A landmark in English theatrical history, Epicne was written by Ben Jonson, whose abilities have long been ranked alongside those of William Shakespeare. One of Jonson’s four greatest comedies, following Volpone: Or, The Fox (pr. 1605) by four years, Epicne was followed by The Alchemist (pr. 1610) and Bartholomew Fair (pr. 1614), Jonson’s last prose comedy. Of his seventeen plays, Epicne occupies the midpoint in Jonson’s career. Its contemporary and continued popularity through the Restoration—William Congreve probably patterned Mirabell in his play The Way of the World (pr., pb. 1700) after Truewit and certainly patterned Heartwell in his play The Old Bachelor (pr., pb. 1693) after Morose—was due in part to its superbly constructed prose. Lauded at length by John Dryden, in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), as the most nearly perfect example of English drama, Epicne offers a number of obstacles—quite surmountable obstacles, but obstacles nevertheless—for the modern-day reader.
Paradoxically, Jonson’s expert use of the theatrical conventions of his time, such as boys playing women’s parts and whole companies of boy actors, by whom Epicne was first performed, now requires an agility of imagination to appreciate. Most crucially, no commentary or analysis can do justice to the force and vitality of Jonson’s linguistic achievement, which can be savored only in Jonson’s own words, whether read or heard, and its difference from Shakespeare’s achievement is problematic to some audiences. Long witty speeches that do not provide motivation or create suspense are no longer valued in drama for their own sake. Furthermore, Jonsonians, such as Jonas A. Barish and John J. Enck, emphasize that of all Tudor and Stuart playwrights, only Jonson is condemned because he is not Shakespeare.
Barish points out that whereas...
(The entire section is 798 words.)