Box Office
Support TST


Photo Gallery

Mailing List

By Ben Jonson

The Art of Deception

In Volpone, Ben Jonson celebrates the joy of a good trick. He emphasizes the fun and the humor of deceit, but he does not overlook its nastiness, and in the end he punishes the deceivers. The play centers around the wealthy Volpone, who, having no wife or children, pretends to be dying and, with the help of his wily servant Mosca, eggs on several greedy characters, each of whom hopes to be made Volpone's sole heir. Jonson's ardent love of language reveals itself throughout the play, but especially in the words of Mosca and Volpone, who relish the deceptive powers of language. Volpone himself pursues his schemes partly out of greed, but partly out of his passionate love of getting the best of people. He cannot resist the temptation to outsmart those around him, particularly when fate delivers him such perfect gulls as the lawyer Voltore, the merchant Corvino, the doddering old Corbaccio, and the foolish English travelers Sir Politic and Lady Would-Be. Mosca too revels in his ability to beguile others, remarking "I fear I shall begin to grow in love / With my dear self," so thrilled is he with his own manipulations. His self-love, however, proves his undoing, as it does for Volpone. Both characters become so entranced by their own elaborate fictions that they cannot bring themselves to stop their scheming before they betray themselves.

Jonson's audience would have recognized both the wily Volpone and the parasitical Mosca as stereotypically Italian. English playwrights frequently borrowed characters from Italian drama and from Italy's comic dramatic tradition, the commedia dell'arte. Venice, the setting for Volpone, evoked the glory of Italian art and culture, but also Italy’s decadence and corruption, which the English viewed as dangerously seductive. English readers knew of Venice through the lively accounts of travelers such as Thomas Corvate, whom Ladv Politic Would-Be mentions in Volpone. Coryate was particularly intrigued by Venice, a city renowned throughout Europe for its beautiful courtesans, many of whom were elegant and educated women ("subtle and full of art," as Mosca tells Corvino) with a highly sophisticated clientele. Other English authors warn about the perils of traveling in Venice, and Shakespeare too explores the darker side of the city in The Merchant Of Venice and Othello. Contemporary filmmakers have found Venice to be an apt setting for plots in which something sinister lurks below an attractive surface; the English travelers to Venice in the films Don't Look Now (1973) and The Comfort ofStrangers (1991) find themselves lost in a frightening psychological maze as twisted and confusing as the canals of Venice itself. Venice thus has enduring appeal as a setting for Volpone, for despite its humor the play retains its disturbing aspects, and there is an unsettling ugliness to much of the action.

Even knowing the dangerous side of Italy, thousands of Englishmen and women continued to travel there during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Jonson satirizes the complacency and foolishness of many of these travelers in the characters of Sir Politic and Lady Would-Be, who come to Italy to acquire learning and sophistication but indiscriminately imitate what they find there. (Shakespeare makes a similar observation in Richard II, when York complains about the influence of "proud Italy, / Whose manners still our tardy-apish nation / Limps after in base imitation.") Lady Would-Be has studied Castiglione's essays on proper conduct in The Book of the Courtier, but she is also said to have come to Venice to learn about "fashions and behavior among the courtesans," a detail that Jonson's audience would have snickered at, for Italian courtesans, were not considered appropriate role models for aristocratic Englishwomen. Lady Would-Be also claims to have read all the Italian authors, but she has read them without true comprehension; for along with Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto, she praises Aretino, whose infamous verses and the accompanying pornographic illustrations were well known to be more than just "a little obscene," as she says.

We are encouraged to laugh with Volpone and Mosca at the pretensions and hypocrisies of Lady Would-Be and the other ever-hopeful "heirs"; but ultimately Jonson chooses to punish the deceivers and asks us to side, however reluctantly, with the Venetian Senate in condemning them. Voltore, Corvino, and the others may richly deserve to be tricked, but Volpone and Mosca are not agents of justice, and we must not confuse them with such truly virtuous characters as Celia and Bonario. Nevertheless, Jonson gives Volpone the last word in the play's Epilogue, where Volpone asks our forgiveness, and we find ourselves in complicity with him once again. We are invited in the end to revel in the delightfulness of deception, and of language, and to suspend, if only briefly, our moral judgments.

Miranda Johnson-Haddad
Howard University

Back to Volpone main page

Email Us© 1999-2002 The Shakespeare Theatre