Volpone, an elderly Venetian miser, and his servant, Mosca, are operating a droll fraud with huge success. Volpone pretends that he is dying, and he and MOsca convince his greedy friends, in turn, that each of them is to be Volpone's sole heir. To insure Volpone's supposed preference, the friends shower him with rich gifts, each in the expectation that he will soon get them back and inherit the old man's fortune as well.
Their method of operation is well illustrated in the treatment of their first caller of the day, the advocate, Voltore. At his knock Volpone has hurriedly donned his nightcap, jumped into bed and begun to groan piteously. Voltore gives him a costly gold plate and a pious expression of sympathy. Volpone accepts the present with proper thanks, then promptly falls to coughing violently. Mosca whispers to Voltore:
- "He's going fast. And you, sir, are his heir ...
- Without a partner, sir, confirmed this morning.
- 'Twas I induced him; pray remember this."
There is another knock, and no sooner has Voltore hurried out than in hurries Corbaccio, himself an old man, but also confident that he will inherit Volpone's treasure. Mosca tells him that his master is "very bad," to which Corbaccio replies: "That's good. And has he made his will?" Mosca says that the will has not yet been made, and Corbaccio presents a little bag of gold for Volpone. Mosca induces the visitor to make a will leaving his own estate to Volpone, assuring Corbaccio that this gesture cannot fail to bring a reciprocal will from his master. Of course, he adds, Volpone will die first.
Next comes Corvino, the merchant, with a pearl and a diamond for Volpone. He, too, is assured that he is the sole heir of the rapidly failing Volpone. When he goes, Volpone leaves his bed and the two knaves count the day's booty. Volpone, deciding that this is better even than robbing churches, now wants to celebrate their gains with music and dancing, and asks Mosca to find him a beautiful woman.
Mosca recalls that Corvino's wife has an enticing face--skin whiter than snow and lips tempting to "eternity of kissing." Volpone is vastly interested, but Mosca says the wife is "kept as warily as your gold, never comes abroad, never takes air but at a window." Volpone insists that he must see her, however, and agrees to Mosca's suggestion that he disguise himself in order to do so.
So, in the guise of Scoto, a peddler of fake medicines, Volpone takes up a post outside Corvino's house, with Mosca in the role of his assistant. He mounts a bench, bawls that he has a precious ointment that will cure every ill, and that he will give a vial of this, together with another gift of surpassing value, to the first person who tosses him a handkerchief. Celia, Corvino's wife, is tempted, and tosses down her handkerchief. Volpone is offering his mysterious gift--a powder guaranteed to provide perpetual youth--and beginning an insinuating speech on Celia's loveliness when Corvino appears. Corvino, not recognizing Volpone, drives him away.
Volpone now is truly smitten with Celia, and demands that Mosca, even at the cost of all his beloved gold and jewels, bring Celia to him. Mosca tells Corvino that, unhappily, Volpone is recovering from his ailments; that a scheming physician, who also has hopes of being Volpone's heir, has prescribed a fair woman as a bed companion to strengthen him; and, lastly, that the physician has offered his own daughter to clinch his hold upon Volpone's affection. Says Mosca to Corvino:
- "Signior, prevent him if you can, I pray you,
- Or else you lose your sure inheritance.
- Have you some wench that you can recommend?
- Some kinswoman? Think, think, think, think, think, think, sir."
Corvino, declaring that "no man shall cheat me of my heritage," generously bids Mosca tell Volpone that he will bring him his wife--but he adds, aside, "and may her kisses help to end his life." Mosca comforts him by a promise that, at Volpone's next relapse, they will "just pull the pillow from under his head, and he'll die for want of air."
But when Corvino brings the reluctant Celia, they arrive too early for the scheming Mosca who has other business afoot. He has told Corbaccio's son, Bonario, that his father is disinheriting him in favor of Volpone; he has concealed Bonario to witness proof of the fact when his father calls. Mosca is unable to effect this minor plot, for he has to withdraw with Corvino in order to leave Celia alone with Volpone. She is viewing the "invalid" Volpone with acute distaste when suddenly he springs toward her with youthful enthusiasm. She screams, bringing Bonario from his hiding place to her rescue. Bonario, after scratching Volpone with his sword in the ensuing scuffle, has just taken Celia away when old Corbaccio appears with the faithless Mosca. Mosca tells him:
- "Your son, Signior,
- Acquainted with the purpose of your will
- (Informed by whom I know not), came to spy
- Upon you, and he vowed that he would kill you."
Corbaccio says this act, indeed, forces him to disinherit his son in favor of Volpone. He leaves. Mosca and Volpone now realize that their tricks are becoming too complex even for them, and the latter says he already feels "the dampness of a prison cell." It is Bonario and Celia, however, who go to prison, accused by Corvino to conceal his own machinations. Voltore, the prosecutor, also to serve his own ends, convinces the magistrates that the young people are adulterers. Not only do Corvino and Corbaccio lie against them, but Volpone is brought into court on his bed to show that he couldn't be guilty.
Volpone, chuckling over his hoodwinking of the judges--a trick which pleases him more "than if I had enjoyed the wench"--gleefully concocts more sport: he makes a temporary will naming Mosca his heir, then sends out a report of his own death. Corbaccio, Voltore and Corvino hie themselves to Volpone's house to count their inheritance, but they find only a contemptuous Mosca. He orders them out on pain of exposing them in their villainy.
Voltore is now too angry for caution; he again goes before the magistrates and confesses the whole plot--thereby, incidentally exonerating Celia and Bonario. But Volpone is not yet at the end of his rope. As Voltore tells his story, he appears, this time disguised as a policeman, and whispers to Voltore that Volpone is still alive and that Voltore is his heir. The frantic Voltore, on the disguised Volpone's advice, feigns a fit, and when he recovers, professes that his confession was merely delirium. Volpone really is not dead, he says, and the good Mosca certainly is guilty of nothing. Volpone turns to his servant:
- "Methought that all was lost, yet all is well.
- Come, Mosca, tell them that I'm yet alive."
But the greedy Mosca, now the acknowledged heir, tells the magistrates that he has just returned from Volpone's funeral; his master is thoroughly dead. Volpone at last is trapped. He strips off his disguise, tells the whole story and "craves a lenient penalty." But the magistrates are not to be placated: they free Celia and Bonario, send Mosca to the galleys for life, disbar Voltore, condemn Corbaccio to a monastery, and order Corvino rowed around Venice with asses' ears on his head. They send Volpone to prison, his property confiscated by the state. Says the chief magistrate:
- "Let all who see these vices thus rewarded
- Take heart and learn the lesson. Mischiefs feed
- Like beasts, till they be fat, and then they bleed."
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