Summary and Analysis
The newcomer is not Corbaccio but Corvino! Celia stands shrinking by his side. Mosca asks why Corvino has come before receiving his message. The raven thought Mosca might forget him! "Did e'er man haste so for his horns?" says Mosca in an aside to the audience.
As Corvino takes Celia upstage to whisper his purpose to her, Mosca deftly spirits Bonario from his hiding place to the apron of the stage. Mosca urgently desires that Bonario retreat to an adjoining gallery, where "there are some books to entertain the time." Mosca is all apologies that Corbaccio has delayed his coming. Bonario, beginning to become suspicious, reluctantly agrees to leave the room. Mosca, satisfied that Bonario is out of the way, opens the drapes on Volpone's bed, revealing the prostrate fox lying in wait for the innocent Celia.
At that moment, Corvino and Celia come back downstage, arguing hotly. Corvino angrily cautions Celia against shifts and tricks that might ruin his chances of getting Volpone's wealth. Celia prefers incarceration to dishonor. Corvino commands the obedience of her marriage vows and relates his great hopes for inheritance. He demands that Celia respect his venture. She cannot respect it above his honor. Corvino defines honor as "a mere term invented to awe fools." He greedily contemplates the rewards that await the success of his plans. Celia valiantly declares that her husband's tactic is a sin. Corvino admits the offer would not have been made to a "hot Tuscan blood" or a "professed critic in lechery." But this is different; it is a "pious work, mere charity, for physic, and honest policy to assure mine own." Celia is about to suffer despair.
From his bed, in a delighted aside to Mosca, Volpone exults over his brightening prospects. The fox orders the lamb brought forth to the slaughter. Mosca makes the introduction of Corvino and Celia in the most cuckolding terms, and the greedy raven is grateful for such preference. In fact, as Mosca praises Celia's beauty, Corvino listens with the critical appreciation of a drama critic. Volpone says it is too kind, but it is, alas, too late. Nonetheless, Volpone generously gives Mosca leave to tell Corvino what he has done for him. Celia draws away, requesting death, but Corvino drags her forward, determined to cuckold himself. He furiously threatens her existence; she only declares herself his martyr. He tries to tempt her with his own vice of greed; she remains impervious to his entreaties. Mosca tries to reconcile the two, but Corvino's anger is monumental. "'Sdeath!" he shouts, "If she would but speak to him, and save my reputation."
Mosca persuades Corvino to leave his wife alone with Volpone. Corvino believes modesty prevents Celia from complying with his wishes in his presence. Celia is left alone to lament being "placed beneath the basest circumstance, and modesty an exile made for money."
Suddenly, the fox leaps from his feigned sickbed and begins the chase. Stealthily, Volpone tries to persuade his prey to stand still and be lovingly devoured. Corvino is a rascal, says Volpone, and "sold his part of paradise for ready money." Remember the mountebank at the window? There is nothing Volpone would not do for her love.
Next, the aging lecher tries to seduce the lady with song. Celia remains adamant. In rich and sensuous verse, Volpone recounts the largess he will give her for her favor.
. . . we will eat such at a meal.
The heads of parrots, tongues of nightingales,
The brains of peacocks and of ostriches,
Shall be our food.
Celia cannot be affected with such delights; her wealth is her innocence. She asks Volpone whether he has a conscience. He replies: "'Tis the beggar's virtue." Indefatigably, Volpone evokes sensual delights in classical references, speaking of Ovid, Jove, and Mars. Celia pleads for herself in a most hauntingly ladylike sweetness: "If you have ears that will be pierced, or eyes that can be opened, a heart [that] may be touched, or any part [of you] that yet sounds man about you," please take anger rather than lust as a manly vice. Torture her, kill her, but leave her honor intact! Old Volpone's eyes and ears cannot comprehend the plea. "Think me cold, frozen, and impotent, and so report me? That I had Nestor's hernia thou wouldst think." Like an old satyr, Volpone demands Celia to "yield, or I'll force thee."
One hand to her milky-white bosom, the other across her forehead, Celia cries, "O! Just God!" Stroking his chin in anticipation and leering with delight, Volpone replies, "In vain."
From out his hiding place, Bonario leaps to the rescue in the nick of time, declaiming: "Forbear, foul ravisher! Libidinous swine!" After a magnificently, preposterously gallant speech, Bonario spirits the lady to safety.
