Volpone is a satire. All the characters in the play have overblown traits that Jonson saw as common to the wealth-obsessed world of the Renaissance elite, and the dysfunction he portrays in the social and legal worlds of 17th-century Venice further satirizes the rise of commerce and merchant capitalism. Because Venice was a prime location on the coast of the Italian peninsula and enjoyed a historical dominance of Mediterranean trade, it was a major economic center. With this in mind, Jonson satirizes the stereotype of Venice as an obsessively greedy and commercial city.
Consider Mosca’s observation in Act 5, Scene 2:
Merchants may talk of trade, and your great signiors
Of land that yields well; but if Italy
Have any glebe more fruitful than these fellows,
I am deceived.
The “fellows” to whom Mosca refers are Voltore, Corvino, and Corbaccio—the men who are currently making Mosca and Volpone quite a bit of money. Through Mosca, Jonson is poking fun at the Venetian preoccupation with trade and wealth.
Though the Venetians take the brunt of Jonson’s satire, he does not shy away from taking on his own countrymen: Sir Would-Be Politic, the English knight who finds himself in Venice, is a hilarious, highly satirized take on the ignorant, performative, and intellectual members of the aristocracy who travel the world making fools out of themselves. His wife, Lady Would-Be, meanwhile, is a satire of an over-educated Renaissance woman that plays upon stereotypes of hyper-social, talkative women.
Jonson’s penchant for satire was one of his great strengths as a playwright, but also a source of controversy—his tendency to write unsparingly about the wealthy and powerful made him perpetually controversial and even, once, landed him in prison.