“On forfeit of your selves, think nothing
true”: Self-Deception in Ben Jonson’s Epicoene
Jackson, J.A. “'On forfeit of your selves, think nothing true':
Self-Deception in Ben Jonson’s Epicoene." Early Modern Literary
Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 2.1-28 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-1/jackjons.htm>.
The ends of all, who for the scene do write,
Are, or should be, to profit and delight.
And still’t hath been the praise of all best times,
So persons were not touched, to tax the crimes.
Then in this play, which we present tonight,
And make the object of your ear and sight,
On forfeit of your selves, think nothing true;
Lest so you make the maker to judge you.
For he knows poet never credit gained
By writing truths, but things like truths, well feigned.
(From the second
prologue to Epicoene)
- Ben Jonson’s “second prologue” to his Epicoene, cited above,
provides the reader insight into the critical act the text has already begun.
Its addition to the play is of course a response to the reception of the play’s
first performance: an explanation/apology for a supposed affront to Lady Arabella
Stuart. As much as it is a “prologue,”
this second prologue performs as a sort of “epilogue” as well—an epilogue
before the play actually begins or ends. It explains both what had taken
place (for those who were offended) and what will potentially take place (for
those who may be offended; i.e., for those still intent on reading themselves
in the text). More than simply a device to keep Jonson immune from any sort
of punishment, however, this second prologue performs a critical reading of
the play itself. It stages for the audience the paradoxical position they
assume as an audience. Part of the subtext of Epicoene is the audience’s
relationship to the play itself. Believing
they assume a position clearly outside of the play as objective observer—a
position which allows them distance to judge the characters, to mock the characters,
and to be in on the many inside jokes—the audience unknowingly casts itself
as yet another dupe within the play. The audience member potentially becomes
an extension of the know-it-all-know-nothing characters Epicoene satirizes.
We are to see ourselves in the characters not simply analogously, but as an
extension of each of the characters throughout the play. In this way, one
would see the characters not only as simple dupes, but one would recognize
his or her own potential to be duped, the latter point being made even more
emphatically for the first-time viewer of the play. One eventually discovers
that the audience implicitly has been another of Jonson’s characters all along,
acting within the parameters Jonson himself has defined.
- Jonson's Epicoene, or The Silent Woman was first performed
in the winter of 1609-1610 by the Children of the Queen's Revels, and while
some of Jonson's contemporaries received the play warmly, others chastised
it and condemned the author. William Drummond writes, “When his play of a
Silent Woman was first acted, there was found verses on the stage against
him, concluding that the play was well-named The Silent Woman, there
was never one man to say ‘plaudite’ to it (qtd. in Herford, Simpson, and Simpson
696-700). The play was both similar and quite different from much of his previous
work. Jonson’s plays usually consist of stock characters who move along erratically
(though predictably in this regard), who concoct intricate plots that weave
in and out of one another, and who manipulate each other throughout the play.
Ultimately, all involved meet their judgments at the end, good or bad, and
things are thusly set aright. The audience is allowed a definite sense of
closure. The surprise ending of Epicoene, however, will potentially
shock and befuddle its viewers, only to call for their applause at its conclusion.
The play then carries on as if nothing has happened. But something does happen
by the end of this production. Although Epicoene is masked behind the
structure of a prototypical Jonsonian comedy of humours, the play thoroughly
manipulates and deconstructs this structure and, at the same time, potentially
its audience’s expectations. The audience must question what exactly has
taken place throughout the previous five acts of this play; it was
a Jonsonian comedy of humours, but somewhere, at some time along the way,
things came unraveled, and the audience was not in on the joke. Indeed, by
all appearances, the audience, by their own doing, was the joke.
- Jonson seemingly relinquishes any sense of his own authority, which
in fact gives him greater authority to do what he likes, by naming overtly
the audience’s own role in the construction of meaning in the play.
According to the prologue, any judgment or satire the audience perceives directed
at them actually find its source in their own self-projection. Jonson’s underlying
assertion is that any criticism aimed at the audience, or any specific member
of the audience, is not his doing. Even though he has written the play they
watch, he has not “authorized” any personal attacks in Epicoene. The
audience member will literally “authorize” Jonson “to judge” him or her, whether
Jonson had intended to or not. The prologue denies both itself and the audience
a stable critical position by means of logical contradiction: how does one
“think nothing true” at the command to “think nothing true”? We must read
Epicoene as both literature and literary/theatrical criticism, a critical
reading of itself, of the very process it undertakes, and of the audience
members/critics who bring their own readings to the text.
