"Wither, wither/ Is shame fled human breasts?... Is that, which ever was a cause for life,/ Now placed beneath the basest circumstance?/ And modesty an exile made for money?" This is the strongest statement of the play's philosophy. Knowing that Jonson put these words into the mouth of Celia proves what a vital role she plays in portraying his moral message.
Whilst protagonist Volpone, a hedonist, indulges in as many pleasures as possible, often pursuing them vigorously. Celia is the exact antithesis. Her self-denial and self-restraint make her a perfect foil for Volpone as she exposes his complete lack of virtues. A clear example of this is Volpone's attempted seduction of her. The turning point of the play comes when she refuses Volpone's advances, denying him the lascivious pleasures he describes in his speech. Celia seems willing to do anything to avoid dishonour, making her character flat and predictable, to ready to sacrifice herself to be believable.
However, this is Jonson's intention. He portrays her as an ethereal, saintly, ideal. Celia's love is compared to "heaven," "a plot of paradise." She is described as a "better angel." She is someone whom the audience should aspire to be. Conversely, a contemporary audience could instead see her willingness to subject herself to Corvino's harsh dictates and abuse as being more weak than strong. But, it is her inner moral sense, even though it is dictated by seventeenth century conventions on femininity, indicated when she refuses Volpone against her husband's express wish that shows her true strength of will.
Her perfection is starkly contrasted by the grotesque reactions she provokes from Volpone and Corvino. The religious imagery Volpone used to describe his riches he uses for a new "better angel", for Celia. The "gold, plate and jewels," which Volpone addresses in tones of worship at the beginning of the play, Volpone gives to Mosca so that he can use them to woo Celia; the all-important gold has been subordinated to her conquest. The language Volpone describes his love for Celia is the language of sickness, not love. He feels a "flame", trapped inside his body and his "liver melts". Jonson demonstrates that Volpone's light-hearted, lustful ways are not as innocent as they appear, since they can easily develop into an unhealthy, and unnatural, sexual obsession.
Corvino too has a grotesque response to Celia's body. His description of the handkerchief incident is rife with intense, sensual imagery. He feverishly describes "itching ears," "noted lechers," "satyrs," "hot spectators", "the fricace", before he verbally imagines Celia and Scoto Mantua engaged in the act of intercourse. Like Volpone Celia's body causes a sickness in him, except that his sickness is characterised by violence and rage whereas Volpone's is characterised by physical agony. Corvino's grotesque sexual obsession is firmly linked to his sense of property, for he considers Celia to be his property. When he threatens to kill her entire family as relation for her supposed infidelity, he uses the language of the law; those murders would "be the subject of my justice." To lose Celia as a lover would send Corvino into a murderous rage, and he condemns her for her perceived infidelity using moral concepts such as "justice"; but to use her in order to gain Volpone's fortune is "nothing". The justice of the situation is determined by whether or not Corvino makes a profit, not on any moral issue, and the virtue of his wife for a vast amount of fortune is a more than equitable trade. Corvino's talk of justice is incredibly hypocritical, a means of exercising power over people, like Celia, who care about such things.
Within a society with such a greed for pleasure and power Celia and Bonario are the twin voices of moral criticism, representing both codes of religion and those of honour. They serve as foils to Volpone, exposing his ruthlessness; he will hurt them if necessary in order to gratify himself. Whereas Corvino's shortcomings seem to stem from a disrespect for honour, Jonson seems to attribute Volpone's callousness to a lack of religious feeling. Celia tries to appeal to whatever trace of "holy saints, or heaven" Volpone has within him; her complete lack of success implies he has none. When Celia cries out to God for help as Volpone prepares to rape her, Volpone says she cries "In vain," just before Bonario leaps out to save Celia. That moment is a direct dismissal of Volpone's inverted value-system, where he values immediate self-gratification over God.
Jonson uses Bonario and Celia to full effect to manipulate the feelings of the audience, there is no clearer example than in Act IV. Voltore weaves an elaborate lie in court in which Celia is the treacherous wife; Bonario is the deceitful son, Corvino the betrayed husband and Corbaccio the deceived father. The objections of Bonario and Celia are incorporated into Voltore's narrative, Voltore uses verbal irony, a device used quite frequently by Jonson, to ridicule Bonario's suggestion that Volpone be tested for deceit: "Best try him, then, with goads or burning irons;/ Put him to the strappado: I have heard,/ The rack hath cured the gout" The anger of the four Avocatori mirrors the increasing anger of the audience. This anger that is provoked by the actions of Volpone and Mosca is intended by Jonson to draw the audience, like the judges- through images and words, arranged in a dramatic manner, virtuous innocent characters vying against evil guilty ones, evoking a strong sense of injustice, drawing our sympathy, involving us in their plight.
Some have argued that the ending of the play, where justice prevails for all concerned leaves the audience with a feeling of dissatisfaction, and of the play being too artificial. However had Jonson ended the play with Mosca and Volpone escaping punishment, it would have been contrary to the play's educational purpose; showing virtue losing out to vice would not make virtue seem the most favourable option of the two. With Volpone, Jonson set out to entertain and educate. Volpone and Mosca entertain, whilst the invention of Bonario and Celia clearly educates the audience to uphold their moral standings.