Volpone by Ben Jonson follows the antics of Volpone, a wealthy Magnifico, and his second-in-command (or Parasite, or Fly) Mosca as the pair use their talents for deceit to accumulate more and more riches. In its essence, it is a play about greedy people working to compound their wealth: Volpone and Mosca do this, as do Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino, and Lady Would-Be. Along the way, the innocent Celia and Bonario are swept up in the schemes of guiltier parties, but each are exonerated come the end of the play, when those guilty of avarice must answer for their sins.
Though Volpone reads indeed like a comedy play — many of the characters’ shenanigans are humorous, and myriad characters seem to exist for the sole purpose of providing a comedic relief or compounding the existing hilarity (Sir Politick Would-Be; Nano, Castrone, and Androgyno; et alia) — the archetypes therein are comparable to those found in the fables of Aesop. In this short essay, I will explore elements of Jonson’s Volpone as they pertain to elements of Aesop’s lore, focusing in particular on two of the latter’s fables: “The Old Lion and the Fox” and “The Dog and His Reflection.”
For much of the play, the characters on stage act as flat archetypes without characterization beyond their simple desires. The titular character is an older gentleman who arrives before the audience, greets the day, and asks to see his horde of gold: “Good morning to the day; and next, my gold: / Open the shrine, that I may see my Saint” (1.1). His existence is contingent on the existence of his wealth, his stashes hidden around the stage where others may not access them. His very name means fox. It is not until Corvino asks Mosca whether or not Volpone has children that Volpone is given a chance at depth beyond his greed — he is not just a single old shrew, but a father to many bastard children — but even still, there is no evidence of any familial love that could redeem him. “Bastards,” says Mosca, “Some dozen, or more, that he begot on beggars, / Gipsies, and Jews, and black-moors, when he was drunk. / Knew you not that, sir? ’tis the common fable…but he has giv’n them nothing” (1.1).
The vast majority of the other characters with speaking roles are similarly one-dimensional. Voltore (the Vulture), Corvino (the Raven), and Corbaccio (the Crow) are each carrion birds who await Volpone’s death and their resultant inheritance of his wealth; each are made to believe by Mosca (the Fly) that they will be the sole inheritor. Other characters are harder to categorize as animals, though they too have fairly singular existences that serve to fulfill archetypes: Lady Politick Would-Be is an Epicure, Celia is a Damsel, Bonario is a Victim. Yet, while each of these figures can be distilled into a basic trait that defines and informs their behaviors and actions, the play is not lessened by its basic, archetypal characters. The flatness of the characters serves as a boon to a greater reading, one with more room for moral lessons and a stronger sense of universality than a plot-driven, dynamic play: a fable.
As with all of Aesop’s fables, “The Old Lion and the Fox” exists in many versions and languages. The Library of Congress has catalogued it as such:
An old Lion, whose teeth and claws were so worn that it was not so easy for him to get food as in his younger days, pretended that he was sick. He took care to let all his neighbors know about it, and then lay down in his cave to wait for visitors. And when they came to offer him their sympathy, he ate them up one by one.
The Fox came too, but he was very cautious about it. Standing at a safe distance from the cave, he inquired politely after the Lion’s health. The Lion replied that he was very ill indeed, and asked the Fox to step in for a moment. But Master Fox very wisely stayed outside, thanking the Lion very kindly for the invitation.
“I should be glad to do as you ask,” he added, “but I have noticed that there are many footprints leading into your cave and none coming out. Pray tell me, how do your visitors find their way out again?”
Take warning from the misfortunes of others. (Read.gov)
In comparing this fable to Volpone, we can easily equate the Lion with Volpone himself; after all, his character feigns illness in other to attract more visitors to his home and encourage them (through Mosca) to give him gifts that would better their chances at falling into his favor. Here, the comparison is favorable as the lion, old and weak, is thus unable to provide for himself, much like Volpone seems to lack any discernible skill or trade that would make him wealthy without all of his scheming. Here, we can cast Bonario as our Fox, or Celia, as each characters’ involvement with the avarice of the Lion ‘ruins’ the plan in much the same way. The fault, in this case, still remains with the Lion, who fails to foresee the wit of his ‘lessers’ and thus goes hungry.
Still: the fact remains that Volpone’s ultimate ruination is a direct result of his own inability to end his ruses on a high note. He makes “a snare for mine own neck!” when he signs his will over to Mosca as a way to further humiliate his carrion birds, and runs his “head into it, wilfully! with laughter! / When I had newly ‘scaped, was free, and clear, / Out of mere wantonness!” (5.7). Thus, we might consider Volpone through the lens of an earlier fable, one that places the responsibility of self-ruination on one character’s shoulders alone: “The Dog and His Reflection.”
A Dog, to whom the butcher had thrown a bone, was hurrying home with his prize as fast as he could go. As he crossed a narrow footbridge, he happened to look down and saw himself reflected in the quiet water as if in a mirror. But the greedy Dog thought he saw a real Dog carrying a bone much bigger than his own.
If he had stopped to think he would have known better. But instead of thinking, he dropped his bone and sprang at the Dog in the river, only to find himself swimming for dear life to reach the shore. At last he managed to scramble out, and as he stood sadly thinking about the good bone he had lost, he realized what a stupid Dog he had been.
It is very foolish to be greedy. (Read.gov)
“The Dog and His Reflection” is similar in moral to the proverbial bird in the hand (which is worth two in the bush), only it features a character who lives out the proverb and loses everything. Here, it is interesting to note that the lamentation of the Dog is extremely similar to Volpone’s moaning in the above quote from Act V, scene vii. Certainly, Volpone is a greedy person who grasps at more than he could ever need, as evidenced by his luxurious life all throughout the play up until his punishment by the law at the play’s very end: he maintains three of his bastard children for entertainment-on-demand, presumably pays for the room and board of Mosca, and can afford to live lavishly and accumulate wealth without forgoing other needs.
Reading Volpone as a fable — or, at the very least recognizing its fabulistic and archetypal qualities — allows audiences to identify deeper moral truths from where they exist already in the complex, entangled web of plot. The characters are representative of moral failures that can be corrected only once they are recognized, just as characters in Aesop’s fables are portrayed as straightforward, digestible embodiments of human failures that are then directly moralized.
Greedy people who take advantage of others will only succeed in humiliating themselves.
 Many of these fables were later adapted by Jean de la Fontaine, but as this play precedes the publication of de la Fontaine’s works (1668–94; whereas Volpone was published in 1606), I will look rather to the (much) earlier Greek fables.
 Nowhere does Volpone flaunt his riches more than in Act III, scene vi, as he attempts to woo the uninterested Celia: “See, here, a rope of pearl; and each, more orient / Than that the brave Egyptian queen caroused: / Dissolve and drink them. See, a carbuncle, / May put out both the eyes of our St Mark…/ A gem but worth a private patrimony, / Is nothing: we will eat such at a meal. / The heads of parrots, tongues of nightingales, / The brains of peacocks, and of estriches, / Shall be our food: and, could we get the phoenix, / Though nature lost her kind, she were our dish.”
Aesop. “The Dog & His Reflection.” The Aesop for Children, Library of Congress, read.gov/aesop/026.html.
Aesop. “The Old Lion & the Fox.” The Aesop for Children, Library of Congress, read.gov/aesop/106.html.
Jonson, Ben. “Volpone.” Volpone; Or, the Fox, by Ben Jonson, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/4039/4039-h/4039-h.htm.