- John Dryden believed that the plot of Epicoene was nearly perfect
and that its verisimilitude ought to be imitated: the three and a half hours
in which the action takes place "is no more than is required for the
presentment on the stage—a beauty perhaps not much observed" (112).
But what impressed Dryden the most is the unity of the plot, "the settling
of Morose's estate on Dauphine" (112). The core of the plot’s unity
is the way in which Jonson meticulously undoes the very comedic formula to
which audiences had grown accustomed. With a definite sense of theatrical
self-reflexivity, Jonson has woven many subplots (the duping of Daw and La
Foole and the congregation of the Collegiates, for example) into the controlling
plot (Dauphine's acquisition of Morose's estate), and ultimately into his
super-plot (fooling all audiences). The
super-plot works wonderfully here because Jonson has masked it behind his
own theatrical conventions. He allows the audience to get comfortable in
his subplots and controlling plot; we are on the inside of many of the jokes,
all of them, in fact, except for one. John Sweeney writes, “Questions of
dramatic form and meaning were for him [Jonson] always questions of his approach
to his audience. He used the stage to formulate propositions about his spectators
and thought their response as much a part of the theatrical event as the stage
action” (7). Jonson’s use of strict verisimilitude helps to facilitate yet
another layer of deception by employing a fixed sense of time. "The
moment must have been startling for the majority,” Richard Cave argues, “for
Jonson has torn apart the whole fabric of illusion on which the art of performance
in their theatre rested" (71). This tearing apart of illusion, however,
is simply a reminder of the illusion in which the audience participates.
Precisely at the moment he “destroys” everything with the removal of the wig,
he (re)builds the entire plot. With the so-called unraveling of illusion,
which is simply a naming of illusion as illusion, comes unification in terms
of the super-plot and its relation to the rest of the play and the critical
act that has always been underway: it must be understood as a tearing apart
that leads to a weaving together.
- From the prologue, especially from the “second prologue,” to the epilogue,
Epicoene highlights where the construction of meaning resides: with
the individual. After writing his play, Jonson leaves Epicoene wholly
to the whims of his audience and tells us that we may do with it as we like,
even to the extent that we “make” the play judge us. The play is a performance
of the act of reading itself: Epicoene makes evident throughout that
every reader of the play will appropriate the various gestures in play in
his or her own way. Epicoene collapses any distinction between the
reading/viewing subject and the literary/theatrical object. The fullness
of the play rests in its ability to depict the emptiness of concrete, stable
meaning, and perhaps this is the message the audience is to accept. The more
the play resembles a typical Jonsonian comedy of humours, the less the audience
will come to recognize it. The moment the play appears most familiar is the
moment it becomes increasingly foreign. The audience always has the potential
to be fooled into believing Truewit, the prototypical Jonsonian mastermind
and self-proclaimed genius of plotting, the man who can get all of the Collegiates
to fall for Dauphine, and who can make puppets of Daw and La Foole. We are
impressed by his performance; look what he can get people to do. But the
reliability of Truewit’s “master plotting” is no better than Otter and Cutbeard's
language; perhaps, though, he is a far more convincing performer.
- The audience must watch absurd language function just as well as “conventional”
language throughout the play. And we potentially offer misguided laughter,
presumably not at the staging of the absurdity of the nature of language (and
the gulls’ belief in its concreteness) but at the gulls who use it. Epicoene
is a performance of expectations, for both the characters within the play
and for the audience “outside” of it. One must remain conscious of the play’s
own meditation on the construction of meaning as one brings any commentary
to Epicoene. In act 3 scene 3, Dauphine reveals himself as the “authorial”
figure of the text. He is, of course, the one who constructs the “super-plot”
in Epicoene. Like Jonson, he also implicitly extracts himself from
the authorial process. He describes, for example, the way in which the gulls
will “forfeit” their selves: “They’ll believe themselves to be just such men
as we make ‘em, neither more nor less. They have nothing, not the use of
their senses, but by tradition” (82-84). Dauphine’s words reveal the origins
of deception. By declaring that “they’ll believe themselves to be just such
men as we make ‘em,” Dauphine has seemingly admitted to being the first cause
of deception. But his second line unravels the actual origin of manipulation:
the dupes’ reliance on tradition and not on experience will be their undoing.
