Epicoene, or the Silent Woman

Epicoene, or the Silent Woman

Epicoene, or the Silent Woman is a comedy by Renaissance playwright Ben Jonson. It was originally performed by the Blackfriars Children, a group of boy players, in 1609. It was, by Jonson's admission, a failure on its first presentation; however, John Dryden and others championed it, and after the Restoration it was frequently revived--indeed, a reference by Samuel Pepys to a performance on July 6, 1660 places it among the first plays legally performed after Charles II's ascension.

Plot

The play takes place in London. Morose, a wealthy old man with an obsessive hatred of noise, has made plans to disinherit his nephew Dauphine by marrying. His bride is, he thinks, an exceptionally quiet woman; he does not know that Dauphine has arranged the whole match for purposes of his own.

The couple are married despite the well-meaning interference of Dauphine's friend True-wit. Morose soon regrets his wedding day, as his house is invaded by a charivari that comprises Dauphine, True-wit, and Clerimont; a bear warden named Otter and his wife; two stupid knights, La Foole and Daw; and an assortment of "collegiates," vain and scheming women with intellectual pretensions. Worst for Morose, Epicoene quickly reveals herself as a loud, nagging mate.

Desperate for a divorce, Morose consults two lawyers (actually Dauphine's men in disguise), but they can find no grounds for ending the match. Finally, Dauphine promises to reveal grounds to end the marriage (in exchange, Morose must come to financial terms with him). The agreement made, Dauphine strips the female costume from Epicoene, revealing that the wife is, in fact, a boy. Morose is dismissed harshly, and the other ludicrous characters are discomfited by this revelation; Daw and Foole, for instance, had claimed to have slept with Epicoene.

Sources

For Epicoene, in contrast to his usual practice in comedy, Jonson relied to some extent on a variety of sources. While most details of characterization and plot are, as usual, his own invention, he found the scenario in two orations by Libanius: in one, a groom in Morose's situation argues for permission to commit suicide to escape his marriage, while in the other an elderly miser plans to disinherit a nephew who laughed at him. The coup de theatre of Epicoene's unveiling, while traditionally viewed as derived from the Casina of Plautus, is closer both in spirit and in execution to Il Marescalco of Aretino. Finally, a comic duel between La Foole and Daw is usually seen as an echo of the mock-duel between Viola and Aguecheek in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Some more local details are also borrowed from the classical misogynistic tradition. True-wit's speeches condemning marriage are larded with borrowings from Ovid's Ars Amatoria and Juvenal's Satire VI. John Aubrey's claim that Morose was modelled on Elizabethan businessman Thomas Sutton is no longer credited.

Stage History and Reception

The play premiered at the Whitefriars Theatre in December 1609 or January 1610, acted by the Children of the Queen's Revels, led by Nathan Field (who may have played True-wit or Dauphin). Little heed is now given to Fleay's hypothesis that Jonson himself played Morose. Jonson hinted to Drummond that the play failed; he mentioned certain verses calling the title appropriate, since the audience had remained silent at the end. A report from the Venetian ambassador shows that at least one person spoke up in response to the play: Arbella Stuart, who complained of a personal reference to a recent intrigue involving the prince of Moldavia. Whatever trouble this complaint may have caused Jonson was apparently covered over by Stuart's subsequent marriage to William Seymour. That the play remained current is suggested by a Stationer's Register entry in 1612 which indicates the intention to publish a quarto of the play.

The play influenced at least two minor plays before the interregnum: Peter Hausted's Rival Friends (1631) and Jaspar Mayne's The City Match (1639).

After the Restoration, Epicoene was frequently revived and highly appreciated; in the course of a lengthy analysis, Dryden calls it "the pattern of a perfect play." Samuel Pepys's diary records several viewings of the play. The first, in early summer of 1660, seems likely to have been among the first plays performed after Charles II's return to London. Pepys saw the play again in January of 1661, with Edward Kynaston in the title role.

In 1664, Pepys saw the play at the Theatre Royal with Elizabeth Knepp in the title role; this was probably the first performance in which a woman played Epicoene. Over the next century, a number of celebrated actresses, including Anne Oldfield and Sarah Siddons, performed the part. Siddons, however, was directly associated with the play's departure from the stage. David Garrick and George Colman's updated version (1752), featuring Siddons, was a disastrous failure. Bonnell Tyler, echoing Reformation comments on the play, condemned Morose as ludicrously unnatural, and other reviewers were no kinder. Garrick replaced Siddons with a boy, responding to historically ill-informed complaints that a female Epicoene was ludicrous. The revamped casting did not save the production, and Epicoene vanished from the boards for over a century, a victim of the general collapse in popular taste for non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama.

In 1935, Richard Strauss's opera Die schweigsame Frau, based on Jonson's play, premiered in Dresden.

References

  • Campbell, O. J. "The Relation of Epicoene to Aretino's Il Marescalco." PMLA 46 (1931), 752-762.
  • Drummond, William. Notes of Ben Jonson's Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden. David Laing, editor. London: Shakespeare Society, 1842.
  • Dryden, John. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy. London: 1688.
  • Fisk, Deborah Payne. The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Henry, Aurelia, editor. Epicoene, or the Silent Woman. Yale Studies in English. New York: Henry Holt, 1906.
  • Jonson, Ben. Epicoene, or the Silent Woman. L. A. Beaurline, editor. Regents Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
  • Mueschke, Paul and Jeanette Fleischer. "Jonsonian Elements in the Comic Underplot of Twelfth Night." PMLA 48 (1933), 722-740.

Criticism

Jackson, J. A. "'On forfeit of your selves, think nothing true': Self-Deception in Ben Jonson's Epicoene." EMLS 10.1 (2004).

External links

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