Volpone and Satire's Unstable "Moral Center"
When Celia and Bonario are being tried for adultery and attempted murder, the first Avocatore asks them for witnesses to support their defense. Bonario answers "Our consciences" and Celia adds, "And heaven, that never fails the innocent." The Avocatore replies "These are no testimonies" (IV.6.15-17). At this point in the play, readers might well ask, where are "heaven" and "conscience" in this play? Just as readers of Beowulf can debate whether or not it is a poem that expresses Christian values, we might well ask whether Jonson has set this play in a Christian or pagan universe. Sometimes scholars use the term "moral center" to describe a work's location of its highest values in a character or action. Even in Lear's pagan universe, there were Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar to represent positive models of social behavior, even though they often met with little success. Who, in Volpone, bears the burden of representing the play's "moral center" and how well is it carried? What does this mean for Jonson's readers?
As in Lear and Faustus, Volpone uses a subplot involving Peregrine and the traveling English knight, Sir Politic Wouldbe, to develop the main plot's tensions. In this case, it's Lady Pol who becomes involved in the main plot as her attentions to Volpone veer from her agenda of social climbing among Venice's elite to competing for Volpone's fortune with the other fools. Upon first meeting Sir Pol, Peregrine introduced a term that's important to the play's themes--"to gull," or to deceive in a witty fashion. He asks, "This fellow, / Does he gull me, trow? or is gulled?" (II.1.23-24). Part of the complication of the play's "moral center" lies in its attitude toward "gullage," the manufacturing of fools by exercising one's wits. Mosca could be said to be the master at this game, but even the morally normal Peregrine gulls Sir Pol by Act V, Scene 4. What is Jonson's attitude toward gulls and those who create them?