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 decides to reveal himself in order to take Mosca down with him. They, 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.