Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
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 Shakespeare deals in causality, Jonson does not. Consider, for example, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602, pb. 1623), from which Jonson most probably derived the idea for contriving a duel between Sir John Daw and Sir Amorous La-Foole. While in Twelfth Night the duel between Cesario, who is really Viola, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek ultimately redounds to no one’s discredit because a woman and a clown are free not to enjoy physical combat, the fact that Sir John Daw and Sir Amorous La-Foole are so afraid of each other only reveals them as cowards. In Shakespeare, the audience learns how the characters are motivated and why they relate to one another as they do. Hence Shakespeare’s Malvolio, victim of a hoax as is Jonson’s Morose, causes confusion in the audience, which Morose never does. It is much easier to laugh at those we do not have to understand. In Jonson’s dramatic world, motivation is not at issue, and while not all of Jonson’s characters are types or humors, their reactions are not caused by the actions of others.
In Epicne, Dauphine wants his inheritance; Morose hopes to beget an heir and keep Dauphine from inheriting anything; Clerimont and Truewit amuse themselves with their prank pulling, while assisting their friend Dauphine; and each character pursues his own course, colliding now and then with others. The audience is not told why Dauphine needs his uncle’s money—unlike Bassanio in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600), who needs money to win Portia as his wife—nor does the audience learn why Morose is pathologically unable to tolerate any sound around him. Possible reasons for Morose’s intolerance of sound, such as childhood trauma, are irrelevant and would ruin the comedy.
The story plays with gender and gender expectations. The action, which consists of tricking Morose into making Dauphine his heir, involves “unmanly,” cowardly men who are gossips and “unwomanly,” promiscuous, deliberately barren women who fear the effects of aging. Different from the standard comedy that ends with everyone rightly married, Epicne ends with the right couple divorced. Morose, who has been reduced to asserting that he is impotent, discovers that in marrying Epicne he has wed a boy. Furthermore, silent Epicne is neither male nor female, since speech is a virtue in a man but a vice in a woman.
In Epicne, silence is associated with cold, impotence, and the country; noise is associated with animals, procreation, and the town. The play maintains a precarious balance between extremes. At one moment, Truewit maintains that women want men to take them by force; the next moment, he is maintaining that a man must adapt to a woman—hence, if a man wants a woman who loves wit, he must give her verses. Epicne continues to offer a magnificent play on the ways men relate to men, women to women, and men to women; it provides a series of brilliant variations without pretending to resolve what must remain irresoluble.