The Prologue is delivered by an undesignated speaker, who opens with the hope that luck and wit will make the play a hit, and that the play will fit the fashionable tastes of audiences. The speaker then explains the aim of the playwright has been to “mix profit with your pleasure,” meaning to write a play that amuses and pleases the audience while also teaching it a meaningful lesson.
While some plays have a character called “prologue” or “chorus” to deliver opening lines such as these, Volpone does not. The Prologue here outlines Jonson’s belief that theater should be entertaining, but also teach the audience a lesson. The play that follows will be a comedy, but it will also contain moral content.
After outlining the play’s goal of teaching a moral lesson, the speaker responds to supposedly envious critics of the playwright who have said things like “all he writes is railing” (meaning that all Jonson writes are personal insults) or ridiculed him for taking so long to produce plays.
These insults to Jonson’s critics are probably in response to Thomas Dekker and John Marston, who made fun of Jonson in their own plays for taking so long to write.
The actor delivering the Prologue continues Jonson’s response to other playwrights, saying that this play (Volpone) was written singlehandedly by Jonson in only five weeks. The speaker assures that the play’s content is excellent, giving numerous examples of bad things not included in the play, including broken eggs or “quaking custards.” The speaker claims that Jonson doesn’t use tricks or tired jokes to fill gaps in his writing, and that he doesn’t plagiarize.
Jonson’s insistence on responding to his critics publicly shows the vibrant theatrical culture of the time. Audiences would have understood the offstage drama that Jonson was referencing, such as his mention of “quaking custards,” which refers to a specific John Marston play that Jonson often ridiculed.
Instead, Jonson makes jokes that fit within his story, and he presents “quick comedy” that will please the best of critics. He observes all the rules of time, place, and character consistency, and he has used almost every last drop of his wit in preparing the play. The playwright hopes that the audience’s cheeks will be so red with laughter by the end of the play that they look fresh and red even a week later.
Jonson’s prologue concludes by reaffirming his exemplary skills as a playwright and by touting the excellence of the play that is about to unfold. The reference to Jonson’s “quick comedy” will be echoed later in the play when Volpone praises Mosca for his “quick fiction.”