Review of Book Epicoene; Or, The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson



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Book Title : Epicoene; Or, The Silent Woman
Author : Ben Jonson
LoC Class : PR: Language and Literatures: English literature
Subject : English drama (Comedy), Comedies, Inheritance and succession — Drama, English drama — 17th century, Married women — Drama, Uncles — Drama, Nephews — Drama
Language English

 

Review of the book Epicoene; Or, The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson

Epicœne, or The Silent Woman, also known as Epicene, is a comedy by Renaissance playwright Ben Jonson. The play is about a man named Dauphine who creates a scheme to get his inheritance from his uncle Morose. The plan involves setting Morose up to marry Epicoene, a boy disguised as a woman. It was originally performed by the Blackfriars Children, or Children of the Queen’s Revels, a group of boy players, in 1609. Excluding its two prologues, the play is written entirely in prose.

The first performance of Epicœne was, by Jonson’s admission, a failure. Years later, however, John Dryden and others championed it, and after the Restoration it was frequently revived—Samuel Pepys refers to a performance on 6 July 1660, and places it among the first plays legally performed after Charles II’s accession.

Epicœne, or The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson might well be termed The Crying Game of Renaissance drama. Every act, every scene and, indeed, every single word of Jonson’s comedy leads to the culminating act which reveals the Epicene is not only undeserving of the silence attributed to her within the subtitle, she is not even deserving of the woman part.

Just as in The Crying Game, the big revelatory moment of Jonson’s satire is the startling admission by the audience that it has been fooled. Of course, one must keep in mind that one of the reasons a play noted British poet John Dryden singled out as the most sublimely plotted of all stage comedies has not been as routinely performed for audiences since Dryden’s day as even the most forgettable of Shakespeare’s comedies is that fooling an audience into believing a male actor is a female character was infinitely easier back when actual female characters were always played by male actors. With the addition of the word “actress” to the lexicon of the stage, the casting of the play’s silent “woman” became infinitely trickier even for those audiences unfamiliar with the play’s delightfully unforeseen twist. By the end of the 18th century, Epicœne had pretty much exhausted its popularity and has only rarely enjoyed successful revivals.

While the play’s culminating shock of the revelation of identity looks forward to the similar—if far more incendiary and explicit—disclosure in The Crying Game, its author looked back into history for inspiration. The main plot mechanism of its main character—with the unlikely name of Morose—being something a precursor to the Grinch in his incapacity to withstand incessant noise with any good humor only to find himself saddled with a wife who will not stop chattering was lifted almost intact from the circumstance laid out in the Sixth Declamation of Libanius. (Libanius was a representative of one of Plato’s most useless of rhetoricians: a Sophist.) The climax of gender revelation harkens back to a plot device utilized by Titus Maccius Plautus in a comedy titled Casina.

One interesting historical influence on the play concerns the reaction to its original production by one Lady Arabella Stuart who infamous complained that Epicœne “introduced an allusion to her person and the part played by the Prince of Moldavia.” This complaint actually resulted in the Epicœne, or The Silent Woman being suppressed from production for a short period. And who was this apparently powerful Lady Arabella? The great-great-granddaughter of King Henry VII, cousin to Queen Elizabeth and pretty high up on the list of heirs to the British throne. Far more fascinating, however, is the fact that after being imprisoned for the crime of getting married without first receiving permission from King James, Lady Arabella succeeded in a daring escape plan by…disguising herself as a man.

Jonson’s buzzing satire on gender and language enjoyed enormous prestige for more than a century after its first performance. The central figure is Morose, who hates noise yet lives in the centre of London, and who, because of his decision to marry a woman only because he is duped into believing she is silent, exposes himself to a fantastic cacophony of voices, male, female and – epicene.

The title signals Jonson’s satiric and complex concern with gender and performance: the play interrogates sexual decorum and the performance of gender, asking how men and women should behave both as fit examples of their sexes and to one another. The characters – knights, barbers, female collegiate and tricksters – present a cross-section of wrong answers, enabling Jonson to create riotous entertainment out of lack, loss and disharmony. Jonson is fascinated by the denigration of language into empty chatter or furious abuse: it is teeming with idiomatic vitality.

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Epicoene was first performed in 1609 or 1610 by a children’s company. This text is based on the only authoritative text, from the 1616 folio Works.

This ‘excellent comedy of affliction’ enjoyed enormous prestige for more than a century after its first performance: for John Dryden it had ‘the greatest and most noble construction of any pure unmixed comedy in any language’. Its title signals Jonson’s satiric and complex concern with gender: the play asks not only ‘what should a man do?’, but how should men and women behave, both as fit examples of their sex, and to one another? The characters furnish a cross-section of wrong answers, enabling Jonson to create riotous entertainment out of lack, loss and disharmony, to the point of denying the straightfowardly festive conclusion which audiences at comedies normally expect.

Much of the comic vitality arises from a degeneration of language, which Jonson called ‘the instrument of society’, into empty chatter or furious abuse, and from a plot which is a series of lies and betrayals (the hero lies to everyone and Jonson lies to the audience). The central figure is a man named Morose, who hates noise yet lives in the centre of London, and who, because of his decision to marry a woman he supposes to be silent, exposes himself to a fantastic cacophony of voices, male, female and – epicene.