Dauphine only has to use what the dupes bring to him: their desires, a
priori assumptions, and expectations.
- Dauphine echoes the initial warning of the second prologue (“lest
so you make the maker to judge you”) in describing the ways in which the gulls
are duped. The audience is happy to laugh at the gulls as we appropriate
the position of Dauphine, the omniscient, authorial figure of the text. But
in so appropriating singularly the position of Dauphine, we miss the critical
position the gulls offer us. By extension, we miss our own role in the construction
of meaning in the play. One has thus potentially failed to heed the Prologue’s
initial warning even when it is re-articulated here. By assuming Dauphine’s
role, one can do nothing but appropriate the role of one of the gulls, believing
that one’s position is far more privileged than it actually is. We run the
risk of being “just such men” as Dauphine makes us, not for any other reason
than by a stable reassurance in Jonsonian tradition. Whose position but Dauphine’s
would one naturally assume here in a comedy of humours? And here is the trickiest
move of all: to appropriate the position of Dauphine, one must not appropriate
his position at all but the position of the gulls. One must not only laugh
at the gulls being duped but at how they are duped—with their blind
reliance on tradition. If one assumes one is always already a potential dupe,
then one not only laughs at them but at oneself, and in turn repeatedly questions
one’s own position both within the text (as one of the characters) and outside
the text (as critic).
- The play repeatedly demonstrates throughout that language has no fixed meaning
and that it can be both manipulative and manipulated. In act 1 scene 4, for
example, we see how La Foole's language can be manipulated by Clerimont:
La F. Excuse me, sir, if it were i' the Strand, I assure you.
I am come, Master Clerimont, to entreat you wait upon two or three
ladies to dinner today.
This brief scene emphasizes that language is a game whose rules are
arbitrarily constructed and repeatedly violated.. The scene seems insignificant,
just Clerimont having fun with a gull. Furthermore, the exchange invites the
audience to believe they have insight into the intent of the brief speech.
The audience is surely to have laughed at La Foole's obtuse response to Clerimont's
sharp satire. Their laughter cements their privileged, learned position over
La Foole’s. Or in act 5 scene 4, Otter asks La Foole, “Ay, the question is,
if you have carnaliter, or no?” La Foole, “Carnaliter! What
else, sir?” Here, a question answers a question seemingly in the affirmative,
as Otter replies, “It is enough; a plain nullity” (5.4.96-98). There are
no concrete, explicit answers here. There exists only innuendo that fills
in gaps of meaning for a desired, pre-arranged answer. The message received
is simply the message that was always sought out. La Foole, in this regard,
stands as a potential mirror in front of the audience. As the audience laughs
at his ability to be manipulated by language, or even at his miscomprehension
of it—i.e., his misunderstanding of the “real” message being sent—they are
potentially laughing at themselves and their vulnerable position at the conclusion
of the play.
Cle. How, sir! Wait upon 'em? Did you ever see me carry dishes?
La F. No, sir, dispense with me; I meant to bear 'em company.
Cle. Oh, that I will, sir. The doubtfulness o' your phrase, believe it,
sir, would breed you a quarrel once an hour with the terrible boys,
if you should but keep 'em fellowship a day. (10-14)
- The mock trial scene of Morose's divorce further helps to unveil this
arbitrariness of language. Using a language based on Latin that is muddled
but semi-comprehensible, a disguised Cutbeard and Otter discuss and debate
marital law. But Morose’s comprehension of the actual words here makes no
difference, for Morose is only concerned that what they say is the law (and
that they find in his favor) and not the validity actuality of his actual
legal standing. He will blindly follow the judicial advice of these two men.
