Much-studied and frequently performed, these comedies by the great Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson satirize the greed, mendacity, gullibility, and pretension of seventeenth-century London society. Both plays abound in colorful characters, ingenious plotting, biting wit, and sharp insight into human nature.
In Volpone (1605), a crafty rich man attempts to augment his wealth by feigning a mortal illness. His wealthy neighbors, spying the opportunity for an inheritance, vie with each other in courting the “dying” man’s favor. The Alchemist (1610) comprises a likewise avaricious cast, headed by a butler and prostitute who join forces with a swindler claiming to possess the philosopher's stone. The trio hosts a parade of eager victims whose hypocrisy and greed place them on a moral footing similar to that of the tricksters. Both plays offer sparkling examples of their author's novel approach to satire and his distinctive blend of savagery, humor, moralism, and a powerful sense of the absurd.
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Volpone and The Alchemist
By Ben Jonson, SUSAN L. RATTINER
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
SCENE I.—A room in Volpone's house
Enter VOLPONE, MOSCA.
Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine, that I may see my saint.
[MOSCA withdraws the curtain, and discovers poles of gold, plate, jewels, etc.]
Hail the world's soul, and mine! More glad than is
The teeming earth to see the long'd-for sun
Peep through the horns of the celestial Ram,
Am I, to view thy splendour dark'ning his;
That lying here, amongst my other hoards,
Show'st like a flame by night, or like the day
Struck out of chaos, when all darkness fled
Unto the centre. O thou son of Sol,
But brighter than thy father, let me kiss,
With adoration, thee, and every relic
Of sacred treasure in this blessed room.
Well did wise poets, by thy glorious name,
Title that age which they would have the best;
Thou being the best of things, and far transcending
All style of joy, in children, parents, friends,
Or any other waking dream on earth:
Thy looks when they to Venus did ascribe,
They should have given her twenty thousand Cupids;
Such are thy beauties and our loves! Dear saint,
Riches, the dumb god, that giv'st all men tongues,
That canst do nought, and yet mak'st men do all things;
The price of souls; even hell, with thee to boot,
Is made worth heaven. Thou art virtue, fame,
Honour, and all things else. Who can get thee,
He shall be noble, valiant, honest, wise—
And what he will, sir. Riches are in fortune
A greater good than wisdom is in nature.
True, my beloved Mosca. Yet I glory
More in the cunning purchase of my wealth,
Than in the glad possession, since I gain
No common way; I use no trade, no venture;
I wound no earth with ploughshares, I fat no beasts
To feed the shambles; have no mills for iron,
Oil, corn, or men, to grind them into powder;
I blow no subtle glass, expose no ships
To threat'nings of the furrow-faced sea;
I turn no monies in the public bank,
No usure private.
No, sir, nor devour
Soft prodigals. You shall ha' some will swallow
A melting heir as glibly as your Dutch
Will pills of butter, and ne'er purge for it;
Tear forth the fathers of poor families
Out of their beds, and coffin them alive
In some kind clasping prison, where their bones
May be forthcoming, when the flesh is rotten:
But your sweet nature doth abhor these courses;
You loathe the widow's or the orphan's tears
Should wash your pavements, or their piteous cries
Ring in your roofs, and beat the air for vengeance.
Right, Mosca; I do loathe it.
And, besides, sir,
You are not like the thresher that doth stand
With a huge flail, watching a heap of corn,
And, hungry, dares not taste the smallest grain,
But feeds on mallows, and such bitter herbs;
Nor like the merchant, who hath fill'd his vaults
With Romagnia, rich and Candian wines,
Yet drinks the lees of Lombard's vinegar:
You will not lie in straw, whilst moths and worms
Feed on your sumptuous hangings and soft beds;
You know the use of riches, and dare give now
From that bright heap, to me, your poor observer,
Or to your dwarf, or your hermaphrodite,
Your eunuch, or what other household trifle
Your pleasure allows maintenance—
Hold thee, Mosca,
Take of my hand; thou strik'st on truth in all,
And they are envious term thee parasite.
Call forth my dwarf, my eunuch, and my fool,
And let'em make me sport.
What should I do,
But cocker up my genius, and live free
To all delights my fortune calls me to?
