Mosca re-enters the room in Volpone’s house, bringing with him Nano (the dwarf), Androgyno (the hermaphrodite), and Castrone (the eunuch) as per Volpone’s request. Nano, speaking in rhyme, announces that they’ve come to entertain, though they will not perform a classical play. He begins the performance by saying that within Androgyno is the soul of the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras.
This small play-within-the-play shows Volpone’s overt interest in theatricality; like the opening of the play in which Jonson discussed other playwrights, this moment is meant to draw the audience’s attention to the fact that everything onstage is fiction rather than reality. Androgyno’s comical claim to have the same soul as Pythagoras references Pythagoras’ famous belief in transmigration of souls, meaning that one’s soul is reincarnated in different lifetimes.
Nano begins tracing the supposed lineage of Androgyno’s (and thereby Pythagoras’s) soul: it started from Apollo, who breathed it into Aethalides (Mercury’s son). From Aethalides the soul transmigrated to Euphorbus, who was killed by Menelaus in the Trojan War. After Euphorbus, the soul went to Hermotimus, then to Pyrrhus of Delos (both Greek philosophers), before going to Pythagoras himself. After Pythagoras’s death, the soul went to Aspasia (apparently a whore), then Crates the Cynic (another philosopher), and since then “kings, knights, and beggars, knaves, lords, and fools” have all had the soul, as well as numerous animals.
As Nano relates it, Pythagoras’s soul moved from demigods to soldiers until it (apparently) took a liking to Greek philosophers and wound up in Pythagoras. The notion that one soul can be a king in one life and a beggar in the next is at odds with the rigidity of social classes in England at the time the play was written, mirroring Ben Jonson’s own difficult climb up the social ranking to become a renowned poet and playwright in the English court.
Nano then asks Androgyno about the most recent transformations, and the two joke that in past lives Androgyno has bounced between religions and therefore observed and broken many customs, such as abstaining from fish or eating fish on fast days. Androyno’s soul went from Carthusian to Protestant, from a mule to a Puritan, and finally transmigrated to Androgyno, whom Nano calls “a creature of delight… an hermaphrodite.” Nano asks Androgyno which of all the forms he might choose, and Androgyno says he prefers his current form. Nano asks if Androgyno prefers this form to get the benefits of being both sexes, but Androgyno says the real reason is the benefit of being a fool, which is the best role anyone can have. Nano says Pythagoras himself would agree, and finishes the performance.
Carthusians are an old order of Catholic monks, and the jokes about conflicting religious perspectives are informed by the fact that Jonson was Catholic (as opposed to a member of the Church of England) when he wrote this play. Thus, once again (as in the opening), Jonson draws attention to his own presence in the play’s action. Though the play’s primary exploration of gender roles is through a comparison of roles for women, Androgyno complicates this by apparently being both sexes. Ultimately, though, the play within the play concludes with Androgyno emphasizing how great it is to live the carefree life of a fool, which is akin to parasitism.
At the end of the performance, Volpone applauds and asks Mosca if he wrote the script for the show. Mosca confirms that he did write it, then Nano and Castrone sing a song praising fools as the only group worth admiring, since they are free from care and are so entertaining.
Mosca is identified as the author and director of the play within the play, roles he’ll reprise throughout the course of the plot as he manipulates all of the would-be heirs.
Outside, someone knocks on the door, and Volpone ends the song and tells Nano, Castrone, and Androgyno to exit. Mosca tells Volpone that he recognizes the person knocking as Voltore, the lawyer, and Volpone instructs Mosca to fetch his disguise and to tell Voltore that the bed sheets are being changed in order to delay him. Mosca exits to obey, and, alone on stage, Volpone says that now his “clients” are starting to visit. He names them as vulture (Voltore), kite, raven and crow, saying they are all birds of prey coming because they think that Volpone is dying. Volpone assures the audience (and himself) that he isn’t dying.
As soon as the play within the play ends, Mosca transitions from his role of director of the mini-play to director of ruse, helping Volpone prepare to fool Voltore. The animal names of the suitors are fitting and telling, since (like birds of prey) they circle Volpone hoping to inherit the fortune. The fact that Volpone needs to reassure himself that he isn’t dying is key. Throughout the play, he shows glimpses of the fear that somehow the appearance of disease he maintains will be internalized and become reality.
Mosca reenters the room, and Volpone immediately asks what gifts Voltore brought. Mosca responds that Voltore brought a large, antique gold platter with Volpone’s name inscribed on it. Volpone is very pleased by this, and he compares himself to a fox in Aesop’s Fables who tricks a crow into dropping its cheese. Mosca laughs, and explains that he finds it funny that Voltore is outside thinking the plate might be the last gift he ever gives to Volpone, that it might convince Volpone to name Voltore as his heir, and that Volpone might die that very day and grant Voltore a vast fortune. In this fantasy, Mosca says, Voltore believes he’ll be waited on and be called a great and well-studied lawyer, since wealth implies education. If you put a doctoral hood on a donkey, Mosca claims, people will believe the donkey is a Doctor of Divinity.
Volpone’s obsession with material possessions and with gold has already been established, so it makes sense that he immediately wants to know what Voltore has brought. Mosca’s fantasy of what Voltore expects will come with inheritance suggests that gold carries with it the appearance of certain unrelated qualities like education. This is contrasted to Volpone’s previous claim that gold actually gives people qualities (like honor) rather than just changing the qualities a person appears to have.
Mosca helps Volpone complete his disguise by applying ointment to Volpone’s eyes. Before leaving to bring in Voltore, Mosca tells Volpone that he hopes Volpone lives for years in order to keep deluding all the suitors and gaining wealth. Once Mosca exits, Volpone lies down and calls out all the diseases he has been faking for three years, all the while leading the suitors into believing that he is dying and that they will be named heir. He hears Voltore is about to enter, and he begins pretending to cough.
Mosca and Volpone are like actors applying stage makeup. Mosca’s desire for Volpone to live a long life so that he can keep conning the suitors indicates Mosca’s growing greed, which will eventually bring about Volpone’s downfall. Though Volpone is exceedingly rich, and has grown even more rich with his ruse, he and Mosca still desire more; this is not just for the money, but for the pleasure of carrying out the theatrical deception.