In fact, he turns a deaf ear to their ramblings until it concerns him and
never questions, for example, their abominable hacking of Latin or the non-sense
of the language itself. Otter says, "That a boy, or child under years,
is not fit for marriage, because he cannot reddere debitum. So your
omnipotentes—" and Truewit interjects [aside to Otter], "Your
impotentes, you whoreson lobster" (5.3.163-65). Yet Cutbeard
and Otter's speeches go uncontested by Morose; he is only concerned with the
outcome. By the end of the “divorce scene,” Morose has been completely reduced
to his own admitted impotence and is dismissed as one of the fools. Just
as Daw and La Foole are duped in act 4 scene 5 by Truewit's stories about
each man's distaste for the other and never once question or confirm the allegations,
so too is Morose content with only the dramatics of performance. All of act
5 scene 3, and perhaps all of the play, is summed up in Otter's final line,
"Exercendi potestate" (the power of performance) (214).
Throughout the whole scene, the construction of meaning is revealed as purely
arbitrary; the message received from Morose is the message he initially desired.
The staging of meaning-making comes to matter the most. How well Otter and
Cutbeard can convincingly throw lines back and forth at one another defines
the position Morose ultimately assumes at the end of the play.
- My discussion thus far of how one receives and evaluates performance
and language simply articulates a central concern in Epicoene. Act
1 scene 1 fittingly ends with Truewit’s pronouncement of nature’s inferiority
to art with regards to the way in which women ready themselves (make-up, wigs,
clothing, etc.). But embedded within this art versus nature dialectic, Truewit
reveals something even more poignant for the play: “The doing of it [the painting
of the face, etc.], not the manner: that must be private. Many things that
seem foul in the doing, do please done” (100-01). Truewit takes an antithetical
position to the whole thrust of Epicoene, a position which he seems
to maintain consistently even until the end when he praises Dauphine for keeping
his super-plot a secret. Truewit is blinded by his adoration of product over
process. Epicoene, however, hides nothing in the process. Its “product,”
the unmasking of Epicoene, is simply a revelation of, and a reveling in, literary
and theatrical process. The play makes overt its the theatrical process in
which it is engaged: “Think nothing true;” “Exercendi potestate;” Epicoene
really is a boy playing the role of a boy (playing the role of a girl).
- William Slights defines the startling ending of the play: "In
Epicoene we find an author who forgoes dramatic irony for what might
be called theatrical irony. The audience does not share a superior position
with the author but is instead duped by the same trick that undoes Morose"
(81). I concur with this definition and would like to introduce a new level
to it. Jonson's audience surely would have grown accustomed to Jonsonian
plots; that is, when the characters reveal a plot to dupe others, the audience
takes great delight in seeing the plot come to fruition. And the same is
done here—except that there is this hidden plot. Epicoene capitalizes
on the audience's reliance upon a certain conventionality in Jonsonian comedy.
Thus, according to Watson, "Throughout his comedies Jonson teaches his
audience to mistrust theatrical conventions and the characters who rely on
them. Epicoene's disguise, impenetrable precisely because of the conventions
of its context, adds a new dimension to this tactic" (100). The audience's
seemingly benign acceptance of theatrical conventions is turned back on them,
making them question not only what has happened but how it came
- A look at the original staging and casting of the play illumines the way
in which the physicality of production could be used to facilitate various
layers of deception. Jonson chose the Whitefriars and the Children of the
Queen's Revels for good reason. Frances Teague describes the dimensions of
The Whitefriars was an enclosed theater and small in comparison
to the open-air public playhouses like the Globe; the Whitefriars hall was
approximately 85 feet long and 35 feet wide. If we adopt the plausible
ratio of 8:5 (for length of stage to depth), we may posit a depth of 22
feet and a length of 35 feet for the Whitefriars stage. Subtracting the
depth of the stage from the length of the hall, one arrives at a maximum
seating area of 63 feet or 21 yards long; the length may have been less
if the tiring house was within the hall. (176)
The proximity of the audience to the stage and actors created an intimate
atmosphere. Within such a close proximity, the audience would have shared
in Morose's irritation and vexation when all of the trumpets sounded and the
fools incessantly rambled. All of this noise and music also must have led
to a disorientation amongst the audience, as they would not have known where
to focus their attention. Teague argues that, in fact, "Jonson tried
to use peripheral stage areas or to exploit the theater's small size when
he thought it might further the dramatic action or ensure that his audience
would respond as he wanted them to" (176). In terms of the audience’s
physical location, they were literally being pulled into the play with the
sights and sounds of a stage remarkably close to them. While this intimacy
gives the audience a clear view of what they are watching, paradoxically,
this closeness also advances the very illusion that close proximity equals
additional insight or privileged knowledge. The staging of Epicoene
utilizes a truth of Jacobean theatre, that things literally are not as they
seem, to demonstrate that sometimes things are exactly as they seem.
