Mosca and Nano, both in disguises, enter the square outside Corvino’s home where Sir Politic and Peregrine have been talking. Mosca points to a window, and he and Nano begin setting up a platform. Sir Politic asks Peregrine if he has heard about the Italian mountebanks (swindling salesmen and fraudsters), since they are about to see one. Peregrine says he has heard that they are conmen who make a living selling oils and medicine. Sir Politic responds that mountebanks are “the only knowing men of Europe!” He calls them great scholars, doctors, and best speakers in the world.
Mosca and Nano’s costumes demonstrate the theatricality of Mosca’s ruses, and they create dramatic irony, since audiences know that the two men are in disguise, but Sir Politic and Peregrine do not. At the same time, the disguises remind the audience that every character on stage is really just an actor in a costume. Note also that the mountebanks are praised for their ability to speak well, which in turn allows them to sell well, tying language to commerce.
Peregrine says that he has heard mountebanks are all talk and no substance and that they lie about their bad medicines, which they’ll eventually sell for extremely cheap despite a very high starting price. Sir Politic says that Peregrine will have to see for himself, and he asks Mosca who the mountebank is. Mosca says it’s Scoto of Mantua, at which point Sir Politic promises Peregrine that his opinions about mountebanks are about to change, though he wonders why Scoto of Mantua would mount his stage in the square when he usually does so in the Piazza.
Peregrine knows that mountebanks (like the play’s other tricksters) use deceptive, empty language as a powerful tool to manipulate others. The mountebank about to appear, of course, is Volpone, not Scoto of Mantua, and he is stationed outside of Corvino’s house instead of in the Piazza because he wants to sleep with Corvino’s wife.
Volpone enters the square dressed as a mountebank and followed by a crowd of people. Sir Politic and Peregrine watch as Volpone mounts the stage and launches into a speech, explaining that the crowd might find it strange that he has chosen to set up here instead of in the Piazza after being gone from Venice for eight months. He explains that he is not desperate to sell his goods at a cheap price, and that the rumor that he was imprisoned (spread by a competing mountebank) is false. He says he cannot stand the salesmen who are too poor to afford a stage and tell wild fabricated tales about adventures that never happened. Throughout the speech, Sir Politic makes little interruptions to Peregrine about how good it is.
This performance is almost directly opposite to Volpone’s performed disease—here, he is an energetic and bombastic salesman. Part of his sales pitch is disparaging other mountebanks for being poor and assuring the crowd that he is not desperate to sell his goods; he seems to imply that one needs to have money to make money, which is related to the claim throughout the play that money itself imbues people with good qualities. Sir Politic, meanwhile, is struck by Volpone’s language abilities, which are obliquely made parallel to Ben Jonson’s, since (like Jonson did of other playwrights in the opening), Volpone disparages competing mountebanks.
Volpone continues, saying that the other mountebanks are terrible, and that they’ll kill twenty people a week as if it were a play. Even so, he says, these terrible mountebanks have some favor with the public, though all their medicine does is purge people into the other world (i.e. kills them). He then says that his bank will only be the source of profit and delight, and that he has nothing (or very little) to sell.
Volpone’s comment that doctors kill people like they are in plays is meta-theatrical, since Volpone himself is a character in the play. His comments also reflect the very real contemporary fear that medicine could not be trusted and that doctors were just as dangerous as disease. It’s comical to see Volpone claiming not to care about profit—the audience knows that money is nearly all he cares about, though in this literal moment his statement might be true, since he is trying only to seduce Celia.
Volpone next claims that he and his six servants can’t make the elixir fast enough for all the Venetians who want to buy it, including merchants and senators. He asks what use a rich man has with a full wine cellar when the doctor tells him to drink only medicine on pain of death. He cries out to health and calls it the blessing of the rich, and he says that no one can enjoy the world unless they are healthy. Since health is so important, he reasons, the people should not be cheap when it comes to his product.
The line about a rich man having a cellar full of wine while being required to drink only medicine recalls (and inverts) Volpone’s criticism, earlier in the play, of those who don’t know how to properly spend money. Again, physical health is somehow associated with wealth. Ironically, in his other ruse, Volpone’s pretending to be both rich and sick stands in opposition to the notion he keeps pushing that wealth maintains health.
Volpone says that when they become sick, they can try to apply gold to the affected areas and see what happens—it’s only his “rare extraction” that has the power to cure a vast list of mild and severe ailments. His elixir, he says, is the doctor and is the medicine. It cures. It is both theoretical and practical in the medicinal arts. It costs eight crowns. Volpone then instructs Nano to sing a verse in honor of the elixir.
