By Michael Flachmann
Ben Jonson's primary source for the plot of Volpone was undoubtedly taken from the well-known Aesop fable “The Fox Who Feigned Death,” in which a crafty fox covers himself with red mud, lies motionless on the ground, and pretends to be dying. When the birds of prey begin to circle around him, he waits until they are within reach, then seizes and eats them. In like manner, Volpone tricks each of his feathered suitors into thinking he is near death, then feasts upon their avarice and stupidity.
This central image of "feeding upon foolishness" betrays Jonson's satiric philosophy, in which the abundant fools and sinners of the world exist principally as nourishment for several types of hungry diners: (l) the witty characters of the play, like Volpone and Mosca, who delight in exploiting the greed of their feathered prey; (2) Jonson himself, whose artistic talent depends upon the crafty way he exposes such social aberrations as covetous lawyers and husbands begging to be cuckolds; and, finally, (3) the audience, which happily devours the comic meal displayed on stage before them.
If this theatrical feast of sin and folly simultaneously sustains the plot, exhibits Jonson's skill as a dramatic satirist, and charms the audience, it also nourishes its viewers in a deeper, more meaningful way. Like the classical Greek and Roman dramatic models the author so proudly emulated, Jonson's satiric comedy claims to cure its audience members of their own reprehensible behavior by holding up a dramatic mirror in which their worst flaws are reflected in exaggerated form. The rapacious greed and lust of the play have reduced most of the major characters to bestial parodies of their better selves; they have descended one level on the Great Chain of Being, which theorized that mankind was precariously suspended between the angels and the animals. The more foolish their actions, the more beastly they become.
Like Scoto of Mantua's mystical elixir, Jonson's comedy offers its audience a cure for a wide range of moral and spiritual imperfections that metaphorically turn lawyers to vultures, greedy men to sly foxes, servants to parasites, and English travelers to silly, chattering parrots. The secret to comic reformation, the author seems to say, is in seeing our flawed behavior for exactly what it is: the degenerate action of beasts. All the playwright must do to cure his audience, therefore, is to expose sin and folly whenever they appear. Thus, Sir Politic Would-Be's discovery within his tortoise disguise is an emblem for the entire play which promises that each character's flaws will eventually be revealed and punished in a highly didactic fashion.
As a result of this careful theatrical mixture of pleasant comedy and serious satiric instruction, Volpone affects many theatre-goers like a modern-day, timed-release medication: it slides easily down our throats, yet withholds its medicinal effect until a later, more opportune moment. Typical of such other Jonsonian efforts as Epicoene, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair, and Every Man in His Humour, the comic catharsis of Volpone strikes when we least expect it, when the laughter has vanished, when we begin to slip downward on that Great Chain of Being, and the beast within us rears its ugly head. At that moment we are still nourished by Jonson's comic banquet, which delights and sustains us long after the curtain has fallen.