David Bruce: Ben Jonson’s VOLPONE: A Retelling — Act 5, Scenes 11-12, Epilogue

— 5.11 —

Volpone walked on a street, alone.

He said to himself, “I have made a snare — a noose — for my own neck by pretending to have died! I have run my head into the snare and noose of my own free will! And I did it while I was laughing at and tormenting the legacy-hunters! Plus, I did it when I had just escaped from the first trial and was free and clear. I did it — got myself into new trouble — out of mere wantonness! Oh, the dull devil of stupidity and alcohol was in this brain of mine when I devised my plan, and Mosca seconded it. He must now help me to sear up — cauterize — this vein, or we will bleed out and die.”

Nano the dwarf, Androgyno the hermaphrodite, and Castrone the eunuch came walking down the street and met Volpone.

Volpone asked, “What is going on? Who let you loose out of the house? Where are you going now? To buy gingerbread? Or to drown kittens?”

Nano the dwarf said, “Sir, master Mosca called us out of doors and told us all to go and have a day off, and he took the keys.”

Androgyno the hermaphrodite said, “Yes, what Nano said is the truth.”

Volpone said, “Did master Mosca take the keys? Well! I’m in deeper trouble than I thought.”

He was immediately suspicious of Mosca. If Mosca had the keys, he could prevent Volpone from entering his own house.

He continued, “These are my fine schemes! I must be merry, and the result is evil to me! What a vile wretch was I, who could not bear my fortune soberly! I had to have my fancies and my whims!

“Well, all of you go and seek Mosca. His reason for taking my keys may be more loyal to me than I fear it is. Tell him that he must immediately come to me in the court. Thither I will go, and if it is possible, I will unscrew my advocate, Voltore, who is wound tight, by giving him new hopes of inheriting my property. When I provoked him, then I lost myself.”

— 5.12 —

In the Scrutineo, the Judges had been examining Voltore’s papers.

The First Judge said, “Voltore here in these papers states that the gentleman Bonario was wronged and that the gentlewoman Celia was forcibly brought to Volpone’s house by her husband, and left there.”

Voltore said, “That is very true.”

Celia said, “How ready is Heaven to help those who pray!”

The First Judge said, “But that Volpone attempted to rape her, he holds to be utterly false. He says that he knows that Volpone was impotent.”

Voltore certainly believed that to have been the truth.

Corvino, desperate to stay out of trouble, said, “Grave Fathers, Voltore is possessed. Again, I say that a devil has possessed his body. Indeed, if it is possible for possession and obsession to exist together, he has both.”

In possession, a devil enters the person’s body and controls it. If lust for gold is a demon, Voltore was possessed. In obsession, a devil controls the person from outside the body. The disguised Volpone would show up almost immediately and would control Voltore.

The Third Judge said, “Here comes our police officer.”

Volpone, still disguised as a police officer, entered the courtroom.

He said, “The parasite will immediately be here, grave Fathers.”

The Fourth Judge said severely, “You might invent some name other than ‘parasite’ for him, Sir Varlet.”

The use of “Sir” was sarcastic.

The Third Judge asked, “Didn’t the Notary meet him?”

“Him” referred to Mosca.

“Not that I know,” the disguised Volpone said.

The Fourth Judge said, “His [Mosca’s] testimony will clear up everything.”

“So far,” the Second Judge said, “everything is misty.”

Voltore said, “May it please your Fatherhoods —”

The disguised Volpone whispered to him, “Sir, the parasite wanted me to tell you that his master is still alive, you are still the heir, your hopes are the same as they were before his supposed death, and this was only a jest —”

“How is this possible?” Voltore asked.

The disguised Volpone said, “Sir, he wanted to test if you were loyal to him, and how you were disposed toward him.”

“Are you sure he is alive?” Voltore asked.

“Do I live, sir?” the disguised Volpone asked. “I am as sure he is alive as I am sure I am alive.”

“Oh, me!” Voltore said. “I have been too violent, aggressive, and bold.”

“Sir, you may redeem it,” the disguised Volpone said. “They said you were possessed by a devil. Fall down, and seem to be possessed. I’ll help you to pull this trick off.”

Voltore fell to the floor as if he were having a fit.

The disguised Volpone said loudly, “God bless the man!”

He whispered to Voltore, “Breathe deeply, hold your breath, and swell your cheeks.”

He said loudly, “Look! Look! Look! Look! He vomits crooked pins! His eyes are staring like a dead hare’s hung in a poulterer’s shop! His mouth’s awry!”

He said to Corvino, “Do you see, signior?”

