Volpone

Volpone Act 1, Scene 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mosca puts away the gold platter brought by Voltore and tells Volpone to pretend he is asleep. He then instructs the money to “multiply.” Mosca describes Corbaccio as an old man who is sicker than Volpone even pretends to be, but who hopes to “hop over his grave.”
When Mosca tells the money to multiply, he means he wants to fortune to grow, but he also personifies money by asking it to multiply as in reproduce like a living being. By ‘hopping over his grave,’ Corbaccio hopes to skirt death and outlive Volpone.
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Corbaccio enters the room, and Mosca greets him. Corbaccio then asks how Volpone is doing, and when Mosca says Volpone is doing worse, Corbaccio responds by saying it’s good. Mosca informs Corbaccio that Volpone doesn’t sleep well, and Corbaccio says “Good!” and says he has brought medicine from his own doctor.
Corbaccio’s utter disregard for Volpone’s life and his overt glee upon hearing of Volpone’s illness is a strong example of how desire for money can overrule morality and common decency.
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Volpone though, according to Mosca, is not interested in medicine. Corbaccio becomes defensive, saying that he oversaw the doctor making the medicine, which he promises will only make Volpone sleep. In an aside, Volpone jokes that it would make his “last sleep” if he were to take it.
Volpone knows that Corbaccio wishes he were dead, which is why he jokes that any medicine from Corbaccio would make him take his “last sleep” (i.e. die).
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Mosca responds to Corbaccio’s offer by saying that Volpone has no faith in medicine. Mosca reports that Volpone thinks doctors are even more dangerous than the diseases they treat, and he has apparently often said that Corbaccio’s doctor will never be his heir. Corbaccio thinks Mosca has said that he won’t be the heir, but Mosca corrects Corbaccio saying it’s Corbaccio’s doctor who won’t be.
Mosca’s remarks about medicine are part of Volpone’s ruse, but they also convey legitimate fears and uncertainty surrounding doctors. Medicine was not exactly trustworthy at the time, and disease was very poorly understood.
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Elaborating on Volpone’s distrust of physicians, Mosca tells Corbaccio that doctors cut people open and experiment on dead men. They are not punished for this gruesome practice, but instead are rewarded. Corbaccio says that doctors kill “with as much license as a judge,” but Mosca says that doctors kill more freely; while a judge only kills those who have broken the law, a doctor can kill even a judge.
In a way, doctors did cut people open and experiment on dead men by performing autopsies to learn about bodies and medicine. Despite the benefits of performing autopsies, this gave doctors a bad reputation. Corbaccio’s true opinions are difficult to gauge, as he has just said he believed in medicine and might only be changing his stance to side with Mosca and increase his chances at Volpone’s fortune. However, since his medicine might have been poison, it’s possible that he believed this about doctors all along.
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Corbaccio agrees that a doctor can kill anyone, then he changes the subject back to Volpone’s health. Corbaccio asks about Volpone’s apoplexy, which Mosca says is “violent;” he says Volpone struggles to speak, his eyes are sunken, and his face looks long. Corbaccio at first mishears long as “strong” and becomes worried that Volpone might recover, but Mosca tells him that he said “long,” and Corbaccio is relieved. Mosca continues to list symptoms of Volpone’s disease: his mouth gapes, his eyelids hang, his joints are stiff, his flesh is grey, his pulse is slow, and there is a cold sweat and fluid continuously coming from his brain out the corner of his eyes. During this extensive list of symptoms, Corbaccio constantly interjects with his approval.
Comically, Corbaccio only seems concerned about Volpone when he worries that Volpone might actually be healthy. The list of Volpone’s supposed symptoms that Mosca gives to comfort Corbaccio were all thought to be deadly, though Corbaccio approves of each one. This shows, once again, how Volpone’s theatrical ruse is actually bringing out the truth of the suitors’ personalities. By thinking that Volpone is too sick to understand what it happening, the suitors unwittingly reveal to him their corrupt natures. This mirrors the play itself , which uses theater to comment on the corruption brought forth by greed.
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After Mosca finishes reciting Volpone’s symptoms, Corbaccio wonders if it is possible that he is healthier than Volpone is. Corbaccio says that he now thinks he’ll outlive Volpone, which makes him feel twenty years younger. He then asks Mosca if Volpone has made his will, to which Mosca responds “not yet.” Corbaccio asks what Voltore the lawyer was doing at the house previously if Volpone has not yet made his will. Mosca says that Voltore heard Volpone was making a will—which Mosca claims to have urged for the benefit of Corbaccio—and so Voltore came by and gave Volpone a gold plate. When Corbaccio asks if Voltore is trying to become Volpone’s heir, Mosca pretends not to know, but Corbaccio assumes that Voltore does want the inheritance.
