Sir Politic reveals to Peregrine that he has three surefire plans he can present to the Venetian authorities and he knows a certain commendatore who can help him gain the ear of these authorities. Now, though the title sounds grand, Peregrine knows he’s in fact just a sergeant and he says so, but Sir Pol says the common people can exercise as much influence as great ones. He looks for his notes in his pockets, without results, and Peregrine asks him to tell him his plans from memory. His first plan is to control all the tinderboxes, since they contain highly flammable materials and somebody entering the Arsenale (Venice’s military shipyard) with such a box on him could do a lot of damage. So Sir Pol’s plan is to restrict the ownership of such boxes only to the households of proven patriots and moreover, to make them so big they can’t be transported easily. I wonder if it’s some kind of allusion to the Gunpowder Plot and the anti-terrorist hysteria. I am sure it must be – Volpone was first produced on stage just a few months after the Plot. Returning to Sir Pol, his second plan is to save merchants’ money on quarantine. Normally all ships arriving from the Middle East were required to spend a month or more at the Lazzaretto, one of the outlying islands, to make sure nobody on their deck was ill with the plague. Taking into account that both the Black Death of the 14th century was believed to come to Europe via Venice, this seems like a sensible precaution. Anyway, since onions were believed to absorb the infected air, Sir Pol’s plan is to place a ship between two brick walls, one of them covered with onions and the other with a row of bellows powered by running water. By blowing the air from above the ship onto the onions and observing whether the onions change their colour or not, one will be able to tell whether anybody on the ship is infected. Sir Politic can’t remember the third plan and again rummages in his pockets. He hints darkly that if he sold this secret to Turks, Venice would be destroyed, notwithstanding its navy. Peregrine asks, pointing to the book in Politic’s hand, whether these are these precious notes, but Sir Politic answers that this is his diary, in which he notes everything he’s done every single day. Peregrine reads one sample entry, which is basically Politic’s version of “woke up, had a bath”, with the added flavour of “I peed at St Mark’s”.
We are back with Sir Politic and Peregrine, with Sir Pol acting as a very self-important tutor to Peregrine. He advises him to keep always his to himself, stay reserved, never tell a truth to foreigners and stay away from his countrymen, or they will always want him to help them out. He should also profess no religion and claim, following Machiavelli and Jean Bodin that the secular law is enough. An interesting point is that Peregrine should learn how to handle his fork (an Italian invention, a novelty in England then). He also should know the proper time when to eat melons and figs. When Peregrine asks playfully if that’a a state matter, too, Politic gravely asserts it is, because Venetians are very ready to make fun of anybody who doesn’t know proper manners, setting himself up as the example of the man who came to Venice prepared. Then he hints at the wonderful get-rich schemes he has in mind and it doesn’t take much prodding to make him reveal that one of these schemes includes importing pickled herrings from Rotterdam, which is obviously nonsensical, because Venice had plenty of fresh fish closer at hand. He also has another scheme in mind which he is going to propose to the government of Venice and he hopes to be richly rewarded for it.
Corbaccio enters with the will. Mosca sells him a story how Bonario somehow got wind of the scheme and came here with his sword drawn, vowing to kill his father. Corbaccio now has a good reason to disinherit his son. He hands Mosca his will and asks about the usual things: how Volpone feels, is he likely to last much longer (sadly, Mosca says, he is going to live at least until May), can’t you give him something to speed up his demise etc. Mosca assures Corbaccio about his unrelentingly loyal service, not hearing Voltore entering. Voltore confronts Mosca and Mosca manages brilliantly to explain the situation in his favour, although he is very much helped by the fact that Corbaccio is half-deaf and can’t hear him. He tells Voltore that he brought Bonario here on purpose, hoping that he will be enraged enough to kill his father – then he is going to be executed, Volpone will inherit Corbaccio’s estate and Voltore in turn will inherit from him. Voltore buys it and actually apologizes to Mosca for suspecting him. But, Mosca says, unfortunately Bonario got tired with waiting too long and when Celia came in, he kidnapped her, making her swear falsely that Volpone tried to rape her and ran away with her. This part of the story sounds quite improbable, but Voltore believes it as well and they decide to bring Corvino immediately and report the whole thing to the authorities. With this Act III ends.