I have no wife, no parent, child, ally,
To give my substance to; but whom I make
Must be my heir; and this makes men observe me:
This draws new clients daily to my house,
Women and men of every sex and age,
That bring me presents, send me plate, coin, jewels,
With hope that when I die (which they expect
Each greedy minute) it shall then return
Tenfold upon them; whilst some, covetous
Above the rest, seek to engross me whole,
And counter-work the one unto the other,
Contend in gifts, as they would seem in love:
All which I suffer, playing with their hopes,
And am content to coin 'em into profit,
And look upon their kindness, and take more,
And look on that; still bearing them in hand,
Letting the cherry knock against their lips,
And draw it by their mouths, and back again.—
SCENE II.—The same
To him re-enter MOSCA, with NANO, ANDROGYNO, and CASTRONE.
"Now, room for fresh gamesters, who do will you to know,
They do bring you neither play nor university show;
And therefore do intreat you that whatsoever they rehearse,
May not fare a whit the worse, for the false pace of the verse.
If you wonder at this, you will wonder more ere we pass,
For know, here is inclos'd the soul of Pythagoras,
That juggler divine, as hereafter shall follow;
Which soul, fast and loose, sir, came first from Apollo,
And was breath'd into Aethalides, Mercurius his son,
Where it had the gift to remember all that ever was done.
From thence it fled forth, and made quick transmigration
To goldy-Iock'd Euphorbus, who was kill'd in good fashion,
At the siege of old Troy, by the cuckold of Sparta.
Hermotimus was next (I find it in my charta).
To whom it did pass, where no sooner it was missing,
But with one Pyrrhus of Delos it learn'd to go a-fishing;
And thence did it enter the sophist of Greece.
From Pythagore, she went into a beautiful piece,
Hight Aspasia, the meretrix; and the next toss of her
Was again of a whore, she became a philosopher,
Crates the cynick, as itself doth relate it:
Since kings, knights, and beggars, knaves, lords, and fools gat it,
Besides ox and ass, camel, mule, goat, and brock,
In all which it hath spoke, as in the cobbler's cock.
But I come not here to discourse of that matter,
Or his one, two, or three, or his great oath, BY QUATER!
His musics, his trigon, his golden thigh,
Or his telling how elements shift; but I
Would ask, how of late thou hast suffer'd translation,
And shifted thy coat in these days of reformation.
Like one of the reform'd, a fool, as you see,
Counting all old doctrine heresy.
NAN. But not on thine own forbid meats hast thou ventur'd?
AND. On fish, when first a Carthusian I enter'd.
NAN. Why, then thy dogmatical silence hath left thee?
AND. Of that an obstreperous lawyer bereft me.
O wonderful change, when sir lawyer forsook thee!
For Pythagore's sake, what body then took thee?
AND. A good dull mule.
And how! by that means
Thou wert brought to allow of the eating of beans?
NAN. But from the mule into whom didst thou pass?
Into a very strange beast, by some writers call'd an ass;
By others a precise, pure, illuminate brother
Of those devour flesh, and sometimes one another;
And will drop you forth a libel, or a sanctifi'd lie,
Betwixt every spoonful of a nativity-pie.
Now quit thee, for heaven, of that profane nation.
And gently report thy next transmigration.
AND. To the same that I am.
A creature of delight,
And, what is more than a fool, an hermaphrodite!
Now, prithee, sweet soul, in all thy variation,
Which body wouldst thou choose to keep up thy station?
AND. Troth, this I am in: even here would I tarry.
NAN. 'Cause here the delight of each sex thou canst vary?
Alas, those pleasures be stale and forsaken;
No, 't is your fool wherewith I am so taken,
The only one creature that I can call blessed;
For all other forms I have prov'd most distressed.
Spoke true, as thou wert in Pythagoras still.
This learned opinion we celebrate will,
Fellow eunuch, as behoves us, with all our wit and art,
To dignify that whereof ourselves are so great and special a part."
Now, very, very pretty! Mosca, this
Was thy invention?
If it please my patron,
VOLP. It doth, good Mosca.
Then it was, sir.
[NANO and CASTRONE sing.]
