Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 5
Mosca tells Corvino that Volpone does not even recognize old friends in his present condition. On cue, the delirious Volpone weakly drawls "Signor Corvino." Mosca announces that his master's hearing is gone, but he can feel the gem Corvino has brought. Corvino feigns sorrow over Volpone's condition, but Mosca discourages this act. After all, what difference does it make now that Volpone cannot hear them. Mosca uses this ruse to attack his employer, declaring that Volpone has only bastard children begot on beggars, Gypsies, Jews, and Blackmoors. Volpone is powerless to reprimand his parasite because he must continue to feign deafness. Mosca heaps on the insults, saying that the dwarf, fool, and eunuch are Volpone's natural children! Encouraged to join the game, Corvino pledges Mosca a share of his inheritance in exchange for the gadfly's assistance. Mosca suggests that part of Corvino's fortune is his gallant wife! This causes Corvino to make a quick exit. Another knock indicates the presence of Lady Would-be, the wife of the English knight Sir Politic Would-be.
Volpone tells Mosca to get rid of her, wondering that the "bold English . . . dare let loose their wives to all encounters!" Mosca says that with her face she cannot help but be honest (virtuous). Mosca makes a hymn to the beauty of Corvino's wife, and Volpone resolves to see the lady. A disguise must be designed to deceive the insanely jealous Corvino; he guards his wife with ten spies!
Corvino is a preening raven; his greatest treasure is his beautiful wife. Mosca sees this character flaw and plays upon it by suggesting that she might be shared with the rest of his fortune. It is a telling remark. It also serves to warn of a future plot development. Corvino's wife will surely be a pawn in the villainous game. Jonson is preparing us for her entrance.
The playwright employs the actors' skills in the suppressed anger and frustration of Volpone, the impish delight of Mosca, and the foolish recklessness of Corvino as each deceives the other. The use of hyperbole is especially ironic and effective in revealing Mosca's character. He is the servant of all, but he has no affection or loyalty for anyone. It is a business deal, and, if he can cover his fun, the gadfly is glad to sting anyone. Furthermore, Corvino's use of abuse is particularly ironic because he is unaware of its real effect. He is being the subtle fool! Notice that only the audience is aware of these complications. Volpone is angry at the insults and frustrated that he cannot reply, but he does not suspect that this is the first indication of the treatment to which he subjected himself when he decided to play the fool. He has the fool's license; he also has the fool's lowly social position. Corvino is preoccupied with his own folly, and Mosca is impressed by the power of his own audacious behavior.
Though the play is set in Italy, Jonson has already satirized London Puritanism. In the last sequence, he prepares us for the English tourist Sir Politic Would-be. Sir Pol suggests the poll parrot, and the English fools are bumbling and ineffectual mimics of the fools of the main plot. Lady Pol is a burlesque of the three birds of prey.
The three gulls have been robbed of their gold, and Mosca promises to relieve them of larger treasure. The gold belongs to whoever can take it. So Volpone and Mosca become involved in stealing innocent beauty.
Until this moment, the action has taken place in Volpone's palace. The world has come to him to be fleeced. Now the fox must leave the safety of his lair and risk capture.