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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

An illustration for an 1898 edition of Volpone by Aubrey Beardsley.
An illustration for an 1898 edition of Volpone by Aubrey Beardsley.

Volpone, or The Fox (in Italian: "Big Fox"), is a black comedy by Ben Jonson first produced in 1606. A merciless satire of greed and lust, it remains Jonson's most-performed play, and it is among the finest Jacobean comedies.


  • Volpone (the "Big Fox") – a greedy, childless Venetian nobleman
  • Mosca (the Fly) – his servant
  • Voltore (the Vulture) – a lawyer
  • Corbaccio (the Carrion Crow) – an avaricious old miser
  • Corvino (the Raven) – a merchant
  • Sir Politic - Would - Be; ridiculous Englishman. Probably based on Sir Henry Wotton, [1].
  • Lady Would-Be (the parrot) English lady and wife of Sir Politic-Would-Be


Volpone fakes a long illness to pique the expectations of all who aspire to his fortune. Mosca tells each of them, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino, in their turns, that they are to be named Volpone's heir, thanks to Mosca's influence. Mosca then announces Volpone's impending death. The hopeful heirs shower Volpone with gifts. Corbaccio disinherits his own son in Volpone's favour; Corvino offers Volpone his wife. Complications ensue, and just as Volpone is about to be outsmarted by Mosca, he reveals all in open court and the characters are punished according to their crime and station.


The play appeared in quarto in early 1608, printed by Walter Burre. The quarto contains Jonson's dedication to Oxford and Cambridge, as well as a great number of commendatory verses, in English and Latin, by fellow-poets such as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Its next appearance was in the folio of 1616, and the latter, presumably having been subject to Jonson's careful review, forms the basis of modern editions.

Performance history

The play premiered at the Globe Theatre in Spring 1606. It was performed by the King's Men, but casting is uncertain. John Lowin may have performed the title role, as he is associated with the role in James Wright's Historia Histrionica (1699). William Gifford hypothesized that Alexander Cooke may have played Lady Would-be. Either that summer or the next, an outbreak of plague closed the London theaters, and the company perfermed the play at Oxford and Cambridge. Jonson may have added the first act's satire on Pythagoras for these audiences. The play certainly remained in the King's Men repertory throughout the period. It was performed for Charles in 1631, and again at the Cockpit-in-Court in 1637.

After the Restoration, the play enjoyed a lengthy prominence: John Genest records over fifty performances before 1770. When the theaters reopened, the play was owned by the King's Men of Thomas Killigrew; it premiered at Drury Lane in 1663. Michael Mohun played Volpone to Hart's Mosca; Katherine Corey played Celia, and Rebecca Marshal played Lady Would-be. The same cast was seen by Samuel Pepys in 1665.

The play continued current throughout the following century. Richard Steele mentions a performance in a 1709 number of Tatler. Famous eighteenth-century Volpones include James Quin; famous Moscas include Charles Macklin. Colley Cibber played Corvino in his productions; his wife Katherine Shore played Celia, as did Elizabeth Inchbald in a later generation. As with many other Jacobean plays, it had fallen from favor before the end of the century. An updated version by George Colman the Elder failed at Drury Lane in 1771, and the play fell into disuse.

The play was revived by the Phoenix Society at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1921; W. B. Yeats was among the audience, and he mentions the production approvingly in a letter to Allan Wade. The Birmingham Repertory Theatre staged the play at the Malvern Festival in 1935.

A 1938 production introduced two of the dominant elements of twentieth-century productions: Donald Wolfit and animal imagery. Wolfit's dynamic performance in the title role, repeated several times over the next decades, set the mold for modern interpretations of Volpone: Politic's plot was truncated or eliminated, and Mosca (played in 1938 by Alan Wheatley) relegated to a secondary role.

The play has been staged by a number of famous companies over the decades since. In 1952, George Devine directed Anthony Quayle (Mosca) and Ralph Richardson (Volpone) at the Bristol Old Vic. At the same theater in 1955, Eric Porter played Volpone. In 1968, Tyrone Guthrie's National Theatre production emphasized the beast-fable motif; this production featured stage design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch.

In 1972, the play returned to the Bristol Old Vic, but the most memorable production of the 70s was Peter Hall's for the National Theatre. The production presented Paul Scofield as Volpone, with Ben Kingsley as Mosca and John Gielgud as Sir Politic.

Matthew Warchus received an Olivier Award nomination for his 1995 production at the Royal National Theatre; it featured Michael Gambon and Simon Russell Beale.


In 1918 the theme of a man faking his death to cozen his friends was taken up by Puccini in the third part of Il Trittico, namely Gianni Schicchi.

Volpone was adapted by Jules Romains and Stefan Zweig in their 1928 production, with the ending changed so that Mosca winds up with Volpone's money.

This version was used by George Antheil in his 1953 opera Volpone.

A more recent operatic version, by composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell, premiered in March 2004 at the Barns at Wolf Trap to positive critical notices.

A Broadway musical adaptation entitled "Foxy" (1964) by Ian McLellan Hunter and Ring Lardner Jr. moved the play's setting to the Yukon during the gold rush of 1898 and starred Bert Lahr as a prospector. The show had music by Robert Emmett Dolan and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. It opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York on February 16, 1964, and played 72 performances, after an out-of-town try-out in the newly refurbished Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City, Yukon.

The stage adaptation Sly Fox, by Larry Gelbart, updated the setting from Renaissance Venice to 19th century San Francisco, and changed the tone from satire to farce.

The Honey Pot is a 1967 film by Joseph Mankiewicz based on Volpone, although with a romantic subplot and some more sentimental trappings, with Rex Harrison in the main role, Cliff Robertson as Mosca ("McFly"), and Maggie Smith as the love interest.

In 1988 the film was adapted for Italian cinema by Maurizio Ponzi, with the title Il Volpone. Set in modern Liguria, it features Paolo Villaggio as Ugo Maria Volpone and Enrico Montesano as Mosca.

External links

  • Il Volpone at International Movie Database
  • John Musto's Volpone at PeerMusic Classical
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