"Fools, they are the only nation
Worth men's envy or admiration;
Free from care or sorrow-taking,
Selves and others merry making:
All they speak or do is sterling.
Your fool he is your great man's darling,
And your ladies' sport and pleasure;
Tongue and bauble are his treasure.
E'en his face begetteth laughter,
And he speaks truth free from slaughter;
He's the grace of every feast,
And sometimes the chiefest guest;
Hath his trencher and his stool,
When wit waits upon the fool.
O, who would not be
He, he, he?"
One knocks without.
Who's that? Away! Look, Mosca.
[Exeunt NANO, CAST. and ANDRO.]
'T is Signior Voltore, the advocate;
I know him by his knock.
Fetch me my gown,
My furs, and night-caps; say my couch is changing
And let him entertain himself a while
Without i" th' gallery. [Exit MOSCA.] Now, now my clients
Begin their visitation! Vulture, kite,
Raven, and gorcrow, all my birds of prey,
That think me turning carcase, now they come:
I am not for 'em yet.
[Re-enter MOSCA, with the gown, etc.]
How now! the news?
MOS. A piece of plate, sir.
Of what bigness?
Massy, and antique, with your name inscrib'd,
And arms engraven.
Good! and not a fox
Stretcht on the earth, with fine delusive sleights,
Mocking a gaping crow? ha, Mosca!
Give me my furs.
[Puts on his sick dress.]
Why dost thou laugh so, man?
I cannot choose, sir, when I apprehend
What thoughts he has without now, as he walks:
That this might be the last gift he should give,
That this would fetch you; if you died to-day,
And gave him all, what he should be to-morrow;
What large return would come of all his ventures;
How he should worshipp'd be, and reverenc'd;
Ride with his furs, and foot cloths; waited on
By herds of fools and clients; have clear way
Made for his mule, as letter'd as himself;
Be call'd the great and learned advocate:
And then concludes, there's nought impossible.
VOLP. Yes, to be learned, Mosca.
O, no: rich
Implies it. Hood an ass with reverend purple,
So you can hide his two ambitious ears,
And he shall pass for a cathedral doctor.
VOLP. My caps, my caps, good Mosca. Fetch him in.
Stay, sir; your ointment for your eyes.
Dispatch, dispatch: I long to have possession
Of my new present.
That, and thousands more,
I hope to see you lord of.
Thanks, kind Mosca.
And that, when I am lost in blended dust,
And hundreds such as I am, in succession—
VOLP. Nay, that were too much, Mosca.
You shall live
Still to delude these harpies.
'T is well: my pillow now, and let him enter.
Now, my feign'd cough, my phthisis, and my gout,
My apoplexy, palsy, and catarrhs,
Help, with your forced functions, this my posture,
Wherein, this three year, I have milk'd their hopes.
He comes; I hear him—Uh! [coughing] uh! uh! uh! O—
SCENE III.—The same
VOLPONE; re-enter MOSCA, introducing VOLTORE with a piece of plate.
You still are what you were, sir.
Of all the rest, are he commands his love,
And you do wisely to preserve it thus,
With early visitation, and kind notes
Of your good meaning to him, which, I know,
Cannot but come most grateful. Patron! sir!
Here's Signior Voltore is come—
VOLP. [Faintly.] What say you?
Sir, Signior Voltore is come this morning
To visit you.
VOLP. I thank him.
And hath brought
A piece of antique plate, bought of St. Mark,
With which he here presents you.
He is welcome. Pray him to come more often.
What says he?
Mos. He thanks you, and desires you see him often.
Mos. My patron!
Bring him near, where is he?
I long to feel his hand.
Mos. The plate is here, sir.
VOLT. How fare you, sir?
I thank you, Signior Voltore;
Where is the plate? mine eyes are bad.
VOLT.[putting it into his hands.]
To see you still thus weak.
That he's not weaker.
VOLP. You are too munificent.
No, sir; would to heaven
I could as well give health to you, as that plate!
You give, sir, what you can;
I thank you. Your love
Hath taste in this, and shall not be unanswer'd:
I pray you see me often.
Yes, I shall, sir.
VOLP. Be not far from me.
Mos. Do you observe that, sir?
VOLP. Hearken unto me still; it will concern you.
