Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1316
Clerimont and Truewit, young men-about-town, meet and discuss various matters, including the relative merits of natural beauty and the use of cosmetics. Shifting the topic to their friend Sir Dauphine Eugenie, they wonder how he is able to put up with his uncle Morose, an eccentric character who can abide no noise except the sound of his own voice. Clerimont’s page amuses them with accounts of various noisy pranks that have been played on the ridiculous old man. Sir Dauphine joins them and complains that his uncle blames all the pranks on him and his friends and that he threatens to marry and leave his fortune to his new wife instead of to his nephew. Morose has heard of a soft-voiced woman, extremely frugal of speech, and has negotiated with his silent barber, Cutbeard, to arrange a meeting, possibly even a marriage, with her.
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Truewit, amazed at hearing of a silent barber and a silent woman, is struck with a sudden inspiration and excuses himself. After Truewit departs on his undisclosed mission, Sir Amorous La-Foole arrives to invite the gentlemen to a feast at the home of his kinswoman Mistress Otter. The guests are to include the silent Mistress Epicne, Lady Haughty, Lady Centaur, Mistress Mavis, and Sir John Daw. Sir Dauphine and Clerimont identify Sir John and Sir Amorous as ridiculous targets for comedy.
Meanwhile, Morose is instructing his servant Mute to use only sign language or, in extreme emergencies, to speak through a tube when they are interrupted by a loud blast from a post horn. Mute goes to the door and returns followed by Truewit, who is carrying a post horn and a halter. Morose and Mute are overwhelmed by a volley of words from Truewit and intimidated by a dagger when they attempt to leave the room. Truewit suggests that Morose choose some way of self-destruction other than marriage and offers him the halter to hang himself. After another voluble outpouring Truewit leaves, but he adds the final torture of another blast from his horn. When Cutbeard arrives, he finds Morose in such a state that he has to be put to bed.
In the company of Mistress Epicne, Sir Dauphine and Clerimont encourage the fantastic knight Sir John Daw to quote and explain his own poetry, to show off his copious but confused mass of knowledge, and to boast of his romantic prowess. They are interrupted by Truewit, returning with his horn. Sir Dauphine is greatly disturbed by Truewit’s account of his prank, which Truewit assures him will break off the intended marriage. Sir Dauphine tells Truewit that the marriage was his own plot, abetted by his confederates, Cutbeard and Mistress Epicne. Cutbeard hastens in to announce that Morose, furious with Truewit and certain that Sir Dauphine sent him to break off the match, has determined to marry immediately. Cutbeard conducts Mistress Epicne away, and the young gentlemen comment on her apparent desertion of her gallant, Sir John. They encourage him to indulge his melancholy.
Morose welcomes Cutbeard and Mistress Epicne, who speaks so softly that she can hardly be heard. Cutbeard does all his communicating through sign language only. Carried away with Mistress Epicne’s noiseless charm, Morose promises large rewards to the barber, reminding him to deliver his thanks silently, and sends him to find a soft-voiced minister to perform the marriage ceremony. He gloats over his imminent marriage and his begetting of children to inherit his estate after he has cast out his impudent nephew.
When Cutbeard announces the results of Truewit’s prank to Sir Dauphine and his friends, Truewit suggests that the whole of Sir Amorous’s party be transported to Morose’s house to celebrate the wedding with proper sound effects. The young men then join the crowd gathered at the Otters’ house for the party. Clerimont and Sir Dauphine stir up trouble between Sir Amorous and Sir John Daw by making each believe that the other is putting a slight on him. They make it seem that Sir Amorous knows that Morose is taking Sir John’s sweetheart from him and that Sir John is taking Sir Amorous’s guests to the wedding feast. They suggest to Sir Amorous that he have his provisions carried to Morose’s home, in the hope that the smell of the venison will attract some fiddlers and trumpeters on the way.
Morose has the wedding ceremony performed by a parson who can hardly be heard because of a bad cold. Morose rewards the parson handsomely, but then he is angered by the man’s crashing cough and demands that part of the payment be returned. Cutbeard suggests that making change might be difficult for the parson, but that he can cough out the rest. This suggestion silences Morose, who dismisses the parson. Immediately following the ceremony, Mistress Epicne exhibits her voice in an outburst of shrewish scolding. Reeling from the shock of this, Morose looks around to see Truewit entering with loud congratulations, shortly followed by the whole procession of noisy guests. The collegiate ladies invite Mistress Epicne to join their circle. When they begin to whisper confidentially, Morose has a glimmer of hope, but this is immediately dashed by their loud criticisms of the lack of wedding festivities. Clerimont ushers in a host of musicians playing loudly, and Captain Otter follows with his drinking mugs and a group of drummers and trumpeters to sound for toasts. Morose flees, groaning, to lock himself in the attic with a nest of nightcaps pulled over his ears.
The party continues noisily, enlivened by a quarrel between Captain Otter and his wife; she beats him until he howls repentance. Morose returns with his sword to drive away the guests, but, overcome by their clamor, he flees again, followed by Sir Dauphine, who endeavors to console him, and Truewit, who reminds him of his warning about the dangers of marriage. Morose accepts Truewit’s advice that he sue for a divorce.
Continuing their pranks on Sir John and Sir Amorous, the young men reduce them into such a state of terror that they hide from each other. At last each is persuaded to consent to be blindfolded and to accept indignities from his furious opponent. Sir John is to receive five kicks from Sir Amorous and to surrender his sword; Sir Amorous is to surrender his sword, receive a blow on the mouth, and have his nose tweaked. Sir Dauphine, impersonating each in turn, inflicts the indignities on the hoodwinked knights. On Morose’s return, Truewit shows him the swords and says that the quarrel had arisen over the bride’s amorous favors. Since Morose is unable to face the noise in the law courts, Truewit promises to find him legal help for the divorce proceedings. He departs, and, prodded by the young men, both Sir John and Sir Amorous boast of successful love affairs with Mistress Epicne.
Truewit returns with Cutbeard disguised as a lawyer and Captain Otter disguised as a parson. These two engage in a noisy dispute on secular and canon law concerning divorce proceedings. During the dispute, which is exquisite torture to Morose, Mistress Epicne and the ladies enter, screeching about her wrongs. Every effort of Morose to free himself from the marriage fails, even the accusation of adultery, for neither knight can claim intimacy after the marriage. Sir Dauphine proposes to his uncle that he will free him from his tormenting bride if Morose will reward him by restoring him as heir. Morose eagerly accepts the terms and signs an agreement, at which Sir Dauphine pulls off Mistress Epicne’s wig to disclose that the supposed silent woman is a boy. Sir John and Sir Amorous are discredited and discomfited, the collegiate ladies are covered with embarrassment at having exposed feminine mysteries to a member of the opposite sex, and Morose retires to welcome silence.