Literature Study GuidesVolponeAct 1 Scene 4 Summary

Volpone | Study Guide

Ben Jonson

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Volpone | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

Elderly Corbaccio—whom Volpone and Mosca refer to as "the Raven"—arrives with a vial of medicine he has brought to relieve Volpone's ailments. Immediately, Mosca suspects the vial contains poison meant to hasten Volpone's death, and he avoids giving it to his master by claiming Volpone "has no faith in physic," or medicine. Corbaccio asks for updates on Volpone's various symptoms, and as Mosca describes each in horrifying detail, Corbaccio replies, "Good," As it becomes clear to him that Volpone nears death, Corbaccio says, "Excellent, excellent, sure I shall outlast him."

Because Corbaccio has brought no gift for Volpone, Mosca warns him other potential heirs have visited with lavish gifts, but that Volpone doesn't trust them as much as he trusts Corbaccio. He convinces Corbaccio to name Volpone as his heir, promising that Volpone would return the favor. Corbaccio initially rejects the idea of disinheriting his own son, but Mosca convinces him that because sickly Volpone will certainly die before Corbaccio, he would actually be ensuring his son receives two fortunes instead of one. Once again, as Corbaccio leaves, another legacy-hunter arrives.

Analysis

The second legacy-hunter, Corbaccio, a doddering old man, highlights the corruption of morality more clearly than Voltore's character initially does. Corbaccio openly delights at hearing the gory details of Volpone's declining heath. Corbaccio himself is old and infirm, so it seems unlikely he would outlive Volpone, which explains his delight in Volpone's seemingly rapid deterioration. Like a carrion bird feasting on the carcass of a dead animal, Corbaccio feels strengthened by Volpone's demise: "This makes me young again, a score of years." Further showcasing his corrupt morality, Corbaccio has brought poison with him to hurry things along, essentially acknowledging he would resort to murder for financial gain. Corbaccio's greed overrides his respect for human life.

Mosca avoids giving Volpone the poison by claiming he distrusts medicine: "Most of your doctors are the greater danger." At the time, this was a common perception. Doctors were often self-trained medicine men, similar to the mountebank (seller of quack medicines) Volpone impersonates later in the play, with a large margin for error in their concocted elixirs. Doctors were often accused of being hired to poison enemies, including the famous case of Dr. Roderigo Lopez who was accused of attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth, for whom Ben Jonson wrote. Because patients didn't necessarily have a trustworthy relationship with doctors, many, like Volpone himself, lived in constant fear of getting sick. Throughout the play, Volpone reminds himself he is only pretending to be ill.

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