In Volpone, Ben Jonson provides a 17th century reinterpretation of the traditional morality play, in which actual morals are few and far between. As in the earlier play Mankind, the morally righteous characters are laughable and unsympathetic, and the rest of the play becomes a showcase for bitter satire, condemning all its players.
Mosca, the parasite, is a perfect vice character. He contrives, he manipulates, he scorns any hint of "good deeds," and ultimately his only allegiance is to himself. Mosca is the mastermind of all Volpone's schemes; without his help, nothing would be possible. In true vice fashion, Mosca sets every character against all the others, and, almost to the end, convinces each of his eternal allegiance. His virtuosity is such that none of the old men can doubt his loyalty to them, even in the face of outrageous evidence. He plays with both hands, and speaks out of both sides of his mouth, making equally ludicrous promises of riches with each. He makes frequent humorous asides to the audience, and is the center of interest in the play. He is consistenly irreverent, and mocks the others at every available opportunity, most notably the half-deaf Corbaccio. He sets every plot in motion, and keeps the action moving. Nor is he in any doubt of his own merits, as in the beginning of Act III when he says, "I fear, I shall begin to grow in love/ With my dear self." In the end, it is Volpone who must finally succumb to Mosca's trickery. Mosca's greatest triumph, though, is that Volpone concocted the plot and signed the will leaving every to Mosca of his own free will, and with no prompting whatsoever; it was Volpone's idea. With such a partner, how then could Mosca resist carrying the jest even farther? The would-be heirs can say nothing, or all their former deeds are undone. Volpone, finally, is in the same position, and his final denunciation of Mosca leads to his (and Mosca's) ruin.
From the first scene of the play, Volpone is morally damning himself, and there can be no satisfactory conclusion of the plot that does not end in his downfall. He begins by worshipping his gold, and he clearly outlines his own weaknesses; he thrives by plotting, by acquiring rather than possessing, and trusts Mosca to a fault. He is constantly blasphemous, calling Mosca "divine," and comparing his manipulation of the old men to robbing churches. He is continually getting himself into trouble, and always relies on Mosca to find his way out of it. When he lusts after Celia, Mosca must arrange the meeting, and when he is discovered trying to rape her, it is up to Mosca to make sure the guilt falls on the innocent. Indeed, the only plot he contrives on his own, making Mosca his heir and feigning his own death, is the one that destroys him. When he realizes what Mosca has done, he says, quite appropriately, "I am caught in my own noose." Yet he retains a feeble hope of Mosca's loyalty, saying, "His meaning may be truer, than my fear." At the beginning of Act V, Volpone has a rare moment of remorse, right before he hangs himself, so to speak. A little wine, though, is all it takes to restore his humor. The advocates, when all is finally revealed, are appropriately sickened by him: "These possess wealth, as sick men possess fevers,/ Which, trulier, may be said to possess them."
The scavengers, Corbaccio, Corvino, and Voltare, although corrupt and morally despicable, are punished more for their idiocy than their vice. They are strung along by Volpone and Mosca throughout the play, but have none of their redeeming qualities of wit to incite sympathy. Therefore, although they are equally punished at the end, their punishment is in no way lamentable, being the only appropriate end for such fools. They are not truly characters in their own right, but serve as springboards for Mosca's comic genius. These three portray through their actions what Corvino says outright: "Honour? tut, a breath;/ There's no such thing, in nature: a mere term/ Invented to awe fools."
The "moral center" of the play must be found, if at all, in Bonario and Celia. Celia is certainly abused, both by Corvino and Volpone and, so far as is made known, did nothing whatsoever to deserve her torment. However, in a play built around words, and wit, where Mosca is elevated by his verbal and mental agility, and the three scavengers are damned for their lack of it, Celia has no redeeming qualities at all, other than her virtue, which is itself a subject of mockery. Corvino is so certain she is unfaithful that he scolds her, beats her, and keeps her prisoner, and then at a word from Mosca, he prostitutes her to Volpone. She resists Volpone's advances just as she resists Corvino's persecution, all for the sake of honor, which, as Corvino so succinctly stated, has no place or merit in this play. Bonario, on the other hand, is almost taken in by Mosca: "What? does he weep? the sign is soft, and good!/ i do repent me, that I was so harsh." He immediately begins to suspect again that something is amiss, and when he finds Volpone with Celia, his suspicions are confirmed. His outraged speech to Volpone, then, is honorable and heroic, and might be a rhetorical high point in any other play. In Volpone, though, his righteous indignation is a moment's trouble, no more. When Bonario and Celia are acciused of adultery, they become the mockery of the court. Although they are acquitted in the end, it is too little too late, merely a part of the "cleaning up" whereby Mosca must be punished, however unpleasant, and the technically virtuous must be restored to their honor.