Like other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, Jonson explores the relationship between appearance and reality, of seeming versus being—which, of course, evokes the theatre itself. At first glance, much in the play is as it seems. Certain appearances and labels (names, for example) are indicative of reality. Volpone, the fox, is a sly trickster hoping to fool other animals. Mosca, the fly, is his servant, buzzing around and whispering lies into peoples’ ears. Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, the vulture, raven, and crow respectively, act like birds of prey, scavenging for Volpone’s wealth on his (apparent) deathbed. Most of the play’s other characters also have allegorical names that reveal their true selves at first glance. This effect is used for humor (the dwarf has the deadpan name of Nano, which means “dwarf”) and to reinforce the play’s sense of morality, as the virtuous characters Bonario and Celia are named after, respectively, “good” and “heaven.” These characters clearly represent abstract ideals, which is typical of morality plays, a genre which Jonson riffs on in Volpone.
While Jonson merges many sources and complicates the typical morality play, the plot of Volpone is essentially that of a simple animal fable in which the fox uses cunning to trick birds out of their meals. Appearance, then, can be indicative of reality. At the same time, the trickery in the play suggests that appearance cannot always be trusted. Volpone is filled with disguise, deception, and theatre. The characters constantly stage performances to confuse and manipulate on another. Volpone pretends to be mortally ill as part of his ruse, which includes a costume and makeup to appear more convincing. In a completely contrasting role, he also acts as an over-the-top mountebank selling a healing elixir, and later he acts as a court deputy.
Mosca facilitates much of this deception; he deceives Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino into believing that they each will be Volpone’s heir, acting as a writer and a director of the play’s tricks. Mosca’s skills, then, are performance and improvisation—in other words, obscuring reality with theatrical appearances. At one point, Volpone even praises Mosca for his “quick fiction,” which draws him into parallel with the playwright himself, since Jonson’s “quick comedy” is praised in the play’s prologue. As the play unfolds, though, Jonson begins to suggest some of the dangers of deception: some of the disguises in the play, for example, become so convincing they threaten to become real—Volpone worries that pretending to be diseased will cause his health to decline, and the ruse in which Volpone makes Mosca his heir threatens to become reality and rob Volpone of his fortune.
Ultimately, though, the ruses are all revealed. Jonson’s opinion on theatre, as indicated in the prologue, is that it should be entertaining and beneficial; theatre can be funny, but it should still contain some moral lesson. In this play, the moral lesson is reinforced through the punishment of pretty much all of the major characters. Volpone and Mosca are exposed and punished for their deception, and so are Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, who by the end of the play have been roped into one of Mosca’s ruses. After all the plots have been revealed in court, Bonario says, “Heaven will not let such gross crimes be hid.” This line can be used to express the play’s overall treatment of appearance and reality. Appearances can be convincing and deceptive, and they can be manipulated for positive gain. However, certain realities—fundamental truths, goodness, and evil—will always make themselves known, despite any attempts to change or hide their appearance. Theatre can create powerful fantasies, but Jonson seems to say that, even in the best performances, truth and goodness will shine through fiction.
Theatre and Appearance vs Reality ThemeTracker
Theatre and Appearance vs Reality 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.
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.
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?
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—
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.