In addition to having a reputation for commerce, Venice (and Italy in general) was stereotypically known for greed and corruption, both moral and political. Volpone’s subplot involves fear of spying, but the play’s primary interest in corruption is of a different kind; more than political corruption, Volpone explores the ways in which people can become morally corrupted.
The Italian men in the play are all corrupted by avarice, which means greed or excessive desire. According to Jonson, desire itself is not inherently evil. Rather, it’s avarice—excessive desire—that becomes morally corrupting. Avarice is first presented (as hinted at in the Money and Commerce theme), as financial greed. Again, desire for money isn’t inherently bad, but the characters in Volpone become corrupted once that desire is excessive. Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino are obsessed with becoming Volpone’s heir because they hope to inherit his fortune. Their greed is so strong that they have no regard for Volpone’s life; Corbaccio even overtly expresses glee when Mosca lists Volpone’s fake symptoms and diseases. All three of the hopeful heirs are driven to extreme moral lapses by their greed, each of which violates a key aspect of society. Voltore, the lawyer, commits perjury and helps Mosca to deceive the court, the play’s ultimate source of punishment, authority, and justice. Corbaccio is convinced to disinherit his son, challenging the fundamental means by which wealth was preserved. (Though it could be argued that he only disinherited his son to win Volpone’s fortune, thereby increasing the fortune that Corbaccio’s son would eventually inherit.) Greed is also sufficient to convince Corvino to break the sanctity of marriage and offer his wife up to Volpone.
Volpone is greedy for money, but his downfall is ultimately caused by excessive greed for pleasure, showing that greed comes in many forms and that, in excess, it is all consuming. Volpone takes immense pleasure in fooling and swindling Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, and it’s his inability to stop and settle for the pleasure he’s already had that brings him to his demise. After he has almost been discovered and still managed to get away with his plots, Volpone is driven to try to pull off an even more excessive one, going as far to fake his death. This fake death then provides opportunity for Mosca to succumb to greed and turn on Volpone. Victory, then, and excess of anything (especially wealth and pleasure) are corrupting. Put simply, desire for too much of anything is bad.
While the Italian men in the play are morally corrupted by greed in many forms, the play also explores the way Englishmen could be morally corrupted by Italian influence. This dynamic is explored through Sir Politic Would-Be and Peregrine, two English travelers abroad in Italy. Sir Politic offers to help teach Peregrine how to properly be Italian without corrupting his more reserved, English nature. Neither man becomes corrupted in the same sense that the other major characters are (a ruinous obsession with wealth or pleasure), but Peregrine does stage an elaborate ruse to prank Sir Politic, complete with disguises and costumes, which suggests that his time in Venice did influence him to use the type of trickery that Volpone and Mosca abuse.
The play’s moral stance towards greed and corruption is outlined by Volpone at the beginning of the play, despite the fact that even he eventually falls prey to it. Volpone says, “What a rare punishment is avarice to itself.” The act of being greedy necessarily brings on its own punishment. He is referring to his would-be heirs here, but also unwittingly foretelling his own downfall. Audiences might root for Volpone in his first plots and take pleasure in his ability to manipulate others, but Volpone’s desire for pleasure becomes so excessive and insatiable that the play turns on him and ends with his punishment. The harsh sentencing rendered at the end of the play reinforces Jonson’s moral lesson to avoid excess: all the men are stripped of their wealth, and it is implied that Volpone will lose his life for his own acquiescence to avarice.
Greed and Corruption ThemeTracker
Greed and Corruption Quotes in Volpone
Mosca: This is true physic, this your sacred medicine;
No talk of opiates to this great elixir!
Corbaccio: ‘Tis aurum palpabile, if not potabile.
What a rare punishment is avarice to itself!
The weeping of an heir should still be laughter
Under a visor.
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!
I rather pity their folly and indiscretion, than their loss of time and money; for those may be recover'd by industry: but to be a fool born, is a disease incurable.
Why, the whole world is but as an empire, that empire as a province, that province as a bank, that bank as a private purse to the purchase of it.
First, I will have this bawdy light damm'd up;
And till 't be done, some two or three yards off,
I'll chalk a line; o'er which if thou but chance
To set thy desp'rate foot, more hell, more honor,
More wild remorseless rage shall seize on thee,
Than on a conjuror that had heedless left
His circle's safety ere his devil was laid.
This cannot be a personated passion.
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?
O God, and his good angels! whither, whither,
Is shame fled human breast? that with such ease,
Men dare put off your honours, and their own?
Is that, which ever was a cause of life,
Now plac'd beneath the basest circumstance,
And modesty an exile made, for money?
Good sir, these things might move a mind affected
With such delight; but I, whose innocence
Is all I can think wealthy, or worth th' enjoying,
And which, once lost, I have nought to lose beyond it,
Cannot be taken with these sensual baits.
If you have ear that will be pierc'd - or eyes
That can be open'd-a heart that may be touch'd-
Or any part that yet sounds man about you –
If you have touch of holy saints: or heaven-
Do me the grace to let me scape: - if not,
Be bountiful and kill me. You do know,
I am a creature, hither ill betray'd,
By one whose shame I would forget it were:
If you will deign me neither of these graces,
Yet feed your wrath, sir, rather than your lust
(It is a vice comes nearer manliness,)
And punish that unhappy crime of nature,
Which you miscall my beauty.
Fall on me, roof, and bury me in ruin!
Become my grave, that wert my shelter! O!
I am unmask'd, unspirited, undone,
Betray'd to beggary, to infamy—
I would I could forget I were a creature.
I will conclude with this,
That vicious persons, when they're hot and flesh'd
In impious acts, their constancy abounds:
Damn'd deeds are done with greatest confidence.
True, they will not see 't.
Too much light blinds 'em, I think. Each of 'em
Is so possest and stuft with his own hopes
That anything unto the contrary,
Never so true, or never so apparent,
Never so palpable, they will resist it—
So, now I have the keys, and am possest.
Since he will needs be dead afore his time,
I'll bury him, or gain by 'm: I'm his heir,
And so will keep me, till he share at least.
To cozen him of all, were but a cheat
Well plac'd; no man would construe it a sin:
Let his sport pay for't. This is call'd the Fox-trap.
To make a snare for mine own neck! and run
My head into it, wilfully! with laughter!
When I had newly scap'd, was free and clear
Out of mere wantonness! O, the dull devil
Was in this brain of mine when I devis'd it,
And Mosca gave it second; he must now
Help to sear up this vein, or we bleed dead.
Heaven could not long let such gross crimes be hid.