Celia begs Volpone not to rape her, or have the guts to kill her after he’s done with her. And if he won’t do either of these things, she would far prefer him to disfigure her face and body if it stops him from raping her and still she’s going to be grateful to him. Volpone tired of this tries to have his way with her, but then Bonario jumps out of his hiding place. The only reason why he doesn’t kill Volpone there and then is because he wants to report him to the authorities. He leaves with Celia, wounding Mosca on his way out. Both Volpone and Mosca lament their fate. The desperate Volpone asks Mosca to kill him and promises to do him the same service, saying “Let’s die like Romans since we have lived like Grecians”, which is a really good line and also the one I’m sure I’ve read somewhere else (but Jonson is probably its originator). They hear knocking on the door and they are certain it’s the police (or its Venetian equivalent). But having no better options, they just decide to tell a barefaced lie and Volpone gets beck into his bed. But it’s not the police, it’s Corbaccio.
Volpone tells Celia that he is as fit as when he played Antinous during the entertainment staged for Henry Valois, future Henry III (which, as the footnote helpfully informs us, was back in 1573, so it gives us an idea about the play’s timeline). He attracted back then the attention of many ladies (and as his being cast as a Roman emperor’s lover implies, also men, especially since Henry III very ostentatiously surrounded himself with male favourites). Then he tries to seduce Celia by singing her a song which is an adaptation of a poem by a Roman poet Catullus. The song’s point is basically “time flies and we’re going to die soon, so why not have sex? It’s only a sin if we’re caught.” Celia wishes she lost her beauty but Volpone doesn’t understand her sadness: in place of a mean husband she got an ardent lover. He opens his treasury and tries to seduce her by offering her all his jewels, but Celia says her greatest jewel is her virtue. She asks Volpone to think about his conscience but he dismisses it as “beggar’s virtue”. He describes to Celia in hyperbolic terms the lifestyle she is going to enjoy with him, including bathing in unicorns’ milk and panthers’ breath. As the footnote explains, panthers were believed to use their sweet breath to lure their prey. What could give people the idea that any predator can have a particularly sweet breath, I don’t know. He also paints for her the visions about all the sexy play-acting they are going to engage in, starting with the scenes from Ovid and then moving on to more contemporary settings, like the sultan and his courtesan, or dressing Celia up as a hot “Negro or cold Russian”. He forgets (as most men engaging in sexual harassment seem to do) that when the lady doesn’t fancy you, these scenarios are not sexy but gross.
Volpone thanks Corvino for his willingness to give up his own wife but thinks he is long past any help. Corvino presses Celia to go into Volpone’s bed, and threatens her with some acts of pretty graphic violence if she resists, including cutting up her face and (imitating Tarqinius’s threat to the chaste Lucretia) killing a slave, tying her to her body and hanging them together, so that everybody believes they were caught in adultery. When threats don’t help, he tries coaxing and cajoling, promising her jewellery and rich clothes. Mosca playing the good cop suggests Celia may be more willing if they both leave the room. Celia asks heavens in desperation where modesty has fled and since when sex, the holy source of life, is traded for money. Volpone, jumping out of his bed, says it may be true of Corvino and his ilk, who would be ready to sell even his place in heaven if he found a buyer. Why is Celia so amazed to see him revived? It’s her beauty which has done it, now and before, since it was he, Volpone, who was this mountebank this morning under her window.
Corvino arrives with Celia in tow. Mosca is mad – “Haven’t I told you to wait till I call you?” – but Corvino explains he was afraid others might got ahead of him. Mosca comments aside that he has never seen a man so eager to be cuckolded. He sends Bonario upstairs to the library. While he is talking with Bonario, Corvino explains his plan to Celia, who is understandably shocked. At the beginning she thinks it’s his trick to test her chastity and she begs him to lock her up for life rather than to make her undergo it. Corvino denies it, saying it’s necessary for his business. Celia tries to argue – what about the honour? Corvino answers that as for his honour, it’s just a term “invented to awe fools” and Celia’s getting in bed with this impotent fellow is no more a loss of his honour than somebody touching his gold or looking at his clothes constitutes a material loss. As for her honour, the only people who know about it are he, Celia, Volpone who is going to die soon and Mosca who is financially dependent on him, so she has nothing to fear. Celia then tries the traditional argument about sin, but Corvino says that it’s not like Volpone is some lusty young Frenchman or Italian – he is ill, dying, and getting in bed with him would be, in fact, an act of Christian charity. Mosca invites them now to approach Volpone’s bed and he says rather bluntly that Corvino here is ready, out of his own accord, to prostitute his wife in order to improve Volpone’s health.