Corvino and Celia enter the room where Volpone is lying in bed and Bonario is hiding. Mosca intercepts Corvino and Celia, saying they have come too soon. Corvino says he was afraid that he’d come too late. Aside, Mosca wonders if ever a man was so hasty to become a cuckold. Mosca tells them to wait, and he goes to Bonario’s hiding place. Meanwhile, Corvino asks Celia if she knows why he brought her there; she doesn’t. He says that now he’ll tell her, and they talk on one side of the stage.
As Mosca’s plans become more complex and more theatrical, they all start to converge on each other, heightening the play’s drama. Corvino himself has been acting in order to conceal his intentions and trick Celia, but at the same time he is still the subject of Mosca’s trickery, since Mosca has used false information to manipulate Corvino. In other words, ironically, Corvino believes he has been concealing the truth from Celia, but what he is actually concealing is just another one of Mosca’s lies.
While Corvino explains the situation to Celia, Mosca tells Bonario that Corbaccio isn’t to come for a half an hour. He tells Bonario to go into a different room and wait for the time, and Bonario consents, but says in an aside that he doubts Mosca.
Mosca’s ability to perfectly manipulate everyone comes into question as Bonario begins to doubt him. It’s consistent with the play’s moral message that it’s Bonario, who represents honesty and goodness, who is the first person to see through the ruse. This underscores Jonson’s belief that the truth always wins out in the end.
Corvino says to Celia that there is no going back now, and that since he ordered her to sleep with Volpone, she has to do it. Celia begs him not to give this strange test, and she says if he doubts her chastity, he can just lock her up forever. Corvino says that he isn’t jealous, and that he just wants her to be an obedient wife and do as he says. He explains that the doctors have prescribed this, that by doing it she will win him Volpone’s fortune, and that she needs to obey. She questions his honor, but he says that there is no such thing as honor. Gold, he says, is no worse after having been touched by someone else, and clothes are worth no less after being looked at. He views his wife in the same way, and he says that Volpone is old and sick and cannot hurt her. He also assures her that no one else will know about it.
Corvino’s claim that honor doesn’t exist is predicated on the notion that honor is purely external—it only exists insofar as a person has the appearance of honor—instead of an innate quality, or a quality based on integrity of behavior. Drawing the comparison to gold, he says that innate, internal value is not corrupted by a change in appearances (as though ordering Celia to sleep with Volpone is troubling only because of how it looks). He uses this analogy to claim that Celia won’t be valued any less from sleeping with Volpone, but really Corvino’s words just reveal how corrupted he himself is.
Celia then begs Corvino to be jealous and to act like her sleeping with Volpone is a sin, but he says that if he thought it was a sin he wouldn’t tell her to do it. He argues that it is in fact a pious act, or a charity for medicine. In an aside, Volpone praises Mosca for engineering the situation, and Mosca tells Corvino to come closer to the bed. Mosca announces that Corvino has come to prostitute his wife, freely of his own insistence, to Volpone. Volpone thanks Corvino while pretending he is very near death, and tells Corvino to use the fortune well when he inherits it.
Corvino certainly does not believe that sleeping with Volpone is pious, since we have seen he threatened to rain down hell and murder Celia for even speaking with him. Instead, he is saying whatever he has to in order to get Volpone’s wealth. His greed has corrupted his integrity; he will say (or believe) absolutely anything to secure the fortune.
Corvino instructs Celia to go to Volpone and threats to hit her if she disobeys. Celia says that she would rather die than sleep with Volpone, but Corvino curses and threatens to drag Celia home by the hair through the streets like a whore. He then describes a horrifying punishment if she disobeys: he says he’ll buy a slave, kill the slave, bind the slave to Celia, and hang her at the windows with crimes written into her skin with acid. In the face of this horrible punishment, Celia simply says that he may do as he pleases, since she is his martyr.
When Celia disobeys Corvino, he returns to his excessively controlling, ultra-violent threats, explaining the gruesome torture that Tarquin famously threatened to do to Lucretia (two prominent Roman figures in literature and history). While Lucretia capitulated, Celia, boldly, does not.
Corvino becomes increasingly angry that Celia will not acquiesce, believing she is intentionally trying to disgrace him. Mosca interrupts Corvino’s fury and convinces him that Celia will be more likely to comply when Corvino isn’t in the room, so Mosca and Corvino exit. As soon as they leave, Celia cries out to God, asking why all human shame seems to have vanished and wondering why Corvino is being so dishonorable to himself and to God, all for money.
