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“Volpone” as a satire Essay

From the outset, I agree that ‘Volpone’ is a satire on contemporary society’s obsession with wealth above all else. However, there are alternative critical views that should be referred to before final judgement. Jonson heavily emphasises the satirical importance of prosperity in ‘Volpone’. This is evident from the opening where Volpone religiously praises his wealth. His bed is surrounded by gold, his language suggesting Roman Catholic saint-worship: “shrine”, “saint”, “adoration” and “relic”. [1] Volpone states, “Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!” [1] The adulation of his gold is compulsive, the imagery suggesting wealth is superior (or at least comparable) to religion. We can, therefore, infer this religious theme satirises society’s obsession with wealth above all else, as religion was seen to be of utmost importance in Renaissance Italy; such blasphemy would have shocked Elizabethan audiences.

Volpone’s riches are paramount, as suggested by, “O thou son of Sol.” [1] This religious connotation is a hyperbole, an overstatement for dramatisation. Volpone is telling the audience that his wealth is ‘son of the sun’, or alternatively Jesus. Further evidence of sacrilege is Volpone’s uttering to the treasure, “even hell is made worth heaven.” [1] He explicitly values gold above spiritual redemption. The introduction supports the interpretation that ‘Volpone’ is a satire on contemporary society’s obsession with wealth above all else; the significance of the protagonist’s riches is enunciated first and foremost, to the extent that it is even comparable to religion.

In context, Venice was the seat of decadence, making it the recipient of years of stereotype in English drama. This Italian city was considered the root of avarice; Volpone inhabits this microcosm of Venetian society. Jonson sets Venice as the backdrop to further the impact of ‘Volpone’ as a satire of society’s obsession with wealth. To summarise Volpone’s ‘Hymm to Wealth’, God has been dispossessed; a grown man is conversing with metal, foolishly dedicating his life to inanimate objects.

LC Knights explains that the opening scene signifies how “religion and the riches of the teeming earth are there for the purpose of ironic contrast.” [2] Volpone’s adoration of gold is a (perhaps exaggerative) comparison to contemporary society’s praise of wealth. It can be argued that ‘Volpone’ is not primarily a satire on society’s obsession with wealth; other significant sources of comedy, such as irony, are present, “Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!” [1] Volpone’s opening line challenges our expectations. This is an example of situational irony; we expect prayer to be sacred but Volpone makes it boorish and secular. The opening associates religion with money, which is thought to be profane. Irony is a persistent theme throughout the play.

A prominent example is Mosca’s betrayal of Volpone, where the character at the bottom of the social food-chain outsmarts the protagonist and procures the fortune the three legacy hunters strive for. Therefore, critical analysis could suggest that ‘Volpone’ is instead an ironic satire on social class in contemporary society above all else. This is further evident when Voltore angrily expresses his anger regarding “being dispossessed by a parasite! A slave!” after Mosca is appointed as Volpone’s heir. [1] Voltore is outraged because a being of social inferiority has triumphed over him. Contextually, in the Elizabethan world-view, the social order of the class system is linked to the order of the universe, making any destabilisation in the class system profoundly disturbing and needing rectification.

The social shame of greed and desperation are key themes in relation to satirising contemporary society’s obsession with wealth above all else in ‘Volpone’. Most of the characters in Jonson’s play are barbarous, acting out animalistic instincts and rejecting their conscience. The presence of this literary fable aspect is clear when Volpone tricks Voltore into giving him, “A piece of plate.” [1] He remarks to Mosca, “and not a fox/Stretched on the earth, with fine delusive sleights/Mocking a gaping crow?” [1] Animalia imagery demonstrates the characters’ unconditional greed, comparing them to savage beasts of nature. They desperately cling on to survival, attempting to claim Volpone’s inheritance. With the use of this fable aspect, contemporary society’s obsession with wealth is satirised, demonstrating how easily Volpone takes wealth from other characters.