Alone and gnashing his villainous teeth, Volpone cries: "I am unmasked, unspirited, undone, betrayed to beggary, to infamy."
This scene is the longest sequence in the act and the climax of the play. From this moment on, the plot runs single-mindedly to an inevitable conclusion. The involvement of the plot develops further, but after Bonario's romantic entrance, the solution of the intrigue is never in doubt. The scene begins on this note of fatality.
For the first time, one of Mosca's strategies misfires: He has prepared for the expected Corbaccio and finds Corvino instead. Stage business is very important here. Mosca distracts Corvino and Celia long enough to get rid of Bonario. But he is in too much of a hurry and the audience senses that Bonario suspects something. This is important. If the audience anticipates that Bonario will return, it adds suspense to the chase.
Jonson not only carefully contrives the suspense of the action but piles irony on top of irony to demonstrate the preposterous nature of his characters and their situation. Corvino is so anxious to cuckold himself that he believes his honor requires it. When Mosca talks of Celia's desirable qualities, Corvino is proud of her. A special kind of irony is present when a duped character uses means of persuasion without being aware of the real effect. Why is Corvino unaware of the effect? Because he is blinded by his own greed! This use of rhetorical hyperbole compounds the irony.
Jonson has used hyperbole to enrich the comic situation. He has also employed it to illuminate the character of Celia. This is the first sequence in which she speaks at any length. Her language shows her to be a melodramatic heroine. She is a poor defenseless, virtuous, romantic girl in the clutches of a "libidinous swine." Both Celia and Bonario are caricatures of virtue. They are ridiculous and superficial amalgamations of conventional and sentimental ideas of virtue. Thus Volpone's attempted seduction, though crude and cruel by English theatrical standards, is no serious threat at all. Celia is a poser; she is not in the least believable. Bonario's intervention is not just to save the girl; it gives him a chance to play the romantic hero. It also serves to create the ultimate comic complication.
Remember, this is a comedy and not a melodrama. Jonson is interested in making us laugh at humanity. If we sympathize with Bonario and Celia, it is because they have been interpreted in a way contrary to the entire action of the play. Jonson cracks his wit on the foolishness of greedy people; he also laughs heartily at smug, superficial, and sentimental interpretations of virtue.
When Mosca finally leaves Celia with Volpone, the actual comic chase begins. Celia has resisted her husband's demands that she play up to Volpone. In a magnificent inversion of the social order, Corvino demands that she go to Volpone to save his reputation. Here it may be seen that, in Corvino's greedy state of mind, the reputations of the forsworn are destroyed by the despicable honesty of respectable people. It is a true comic picture of the deformity of human greed. Jonson is following savage irony with cruel irony as the situation races toward a comic conclusion. And the chase begins.
The beast fable is again in evidence. The lamb is left to be devoured by the fox. It is the same in our fairy tale for children, Little Red Riding Hood. Just like the wolf in that familiar story, the fox in Volpone uses all of his lures to capture the innocence of the little girl. The fox begins with logic, ascends to poetry, and finally depends upon his arms and legs. Remember that the dialogue is punctuated by Volpone's pursuit of retreating Celia. Her melodramatic righteousness is spoken while ducking out of Volpone's reach and running around a table. As the chase reaches the point of exhaustion and possible capture, Bonario appears to save the day. It is a marvelous mock-heroic moment and Jonson is undoubtedly satirizing such plays. Volpone is not physically afraid of Bonario. He is afraid the youth will tell all he knows.
For the first time since the plotting began, Volpone is "unmasked, unspirited, undone, betrayed to beggary, to infamy." Mosca's work is cut out for him. Perhaps he will be able to repair the damage, but the tight chain of his plot has been broken. There are sure to be other weak links that will demand all of the fly's cunning to keep the chain from disintegrating. If the chain breaks, the treasure at the other end will be lost forever.
This hilarious scene demands excellent performing preparations. As the complication evolves, the characters enter and exit unexpectedly, just missing each other, and they arrive at exactly the most inopportune moment. This dovetailing must be perfectly timed and increase in speed and tightness as the scene builds to a conclusion. Remember, the audience is in on everything that Volpone and Mosca are up to, but the gulls are not. Thus the audience anticipates the reaction of both the rogues and the gulls as the complication materializes.