Volpone, written by Ben Jonson, is about a wealthy con artist who is conned by his ‘parasite’ servant. It can be argued that his servant, Mosca, is the true comic hero of the comedy on account of him being imperative to the cons. The traditional comic hero is one who is able to make the audience laugh. Their status in society ranges between upper and middle class. In spite of events that may seem to cause the downfall of the ‘traditional comic hero’, conventionally, they have a happy ending and peace is restored to society surrounding them.
In contrast, Mosca is not a traditional comic hero. He does not fit in with any of the traditional comic conventions. However, it could be argued that Volpone is not a traditional comedy either. This could be said because there is no happy ending as Volpone is imprisoned and Mosca is consigned to a slave galley. There is no marriage in the play and the so called ‘hero’ is imprisoned. Mosca is not of high status during the beginning of the play but tries to gain a higher status through the betraying of Volpone at the end. Does this make him a comic hero?
It does to some extent, as he is portrayed as a faithful servant following his master’s orders and Volpone seems to trust him wholly and the thought of Mosca betraying him does not even cross his mind. However, common sense dictates that Volpone is the true comic hero as he is the protagonist and the play is named after him. Aristotle’s definition of a true comic hero is someone who has low to average morals and is also perhaps a ‘smart servant’. Mosca fits this definition perfectly. We have seen that Jonson is an enthusiast of Aristotle; already following the classical unities.
Jonson says in his prologue: “The laws of time, place, persons he observeth;” (The Prologue, Line 31). The action of the play is restricted to one day and does not leap backwards or forwards in time, fulfilling the unity of time. The play takes place on a single stage set in Venice, fulfilling the unity of place. Having acknowledged Jonson’s admiration for Classical theatre, we must also acknowledge that he challenges it as well. Greek and Roman theatre say that a ‘parasite’ is a stock character, Mosca being a parasite should essentially be a stock character.
However, Mosca is not a stock character, an example of Jonson again challenging traditional conventions. Mosca is the main instigator of this con and although we assume that Volpone is supposed to be the main conman, he does very little in comparison to Mosca in deceiving people. When Voltore comes to visit a supposedly ill Volpone, he brings a plate as a gift. Mosca in return tricks him into believing that Volpone will write his name in his will so when he dies he will receive all of Volpone’s riches.
Mosca declares: “you are his heir sire”, which in turn creates comedic effect and the fact that the audience are aware that he is lying to Voltore about making him Volpone’s heir (the audience being in on the joke). This use of dramatic irony demonstrates that Mosca is a comic hero because he gets the audience on side and they join in the joke with him. It is also in this particular con that Volpone causes his own downfall, arguably, because he has taught Mosca to control this con, therefore allowing Mosca to learn the ways of conning, ultimately leading to Volpone being conned himself.
In Act 3, Scene I, Mosca becomes independent. Not only does he deceive the Legacy Hunters, in the end he betrays Volpone as well and tried to take his wealth. In Mosca’s soliloquy, he says: “Echo my lord. And lick away a moth”( Act 3 Scene I). The word ‘echo’ suggests that he is trying to become Volpone and attempts this by trying to con Volpone himself. He also says that he will no longer be a parasite. Once again this is an example of Jonson challenging the typical conventions of comedy.
This might also be Jonson attempting to turn Mosca into the true comic hero midway through the play. This would be a typical humorous scene and seeing as it is Mosca who is behind the betrayal; it would suggest that he is the true comic hero of Volpone. Mosca’s soliloquy in Act 3 Scene I is significant as he reveals his true self when he is away from Volpone. Mosca shows himself to be immodest and almost as arrogant as Volpone. He says: “I fear I shall begin to grow in love with my dear self and my most prosp’rous parts,” (Act 3 Scene I).
He manages to give himself an erection due to his immense love for himself which shows his growing confidence in himself. The sexual innuendo is another convention of comedy which again demonstrates that Mosca is a comic hero. “I could skip Out of my skin now. ” Slipping out of his skin indicates that Mosca is finally leaving behind his parasitic identity and slipping on Volpone’s skin. Another reason why Mosca is the true comic hero is because he would have had the audience on his side. The typical Jacobean audience would have consisted f some lower class people; therefore they would have sided with Mosca throughout the play as Mosca himself is of lower class. The higher classes would also approve of Mosca trying to improve himself. This is also true with the intellectuals who would admire his attempt in bettering himself with someone’s knowledge. Mosca professes that he will no longer be a parasite in Act 3, Scene I: “Slip out of my skin”. Jonson also challenges what a parasite is in his soliloquy, saying: “All the wise world is little else, in nature, but parasites, or sub-parasites”.
The audience would also have admired him his endeavour to attain high status in society by using the rich and their own greed against them. In addition to this, Mosca is the first character to engage audience. This is very important as he manages to gets the audience on his side which is essential to being the comic hero. This may also have been made easier due to the fact that he has more lines than Volpone in the play, making it more likely for the audience to be on his side. On the other hand, it can be argued that Mosca is not the true comic hero for several reasons.
His great plan to con the actual con man, Volpone, by writing his own name on Volpone’s will is ultimately brought to ruin when Volpone reveals himself at the end of the play. Mosca is sentenced to live his life as galley slave which is ironic because he declares himself no longer a parasite and planned to leave his life as a servant by betraying Volpone. Therefore, Mosca is not a traditional comic hero. Jonson did not create Mosca’s character to follow the traditional conventions. Instead of being someone of upper class, he is a parasite of low class.
A traditional comic hero’s ending is a happy one and order is restored. While it can be argued that order is indeed restored, it is done so through the down fall of Mosca, meaning that ultimately he is not the true comic hero. However, at the same time, Volpone, who is supposed to be the comic hero, is also punished at the end of the comedy. In addition, many would argue that most people simply do not care that Mosca is not a ‘traditional’ comic hero. The audience support him as a comic hero therefore it could be argued that Mosca is in fact the true comic hero.
Overall, it can be strongly argued that Mosca is the true comic hero in Volpone. For the most part of the comedy Mosca is the main instigator of the con. Although Mosca may not fit in with traditional comic convections, it can be argued that he does not have to specifically for this play because this particular play is not a traditional comedy. This can be said because it lacks three main aspects of a traditional comedy; a happy ending; the fact that there is no marriage; a happy ending for the hero, whoever he may be.