- Epicoene was Jonson's only play written for the
Children of the Queen's Revels. By choosing to have the play performed by
young boys, Jonson has chosen a group of "in-betweeners" to take
on the roles of both men and women. Steve Brown argues, "So not only
were there no real women on the stage—and this always contained gender ambiguity—there
were no 'real men,' or even real men. Only boys—or if I may put it so, only
ingles abroad" (259). The close proximity
of audience to a stage filled with boyish actors works to construct a multivalent
bind. Jonson brings his audience close to the stage to reveal fully the theatrical
conventions of his time (young boys playing the roles of female characters),
and the audience can clearly see that Epicoene is indeed a young boy in a
peruke. But this exploits their expectations of theatrical conventions: what
else could be there on stage? Literally, what else could Epicoene be but
a boy dressed as a woman? But who would have imagined that Epicoene really
is a boy dressed as a woman? Epicoene stages the audience’s precarious
position of believing what one sees or, at the very least, what one desires
to see; the audience is potentially deceived by the very conventions both
shrouded and exposed as only conventions. Furthermore, the audience’s
acceptance of these theatrical conventions allows Jonson to conceal the identity
of his super-plot, while he simultaneously reveals the secret to his audience
each time Epicoene is on stage. This simultaneous revealing/concealing of
his plot in turn becomes doubly concealed behind the familiar construction
of Jonson’s comedy of humours, a plot line in which the audience is always
allowed to be in on the sub-plots and jokes.
- Disclosure of various plots perpetrated by the characters demands
that they reveal and conceal certain things to and from one another, deception
abounding on many levels. But few of these characters have either the wit
or the insight to see their own self-deception, nor do they desire to. Inherent
in the characters' deceiving themselves comes the audience’s potential deception
of itself. The audience is tempted to appropriate the position within the
play it believes possesses the most cunning and insight into the play itself,
usually that of Truewit. Truewit reflects the layers of the play perfectly:
he deceives himself by thinking he is in control of the action; at the same
time, he potentially deceives the audience into thinking the same. Without
doubt, Truewit comes to overwhelm this play. Though his name masks it superficially,
Truewit displays little wit at all; it seems Truewit's greatest ally is not
his wit, but fortune, or as he would put it, "mere providence" (2.4.64).
In fact, his plot is not the uber-deception he believes it is. By
having him dominate the number of lines in the play and by manipulating audience
expectations through Jonsonian plot convention, which includes having him
speak the final lines of the play, Epicoene can mask Truewit as a wit
even when all evidence points to his role as yet another gull. Dauphine,
who is in the same number of scenes as Truewit, 19, has only a third of the
number of lines, 306.
- Common sentiment about Truewit is that he plays a positive role in
the play, a crafty, even eloquent speaker who can manipulate the other characters
to do as he wishes (Hallahan 120). In my estimation, Truewit has been given
too much credit by some critics. Just as the title of the play is steeped
in irony, so too is the name of the character with the most lines. He dominates
the number of lines (963, actually doubling the next closest, Morose) in a
play where silence is a virtue, especially for the Jonsonian super-plot.
Furthermore, one must look at the characters he dupes; surely Daw and La Foole
are not to be thought of as worthy opponents. In fact, his only competition
comes from Dauphine and Clerimont, who utterly distrust his clattering mouth
and are appalled to learn that all of their work may have been destroyed by
his bombast: Dauphine says, "Did I not tell you? Mischief— [. . .] 'Fore
heav'n, you have undone me. That, which I have plotted for, and been maturing
now for these four months, you have blasted in a minute" (2.4.18, 33-35).
In act 3 scene 6, Truewit offers a fitting critique about his own role in
Dauphine’s plot (though he believes he mocks Daw): “That falls out often,
madam, that he that thinks himself the master-wit, is the master-fool” (45-46).
- Philip Mirabelli offers a unique reading of Truewit's understanding
of Dauphine’s plan and its implications to the plot:
In True-Wit's closing speech, however, lies Jonson's deeper meaning,
and here the truth is concealed from the common viewer at the same time
that it is revealed to the more insightful members of the audience. [. .
