Volpone, a Venetian gentleman, is pretending to be on his deathbed after a long illness in order to dupe Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino, who aspire to his fortune. They each arrive in turn, bearing extravagant gifts with the aim of being inscribed as Volpone's heir. Mosca, Volpone's assistant, encourages them, making each of them believe that he has been named in the will, and getting Corbaccio to disinherit his son in favour of Volpone.
Mosca mentions in passing that Corvino has a beautiful wife, Celia, and Volpone goes to see her in the disguise of Scoto the Mountebank. Corvino drives him away, but Volpone is now insistent that he must have Celia for his own. Mosca tells Corvino that Volpone requires sex with a young woman to help revive him, and will be very grateful to whoever provides the lady. Corvino offers Celia.
Just before Corvino and Celia are due to arrive for this tryst to take place, Corbaccio's son Bonario arrives to catch his father in the act of disinheriting him. Mosca ushers him into a sideroom. Volpone is left alone with Celia, and after failing to seduce her with promises of luxurious items and role-playing fantasies, attempts to rape her. Bonario sees this, comes out of hiding and rescues Celia. However, in the ensuing courtroom sequence, the truth is well-buried by the collusion of Mosca, Volpone and all three of the dupes.
Volpone now insists on disguising himself as an officer and having it announced that he has died and left all his wealth to Mosca. This enrages Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino, and everyone returns to court. Despite Volpone's pleas, Mosca refuses to give up his wealthy new role, and Volpone is forced to reveal all in order to save himself. He, Mosca, Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino are punished.
This main plot is interspersed with episodes involving the English travellers Sir and Lady Politic Would-Be and Peregrine. Sir Politic constantly talks of plots and his outlandish business plans, while Lady Would-Be annoys Volpone with her ceaseless talking. Mosca co-ordinates a mix-up between them which leaves Peregrine, a more sophisticated traveller, feeling offended. He humiliates Sir Politic by telling him he is to be arrested for sedition, and making him hide inside a giant tortoise shell.
There is a school of thought that, like another of Jonson's famous works The Alchemist, all the action in Volpone takes place over a single 24 hour period.
After the Restoration, the play enjoyed a lengthy prominence: John Genest records over fifty performances before 1770. When the theaters reopened, the play was owned by the King's Men of Thomas Killigrew; it premiered at Drury Lane in 1663. Michael Mohun played Volpone to Hart's Mosca; Katherine Corey played Celia, and Rebecca Marshal played Lady Would-be. The same cast was seen by Samuel Pepys in 1665.
The play continued current throughout the following century. Richard Steele mentions a performance in a 1709 number of Tatler. Famous eighteenth-century Volpones include James Quin; famous Moscas include Charles Macklin. Colley Cibber played Corvino in his productions; his wife Katherine Shore played Celia, as did Elizabeth Inchbald in a later generation. As with many other Jacobean plays, it had fallen from favor before the end of the century. An updated version by George Colman the Elder failed at Drury Lane in 1771, and the play fell into disuse. Even in the early eighteenth century, critics had complained about the improbability of the fifth act, which was frequently likened to farce, and to Jonson's highly Latinate language. By the end of that century, these objections had come to seem insurmountable to producers, and the play survived only in reading.
The play was revived by the Phoenix Society at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1921; W. B. Yeats was among the audience, and he mentions the production approvingly in a letter to Allan Wade. The Birmingham Repertory Theatre staged the play at the Malvern Festival in 1935.
A 1938 production introduced two of the dominant elements of twentieth-century productions: Donald Wolfit and animal imagery. Wolfit's dynamic performance in the title role, repeated several times over the next decades, set the mold for modern interpretations of Volpone: Politic's plot was truncated or eliminated, and Mosca (played in 1938 by Alan Wheatley) relegated to a secondary role.
The play has been staged by a number of famous companies over the decades since. In 1952, George Devine directed Anthony Quayle (Mosca) and Ralph Richardson (Volpone) at the Bristol Old Vic. At the same theater in 1955, Eric Porter played Volpone. In 1968, Tyrone Guthrie's National Theatre production emphasized the beast-fable motif; this production featured stage design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch.
In 1972, the play returned to the Bristol Old Vic, but the most memorable production of the 70s was Peter Hall's for the National Theatre. The production presented Paul Scofield as Volpone, with Ben Kingsley as Mosca and John Gielgud as Sir Politic.
Volpone was adapted by Jules Romains and Stefan Zweig in their 1928 production, with the ending changed so that Mosca winds up with Volpone's money.
A more recent operatic version, by composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell, premiered in March 2004 at the Barns at Wolf Trap to positive critical notices. Tony Award winner Lisa Hopkins appeared in the piece.
The Honey Pot is a 1967 film by Joseph Mankiewicz based on Volpone, although with a romantic subplot and some more sentimental trappings, with Rex Harrison in the main role, Cliff Robertson as Mosca ("McFly"), and Maggie Smith as the love interest. A portion of the original play is presented in private performance for Harrison's character, who states that it is his favorite.