On one level, gold symbolizes wealth. Gold is physical money, both expensive and luxurious. The opening speech of the play reveals Volpone’s obsession with money through an ode to gold, and the first transaction of the play involves a gift of a gold plate. Throughout the play, characters emphasize that gold is what lends objects and people in the world their best qualities. Blasphemously, Volpone even says that gold is brighter than the sun or God himself. The Renaissance understanding of gold, though, was complicated and fluid. Alchemy, an early form of chemistry, taught that metals were all composed of the same material; the only difference between lead and gold was purity. Thus, with the right methods, one could purify lead into gold. This idea of purifying something and scientifically changing it into gold parallels a lowborn person accumulating wealth and becoming highborn, as Mosca almost accomplishes at the end of the play. We can note that, for years, the play was performed with an alternate ending in which Mosca receives Volpone’s fortune. The alchemical fluidity of gold also allows it to blend with the play’s other symbols, as characters constantly say that gold is the best medicine. This is meant figuratively, as characters within the play believe that wealth and gold instill people with heath and excellent qualities, but also literally, as an elixir of drinkable gold was sometimes used as medicine.
Gold and Alchemy Quotes in Volpone
Riches, the dumb god, that giv’st all men tongues,
That canst do nought, and yet mak’st men do all things;
The price of souls; even hell, with thee to boot,
Is made worth heaven. Thou art virtue, fame,
Honour, and all things else. Who can get thee,
He shall be noble, valiant, honest, wise.
Mosca: This is true physic, this your sacred medicine;
No talk of opiates to this great elixir!
Corbaccio: ‘Tis aurum palpabile, if not potabile.
O, sir, the wonder,
The blazing star of Italy! a wench
Of the first year, a beauty ripe as harvest!
Whose skin is whiter than a swan all over,
Than silver, snow, or lilies; a soft lip,
Would tempt you to eternity of kissing!
And flesh that melteth in the touch to blood!
Bright as your gold, and lovely as your gold!
Honour! Tut, a breath:
There's no such thing in nature; a mere term
Invented to awe fools. What is my gold
The worse for touching, clothes for being look'd on?