Corbaccio is suspicious of all the other suitors, worried that they might win Volpone’s favor. It makes sense that he would assume that others share his own motives, and he happens to be correct, though Mosca’s genius with language and performance throws him off the scent. The magnitude of Corbaccio’s moral corruption is made clear by his reaction—feeling twenty years younger—to hearing how old, sick, and decrepit Volpone is. Corbaccio, like the bird of prey to which his name alludes, is literally strengthened by the misfortune of others.
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To prevent Voltore from being named heir, Corbaccio presents Mosca with a bag of chequins (gold coins). Mosca takes the bag and says that money is the true, sacred medicine, that drugs cannot compare to “this great elixir.” Corbaccio responds in Latin with the adage that gold can be felt, if not drunk. They talk about potentially healing Volpone, at which point Corbaccio attempts to take his money back. Mosca, though, tells him not to take it back, saying that he’ll advise Corbaccio on how to win the entire fortune. Mosca tells Corbaccio that the fortune Corbaccio’s by destiny. He then claims that when Volpone recovers from this particularly bad fit of illness, he will convince Volpone to write the will by showing him the bag of gold left by Corbaccio.
In the alchemical tradition, elixir is a substance that makes a person live forever or changes metal into gold. Corbaccio’s Latin adage refers to the fact that dissolved gold was sometimes drunk as medicine, though touching it would be just as good, since it was so prized. This relates to the question of whether gold can inherently give a person qualities like health or honor.The healing powers of gold were considered to be so strong that Corbaccio considers taking his money back, lest it have the unintended consequence of preventing Volpone’s death.
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After Corbaccio agrees to leave the bag of gold, Mosca encourages him to run home to name Volpone heir to Corbaccio’s fortune. Corbaccio is confused, since he doesn’t want to disinherit his son. Mosca says disinheriting his son will make the ruse seem all the more real; he explains that when Volpone finds out that Corbaccio has named him heir, he will undoubtedly name Corbaccio heir to his own fortune in return. After hearing this, Corbaccio says he had considered the idea before, and he agrees with Mosca that it is sure to work, especially since Corbaccio is so likely to outlive Volpone. Corbaccio says that by disinheriting his son to earn Volpone’s fortune, he’s really only increasing his son’s inheritance.
Part of Mosca’s brilliance is convincing others that what he wants them to do is their own idea. By disinheriting his son, Corbaccio violates the social order by which wealth is preserved and passed on. It could be argued that Corbaccio genuinely believes that he is ultimately just increasing his son’s inheritance, especially since Corbaccio is so near to death himself, but it could also be argued that it is a greedy act, and that the violation of social mores is evidence that Corbaccio has been corrupted.
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Mosca assures Corbaccio that he’s on Corbaccio’s side, and, as Corbaccio leaves, Mosca yells jokes at him, since Corbaccio is hard of hearing. While Mosca essentially says that he is swindling Corbaccio, Corbaccio says that he’s certain to outlive Volpone and that he doesn’t doubt Mosca at all.
An essential (and masterful) part of Mosca’s performance in the ruse is to amuse himself and Volpone. Thus, at any opportunity he makes jokes about Corbaccio, who makes a point of saying he suspects nothing. The irony here is that Volpone was the one believed to be deaf, though Corbaccio is the one who cannot hear essential information.
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Once Corbaccio is gone, Volpone jumps out of bed again and says he almost burst from laughter. Mosca tells him to contain his laughter, and Volpone praises Mosca for his excellent work in swindling Corbaccio. Modestly, Mosca says that he just does what he is told: he flatters the men, lies to them, and sends them away. Volpone then says “What a rare punishment is avarice to itself!” Volpone reflects on old age and the slow decline of the human body, then jokes about how Corbaccio wants to live longer and how he deceives himself in his attempt to deceive others about his age.
Volpone outlines the play’s moral stance toward greed: excessive greed is corrupting, and it brings about its own punishment. This comment, as well as Volpone’s comments about the declining body, are at Corbaccio’s expense, but they contain hints of irony. While Volpone is not as old as Corbaccio, and while he is not really sick, he is still old and terrified of aging, disease, and death. In addition, Volpone’s own greed will soon be its own punishment (which the audience knows, since Ben Jonson spelled it out at the beginning of the play).
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At the end of Volpone’s speech on age, someone else knocks. Mosca tells Volpone to go back to pretending to be sick, since Corvino (the merchant) has come. Volpone says he’ll play dead, and Mosca helps him apply more eye ointment before allowing Corvino to enter.
Volpone and Mosca go in and out of their ruse characters seamlessly. The eye ointment is just like the stage makeup that both actors are already wearing, adding an element of meta-theatricality to the play.
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