In Volpone’s home in Venice, Italy, the wealthy Volpone greets the day and his gold, and he instructs his hanger-on, Mosca, to reveal his treasure. Volpone then begins an ode to money, which he calls “the world’s soul” and his own soul. He says that he’s gladder to see his gold than the earth is glad to see the sun, and he goes on to say that his gold outshines the sun like a flame at night or the first light during creation. He calls gold the “son of Sol” that is brighter than its father, and he says he wants to kiss and adore every piece of “sacred treasure in this blessèd room.”
Volpone’s opening ode to gold shows immediately how commerce and money are connected with greed and corruption. By speaking about gold as if it is even greater than God and as if it created the universe, Volpone blasphemes. This shows from the outset how obsession with wealth can shift one’s moral priorities. His speech also references alchemy, since alchemists believed that gold was fathered by the sun.
Volpone continues, saying that the poets were right to call the best age in history the “golden age,” since gold is the best thing in the world, surpassing joy. Gold is so beautiful and loved, he says, that when gold became Venus’s (the Goddess of love’s) aura, it functionally surrounded her with twenty thousand cupids.
The “golden age” is a reference to the Roman poet Ovid and his work The Metamorphosis. Again, Volpone places an excessive emphasis on the value of gold. He also introduces the idea, explored throughout the play, that gold instils people (here Goddesses) with their best qualities.
Still speaking to his “dear saint,” Volpone says that riches are the silent god that gives men the ability to speak, that can do nothing and yet makes men do everything. Gold is the price of souls. Hell, if you add gold to it, is worth the same as heaven. Gold is “virtue, fame, honor,” and everything in the world. Whoever has gold is made noble, valiant, honest, and wise by default.
Mosca cuts off Volpone by agreeing, and he says that riches are better than wisdom. Volpone agrees, but says that he gives more glory to the unconventional method he uses to gain wealth than to the fact that he has so much money. He doesn’t use any trade or risky commerce, he doesn’t farm, he doesn’t raise animals, and he doesn’t have any mills to produce commodities. He’s not an artisan, nor a merchant risking money on ships that might sink in the ocean. He doesn’t use banks or lend money at interest.
Volpone is knowledgeable about all the conventional and emerging ways to make money, but his true passion isn’t commerce or making as much money as possible. Despite his understanding of the way that wealth gives a person qualities that are typically thought of as internal, and despite his blasphemous praise of gold, what Volpone truly values (and is greedy for) above all else is the pleasure he receives in swindling other people.
Mosca continues, saying that Volpone also doesn’t take the wealth of other heirs, like many do, by tearing fathers away from families, since Volpone’s sweet nature prevents him from doing so. The other reason he doesn’t is because Volpone doesn’t want widows or orphans crying all around his property. Mosca says Volpone isn’t like a greedy farmer who harvests corn but eats bad weeds to hoard his keep, or like a merchant who fills his ship with expensive wines but only drinks cheap dregs. He won’t stay in bad conditions to save money. Rather, Volpone knows how to spend his money, giving some to Mosca, some to a dwarf, a hermaphrodite, and a eunuch, and spending on everything that allows him to live in comfort and in pleasure.
For a moment, it seems that Mosca is praising Volpone for his character, but in reality, the only reason Volpone doesn’t tear apart families is because he would be annoyed by weeping orphans. This passage shows, for the first time, that Volpone is not motivated by wealth alone: he is interested in comfort and contentment, though he has no moral scruples about how to achieve these goals and he seems to think that gold is the quickest route.
Volpone pays Mosca and says that Mosca is right in everything he says. Those who call Mosca a parasite, Volpone says, are just jealous. Volpone then instructs Mosca to bring in the dwarf, the eunuch, and the fool and Mosca exits to get them. Alone on stage, Volpone asks what he should do other than indulge his desires and live with all the delights that his fortune demands. He has no wife, no parents, and no children or friends to whom he could give his wealth when he dies. Since the money will go to whomever Volpone names heir, men flatter him and petition him, and women and men of all ages bring him presents and money, hoping that when he dies (which they believe will be soon), they’ll gain everything back and more by inheriting his fortune.
The term parasite means hanger-on or follower. Like a parasite feeds on another creature, Mosca lives only off of Volpone’s wealth. While this term is insulting, Volpone legitimizes Mosca’s role, and throughout the play Mosca shows that he even embraces the term parasite. Volpone also claims here that his fortune demands that he indulge himself (which involves immoral actions). This suggests that wealth is innately corrupting, or it least that it has the innate potential to corrupt.
The greediest of these suitors try to out-do one another, competing in gifts and undermining each other, all the while trying to seem like they love Volpone. Volpone endures all of this, toying with their hope of inheriting his money so that he can profit from them. He continues to take more and more from them, all the while leading them on and convincing them that they will be named his heir.
The suitors, too, seem to have been corrupted by the possibility of inheriting a vast fortune, as they’re faking love for Volpone and undermining one another. Meanwhile, Volpone preys on their corrupt hopes, which itself is unbelievably cruel.