Epicoene, or The Silent Woman: Ben Jonson Lampoon Of Misogyny

A silent woman?

A silent woman?

Epicoene, or The Silent Woman is a Jacobean play by Ben Jonson, and like Volpone, or The Fox, it has been widely panned by feminist critics as a misogynistic work.  For example, in her essay, ‘City Talk: Women and Commodification in Jonson’s Epicoene’, Karen Newman suggests that Jonson portrays “talkative women… as monstrous… because they gallivant about the city streets spending breath as well as money” (Newman, 507).  It is true that the men in the play, for the most part, criticise women who either talk too much, or spend too much money.  The play’s antagonist, Morose, demands a wife who does not speak, but he does not only expect that of the women in his life, but the men as well.  Morose cannot stand to hear anybody speak, regardless of what reproductive organs they may have between their legs, so to suggest that this is exclusively an attack on women is misleading (though Newman’s article does a great job of illuminating the commodification of woman).  Truewit, for his part, does ‘warn’ Morose that should he marry, his fortune will soon be depleted due to the consumption his future wife would incur, but this is not a voice that one can fairly attribute to Jonson, nor even that character he has created as Truewit, in this scene, is hoping to dissuade Morose from getting married so that his friend, Dauphine, will be in line to inherit Morose’s fortune.  His comments therefore are meant to serve a purpose and do no necessarily reflect his true opinion on marriage, though other comments Truewit makes during the play would lead one to believe that he is more than just a little misogynistic.

 

The silent man?  An episode of 'The Twilight Zone' title 'The Silence', saw one man remain silent in order to collect a bet.  He had his vocal chords removed.  Based on the novel 'The Bet', by Anton Chekhov.

The silent man? An episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ title ‘The Silence’, saw one man remain silent in order to collect a bet. He had his vocal chords removed. Based on the novel ‘The Bet’, by Anton Chekhov.

Jonson does introduce several women who make up a party of ‘collegiates’, some of whom are the target of some sharp satire.  Mistress Otterman employs a great many artificial accessories to enhance her appearance, putting herself together as if she were a ‘German clock” as her husband notes.  But this can not only be read as a lampooning of woman’s vanity, but also of the fact that women are required and expected to put on an appearance for men in the patriarchal system.  Also important to take into consideration, as Mark A Anderson points out in his essay ‘The Successful Unity of Epicoene: A Defense of Ben Jonson’, Captain Otter hypocritically critiques his wife’s false appearance whilst he himself is “preparing his own appearance for the day” (Anderson, 353).  The process therefore is not seen as an exclusively feminine one, and so is a satire on society’s falsehood and not the falsehood of women alone.  Still, even if there are some attacks on the women in this play, it seems that it is the men who are more often the target of Jonson’s pen.

 

 

Ben Jonson.  He was notorious for getting portraits only from the neck up so that he would look skinnier.

Ben Jonson. He was notorious for getting portraits only from the neck up so that he would look skinnier.

Truewit is perhaps the most repulsive character in the play, and disparages women throughout, but he is not even trusted among his friends.  Dauphine has an elaborate plan to trick his uncle into entrusting his legacy to Dauphine, but when Dauphine reveals the plot twist in the final scene, it is a surprise to Truewit, indicating that Truewit, though he may have a high opinion of himself, is not held in the highest esteem of his friends.  It is no doubt troubling to read Truewit indulging in what we might call ‘rape culture’ today with comments like: “A man should not doubt to overcome any woman.”  He even goes onto say:  “Think he can vanquish ‘em and he shall: for though they deny, their desire is to be tempted… Ostend, you saw, was taken at last… If they take [kisses], they’ll take more—though they strive, they would be overcome.”  The reader though is not meant embrace Truewit’s logic, because he is held up as an idiot in the play.  Likewise when Morose states that “female vice should be a virtue male,/ Or masculine vice, a female virtue”, it is not Jonson saying this, or suggesting we support it, as he puts these words in the mouth of a man who proves the be a flawed character and prey of Jonson’s satire.

 

 

Other men receive similar treatment in the play.  Both Sir Amorous La Foole and Sir John Daw prove to be emasculated fools.  Neither is willing to fight when they discover that Dauphine is upset with them, and instead allow themselves to be ridiculed by Dauphine and his friends.  They also indulge in slander, claiming to have taken the maidenhead of Morose’s new bride before she married him.  These claims are discovered to be slanderous at the play’s conclusion since, Epicoene, Morose’s ‘bride’, is revealed to be a man, and so has no maidenhead to take.

 

Is this what Morose had in mind?

Is this what Morose had in mind?

I would certainly not argue that Jonson portrays women in a positive light in this play, but it seems that they are not the primary target of his pen.  Rather it is the men who are in Jonson’s crosshairs.  So what is the purpose of the play?  I think to suggest that there is a coherent lesson to be taken from the play assumes, perhaps falsely, that the play is a monological discourse as opposed to a dialogical one.  Still, Anderson attempts to discern the play’s meaning when he suggests that the purpose of the play is not solely to protect the inheritance rights of Dauphine.  Instead, the unmasking of Epicoene is meant to be an “exposure of fools” (351).  And who are these fools?  Morose, La Foole, Daw, and Truewit most obviously.  Dauphine’s inheritance is then only a secondary aim of the play, and it is the men, not the women, who Jonson’s seem most interested in satirizing.

 

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Another interpretation of the 'silent woman'.

Another interpretation of the ‘silent woman’.

Notes: Aside from the play reviewed, I borrowed quotes from the following articles which are available on JSTOR:

The Successful Unity of Epicoene: A Defense of Ben Jonson

Mark A. Anderson

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 10, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1970), pp. 349-366

Published by: Rice University

Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/449922

City Talk: Women and Commodification in Jonson’s Epicoene

Karen Newman

ELH, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 503-518

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2873195

 

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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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