The driving force of the play’s plot is desire for money, which propels the three men trying to steal Volpone’s fortune and drives Volpone in his attempt to manipulate and swindle them. In the play’s opening scene, Volpone shows how much the Italians value money when he delivers a blasphemous speech in which he calls money “the world’s soul” and praises it like a god. Money, he says, is everything, and whoever has money is naturally imbued with nobility, valiance, honesty, and wisdom. Numerous other analogies are also used during the play that stress money’s importance. Talking to Volpone’s fortune, for example, Mosca tells money to “multiply,” which personifies wealth by invoking reproduction. Throughout the play, money is also described, through medicinal and alchemical imagery, as the best, purest cure for all ailments, expanding on Volpone’s claim that money makes everything better. In a final, extreme example, Mosca leads Corvino to believe that he will act as Corvino’s servant, and he says that for this employment he owes his very being to Corvino. Mosca thereby substitutes money and employment for a divine creator, who would typically be credited for a person’s existence. It’s a telling substitution, because, in the play, material pursuits become a sort of religion for those obsessed with money.
Such excessive emphasis on money is a satire on Venice’s stereotypical obsession with commerce. In one sense, Ben Jonson’s satire of commerce is purely comedic and ridiculous. Sir Politic Would-Be plans numerous farfetched entrepreneurial schemes with the hope of becoming rich, all the while being ridiculed by Peregrine. This absurd subplot goes as far as Sir Politic pretending to be an imported turtle. But the play also gives a more serious satire in the main plot, in which money is depicted as dangerous and corrupting (as we’ll see in more detail in the following theme). The play shows that people are willing to do anything for money, which leads to moral lapses. Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvio, and even Lady Would-Be become convinced that they will inherit Volpone’s fortune, and all of them compromise their values and are easily manipulated by Mosca. Corvino is even convinced to offer his wife up as a sexual partner for Volpone to secure his chances at the fortune.
Much of the emphasis on commerce and money comes from the English stereotype of Italians (and in particular Venetians). English playwrights like Jonson saw in Italy a dangerous society in which wealth, competition, and materialism were valued over morality. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, for example, concerns money and desire for wealth taken to the extreme, and it is also set in Venice (as its title suggests). Part of Jonson’s mission as a playwright is to leave the audience with a lesson, and so his satire of the Italian obsession with commerce also expresses the fear that London would fall prey to the same obsession and become morally bankrupt in the pursuit of wealth. In other words, Jonson feared that London would turn into an English version of Venice, in which citizens are fatally, blasphemously obsessed with wealth. The play thus hopes to dissuade viewers and readers from allowing financial matters to outweigh moral ones. This message is heavily reinforced by the play’s ending, in which none of the principal characters wind up with any fortune, and Volpone himself winds up with a near death sentence. Money can be taken away easily, since it is impermanent, but the implications of moral lapses are eternal.
Money and Commerce ThemeTracker
Money and Commerce 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.