Voltore pretended that a devil was moving around in his body. He moved different muscles to simulate the devil’s movements.

The disguised Volpone said, “Now it is in his belly!”

Corvino, recognizing an opportunity to discount Voltore’s previous testimony, said, “Yes, it’s the devil!”

Voltore made swallowing movements.

The disguised Volpone said, “Now it’s in his throat!”

Corvino said, “Yes, I perceive it plainly.”

The disguised Volpone said, “The devil is coming out! It’s leaving the body! Stand clear. See, where it flies, in the shape of a blue toad, with a bat’s wings!”

This society believed in demonic possessions and in exorcisms. Demonic possessions and exorcisms were sometimes faked.

Sulphur, which is associated with devils, burns with a blue color. In this society, toads and bats were also associated with devils.

The disguised Volpone asked, “Corbaccio, don’t you also see it, sir?”

“What?” Corbaccio said. “I think I do.”

Corvino said, “It is very evident. I definitely saw it.”

The disguised Volpone said, “Look! Voltore is coming to himself! He is regaining consciousness!”

“Where am I?” Voltore asked.

“Take good heart, the worst is past, sir,” the disguised Volpone said. “You are dispossessed.”

“What a strange turn of events this is!” the First Judge said.

“It is sudden, and full of wonder!” the Second Judge said.

“If Voltore were possessed, as it appears he was, all this he has said is nothing,” the Third Judge said. “We can’t believe his papers or his testimony.”

“He has been often subject to these fits,” Corvino said.

The First Judge said, “Show him that writing.”

Voltore’s papers were handed to him.

The First Judge asked, “Do you know these papers, sir?”

Volpone whispered to Voltore, “Deny them, sir. Forswear them. Don’t admit you know them.”

“Yes, I know them well,” Voltore said to the Judges. “This is my handwriting, but everything written in these papers is false.”

“Oh, this is deceit!” Bonario said.

“What a maze this is!” the Second Judge said.

“Is he not guilty then?” the First Judge said. “I mean the man you call the parasite in your papers.”

“Grave fathers,” Voltore said, “He is no more guilty than his good patron, old Volpone.”

“Why, he is dead,” the Fourth Judge said.

“Oh no, my honored fathers,” Voltore said. “Volpone still lives.”

“What!” the First Judge said. “Is he still alive?”

“Yes,” Voltore said. “He is still alive.”

“This is getting even more complicated!” the Second Judge said.

“You said he was dead,” the Third Judge said.

“Never,” Voltore said.

“You said so,” the Third Judge said.

“I heard you say it,” Corvino said.

Mosca, dressed like a gentleman, walked into the courtroom.

The Fourth Judge said, “Here comes the gentleman; make way for him.”

The Third Judge said, “Get him a stool to sit on.”

The Fourth Judge thought about Mosca, He is a handsome man, and if Volpone were dead, he would be a fit husband for my daughter.

“Give him room,” the Third Judge said.

The disguised Volpone whispered, “Mosca, I was almost lost. Voltore the advocate had revealed everything, but now it is all recovered. All’s on the hinge and moving smoothly again. Tell the Judges that I am living.”

Mosca said loudly about the disguised Volpone, “What interfering, meddling knave is this man?”

He then said to the Judges, “Most reverend Fathers, I would have arrived sooner to wait on your grave pleasures except that my order for the funeral of my dear patron required me —”

The disguised Volpone whispered, “Mosca!”

Mosca said, “— whom I intend to bury like a gentleman.”

The words “like a gentleman” were ambiguous. They could refer to Volpone or to Mosca, or both. Like a gentleman, Mosca could bury Volpone like a gentleman.

Also, the words “bury like a gentleman” were ambiguous. Did he mean to bury Volpone like a gentleman, or at some later date have a gentleman’s burial for himself?

Volpone thought, Yes, you would like to bury me like a gentleman — so quickly that I am still alive — and cheat me out of everything.

“This is even stranger!” the Second Judge said. “It is very intricate!”

“And come about again!” the First Judge said.

Volpone had been declared dead by Corvino and then alive by Voltore and now was declared dead again by Mosca.

The Fourth Judge thought, Volpone is dead. I have a husband for my daughter. She shall marry this man who has been called a parasite but who is now a gentleman.

Mosca whispered to the disguised Volpone, “Will you give me half of all your wealth?”

“First, I’ll be hanged,” the disguised Volpone said.

“I know,” Mosca whispered. “I heard you, your voice is good, cry out not so loudly.”

“Let us question the advocate,” the First Judge said.

He then asked Voltore, “Sir, didn’t you affirm that Volpone was alive?”

