“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” — Gordon Gekko, Wall Street
Gordon Gekko’s infamous Wall Street speech perfectly captures the motivations of the central characters in Volpone. They are all greedy for something: money, station, sex, acclaim. Corvino is willing to prostitute his own wife. Voltore suborns and commits perjury. Corbaccio disinherits her own son. Mosca betrays his master.
One would be hard-pressed to find any admirable characters in the play. Even Celia and Bonario are guilty of naiveté in the extreme. C.J. Gianakaris writes that Jonson’s goal accorded with the role of the contemporary playwright: to please and to teach. Instead of a good character to offset the ill, we are forced to settle for characters whose best trait is that they are less reprehensible than others. James A. Riddell writes that the audience “is asked to see the effects of bestial appetites and at the same time to enjoy being fed upon them.” Ultimately, the audience itself is invited to pass judgment and take note of their own follies.
And Volpone outshines them all as the most roguish. He is a grand, charismatic, and flawed figure who simply cannot help himself. His life is a constant con in pursuit of more. Stephen Goldblatt writes that Volpone views himself as “liberated from any hierarchy in the universe which would impose limits in his being.” At the very beginning of the play, he admits that his true passion is more for the game itself than what he may get out of it. He reinforces this attitude after the trial which imprisons Celia and Bonario. He enjoyed the adrenaline rush of the events “more than if I had enjoy’d the wench.” We see the depths of his solipsism up front. Instead of God or honor, he has placed himself and his golden shrine at the center of the universe. He says that he is loath to place people in debtor’s prison because they owe him. Likewise, he despises tearing families apart. Mosca agrees with the sentiment before implying that Volpone does these things anyway.
The lack of a good character means that the bad characters must self-destruct. And they do: Gianakaris writes that the gulls are gulled, and Volpone steps forward to his doom because of his irrational greed. The idea that someone could beat him at his own game is unacceptable. Furthermore, his greed extends even to schadenfreude. The true moment of his demise is when he leaves in disguise to torment his former “heirs.” In doing so, he has made Mosca master of the house. Later, given the choice to share with Mosca or reveal himself, he chooses mutually assured destruction. In the final analysis of the play, “cleverness, having confounded stupidity, now confounds itself….no one ends with what he desires. All the plans lie in ruins because of a lack of sound judgment.” The house of cards collapses for the two main characters under the weight of their own egos.
Volpone may have been imprisoned and subject to a long, humiliating mortification. But his character type, already with a long history, would reach his fulfillment in English Restoration comedies. The “fop” plays of the latter 1600s specialized in rich people behaving badly.
Gekko was right. When it comes to storytelling, greed is good.