Summary and Analysis
As Sir Politic and Peregrine earnestly inspect Sir Politic's notes, they walk upstage. At that moment, Lady Would-be enters, complaining of the heat's effect on her complexion. She has been informed by Mosca that her husband is with a courtesan. Therefore, she concludes that Peregrine is a lady in man's apparel.
Sir Politic discovers his wife's presence and gravely introduces Peregrine; the lady interrupts, saying that he only appears to be a youth. When Peregrine fails to understand her talk of one gentlewoman to another, she turns on him. She calls him a prostitute, a female devil in a male exterior. When Sir Politic deserts his beleaguered fellow Englishman, Peregrine angrily mocks Lady Would-be's red nose. Before the expected explosion can occur, Mosca arrives on the scene.
The Elizabethan audiences thoroughly enjoyed the convention of sexual disguise, and Jonson's use of that device is an inventive inversion of the usual comic approach. Shakespeare, for example, in his pastoral comedies, frequently dressed his heroine in boy's clothes. When it is remembered that the women's parts in Elizabethan productions were played by young boy apprentices, the reader can see the irony of the device. In Volpone, Jonson compounds the irony by having a young boy mistaken for a woman disguised as a young boy. Perhaps the playwright intended some gentle satire of his fellow playwright's frequent reliance on a shopworn stage convention.
It is also ironic that a lady who permits herself so much license should be jealous of her husband. Peregrine is not what he seems to Lady Would-be; indeed, he is an innocent bystander in the whole affair. This is a parallel action to the courtroom sequence that will follow. Celia and Bonario are innocent by-standers, but they, too, will be condemned.