 

Plot of Epicoene; Or, The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson

The play takes place in London, primarily in the home of Morose. Morose is a wealthy old man with an obsessive hatred of noise, going as far as to live on a street too narrow for carts to pass and make noise. He has made plans to disinherit his nephew Dauphine by marrying. This is due to the schemes and tricks Dauphine has played on him in the past. To combat this, Dauphine concocts a plan with Cutbeard, Morose’s barber. Cutbeard presents Morose with a young (and supposedly) silent woman to marry.

When Morose meets Epicœne, he tries to find out if she’s really a silent woman, testing her obedience. He tells her not to succumb to the temptations of the court and tells her about the virtues of silence. Under the assumption that his fiancée, Epicœne, is an exceptionally quiet woman, Morose excitedly plans their marriage. Unbeknownst to him, Dauphine has arranged the whole match for purposes of his own.

At the same time there is an alliance of women with intellectual pretensions called the Ladies Collegiates. They are married women who live away from their husbands and speak their minds. They talk about how women can use sex to control their husbands.



Truewit, hoping to secure his friend’s inheritance, attempts to persuade Morose that marriage would not be good for him. Truewit says that no matter what, Morose will find himself unhappy in marriage, regardless of if she is pretty, ugly, rich, poor, or even if Morose loves her. Truewit tells Morose that it is not the women’s fault; all of them are corrupted. He also tells Morose to kill himself instead of getting married. The couple are married despite the well-meaning interference of Dauphine’s friend Truewit.

Morose soon regrets his wedding day, as his house is invaded by a charivari consisting of Dauphine, Truewit, and Clerimont; a bear warden named Otter and his wife; two stupid knights (La Foole and Daw); and an assortment of Collegiates. The house is overrun with noise and clamor, much to Morose’s chagrin. Worst for Morose, Epicœne quickly reveals herself to be a loud, nagging mate.

Mistress Otter has a dominant personality compared to her husband. She has the same characteristics as Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew. She is intimidating and in charge of domestic resources. She yells at him in front of Truewit and his friends and she tells him he’s sullying her image. It appears that she had great options in life but she ended up settling for him.

Desperate for a divorce, Morose consults two lawyers (who are actually Dauphine’s friends Cutbeard and Otter in disguise), but they can find no grounds for ending the match. Finally, Dauphine promises to reveal grounds to end the marriage if Morose agrees to give him his inheritance. The agreement made, Dauphine strips the female costume from Epicœne, revealing that Morose’s wife is, in fact, a boy, and therefore their marriage cannot be upheld. 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 Epicœne.

Sources of Epicoene; Or, The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson

Jonson utilised a variety of sources to write Epicœne. While most details of characterisation and plot are his own invention, the scenario originates from 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.

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The coup de théâtre of Epicœne’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, the 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. Truewit’s speeches condemning marriage borrow 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.

What Readers are Sating about Epicoene; Or, The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson

HILARIOUS. One of the best farces ever. Everyone in this play is a complete buffoon, especially the husband, Morose. Turns out the silent wife has more of a clue than anyone else.

Fantastic edition of a fantastic and underknown comedy. Get to know it.

Read this play for my 17th Century British Prose and Poetry class. Very funny in the end. I was intrigued by all the plots being weaved by the characters and wondered why in the world everything was happening as it did. Finished it in one sitting.

Finally, a book on this course that I’ve actually enjoyed reading! It dragged on in places and the characters were all horribly cruel to each other, but otherwise this play was rather amusing. Let’s just see if I enjoy it as much once I’ve written an essay on it… 4*

This is a post-modern play, 400 years before its time! The joke in the last scene where the ‘silent woman’ is revealed to be a boy was so shocking, for the theatrical conventions of the time, that grown men fainted in the aisles. As Drummond noted acerbically: ‘No man was heard to say plaudite to that play’. But the parvenue Jonson – elitist to the last – was pulling his nose at his audience. And the result is delicious.

In the bawdy, riotous tradition of all his city comedies, Ben Jonson’s Epicene explores love, sex, and trickery in Early Modern London. Urban playboy, Dauphine, wants his peaceand- quiet-loving Uncle Morose’s fortune and hatches an elaborate plan to get it. Take a suspiciously silent bride, all of Dauphine’s London cronies, and a deal that is simply too good to be true; and Morose, along with the audience, gets a wedding day he won’t soon forget.

Jonson’s formal finesse, and superb good humour, exquisitely tempered with biting satire, whose subjects are, contrary to the quibbles of historicists, and not too finely cultured fellow reviewers here, rather universal tendencies of an all too human vanity, are on full display in what has been called by Dryden as “the greatest and most noble of any pure unmixed comedy in any language”; and indeed, upon having read Epicoene, apart from the pristine plots of Terence, one cannot call to mind, except perhaps Jonson’s own Volpone, a more finely wrought theatrical comedy. Epicoene, a supposedly very silent woman, is married to Morose, a man who loves silence; and the rest of the comedy, which satirizes pretensions to learning, strength, and opulence, slowly, with expert handling on Jonson’s part, breaks down the patience of Morose – and the humor of the climactic test of patience, where Cutbeard and Otter quibble over Latin legal terms, isn’t lost on anyone for lack of Latin, for the senselessness of arguing over terms is universally appreciated, and the impatience of Morose, as a result, can be keenly felt by all; and in this wonderful scene, the misogyny of Morose is hilariously reversed when he himself is forced to state, “I am no man!” A wonderful play overflowing with wit, charm, and grace, and a shame upon us all to have lost sight of it, even among fans. (less)

 

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