Ben Jonson – “Volpone” Act III scene 7 (ctd.)

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.

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