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Volpone (Italian for "sly fox") is a comedy by English playwright Ben Jonson first produced in 1606, drawing on elements of city comedy and beast fable. A merciless satire of greed and lust, it remains Jonson's most-performed play, and it is among the finest Jacobean Era comedies.
- Volpone (the Sly Fox) – a greedy, childless Venetian nobleman
- Mosca (the Fly/Parasite) – his servant
- Voltore (the Vulture) – a lawyer
- Corbaccio (the Raven) – an avaricious old miser
- Bonario – Corbaccio's son
- Corvino (the Carrion Crow) – a merchant
- Celia – Corvino's wife
- Sir Politic Would-Be – ridiculous Englishman. Probably partly based on Sir Henry Wotton, and partly on the traveller, Anthony Shirley.
- Lady Would-Be (the parrot) – English lady and wife of Sir Politic-Would-Be
- Peregrine – another, more sophisticated, English traveller
- Nano – a dwarf, companion of Volpone
- Androgyno – a hermaphrodite, companion of Volpone
- Castrone – a eunuch, companion of Volpone
- The Avocatori – the judges of Venice
Volpone is a Venetian gentleman who pretends to be on his deathbed, after a long illness, in order to dupe Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, three men who aspire to inherit his fortune. In their turns, each man arrives to Volpone’s house bearing a luxurious gift, intent upon having his name inscribed to the will of Volpone, as his heir. Mosca, Volpone’s parasite servant, encourages each man, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, to believe that he has been named heir to Volpone’s fortune; in the course of which, Mosca persuades Corbaccio to disinherit his own son in favour of Volpone.
To Volpone, Mosca mentions that Corvino has a beautiful wife, Celia. Disguised as Scoto the Mountebank, Volpone goes to see Celia. Corvino drives away Scoto (Volpone), who then becomes insistent that he must possess Celia as his own. Mosca deceives Corvino into believing that the moribund Volpone requires sexual congress with a young woman in order to revive and rise from his deathbed. The cupidity of Corvino leads him to offer Celia, his wife, in order to please Volpone’s voluptuousness, and so become his heir.
Just before Corvino and Celia are due to arrive for her sexual congress with Volpone, Corbaccio’s son, Bonario, arrives to catch his father in the act of disinheriting him. Mosca guides Corbaccio to a sideroom, and Volpone and Celia are left alone. Upon failing to seduce Celia with fantastic promises of luxury and wealth, Volpone attempts to rape her. Bonario comes forward to rescue Celia. In the ensuing trial at court, the truth of the matter is well-buried by Voltore, using his prowess as a lawyer to convince the Avocatori, with false evidence given by Mosca, Volpone and the other dupes.
There are episodes involving the English travellers Sir and Lady Politick Would-Be and Peregrine. Sir Politick constantly talks of plots and his outlandish business plans, while Lady Would-Be annoys Volpone with her ceaseless talking. Mosca co-ordinates a mix-up between them which leaves Peregrine, a more sophisticated traveller, feeling offended. He humiliates Sir Politick by telling him he is to be arrested for sedition, and making him hide inside a giant tortoise shell.
Volpone insists on disguising himself, and having it announced that he has died and willed his wealth to Mosca, which enrages the would-be heirs, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, and everyone returns to court to dispute the will of Volpone, who becomes entangled in the circumstances of the plots that he and Mosca devised. Despite Volpone’s pleas, Mosca refuses to relinquish his new role as a rich man; Volpone reveals himself, and his deceits, in order to topple the rich Mosca; in the event, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino finally are punished.
The play appeared in quarto in early 1607, printed by George Eld for publisher Thomas Thorpe. The quarto contains Jonson's dedication to Oxford and Cambridge, as well as a great number of commendatory verses, in English and Latin, by fellow-poets such as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Its next appearance was in the folio of 1616, and the latter, presumably having been subject to Jonson's careful review, forms the basis of most modern editions.
The play premiered at the Globe Theatre in Spring 1606. It was performed by the King's Men, but casting is uncertain. John Lowin may have performed the title role, as he is associated with the role in James Wright's Historia Histrionica (1699). William Gifford hypothesized that Alexander Cooke may have played Lady Would-be. Either that summer or the next, an outbreak of plague closed the London theatres, and the company performed the play at Oxford and Cambridge. Jonson may have added the first act's satire on Pythagoras for these audiences. The play certainly remained in the King's Men's repertoire throughout the period. It was performed for Charles in 1624 while he was still Prince of Wales, in 1630, and again at the Cockpit-in-Court in 1637.