Instead of Voltore, the disguised Volpone answered the question, “Yes, and he is.”

He pointed to Mosca and said, “This gentleman told me so.”

He whispered to Mosca, “You shall have half of my wealth.”

Mosca said loudly about Volpone, “Whose drunkard is this man? Speak, someone who knows him. I have never seen his face before now.”

He whispered to Volpone, “I cannot now afford to help you so cheaply.”

Even if Mosca were to get Volpone’s promise to give Mosca half his wealth, what would prevent Volpone from reneging on his promise later?

“No!” the disguised Volpone said.

The First Judge said to Voltore, “Answer the question. What do you say in answer to it?”

Voltore pointed to Volpone, who was still disguised as a police officer, and said, “This officer told me that Volpone is still alive.”

“I did, grave Fathers,” the disguised Volpone said, “and I will maintain he lives with my own life.”

He pointed to Mosca and said, “And I maintain that this creature told me that Volpone is still alive.”

He thought, I was born with all good stars as my enemies.

“Most grave Fathers,” Mosca said, “if such insolence as this is allowed to be inflicted upon me, I am silent. I hope that this is not the reason for which you sent for me.”

Referring to the disguised Volpone, the Second Judge said, “Take him away.”

The disguised Volpone shouted, “Mosca!”

Referring to the disguised Volpone, the Second Judge said, “Let him be whipped.”

The disguised Volpone said to Mosca, “Will you betray me? Cheat me?”

The Third Judge said, “And let him learn how to bear himself toward a person of a gentleman’s rank.”

“Take him away,” the Fourth Judge ordered.

Some police officers seized the disguised Volpone.

Mosca said, “I humbly thank your Fatherhoods.”

The disguised Volpone thought, Hold on! Wait! Whipped! And lose all that I have! If I confess, I cannot be punished much more harshly.

In hopes of getting his daughter wed to a wealthy man, the Fourth Judge asked Mosca, “Sir, are you married?”

The disguised Volpone thought, Mosca and the Fourth Judge’s family will be allied soon through Mosca’s engagement to the Fourth Judge’s daughter. I must be resolute. The Fox shall here and now remove his disguise.

He took off his disguise and revealed himself to all present.

“Patron!” Mosca said.

Volpone said to him, “Now my ruin shall not come alone. Your wedding match I’ll certainly hinder. My wealth shall not allow you to attach yourself to a family or worm yourself into one.”

“Why, patron!” Mosca said.

“I am Volpone, and this is my knave,” Volpone said, pointing to Mosca.

He pointed to Voltore and said, “This man is his own knave.”

He pointed to Corbaccio and said, “This man is avarice’s fool.”

He pointed to Corvino and said, “This man is a chimera of wittol, fool, and knave.”

A wittol is a contented cuckold.

A chimera is a mythological monster that has the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a snake.

Volpone continued, “And, reverend Fathers, since we all can hope for is nothing but a sentence, let’s not now despair of receiving it. You hear me … brief.”

A brief is a begging petition. Volpone was not begging; this was as close to a begging petition as the Judges would get from him. He was also speaking only briefly so the Judges could get on with their sentencing.

Corvino, who was willing to beg, began, “May it please your Fatherhoods —”

A police officer ordered, “Silence!”

The First Judge said, “The knot is now undone by a miracle. All is clear.”

“Nothing can be more clear,” the Second Judge said.

The Judges could see that Volpone, who had been reputed to be dying for the last three years, was a vigorous, healthy man. The Judges were also aware of the many gifts that Volpone had received from the legacy-hunters. Intelligent people, the Judges could figure out what had happened.

“Nothing can more prove these two — Bonario and Celia — innocent,” the Third Judge said.

Volpone was certainly healthy enough to attempt to rape Celia.

“Give them their liberty,” the First Judge ordered.

“Heaven could not long let such gross crimes be hidden,” Bonario said.

The Second Judge said, “If this is held to be the highway to riches, I hope I may be poor!”

“This is not gain, but torment,” the Third Judge said.

“These possess wealth, as sick men possess fevers, which more truly may be said to possess them,” the First Judge said.

The Second Judge said, “That parasite is dressed like a gentleman. Take that clothing off him.”

Police officers stripped Mosca of his gentleman’s robe.

Corvino and Mosca said together, “Most honored Fathers!”

The First Judge asked, “Can you plead anything to stop or pause the course of justice? If you can, speak.”

Corvino and Voltore said, “We beg favor.”

Celia, who was very forgiving, added, “And mercy.”

The Judges were not forgiving.

