Throughout Volpone, Jonson celebrates quick wit (especially his own), wordplay, and language itself. The play begins with the “Argument” and the “Prologue,” both of which stress the playwright’s mastery of language. The argument is given in a masterful acrostic, in which each of the seven verses begins with one of the letters of VOLPONE. The prologue then emphasizes that the play itself is of high quality, and assures the audience that the play was written in five weeks without any collaborator or any other input. By the time the play itself begins, audiences have been firmly reassured of Jonson’s own wit and skill with language.
Within the play, the skill that separates Volpone and Mosca from the other characters is a brilliant ability to use and manipulate language. Volpone even praises Mosca for his “quick fiction,” which echoes the lauding of Jonson’s “quick comedy” from the Prologue. Mosca, then, can be seen as embodying some aspects of the playwright within the play. As noted in the Appearance vs Reality theme, Mosca is like a writer and director, using his plays-within-the-play to trick other characters. While Mosca uses disguises to pull off these ruses, language is his most significant means of deception and the greatest source of power in the play. It’s Mosca’s ability to think and speak on his feet that allows him to deceive Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino so easily, even if they are all in the room together.
The play also emphasizes the importance of language in the court scenes, in which language is equivalent with truth. Voltore, the lawyer with a “gold-tipped tongue,” is praised (disingenuously) by Mosca at the beginning of the play for his ability to instantly argue either side of a case. In the court scenes, though, Voltore launches into long legal speeches that are so successful that the court becomes convinced by Mosca’s ruse (that Volpone didn’t attempt to rape Celia). Mosca even tells Volpone to pay Voltore because the language he used was so strong. When asked to put up their own witnesses, Bonario and Celia merely appeal to their consciences and to heaven without saying very much. One of the Avocatori is quick to respond, “These are no testimonies.” Though Bonario and Celia cannot properly speak or testify for themselves, their morality is insufficient—their exoneration must occur through language, as Volpone eventually confesses verbally to his crimes. It’s also of note that the Avocatori deliver their punishments simply by speaking them, demonstrating the legal power of speech acts. The legal system thus reinforces what Jonson shows in the Argument and Prologue and what Mosca demonstrates throughout the play: language is power.
Language 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!
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.
O! your parasite
Is a most precious thing, dropt from above,
Not bred 'mongst clods and clodpoles, here on earth.
I muse, the mystery was not made a science,
It is so liberally profest! Almost
All the wise world is little else, in nature,
But parasites or sub-parasites.
Before I feign'd diseases, now I have one.
I have a little studied physic; but now
I'm all for music, save, i' the forenoons,
An hour or two for painting. I would have
A lady, indeed, to have all letters and art,
Be able to discourse, to write, to paint,
But principal, as Plato holds, your music,
And so does wise Pythagoras, I take it,
Is your true rapture: when there is concent
In face, in voice, and clothes: and is, indeed,
Our sex's chiefest ornament.
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.
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—