After the Restoration, the play enjoyed a lengthy prominence: John Genest records over fifty performances before 1770. John Evelyn saw it performed at the court of Charles II on 16 October 1662. When the theatres reopened, the play was owned by the King's Men of Thomas Killigrew; it was performed at Drury Lane in 1663. Michael Mohun played Volpone to Hart's Mosca; Katherine Corey played Celia, and Rebecca Marshall played Lady Would-be. The same cast was seen by Samuel Pepys in 1665.
The play continued in performance throughout the 18th century. Richard Steele mentions a performance in a 1709 edition of Tatler. Famous eighteenth-century Volpones included James Quin; famous Moscas included Charles Macklin. Colley Cibber played Corvino in his productions; his wife Katherine Shore played Celia, as later did Elizabeth Inchbald. As with many other Jacobean plays, Volpone had lost its appeal before the end of the 18th century. Earlier in the century, critics had complained about the improbability of the fifth act, frequently likened to farce, and to Jonson's highly Latinate language. An updated version by George Colman the Elder failed at Drury Lane in 1771. By the end of the century, the objections appeared insurmountable to producers, and the play fell into disuse.
The play was revived by the Phoenix Society at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1921; W. B. Yeats was in the audience and mentions the production approvingly in a letter to Allan Wade. The Birmingham Repertory Theatre staged the play at the Malvern Festival in 1935.
A 1938 production introduced two of the dominant elements of twentieth-century productions: the performance of Donald Wolfit and animal imagery. Wolfit's dynamic performance in the title role, repeated several times over the next decades, set the standard for modern interpretations of Volpone: Politick's plot was truncated or eliminated, and Mosca (played in 1938 by Alan Wheatley) relegated to a secondary role.
The play has since been staged by a number of famous companies. In 1952, George Devine directed Anthony Quayle (Mosca) and Ralph Richardson (Volpone) at the Stratford Memorial Theatre. At the same theatre in 1955, Eric Porter played Volpone. In 1968, Tyrone Guthrie's National Theatre production emphasized the beast-fable motif; this production featured stage design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch.
In 1972, the play was staged at the Bristol Old Vic. A most memorable production of the 1970s was Peter Hall's staging for the Royal National Theatre in 1974, with Paul Scofield as Volpone, Ben Kingsley as Mosca, John Gielgud as Sir Politick, and Ian Charleson as Peregrine.
Volpone was adapted by Jules Romains and Stefan Zweig in their 1928 production, with the ending changed so that Mosca ends up with Volpone's money. This version was used by George Antheil in his 1953 opera Volpone.
The Honey Pot is a 1967 film by Joseph L. Mankiewicz based on Volpone, although with a romantic subplot and sentimental trappings. It featured Rex Harrison in the main role, Cliff Robertson as Mosca ("McFly"), and Maggie Smith as the love interest. A portion of the original play is presented in private performance for Harrison's character, who states that it is his favourite.
In France, there have been three further video and DVD adaptations of Volpone based on versions of the Stefan Zweig/Jules Romains script: in 1978, Jean Meyer directed a production in the 'théâtre de boulevard' style for the Théâtre de Marigny and Panorama (Au Théâtre ce soir), starring himself as Corbaccio, Jean Le Poulain as Volpone and Francis Huster as Mosca. This was followed in 2001 by a production directed by Francis Perrin with a script that resembles the Zweig/Romains text but rewritten in pseudo-Elizabethan style by Jean Collette and Toni Cecchinato. Bernard Haller plays the part of Volpone, Francis Perrin plays Mosca, and Thibaut Lorain plays Lady Would-Be. In 2003, the play was rewritten for television by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt for a production starring Gérard Depardieu as Volpone and Daniel Prévost as Mosca. The ending is changed to see Volpone and Mosca escaping together with Corbaccio's wife.
In 2004 the Wolf Trap Opera Company, Viennna, Virginia, commissioned and produced a new opera based on the play. The score was written by John Musto with libretto by Mark Campbell. The world premiere took place at The Barns at Wolf Trap on 10 March 2004. The opera was produced again in 2007 by the Wolf Trap Opera Company with a new cast featuring Joshua Jeremiah, Jeremy Little, Faith Sherman, and Lisa Hopkins. This production was recorded live at The Barns at Wolf Trap for Wolf Trap Recordings and was nominated in 2010 for a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording.
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- Leggatt, Alexander, Citizen Comedy in the Age of Shakespeare (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973).
- Leinwand, Theodore B. The City Staged: Jacobean Comedy, 1603–1613 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986).
- Marchitell, Howard. "Desire and Domination in Volpone", Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 31.2 (1991): 287–308.
- Volpone at the Internet Broadway Database
- Volpone at the Internet off-Broadway Database
- Volpone at the Internet Movie Database
- John Musto's Volpone at PeerMusic Classical
- Online Sparknotes for Volpone at SparkNotes
- Online text of Volpone at Project Gutenberg