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jeppe of the hill

5 october 2016

I first read Jeppe of the Hill (sometimes translated "on the hill") when I was in college, 40 years ago. My professor, Peter Vinten-Johansen, was a Dane and proud of his country's place in European intellectual history, the topic of the course. (I talk like I knew Vinten-Johansen, but I was just one of 200 folks in a lecture hall.) All 200 of us thought it odd to be confronted with this 18th-century play about a drunken fool who's tricked into thinking he's a nobleman. It was a quaint reading assignment, mouldy-seeming: or "bogus," I believe the argot of 1970s Michigan would have termed it.

I am still not quite sure what to think of Jeppe, but I will have my own students read Ludvig Holberg's play next semester. Jeppe of the Hill, still firmly in the Danish theatrical repertoire, is an elaboration and distillation of an idea from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, where the frame tale involves a similar trick (though a trick that Shakespeare evidently forgets about halfway through the play within a play). To pass off a peasant to himself as a baron is a stupid farcical device, but it also puts ideologies of social class squarely under the microscope, staining them with a broad brush of satire as the play goes along.

"Your mouths say 'his lordship,' but your hearts say 'his foolship,' Jeppe tells his supposed servants at one point (Act 3, Scene 1). The joke is complicated. They're certainly thinking "his foolship," because they're fooling him; but Jeppe is shrewd enough to know that they think exactly the same of a real lord in his position.

Later on, the Baron and his servant Eric, who have foisted the whole jest on Jeppe, reflect that it's a good thing they stopped the show before Jeppe started beating them in earnest. At this point the play ends, and the Baron drops character to intone a stuffy epilogue, in verse, that warns against raising the low above their station. Seeing as how the Baron does nothing more constructive in life than Jeppe does, the matter of who beats whom might seem arbitrary. But having the right to beat someone is the mortar that holds a rigid social hierarchy together.

Jeppe's wife Nille beats him, reversing the stereotypical gender situation; she also vigorously cuckolds him. In this topsy-turvy universe, Jeppe starts out not just subordinate to pretty much every male character but also to the one woman who has vowed to obey him. One can read this as just a trite bit of comedy (the more-than-henpecked-spouse) or as another commentary on a world that's mad to start with. If wife-beating seems normal to you and husband-beating seems weird, you may be the weird one; and by "you" Holberg may be saying the entire early-modern world.

Not just the right to beat, but the right to kill, is encoded in these hierarchies. Jeppe orders a couple of hangings while he believes he's the Baron, and his tormentors turn the tables on him by sentencing him to be "hanged" for his supposed pretense. Of course they're only funning (hilarious guys, the upper class), and as the "Judge" explains to Jeppe, who now thinks he's dead, what the law takes away, it can give back. Jeppe goes back to his sphere disillusioned, disabused, and just plain abused. But for all his blockheadedness, he is the play's genuine existential hero. Jeppe of the Hill exists at the juncture where farce becomes theater of the absurd. I think Peter Vinten-Johansen was right: there is something crucial about the dawn of modern sensibility in Holberg's grubby little play.

Holberg, Ludvig. Jeppe of the Hill. [Jeppe på bjerget, 1722.] Translated by Oscar James Campbell and Frederic Schenck. New York, 1914. Project Gutenberg.