By Rafaela Prifti
A scheme, a conman and a servant. What could go wrong? Is greed only the beginning?
If you happen to read or see Volpone in a theater, you will be forgiven for being overwhelmed by the brutal timeliness of the play. The bottomless greed and self-serving trickery that are portrayed in it feel as current today as perhaps at the time of its production in the 17th century. The fable element of the play conveys a universal moral message that Ben Jonson believed to be the theater’s task. Timelessness is a feature associated with all great works of art and artists, yet Volpone’s timeliness stands out nowadays for the portrayal of schemes generated by a conman and enablers unbound by morals or a sense of justice. In its original form as well as countless theater adaptations worldwide, Volpone is Ben Jonson’s most performed play. The adopted son of a bricklayer, Jonson became one of the most important cultural figures in early 17th century Britain, and England’s first (unofficial) poet laureate. Critics agree that although younger than his contemporary William Shakespeare, as a playwright, Ben Jonson stands comparison with the world’s greatest dramatist.
The play draws on elements of city comedy and beast fable. It is set in Venice where the devious, childless and gold-obsessed trickster Volpone, or ‘fox’, dupes a range of foolish Venetians and foreigners with the help of his clever servant Mosca (‘fly’ or ‘parasite’). Together they stage an elaborate scheme. Volpone pretends to be a wealthy old man who is deathly ill. With the help of his servant, the old man courts three eager gold-diggers, the merchant Corvino (‘Crow’), the lawyer Voltore (‘Vulture’) and the elderly gentleman Corbaccio (‘Raven’), by leading them to believe that they will be named heir to his immense fortune. In exchange for the promise of the inheritance, Volpone collects lavish gifts from Corvino and Voltore. Unstoppable in his greed and lust, he persuades Corbaccio to disinherit his own son, Bonario, in favor of Volpone, and convinces Corbaccio to allow him to seduce his wife, Celia. Mosca plays his part in assuring them that he is helping each one exclusively to get ahead in the three-way race as they eagerly shower Volpone with gifts in order to gain his favor.
As with any scheme, more people need to take part in it in order for the plan to work. No one understands this better than Volpone himself. Disguised as assistants to an Italian swindler, Mosca and Nano, Volpone’s dwarf, swindle the English Knight named Sir Politic-Would-be and a fellow traveler, Peregrine. Volpone, dressed as a famous mountebank, makes an elaborate sales pitch for a cure-all elixir. While some characters begin to catch on to the scheme, Mosca and Volpone prepare an even more elaborate lie to get out of trouble. A recognizable pattern starts to emerge in which a new scheme is designed to cover or at least distract from the old one and a lie is layered on top of a previous lie and so on. Jonson’s merciless satire of deceit and greed without the follies of the judicial system. In court, Voltore, Corvino, Corbaccio, and Mosca present a calculated lie framing the targets of the scheme as culprits. They testify that Bonario and Celia are out to defame Volpone through elaborate plots and false accusations. Mosca’s plan worked. Although Volpone is forced to appear in court, he convincingly acts diseased and is freed. The sly fox, Master of deceit, Voplone is not satisfied with the outcome. It’s not enough for him to have joyfully fooled his victims into believing that each one will be the sole heir to his fortune while becoming wealthier through them. There is no lost irony in Volpone’s criticism of other people’s greed. Determined to humiliate his victims, the trickster fakes his own death. The plan backfires. His enabler, Mosca sees this as an opportunity to swindle the swindler by driving a hard bargain for Volpone’s fortune in court. To prevent Mosca from getting away with all of his money, Volpone reveals himself and his entire plan. The Venetian court sentences Mosca and Volpone handily.
Volpne is a merciless satire of greed and lust. It remains Jonson’s most-performed play outlining his belief that theater is as much entertaining as it is morally relevant. The play’s central figure, fittingly named Volpone is an old, rich, childless Italian gentleman with no heir his fortune, who schemes several people by pretending to be sick and offering to name them as inheritors of his wealth by making them complete for the title. Volpone cheats the entire play to line his pockets. His greed is secondary only to the satisfaction he drives from fooling others. His tricks would not have worked so well without his parasite, Mosca, his servant who fools the people hoping to inherit Volpone’s wealth, and weaves cross-plots which are all eventually exposed.
New tricks keep being generated by the characters as they try to take advantage of each other and then try to save themselves. It is a very recognizable pattern of the present time-space we live in. Naturally, for the schemes to be successful or last longer, controlling the narrative and spinning is crucially important. For the Sly Fox, Volpone, to keep deceiving people, his parasite Mosca needs to be alongside and follow through. To be sure these are characters in a play that has been performed for four centuries on stages around the globe telling the story of the con man’s of the society and the enablers that play along as long as it is profitable for them to do so. These themes reverberate with today’s audiences with an appreciation for entertainment as well as the messaging conveyed through art, as playwright Ben Jonson intended. In it, greed is only the beginning. For the scheme to work, manipulation and misrepresentation are key elements to help the self-serving interest of the puppet master, the Sly Fox.
As recently as 2018, a production of Volpone, adapted by Stefan Zweig (Cvajg), translated in Albanian by Artur Lena, was performed by the Tetova Theater. Director and costume designer Sulejman Rushiti, renowned Albanian director and producer, said that the play was a contender at the Tetova International Theater Festival. Enjoying great reviews, later in the year, the play went on a tour to Gostivar, where theatergoers packed the hall.
The fable element of the production displayed in the characters Voltore (Vulture), Corvino (Crow) Corbaccio (Raven), and Mosca (Fly, Parasite) lends it the universal component. Yet, it speaks to today’s audience with a particular contemporary voice as a story about us.