Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 2
The scene begins with the interlude performed by the deformed fools of Volpone's household. At its conclusion, the first dupe arrives outside Volpone's residence. Voltore (the vulture) is an advocate by profession and a gull by avocation. Volpone hurries to change into his costume of a decaying carcass. He dons a long gown, covers his head with a nightcap, and climbs under the fur coverlets of his supposed deathbed. All is in readiness for Mosca to bring in the victim. Mosca appears with Voltore's rich gift of an exquisitely carved gold plate engraved with the arms and name of Volpone. Mosca, hardly able to contain his glee, tells Volpone of the greedy anticipation of Voltore.
The interlude performed by the eunuch, dwarf, and fool is a satire on the kind of comic relief injected between the acts of a morality play. Jonson's dialogue imitates the false pace of such verse while demonstrating his command of the literature of the ancients. The playwright takes the opportunity to show his contempt for the policies of Puritanism by arguing for the Pythagorean rule over that of reformed religion. In the end, the fools of the interlude suggest that it is best to suffer neither rule; as Mosca's song indicates, the fool's condition is best:
Fools they are the only nation
Worth men's envy or admiration,
. . . . .E'en his face begetteth laughter,
And he speaks truth free from slaughter.
The fool lives outside the social order and can speak the truth because he is not responsible for what he says. Mosca has chosen this course for himself.
Ben Jonson was a man of some classical learning as well as an accomplished man of the theater. His satire of the poorer professional players of the traveling morality drama gives him a chance to demonstrate his theatrical superiority. His larding of the dialogue of this interlude with Greek names serves to show his familiarity with the classics.
In the tradition of the beast fable, the name Voltore characterizes the gull as a bird of prey. The vulture hovers outside the rooms of the fox waiting for his victim to die.
The playwright has established the atmosphere of the proceedings. He has introduced the audience to his two leading characters and set up the circumstances of their mischievous ruse. At the same time, he has mocked players, Puritans, and the foolishness of the world which comes to Volpone's very house to be gulled.
The reader should note Jonson's understanding of theatrical technique. The playwright has afforded his leading actors a chance to employ what performances call "sight gags" (visual humor); for example, Volpone dresses in an elaborate invalid's costume in preparation for Voltore's entrance. Throughout the play, Jonson has prepared places in the action for just such play. The beastiary character names are also visually suggestive. An authority on Ben Jonson's plays, Robert E. Knoll, believes that "if we fail to visualize the scenes and the movements on stage, we miss half the fun and two-thirds of Jonson's dramatic genius."