Celia, aligned with heaven, religion, and goodness, properly understands Corvino’s moral lapse: he has let desire for money corrupt him and supersede all sense of honor, shame, and duty. Thus, the two characters in the play whose names point to their goodness (Celia and Bonario) are the only ones who can see through and resist deception.
Volpone then jumps out of bed and says Corvino has never “tasted the true love of heaven.” He says that the person who would sell Celia for personal gain has sold his part in paradise, and has found a buyer in Volpone. He asks why Celia is so amazed to see him suddenly revived, saying she should instead applaud the miracle of his recovery, which he attributes to her. He then admits that he was the mountebank she threw the handkerchief at earlier that morning.
Tasting the true love of heaven is a pun on Celia’s name, which means heaven. Volpone chides Corvino for selling Celia for personal gain, but he also believes that the transaction is legitimate, so while he thinks Corvino is a fool, he believes that Celia is truly up for sale, and that he and Corvino can control her. The logic is wickedly twisted, and shows Volpone’s inability to think beyond his own desires.
Celia protests, but Volpone keeps talking. He says that she shouldn’t let the fact he was bedridden make her think that he really is. He says that he’s as fresh, hot, and in excellent spirit as he has been in his youth. He then sings her a song in an attempt to convince her to take part in “the sports of love” while they have time to. In the song, he also assures her that it’s not a sin to steal the fruits of love. At the song’s end, Celia cries out for a poisonous mist or a bolt of lightning to strike her.
Volpone’s assurance that he is, in fact, young and healthy echoes Corbaccio’s claim that seeing Volpone so ill made him feel twenty years younger. All of these corrupted characters feed on misfortune and sin. It’s notable, too, that Volpone’s desire for Celia has him singing and performing like his entertainers usually do. This suggests that Volpone, without Mosca to do his bidding, is more like a fool than a schemer (Mosca, for example, would try to manipulate Celia through language).
Volpone asks Celia why she is sad, since she has found a worthy lover to replace her “base husband.” He tells her to see what she is queen of, showing her his treasures. One by one he shows her extremely beautiful and expensive items. He then describes a meal they can eat of exotic meats. Celia says that this might convince someone else, but that she values and enjoys only innocence. She says that that once she loses her innocence, she will have nothing.
Volpone says if she has wisdom, she will listen to him. He offers all of the pleasures his wealth can offer, including entertainment from his fools and anything that she can imagine. He says they can change shapes and act out Ovid’s tales about seduction, and then modern forms, and pour their souls into each other.
Volpone keeps trying to use his material wealth to convince Celia; he simply doesn’t understand how she could value anything above money. Here, acting is referenced again in the play, this time taking on a sexual meaning.
Volpone then attempts another song to seduce Celia, but she cuts him off and begs him to listen to her. If he has the ability to listen, if he has any honor or manliness or understanding of heaven, she says, he’ll let her go. If not, she asks him to kill her. If he won’t let her go or kill her, she begs him to feed his wrath instead of lust, since wrath is manlier, and since he can punish her for “the unhappy crime of nature” which he wrongly calls her beauty. She asks him to cut her face or poison her for seducing him, or do anything that makes her ugly without taking her honor. She offers to kneel and pray for Volpone, and to say publicly that he is virtuous.
Celia realizes that Volpone has been corrupted by his excessive desire, but she pleads with him to feed one desire instead of the other – wrath over lust. She also appeals to his sense of manliness. Contrary to Lady Would-be, who believes that a woman’s appearance is most important, Celia believes that her beauty is a crime of nature or a curse, and she wishes she were less beautiful, not more.
Volpone responds in anger, and tells her to yield or else he’ll force her. Celia cries out to God, and Volpone seizes her, but Bonario leaps out from his hiding place and curses out Volpone. Bonario tells Volpone to free Celia on pain of death. Bonario says he would kill Volpone on the spot if not for his desire to see Volpone face justice. He tells Celia that he’ll protect her, and the two flee from Volpone’s house. After their flight, Volpone cries out for his house to bury him since he is undone.
It’s important to contrast the behavior of Bonario and Volpone. If Bonario had excessive anger and a desire for vengeance, the situation might have turned bloody. However, Bonario refuses to be corrupted by desire, anger, or passion. Bonario chooses not to kill Volpone because he believes in justice and restraint.