Summary and Analysis
Act V: Scene 12
The court is amazed at the content of the papers presented by Voltore. That Corvino could present his own wife to Volpone seems beyond belief. Celia believes heaven has heard her prayers. Corvino claims that Voltore is angry about the lost inheritance. Volpone, in disguise, returns with the news that Mosca will arrive directly.
Volpone drags Voltore aside and says that Mosca has instructed him to inform the vulture that Volpone lives: It has all been a joke to test Voltore's firmness. Voltore cries out at his own indiscreet violence, whereupon Volpone tells him to feign possession by the devil. Corvino and Corbaccio have accused him of harboring a devil, so why not pretend the devil is in him? Immediately, Voltore collapses to the floor! The court again dissolves into confusion; Volpone stands over the prostrate Voltore, chanting an incantation of possession. Corvino and Corbaccio seize the opportunity to protect their own causes. Suddenly, Voltore innocently comes to himself, asking, "Where am I?" Volpone and the gulls are sympathetic; the court is overwhelmed.
Voltore denies his former pleas that Mosca is a villain. Furthermore, he disputes the report of Volpone's death. At that point, Mosca enters, clad as the heir of Volpone. One of the avocatori thinks Mosca a fit man for his daughter, provided Volpone is really dead. Volpone desperately tries to tell Mosca the state of things. Mosca brushes him aside as a knave. The gadfly tells the court that he intends to bury his former master like a gentleman. Volpone, in an aside to the audience, remarks that the body will be cozened and alive. The court does not know what to believe. Mosca, taking advantage of the confusion, bargains with Volpone for half of the fox's fortune. At first, Volpone is unresponsive to this kind of talk. Nonetheless, under the pressure of events, he agrees to the terms. Mosca ups the price immediately. The court asks Voltore who gave him the information that Volpone still lives. Voltore points to the disguised Volpone, who points to Mosca. With great disdain, Mosca denies knowledge of the man. The court orders the disguised Volpone whipped. Volpone will lose his wealth and freedom no matter which way he turns. Consequently, he turns upon Mosca.
Volpone unmasks himself and disregards Mosca's sudden willingness to negotiate. Volpone identifies the gulls and his fellow rogue, Mosca. Everyone's guilt is swiftly established. There is nothing left to do but pass sentence on these fools.
Because Mosca is without noble blood, his sentence is to be a perpetual prisoner in the galleys of Venice. Volpone's substance is given to the hospital for incurables, and he is to be put in chains till he be "sick and lame indeed." Voltore is banished; Corbaccio's estate is given to his son and he goes into a monastery; Corvino will be rowed about Venice with a cap of ass' ears instead of horns. Celia is given treble her dowry and returned to her father.
Volpone steps to the front of the stage and, in a short epilogue, asks for the approbation of the audience.
The scene begins with the avocatori investigating the papers put into their hands by Voltore. They appear to be so incriminating that no last-minute action by Volpone will stay the hand of disaster. However, when Volpone suggests possession by the devil, Voltore, always the great performer, falls into a faint. Much good theatrical fun can be gained from this sequence by experienced comics. Voltore's sudden recovery, almost without the proper theatrical transition, must be carefully timed. The cliché "Where am I?" is impossible to believe, but the avocatori never doubt the vulture's sincerity.
Jonson continues to mock the avocatori. The irony of Mosca's eligibility as a son-in-law to a judge as long as he is Volpone's heir is another cut at the courts.
Asides are used more extensively in this sequence than anywhere else in the play. Voltore and Volpone conduct business together at the beginning of the scene, and Volpone and Mosca try to bargain before the unmasking. In the confusion of this scene, it takes great control to move and speak at the exact moment. If the tension is to be maintained, the execution of the performers must be fast and precise.
Finally, when Volpone realizes the jig is up, he melodramatically reveals himself. This is the result of Volpone's judgment of alternative actions. He can keep quiet and escape with a whipping and without money. Mosca will be the master and he will be the parasite. Mosca makes the mistake of thinking that this is an acceptable choice to Volpone. Mosca errs in character judgment because he wants all of the money for himself. He becomes greedy and thereby loses his perspective. Mosca was invincible as long as he was a parasite, but when it becomes possible for him to realize his ambition, his human nature comes to the front. It is this, not the intelligence of the courts, that brings him down. Jonson does not leave the punishment to the courts alone. The failure of a ruse conceived by these two consummate artists is comic punishment; they are their own executioners. It is an irony that is not wasted upon either of them.
So, Volpone, estimating the cost and the satisfaction of revenge, determines to pay the price and pull down his betrayer. It is not an easy decision, and Mosca's desire to negotiate cannot reverse it. In fact, Volpone rather enjoys it because it puts Mosca back under his control. It is Volpone's final irony.
There has been much discussion about the harshness of the court's punishment. The theory is that, in a comedy, such harsh judgment takes the edge off the humor. Jonson has been called a moralist because of the fate he assigned Mosca and Volpone. Some critics feel that these sentences are in keeping with the stupidity of the judges, though they are out of proportion to the offenses. Others feel that the conclusion represents the symbolic flagellation and death of a god or prince of fools, who must at all costs be kept under control.
It might be well to remember the sentence of banishment from the court of Henry V meted out to another roguish comic figure, Falstaff. Furthermore, there is much evidence to suggest that Elizabethans were not averse to having their comedy and tragedy mixed into one package. Shakespeare's audiences appear to have enjoyed the Machiavellian villainy of Richard III and Iago. Much of the work of these two characters has been made uproariously funny by great actors. Are these plays to be condemned for making people laugh when they are essentially serious works?
Finally, Jonson was writing a comedy from a foreign model, while most of his contemporaries were writing festival comedy along sentimental lines. There was no precedent in English comedy for this kind of work, and Jonson had to play his methods by ear. There can be little doubt that our time does not appreciate the worth of this play. But it is not simply because of the harsh ending. It is probably a result of the cruelty in the picture of human greed, and the unflinching willingness to face the harsh facts of human nature. Sentimentality does not figure in Volpone. Even the hero and heroine are silly fools. The modern desire to identify with a character in a play makes it difficult for this one to please. Most people can identify with certain character qualities of a fool, but few people are criminal in their folly.
One critic has written that Volpone almost becomes human and that the sentence is leveled against a human rather than a comic character. At any rate, Jonson has been able to bring Volpone to life for the stage.