The First Judge said to Celia, “You hurt your innocence by begging for the guilty. Stand back.”

He then said, “First we will judge the parasite.”

He said to Mosca, “You appear to have been the chief agent, if not plotter, in all these wicked impostures, and now, finally, you have with your impudence abused the court and worn the clothing of a gentleman of Venice, although you are a fellow of no noble birth and no noble blood.”

For a non-gentleman to wear the clothing of a gentleman was a serious crime in Venice.

The First Judge continued talking to Mosca, “For which our sentence is that first you will be whipped and then you will live as a perpetual prisoner in our galleys — our Venetian ships.”

“I thank you for him,” Voltore said.

Just minutes previously, Mosca had seemed to be a very wealthy gentleman.

Mosca snarled at Volpone, “Bane to your wolvish nature!”

Wolfbane is a poison.

The First Judge ordered, “Deliver him to the police officers.”

A bailiff took Mosca over to some police officers who escorted him out of the courtroom.

The First Judge said, “Thou, Volpone, who are by blood and rank a gentleman, cannot fall under a similar censure.”

The First Judge’s use of the word “thou” — and his use soon of the word “thee” — was that of a superior talking to someone much lower on the social scale. It was an insult.

He continued, “But our judgment on thee is that all your wealth be immediately confiscated and forfeited to the Hospital of the Incurabili — the Hospital of the Incurables.

“And since the most of your wealth was gotten by imposture, by feigning lame, gout, palsy, and such diseases, you are to lie in prison, cramped with irons, until you are sick and lame for real.”

He ordered, “Remove him.”

Volpone said, “This is called mortifying a Fox.”

Even in these circumstances, he was capable of wit. “Mortifying” was a multiple pun that meant these things:

  • Humiliating. Volpone was publicly humiliated.
  • Subjecting the body to discipline intended to subjugate bodily desires so that spiritual desires would be dominate.
  • Giving wealth to charitable causes, aka disposing of wealth by mortification. Volpone’s wealth would go to the Hospital of the Incurables.
  • Hanging up a dead game animal to let it become tender. Volpone would at least metaphorically be hung up in chains.
  • Wasting away. Volpone would waste away in prison.
  • Becoming gangrenous. Volpone’s chains in prison could very well cause gangrene.
  • Causing death. Volpone would die in prison.

Volpone was taken over to some police officers, who escorted him out of the courtroom.

The First Judge said to the advocate, “Thou, Voltore, to take away the scandal thou has given all worthy men of your profession, are banished from their fellowship and from our state.”

He then said, “Corbaccio!”

He ordered the bailiff, “Bring him near to me so he can hear me!”

He then said to Corbaccio, “We here give thy son possession of all your estate, and we confine thee to the monastery of San Spirito, where, since you didn’t know how to live well here, thou shall be taught how to die well there.”

Corbaccio said, “Ah! What did he say?”

A police officer said, “You shall know soon, sir.”

The First Judge said, “Thou, Corvino, shall be immediately embarked from your own house, and rowed round about Venice, through the miles-long Canal Grande, wearing a cap with very long asses’ ears instead of horns.”

The asses’ ears would show that he is a fool. The cap had no horns because the court had determined that Celia was innocent of committing adultery.

The First Judge continued, “And then you will climb, with a paper describing your crimes pinned on your breast, to the pillory —”

The pillory was a wooden device that restrained a criminal’s hands and head. Often, people would torment the criminal while he was in the pillory.

“Yes,” Corvino said, “and I will have my eyes beaten out by all the things people will throw at me — stinking fish, bruised fruit, and rotten eggs. This punishment is good. I am glad that I shall be blind and shall not see my shame.”

The First Judge said, “And to expiate thy wrongs done to your wife, you are to send her home to her father, with her dowry trebled.”

He said to Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, “And for your crimes, these are all your sentences —”

Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino pleaded, “Honored Fathers —”

The First Judge continued, “— which may not be revoked.

“Now you begin, when your crimes are done and past, and when you are to be punished, to think what your crimes are.”

He said to the police officers, “Take them away! Let all who see these vices thus rewarded, take them to heart and love to study them! Evil deeds feed like beasts, until they are fat, and then they bleed.”

EPILOGUE

Volpone says this to you the readers:

The seasoning of a play — and a book — is the applause.

Now, although the Fox is punished by the laws,

He yet does hope, there is no suffering due,

For any crime that he has done against you.

If there is, censure him; here he full of fears stands.

If not, fare jovially, and Jovially, and clap your hands.

 Note: In astrology, the planet Jupiter is associated with mirth and humor.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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