.] If he has discerned Epicoene's true sex and has thus intentionally expedited
Dauphine's plan, then his compliment to Dauphine for having "lurch'd
your friends of the better halfe of the garland, by concealing this part
of the plot," is actually a noble lie in that it is a covert means
to a moral truth: his "Love and Charitie" for his friend. (331)
Mirabelli implies that omniscience belongs to Truewit. He not only knows
of Dauphine's plan long before it is revealed to everyone else but helps see
it to its end. According to Mirabelli’s reading, because Truewit does not
reveal his knowledge of the plan, this indicates his knowledge of the plan.
Truewit’s humility (certainly a new virtue for Truewit), then, becomes symbolic
of his “Love and Charitie” for his friend. Mirabelli makes a distinction
between “common” and “insightful” viewership. This reading seems to appropriate
explicitly Jonson’s language in the Prologue when he appeals to the “cunning
palates” of his audience. As potential satire of the audience, this opening
remark acts as an invitation to the audience to imitate the various social
or intellectual positions within the comedy. The reference to “cunning palates”
simultaneously subverts the privileged position the audience may wish to grant
to themselves. To believe one has a “cunning palate” is to align oneself
with the learned ladies of the play or to join the ranks of La Foole and Daw;
to deny one’s “cunning palate” is surely a self-ostracization from Jacobean
“learned” theatre culture. But both positions, however, reveal themselves
as duplicates of one another; the “cunning” Truewit exposes himself as no
more “cunning” than the gulls he tricks.
- Truewit's reaction to the unveiled super-plot is quite revealing.
When he mentions Dauphine's concealing "part of the plot," Truewit
exposes two things about himself. First of all, Dauphine has not concealed
part of the plot; he has concealed the whole plot (the same plot, we
are told, Truewit almost ruins), the culmination, truly, of Epicoene.
Truewit is either incapable of seeing this, or perhaps he is too egotistical
to admit that he had absolutely no idea what was transpiring. Between Truewit
and Dauphine the audience sees the tension between the unraveling of a Jonsonian
sub-plot and the simultaneous bringing to fruition of his super-plot. And,
surely, one is meant to serve the other.
- A closer inspection of Truewit’s plot to procure Morose’s estate for
Dauphine will show Mirabelli’s reading of Truewit as untenable. As Truewit
attempts to dissuade Morose of marriage, he advises Morose of a legal tactic
that would have complicated, or even undone, the “divorce” scene at the end
of the play. In act 2 scene 2, Truewit says: “One thing more (which I had
almost forgot). This too, with whom you are to marry, may have made a conveyance
of her virginity aforehand, as your wise widows do of their states, before
they marry, in trust to some friend, sir. Who can tell?” (121-125). Why
is this final item added to Truewit’s list of reasons Morose ought to avoid
marriage? Jonson utilizes this legal detail later in the play when Cutbeard,
while investigating various articles of divorce, must respond to La Foole’s
“carnaliter?” innuendo: “Why, then, I say, for any act before, the
matrimonium is good and perfect; unless the worshipful bridegroom did
precisely, before witness, demand if she were viro ante nuptias” (5.4.116-118).
In other words, if Morose had taken Truewit’s advice, then a divorce could
have been granted at that moment.
- Truewit’s plot falls apart, then, on at least two levels in the play.
First, he hopes to dissuade Morose from marrying Epicoene (or any woman for
that matter), which would have ruined Dauphine’s apparent “plan” to have Epicoene
marry Morose and distribute to Dauphine “very ample conditions” (2.4.39).
I use “plan” here to indicate Dauphine’s alleged scheme to get money from
his uncle’s estate, which he “reveals” to Truewit in act 2 scene 4. Dauphine
tells Truewit that he and Cutbeard have worked to get Morose to marry Epicoene
so that Dauphine would still have access to his uncle’s money. Epicoene,
being the sweet girl she is, has of course agreed to be a partner in the scheme.
Second, Truewit attempts to play to Morose’s fear of being antedated a cuckold.