This literary genre is also evident in the Italian translation of the names of the characters. Volpone is a cunning fox, circled by Mosca, a mischievous fly, who tricks the fox and helps the three carrion-birds – a vulture (Voltore), a crow (Corvino) and a raven (Corbaccio) into losing their feathers (wealth). This imagery emphasises the theme of parasitism in the play, where one life form feeds off another. Mosca references this in his soliloquy, stating, “All the wise world is little else, in nature, but parasites,” explaining everybody is a parasite. [1] These characters’ goals are associated with living off Volpone’s wealth without doing any “honest toil” of their own; this is at the core of the play, showing that contemporary society’s obsession with wealth is a theme significant above all else. [1]

Addressing Volpone as a satire comedy, as well as referring to the characters’ lack of morals, Venables states, “Volpone makes us laugh a great deal yet we have no doubt of the evil nature of the action we are watching.” {3} In context, Christian teachings such as, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon (money) (Luke 16:13),” influenced Renaissance Italy’s society. [4] This establishes that greed for wealth made it difficult to get into Heaven, so an Elizabethan audience would have a clear understanding that these characters are shameful. Greed drives the search for wealth, only to end up making everyone in the play look idiotic, repugnant and poorer (spiritually and financially).

Celia asks, “Whither is shame fled human breasts?” [1] This emphasises that the play is didactic in relation to greed for wealth, intending to teach the audience that this is morally and socially unacceptable. However, most of the characters seem willing to use any means to secure Volpone’s fortune, relating back to the title question; greed in ‘Volpone’ satirises contemporary society’s obsession with wealth by demonstrating the measures people will take to obtain it.

Corvino ignores his wedding vow to Celia; he renounces his wife, using duress to make her bed the supposedly afflicted Volpone. Wedding vows were taken very seriously in the Elizabethan era in comparison to nowadays. In context, the Catholic Church had a mass influence in 17th century Italy; Catholicism teaches the Seven Sacraments, including the Sacrament of Marriage as a public sign of giving oneself totally to one’s spouse in marriage. Corvino, supposedly entering sacred unification with Celia, is so obsessed with his goal of acquiring Volpone’s fortune he abuses his promise of fidelity and sacrifices his wife, selling her to an old man. Volpone’s victims are prepared to renounce their wealth in the expectations of greener pastures. What is reprehensible is their readiness to sacrifice spiritual wealth and compromise their family. This is relevant to the title question because Corvino satirises the extent to which contemporary society may go to amass wealth; his craving is grotesque.

Additionally, Volpone’s scheme is overridden by his animalistic instincts and sexual desire for Celia; she discovers the truth. When Volpone pursues Celia, it advances the audience’s consideration of ‘Volpone’ as a satire on society’s obsession with wealth, referring to all objects of human desire and not just money. Celia’s beauty is considered to be an item that can be purchased, her appearance directly compared to material property by Mosca, “Bright as your gold, and lovely as your gold!” [1] Consequently, Volpone’s sexual greed develops, exhibiting sex as an aspect of commercialisation. Celia offers Volpone her handkerchief, which he interprets as symbolic of a sexual favour and potentially a form of currency for the commerce of sex. Volpone’s language further imposes this idea, suggesting Celia can be physically bought and sold; “Use thy fortune well.” [1]

He is positioning sexual desire as a consumerist product, offering money in exchange for sexual conduct. Celia exclaiming, “I, whose innocence/Is all I can think wealthy, or worth enjoying,” contradicts Volpone’s offer of material reward; being free of sin has more worth to her. [1] However, as her efforts to reason with him are ignored, Celia’s role offers a satirical contextualisation of the patriarchal society at the time of “Volpone”, presenting women being treated like objects and currency as opposed to human beings. Jonson deploys Celia as a device to demonstrate a fragment of society’s innocence, perhaps suggesting that the play is in fact a satire on contemporary society’s patriarch above all else.

To conclude, Jonson heavily criticises society’s obsession with wealth, as it brings about a punishment that is the primary irony of the play. Volpone declares, “What a rare punishment/Is avarice to itself.” [1] This punishment is exploitation of each character as foolish through their obsession with wealth. Volpone’s odious craving for wealth portrays him as a futile, shallow solitary figure.

In the Epistle, Jonson succinctly conveys that the “best reason for living” is inheriting heaven, not worldly wealth. [1] The moral characters Celia and Bonario are given their rightful inheritances. Therefore, I conclude that Volpone is a satire on contemporary society’s obsession with wealth above all else; although themes such as irony and patriarchal society are important, they all relate back to contemporary society’s obsession with wealth as a predominant theme.


[1] Jonson. B (1999) Volpone. Manchester University Press

[2] LC Knights, Some Shakespearian Themes (1959; Harmondsworth, 1966) page 73

[3] Venables. M. (1970) Volpone and the Alchemist, Basil Blackwell Oxford [4] Duncan. D. (1989) York Notes on Volpone, York Press

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