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11 august 2022

I remember Epicoene from my grad-school reading of Ben Jonson as one of rare Ben's better plays, if somewhat over the top even for him and with a dubious take on gender. The ensuing 40 years have been notable ones in the history of gender, and I was curious to see whether Epicoene came through them well or really, really badly.

Like many older comedies, Epicoene features a cantankerous and ill-natured old man, Morose, who is trying to make life difficult for the next generation (here, his nephew Dauphine). Morose threatens to marry, father an heir, and cut Dauphine off from his inheritance. But unlike many comedies of this sort, there's no pair of young lovers. Dauphine just wants his money; he doesn't want to marry Morose's ward in the bargain.

Morose doesn't even have a ward. He lives with a few servants who have been trained never to say a word, indeed never to make a noise; Morose's' "humor" is that he can't stand noise. To this end, Morose has groomed himself a bride, the title character: a "silent woman" who will serve his reproductive agenda and stay quiet in the process.

The real protagonists of the play are a couple of wags named Clerimont and Truewit who help Dauphine by sabotaging Morose's plan. Epicoene is not at all a silent woman, as Morose discovers as soon as he marries her. (The basic device would appear again, though less obsessed with sheer noise, in Donizetti's opera Don Pasquale, though there too there's a love subplot that works its way out via the discomfiting of the old man.)

Epicoene quickly becomes a farce, though that term may be a little anachronistic for a Jacobean play. There is a lot of mockery, a lot of misdirection, and a lot of snappy repartee. There's also no great danger at stake. Jonson's best comedies – The Alchemist and Volpone – have criminal conspiracies at the center of their plots; Epicoene just has humiliation.

The final humiliation is the play's most famous gimmick: Epicoene is not a woman. "You have married a boy," Dauphine reveals (V.iv, p. 148), after extracting the promise of Morose's estate on condition that he can rid the old man of his new wife. The gender reveal is several-dimensional, because not only were all women on Jacobean stages played by boys, but everyone in the original cast of Epicoene was a boy; the play was premiered "by the children of her Majesty's Revels."

Once he's shown to be a boy, Epicoene reverts to silence. He has been a tool in Dauphine's strategies all along, without individual will as woman or boy. But it's certainly an effective dramatic moment; even Clerimont and Truewit are flabbergasted. As to how Epicoene has dated in an age of non-binary identities and same-sex marriage: probably very well. I think it's possible to read the play's corrosive take on high-contrast gender roles as skepticism about gender itself. And the absurdity of marrying a boy remains: even if men can now marry men, in some of the venues where Epicoene might be performed, we still frown on them marrying boys.

Epicoene with judicious cutting would still be pretty funny on stage. It retains a great deal of delicious dialogue. "Thou think'st thou wert undone if every jest thou mak'st were not published," Dauphine tells Truewit (IV.v, p. 110), and the same applies to every jokester in the cast. It's still funny when Truewit calls Captain Otter a "whoreson lobster" (V.iii, p. 137), or or Otter complains of his wife "She has a peruke that's like a pound of hemp made up in shoe-threads" (IV.ii, p. 86), or Truewit encourages his friends to put themselves out there on the dating scene:

A wench to please a man comes not down dropping from the ceiling, as he lies on his back droning a tobacco pipe. (IV.i., p. 79)

Jonson, Ben. Epicoene or The silent woman. 1609. Edited by L.A. Beaurline. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.