Volpone | Study Guide

Ben Jonson

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Volpone | Symbols



Disease symbolizes immorality in Volpone. Although Volpone regularly uses imaginary diseases as a comedic way to trick those around him, the descriptions of disease suggest not only a physical wasting, but a moral wasting as well. Volpone pretends his disease has made him lethargic, glassy-eyed, and deaf. As a result, the three legacy-hunters increase the intensity of their bids for his inheritance. The closer Volpone gets to death, the more complex his lies, and the darker his morality becomes. He tricks Corbaccio into disinheriting his son, and convinces Corvino to let him sleep with Celia. Arguably, the darkest moment in Volpone's morality is when he attempts to rape Celia. Readers will remember he first caught Celia's attention when disguised as a mountebank (medicine man), detailing horrific ailments and diseases only his imaginary elixir could cure. In this way, imagined disease foreshadows Volpone's loss of morality.

For his part, Voltore attempts to redeem his conscience by coming clean to the court about his lies. When he learns he may still be in the running for Volpone's fortune, however, he feigns spiritual disease—possession—so his truthful testimony will be thrown out. Voltore, like Volpone, uses imaginary disease to his advantage, symbolizing his loss of morality.


The city of Venice, the play's setting, symbolizes greed. At the time of the play's publication, English audiences had an incredibly stereotypical view of Venetians as gluttonous, amoral, sensual, and corrupt. For these reasons, Venice seemed the perfect setting for Jonson's fable about the dangers of greed. The effect of Venetian culture can best be seen in the subplot storyline of Sir Politick Would-Be and Peregrine. Peregrine, an English tourist, comes under Sir Politick's wing as he attempts to teach the new arrival how to survive in Venice without losing his English culture. Sir Politick warns, for example, that everyone in Venice will try to gull, or take advantage of, Peregrine. His statement foreshadows Peregrine's transformation from a traditional Englishman to a Venetian through his somewhat cruel prank against Sir Politick, in which he pretends to be the police. Not only do the Venetian characters of Volpone, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino highlight the characteristics of Jonson's Venice, so do the Englishmen who fall victim to amoral Venetian ways.

Animal Names

In many ways, Volpone is a retelling of the classic animal fable in which a trickster fox cons three birds of prey out of a meal. Jonson clearly depicts each of the characters in traditional fable roles: Volpone is "the Fox," or trickster, Mosca is "the Fly" buzzing around the other animals' ears putting plans in place. The three legacy-hunters—Voltore "the Vulture," Corvino "the Crow," and Corbaccio "the Raven"—flutter around the carcass (or soon to be carcass, in Volpone's case) stalking their next meal.

By highlighting the animal nature of many characters, Jonson emphasizes how inhumanely they treat one another. The moral characters, Bonario and Celia, are given celestial names without animal references. Just as fables leave readers with simple moral messages, so does Volpone—greed will lead to one's undoing.

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