Mos. You are a happy man, sir; know your good.
VOLP. I cannot now last long—
Mos. (Aside.) You are his heir, sir.
VOLT. (Aside.) Am I?
I feel me going: Uh! uh! uh! uh!
I'm sailing to my port. Uh! uh! uh! uh!
And I am glad I am so near my haven.
Mos. Alas, kind gentleman! Well, we must all go—
VOLT. But, Mosca—
Age will conquer
Prithee, hear me;
Am I inscrib'd his heir for certain?
I do beseech you, sir, you will vouchsafe
To write me i' your family. All my hopes
Depend upon your worship: I am lost
Except the rising sun do shine on me.
VOLT. It shall both shine, and warm thee, Mosca.
I am a man that hath not done your love
All the worst offices: here I wear your keys,
See all your coffers and your caskets lock'd,
Keep the poor inventory of your jewels,
Your plate, and monies; am your steward, sir,
Husband your goods here.
VOLT. But am I sole heir?
Without a partner, sir: confirm'd this morning:
The wax is warm yet, and the ink scarce dry
Upon the parchment.
Happy, happy me!
By what good chance, sweet Mosca?
Your desert, sir;
I know no second cause.
Is loth to know it; well, we shall requite it.
He ever lik'd your course, sir; that first took him.
I oft have heard him say how he admir'd
Men of your large profession, that could speak
To every cause, and things mere contraries,
Till they were hoarse again, yet all be law;
That, with most quick agility, could turn,
And return; make knots, and undo them;
Give forked counsel; take provoking gold
On either hand, and put it up; these men,
He knew, would thrive with their humility.
And, for his part, he thought he should be blest
To have his heir of such a suff'ring spirit,
So wise, so grave, of so perplex'd a tongue,
And loud withal, that would not wag, nor scarce
Lie still, without a fee; when every word
Your worship but lets fall, is a chequin!.
Who's that? one knocks; I would not have you seen, sir.
And yet—pretend you came and went in haste;
I'll fashion an excuse—and, gentle sir,
When you do come to swim in golden lard,
Up to the arms in honey, that your chin
Is borne up stiff with fatness of the flood,
Think on your vassal; but remember me:
I ha' not been your worst of clients.
When will you have your inventory brought, sir?
Or see a copy of the will?—Anon!
I'll bring them to you, sir. Away, begone,
Put business i' your face.
VOLP. [Springing up.] Excellent Mosca!
Come hither, let me kiss thee.
Keep you still, sir.
Here is Corbaccio.
. Set the plate away:
The vulture's gone, and the old raven's come.
SCENE IV.—The same
Betake you to your silence, and your sleep.
Stand there and multiply. [Putting the plate to the rest.] Now
we shall see
A wretch who is indeed more impotent
Than this can feign to be; yet hopes to hop
Over his grave.
You're very welcome, sir.
How does your patron?
MOS. Troth, as he did, sir; no amends.
What! mends he?
MOS. No, sir: he's rather worse.
CORB. That's well. Where is he?
MOS. Upon his couch, sir, newly fall'n asleep.
CORB. Does he sleep well?
No wink, sir, all this night,
Nor yesterday; but slumbers.
Good! he should take
Some counsel of physicians: I have brought him
An opiate here, from mine own doctor.
Mos. He will not hear of drugs.
Why? I myself
Stood by while 't was made, saw all th' ingredients;
And know it cannot but most gently work:
My life for his, 't is but to make him sleep.
VOLP. [Aside.] Ay, his last sleep, if he would take it.
He has no faith in physic.
Say you, say you?
He has no faith in physic: he does think
Most of your doctors are the greater danger,
And worse disease, t' escape. I often have
Heard him protest that your physician
Should never be his heir.
Not I his heir?
Mos. Not your physician, sir.
. O, no, no, no,
I do not mean it.
No, sir, nor their fees
He cannot brook: he says they flay a man
Before they kill him.
Right, I do conceive you.
And then they do it by experiment;
For which the law not only doth absolve 'em,
But gives them great reward: and he is loth
To hire his death so.
Excerpted from Volpone and The Alchemist by Ben Jonson, SUSAN L. RATTINER. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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