Volpone

Volpone

Volpone Act 3, Scene 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Lady Would-be and Nano enter the room where Volpone lies pretending to be sick. Lady Would-Be tells Nano to inform Volpone that she has arrived, and she calls for one of her waiting women to come and fix her clothing and makeup. In an aside, Volpone says he feels a fever coming on. The two serving women fix Lady Would-be’s makeup and clothing while she chides them for doing it wrong, despite the fact that she has told them what to do so many times before.
While Volpone is pretending to be sick, Lady Would-be applies makeup, another way of manipulating appearances to conceal reality. At the time, a woman’s modesty was shown through blushing, and makeup was seen as obscuring that modesty. Volpone meanwhile, is worried that interacting with Lady Would-be will make his fake disease real.
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Lady Would-be continues scolding her servants, saying that she doesn’t want the Italians to see her and say that the English lady can’t dress herself. She then instructs Nano to entertain the servants, and she goes towards Volpone, at which point he says in an aside, “the storm comes toward me.”
Part of what concerns Lady Would-be is her public appearance and her reputation, much like Sir Politic tries hard to seem knowledgeable and wise. Volpone calls Lady Would-be a storm because she talks so much.
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Lady Would-be asks Volpone how he has slept, and he responds that he can’t sleep because he dreamed of a strange fury entering the home. Lady Would-be begins recounting a dream of her own, and in an aside Volpone curses himself for giving her a topic to start talking about. He asks her to stop talking, since he suffers at the mention of any dream, but she takes him to mean he has heartburn and begins listing potential treatments for it.
Volpone isn’t talking about a dream, he’s talking about Lady Would-be, but she doesn’t get it. Lady Would-be can apparently talk about anything; every time Volpone changes the subject she is instantly able to start talking about the new topic. It’s a facility with language somewhat reminiscent of Mosca’s, but, since her ability lacks self-awareness, it is not valued in the play.
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Volpone asks Lady Would-be to drink and leave, but that only starts her talking about a drink recipe. Volpone says in an aside that before he pretended to have diseases, but now he really has one. She continues trying to cure him, and when he asks her to stop making prescriptions, she says she studied some medicine and begins talking about music and philosophy. She says she thinks women should learn to read and have artistic skills, though she believes harmony in a woman’s face, voice, and clothing is most important.
Volpone’s concern about becoming sick for real is partially a joke at Lady Would-be’s expense, suggesting she is so annoying it will make him sick, but it also seems to reflect a genuine fear of illness and a worry that, by appearing sick, he will really contract disease. Lady Would-be seems much more educated than the typical renaissance woman, having studied medicine, music, and philosophy. She believes women should be educated, which was a progressive viewpoint, but she also believes that a woman’s external appearance is more important than her education, which is stereotypical and fitting with contemporary societal norms.
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Volpone responds by saying that an old poet wrote that the best quality of women is silence, but Lady Would-be only responds by asking which poet he means and naming a long list of poets she has read. In an aside, he says that nothing can escape her “eternal tongue.” He decides to simply say nothing to her, and she starts talking about English, Italian, and French writers. When she realizes he is not paying attention, she asks Volpone if he is okay, to which he responds that his mind is disturbed. She says the best way to fix a disturbed mind is to practice philosophy, and she starts talking again. She describes an old acquaintance who would lie still for hours on end listening to her sleep, at which point Volpone cries out for someone to rescue him.
The ideal renaissance woman was chaste, obedient, and, as Volpone references, silent. In this context, the play’s mockery of Lady Would-be’s ability to improvise and speak about anything seems gendered—for male characters, this skill is valued. Much of the dialogue in this scene comes from an ancient Greek source called “On Talkative Women,” suggesting that Jonson might have believed that there was some truth to the stereotype that women talk excessively, or more generously, that Jonson is engaging with the literary tradition of depicting women in this way.
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