Back in the courtroom, the Avocatori struggle to make sense of the new information provided to them in Voltore’s statement, which appears to exonerate Celia and Bonario. Voltore’s story concedes that Bonario was wronged and that Celia was forced to Volpone’s home by Corvino, but Voltore denies the attempted rape because he believes that Volpone is sick and invalid. Corvino maintains that Voltore is possessed.
Voltore’s written statement is distinct from his spoken language in that it is not improvised, and it also appears to be honest. It also seems to be restoring faith in the court to legitimately distinguish between appearance and reality.
Volpone enters, still disguised as an officer, and says that Mosca will arrive soon. When Voltore is about to address the court, Volpone whispers to him that Mosca says Volpone is still alive, and that Voltore is still the heir. Volpone explains that the fake-death was a test to see how loyal Voltore is. Voltore immediately regrets confessing, and Volpone suggests that Voltore fall down and acts like he is possessed. Voltore falls and groans, while Volpone describes symptoms associated with possession. Corvino confirms it is the devil, and Corvino, Corbaccio, and Volpone perform an impromptu exorcism on Voltore.
As Volpone predicted, Voltore’s conscience or desire to tell the truth is immediately overtaken by the reawakening of his greed and the possibility of inheriting Volpone’s money. Voltore’s fake possession and the false exorcism is an absurd bit of meta-theatre, which is somehow convincing to the Avocatori.
Once Voltore has been exorcised, the Avocatori say that if he was really possessed than his written statement cannot be trusted. Voltore says that everything he wrote is false, and that Mosca is as innocent as Volpone, who Voltore now says is still alive. The Avocatori, Corvino, and Corbaccio are all shocked and confused at the news.
Though the written language appeared to be exonerating and truthful, Voltore is able to recant it with spoken language and the absurd, theatrical possession claim. His claim that Mosca is as innocent as Volpone is filled with dramatic irony, since it’s true, but not in the way he means it; Mosca and Volpone are both equally guilty.
Mosca then enters, and one of the Avocatori comments in an aside that if Volpone is really dead, he will set Mosca up with his daughter. Aside, Volpone tells Mosca that all was nearly lost when Voltore confessed, but he says he has got things under control. Mosca, however, ignores Volpone, and he tells the court that he has been busy planning Volpone’s funeral. Volpone realizes that Mosca is planning to have a funeral for the “dead” Volpone, thereby inheriting the entire fortune and robbing Volpone of everything. In an aside to Volpone, Mosca asks for half of the fortune, and Volpone first denies him. While answering questions in court, Volpone agrees, in an aside, to split the fortune with Mosca, but Mosca says he wants more.
Greed, we see, is not even beyond the Avocatori, one of whom quickly hopes to get his family involved with Mosca if he has inherited the fortune. This trades on the notion of political corruption in Venice, particularly since this corruption is within an institution uniquely devoted to finding the truth. Here, Mosca and Volpone are showing that they cannot stop themselves from the avaricious behavior that has threatened their downfall so many times and will now seal it.
Mosca acts as though Volpone, who is dressed as an officer, is annoying him, and the court orders that Volpone be taken away. When Volpone realizes that he is betrayed, and that Mosca is about to cheat him out of his fortune and marry the daughter of an Avocatori, Volpone takes off his disguise and reveals himself. He then says he’s going to bring Mosca down with him, and that his fortune won’t make Mosca a person of status or get him into a good family. Volpone admits publicly that he has been fooling Voltore, Corvino, and Corbaccio.
In a moment of extreme pride, Volpone decides to reveal everything rather than allow Mosca to successfully swindle him and subvert the social order. It’s possible that Volpone is so proud of his years of fooling everyone that part of him wanted to reveal the entire ruse to get recognition for what a master deceiver he is. After all, his pleasure is deception more than money.
The Avocatori say that now everything makes sense to them. They release Celia and Bonario, and Bonario says that “heaven could not let such gross crimes be hid.” The Avocatori, disgusted with the way that Volpone and the suitors have been acting, strip Mosca of his aristocratic clothing and begin giving sentences. Since Mosca was the main agent of Volpone’s plot, and since he impersonated a nobleman, he is sentenced to life imprisonment in the galleys. Volpone cannot get the same sentence because he is a nobleman, so they strip him of his fortune and sentence him to a life in prison, during which his limbs will be immobilized with weights (essentially a death sentence). For giving lawyers a bad name, Voltore is essentially disbarred and banished from Venice. Corbaccio is confined to a monastery and stripped of his wealth, which is bequeathed to Bonario. Corvino is subjected to public humiliation, and is legally separated from Celia. The newly imprisoned are taken away, and an Avocatore says that “mischiefs feed like beasts, till they be fat, and then they bleed.”
The play’s moral force ultimately proves greater than the ability of its characters to obscure reality. Bonario’s line that heaven could not allow such terrible things to remain hidden speaks perfectly to the moral conclusion and the play’s treatment of appearance versus reality. The powers of theatre and language can manipulate appearances, but the realities of truth, goodness, evil, and morality will always be revealed. The punishment of the play’s major characters reinforces the lessons about the impermanence of money, since no one ends up with the fortune, and the dangers of allowing desires to become excessive and corrupting. The Avocatore’s line about mischief feeding like beasts is a final reinforcement of the play’s notion that too much of anything, good or bad, is dangerous.
Volpone then steps forward to deliver the epilogue. He says that though he has been punished by the law, he hopes for applause for the play. He hopes that the audience enjoyed the show, and says if they did, they should clap.
The epilogue and the traditional request for applause is a final way for Ben Jonson to stress that everything that the audience has seen has been a fiction, but that through that fiction an important, true moral lesson has (hopefully) been imparted.