Backtracking from his claim that health is the blessing of the rich (and from discussions about gold as medicine earlier in the play), Volpone seems to reverse his position by saying that gold cannot be used as medicine. Rather, he says, his elixir is the only true, trustworthy medicine.
Sir Politic asks Peregrine what he thinks of Volpone and his language, to which Peregrine responds he hasn’t heard anything like it other than in alchemy or dense scriptural treatises. Nano then sings in praise of the elixir. He sings that if the ancient Greek doctors Hippocrates or Galen had known the secret of the elixir, they would have spent far less time working, and no other bad medicines would have been tried or invented. At the end of the song, Peregrine says eight crowns is too expensive for the elixir.
Volpone’s language here is apparently so unique (and confusing) that it sounds like an obscure alchemical text or a difficult theological essay. Sir Politic, who won’t admit to being ignorant of anything, thinks the language is impeccable, but Peregrine seems to find it absurd and almost without meaning. Peregrine is one of the only characters who seems able to identify and resist deceptive language.
Volpone begins another dense, ostentatious rant, saying that if he had time he could list the numerous miraculous effects of his product, list the many people it has cured, and list all of the diseases it fixes. He claims he has been endorsed by the college of physicians because of the quality of his medicine and because of the secrets he knows. He then says that some might say there are other mountebanks who claim to have the same product he has; Volpone agrees that many of them have imitations made at greater cost in complex processes that ultimately fail. He says he pities their foolishness more than their loss of money and time, since you can earn back money, but “to be a fool born is disease incurable.”
Volpone’s list of diseases is absurd, and it shows the character’s obsession with illness. Between his three years pretending to be ill and his long list of diseases to fear, there is evidence that Volpone is afraid his fake diseases will turn real. In a strange way, Volpone’s pity for those who are born fools is aligned with the play’s moral message. Money is impermanent; it is not the most important thing in life. You can always make or lose money, but loss of morals, or reputation, or of character can be permanent.
Volpone says that from his youth he has sought out the rarest secrets and spared no cost in learning everything that he could. He claims to be a master of the chemical arts, since, while others have been at Venetian balls, he has been studying. Having studied so much, he has arrived at a point of success and prominent reputation. He goes on to say that while he never previously valued the elixir at less than eight crowns, he’s willing to sell it for six. He tells the crowd that he isn’t asking for the true value of the elixir – some have offered a thousand crowns for it – but he despises money. He is rejecting those offers in order to sell it to the people gathered in the crowd.
All of this, of course, is fiction, and it’s comical to hear Volpone claim that he despises money. The absurdity of this scene can be seen as a commentary on or criticism of the corrupting force of commerce in Venice, as mountebanks essentially just take advantage of eager consumers with elaborate exaggerations, lies, and faulty products.
Peregrine comments on what a waste of time it is to start at such a high price for what will ultimately sell for very cheap. Nano then sings another song encouraging the crowd to purchase the elixir, naming several ailments it will fix. Volpone says he is in a good mood and will therefore lower the price in an act of charity. He says he’ll sell it for sixpence, though he will not lower the price again by even a single coin. He tells the crowd to toss handkerchiefs if they want to buy the elixir, and he promises a special additional gift to whomever first throws a handkerchief.
Peregrine has no idea just how much time is being wasted, since Volpone isn’t really selling anything. It’s also a somewhat damning commentary on the theatre that Nano is singing and entertaining in order to sell a bogus product. In a way, Ben Jonson is entertaining the audience in order to teach them a moral lesson. Presumably he means well, but the parallel in technique is alarming.
Peregrine asks Sir Politic if he would be the first to throw a handkerchief, but from her window above, Celia, Corvino’s wife, throws down a handkerchief. Volpone thanks her and says he’ll give her something even better than his elixir – a powder that he says is too expensive to even describe. He says Apollo gave the powder to Venus to make her perpetually young, and that Venus gave it to Helen of Troy. The powder was lost for ages until it was recently rediscovered. Volpone says that he is the only one with access to this special powder, which has many beneficial effects, but he is cut off and the scene ends.
Volpone’s improvised (or possibly rehearsed) invention of this second product shows his mastery of language, deception, and acting. The lineage of this invented powder is reminiscent of the lineage Androgyno gives of his soul’s migration to him from Pythagoras—perhaps this is where Volpone got the idea for this trick.