at your entreaty, I will begin, even now — to vex them all, this very instant.”

Mosca had entreated him to cheat Voltore, and now Volpone was intending to vex all the legacy-hunters.

“Good sir —” Mosca said, wondering what Volpone was planning.

Volpone interrupted, “Call Nano the Dwarf and Castrone the Eunuch to come here.”

Mosca called, “Castrone, Nano!”

Nano the dwarf and Castrone the eunuch entered the room.

“Here we are,” Nano the dwarf said.

Volpone asked, “Shall we have a jig now?”

A jig or dance was often performed after a play was finished. Volpone and Mosca had just finished performing their parts in the trial. However, Volpone had in mind a con rather than a dance.

“Whatever you please, sir,” Mosca said, wondering what Volpone was up to.

Volpone said to Nano the dwarf and Castrone the eunuch, “Go immediately into the streets, you two, and say that I am dead. Do it in character — do it seriously, do you hear? Say that I have died because of the grief caused me by being recently slandered as a would-be rapist.”

Nano the dwarf and Castrone the eunuch exited.

“What do you have in mind, sir?” Mosca asked.

Volpone said, “My vulture, crow, and raven shall immediately come flying hither, on hearing the news, to peck for carrion. So will my she-wolf, and all will be greedy and full of expectation of inheriting my wealth.”

The she-wolf was Lady Would-be, who usually was parrot-like.

“And then to have it ravished from their mouths!” Mosca said.

“That is true,” Volpone said.

He elaborated on his plan: “I will have you put on more-respectable clothing, and you shall act as if you were my heir. You shall show them a will. Open that chest, and take out one of those wills that have the name of my beneficiary blank. I’ll immediately write in your name.”

Mosca gave him the will and said, “This is a splendid plot, sir.”

“Yes,” Volpone said. “When they just stand, open-mouthed, and find themselves deluded —”

“Yes,” Mosca said.

“And you will treat them scurvily!” Volpone said. “Hurry. Put on better clothing, the clothing of an upper-class man!”

Mosca put on a fine shirt and asked, “But what about, sir, if they ask after the body?”

“Say that it was beginning to rot.”

“I’ll say it stank, sir,” Mosca said, “and I was obliged to have it coffined up immediately, and sent away.”

“Say anything that you want,” Volpone said. “Wait, here’s my will. Get yourself a cap, and have an account book, pen and ink, and papers in front of you. Sit as if you were taking an inventory of my property. I’ll get up behind the curtain, on a stool, and listen. Occasionally, I’ll peep over the curtain to see how they look, and with what degrees their blood leaves their faces. Oh, it will give me a rare meal of laughter!”

Mosca put on a cap, and put the required items on a table in front of him.

He said, “Your advocate, Voltore, will turn stark dull — completely insensible — upon hearing that I am your heir.”

“It will take off his oratory’s sharpness,” Volpone said.

Mosca added, “But your clarissimo, Corbaccio, old round-back, he will crump — curl up — like a wood louse when it is touched.”

A clarissimo is a grandee of Venice.

Corbaccio, an old man, was stooped-over.

“And what about Corvino?” Volpone asked.

“Oh, sir, look for him tomorrow morning to run around in the streets with a rope and dagger, thinking about committing suicide or violence,” Mosca said. “When he learns that I am your heir, he must run mad. Lady Would-be, too, who came into the court to bear false witness for your worship —”

“Yes, and kissed me in front of the Fathers, although all my face flowed with oils,” Volpone said.

“And with sweat, sir,” Mosca said, saying the same thing that Volpone had said but using the less gentile term.

Mosca added, “Why, your gold is such medicine that it dries up all those offensive smells. It transforms people who are the most deformed, and it restores them and makes them lovely, as if it were the strange poetical girdle of Venus that makes anyone who wears it irresistible. Jove himself — the King of the gods — could not invent for himself clothing more cunning to pass by the guards of Acrisius.”

Jove, aka Jupiter, had in fact worn gold when he visited Danaë, the daughter of Acrisius. He had appeared to her in a shower of gold after Acrisius had locked her in a tower after hearing a prophecy that she would give birth to a son who would kill him. Jove slept with Danaë, who gave birth to Perseus, who grew up and killed Acrisius.

Mosca continued, “Gold is the thing that gives all the world her grace, her youth, her beauty.”

“I think she loves me,” Volpone said, referring to gold.

“Who? The Lady Would-be, sir?” Mosca asked.

Realizing that Volpone was referring to gold, and knowing that Volpone would think he was referring to Lady Would-be, Mosca said, “She’s jealous of you.”

In addition to the meaning we know best, the word “jealous” had two meanings that are now obsolete: 1) devoted, and 2) doubtful and mistrustful.

Mosca meant that gold, like Lady Fortune, was a fickle mistress. Already Mosca was planning to make use of the will that Voltore had given to him.

“Do you think so?” Volpone said. “Do you think Lady Would-be is jealous of me?”

Knocking sounded at the door.

“Listen,” Mosca said. “Someone is here already.”

“Look and see who it is,” Volpone ordered.

Mosca looked out a window and said, “It is the vulture: Voltore. He has the quickest scent.”

Vultures are known for their ability to quickly sniff out dead bodies.

“I’ll go to my place behind the curtain,” Volpone said. “You be ready to act as though I am dead and you are my heir.”

Volpone went behind the curtain.

Mosca said, “I am ready.”

Volpone said, “Mosca, play the skilled torturer now. Torture them splendidly.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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