If Morose had followed through on Truewit’s advice and demanded that Epicoene
sign a contract declaring her virginity, Truewit again could have undone Dauphine’s
ultimate scheme (to have access to Morose’s entire estate). La Foole’s implied
carnal knowledge of Epicoene would have been grounds for a divorce (see 18.104.22.168-118);
or, to prove by physical evidence and not by mere testimony that she had not
antedated him a cuckold, she would inevitably have to reveal herself as a
young boy. Either way, Dauphine and Epicoene’s secret plot would have been
ruined. And in the face of his error, the would-be foiling of Dauphine’s
“plan” (by “plan,” I mean the sub-plot he is happy to reveal to Truewit) to
get Epicoene to marry Morose, Truewit claims he knew the outcome all along:
“I saw it must necessarily in nature fall out so; my genius is never false
to me in these things. Show me how it could be otherwise” (2.4.65-66). The
conclusion of the play shows Truewit precisely “how it could be otherwise.”
Truewit unknowingly satirizes himself in act 2, as his response here acts
as fitting commentary on his position at the end of the play.
- I suppose if one viewed Truewit as Dauphine’s equal or even as a typical
Jonsonian wit (as a Mosca or a Brainworm, for example), as many have, then
one would have to grant him a certain amount of authority. Anderson, for
example, implies that Truewit is somewhat of a sage about women:
Morose's predicament here is the direct result of his refusal
at every step to take the advice of Truewit. [. . .] Morose's continued
rejection of Truewit's advice on how to deal with his wedding guests (3.7.11-16)
and how to live happily with Epicoene (4.4.39-40) illustrates that he has
failed to learn from his first mistake—the marriage to Epicoene—to take
the sound advice offered him. (362)
Of course Morose would have been better off had he listened to Truewit, not
because of Truewit’s insights about marriage, but because Truewit would have
undermined Dauphine’s plan. Truewit's ignorance of the super-plot certainly
helps Anderson's contention. But Truewit's advice and the outcome of such
advice really is based on blind luck, “mere providence.” Anderson’s apparent
denial of this, I would argue, is simply an imitation of Truewit’s own denial.
Truewit's initial intention is not to help Morose at all; it is, in fact,
to help Dauphine dupe his uncle. If Truewit's initial plan had come to fruition,
he would have destroyed both outcomes.
- Not all critics view Truewit as one of the wits, however. Heffner
says, "Truewit assumes too readily that he can read the entire situation
at first glance, and that he can easily manipulate the stubborn Morose. He
becomes almost a comic butt himself when he ridiculously tries to pretend
that he has foreseen from the first the really quite unexpected consequence
of his action" (141). The most revealing moments about Truewit come
when he is on stage with Dauphine. The two together literally stage all levels
of the plot in Epicoene. The audience's attention is focused most
sharply on Dauphine and Truewit by the end of act 5 precisely because one
is master of the subplot (Truewit) and one is master of the super-plot (Dauphine)
and both work towards the completion of the controlling plot (getting Morose's
estate for Dauphine). The relationship between these two characters is not
only about a relationship between friends; it is also about the way Jonson
has constructed his play around his audience’s expectations. Anderson writes:
A witty success is necessary for Truewit if he is to differentiate
himself from the fools of the play (4.7.52-53). But the accuracy of Truewit's
perception and the evident success of his manipulations prove his wit, and
by the end of the play he can be accepted by Dauphine as an equal in society,
as "my friend, Master Truewit" (5.4.192-193). (357)
A friend, yes; an equal, no. Truewit's plot in no way shows the craft of
Dauphine's—in part, precisely because Dauphine’s plot is in fact Jonson's
super-plot. And are we to believe Dauphine’s
use of “Master Truewit?” Are we confident that he is not playing games with
Truewit at the end? After all, it seems obvious how Truewit would interpret
Dauphine’s words—as a compliment and not as a critique. Believing
at face value complimentary language (even when addressed to our “cunning
palates” in the prologue), especially when it massages one’s own ego, serves
as the core of much of the satire in Epicoene.
- In his final two lines, Truewit turns to the audience and says, "Spectators,
if you like this comedy, rise cheerfully, and now Morose is gone in, clap
your hands. It may be, that noise will cure him, at least please him"
(5.4.215-16). The fact that Truewit has the final line is important. For
those critics who see him as a wit or as a possible “authorial” figure, it
seems appropriate that Truewit calls for the audience to help cure Morose
of his humour. I too find it proper for Truewit to have the last line; this
is his final chance to illustrate his lack of insight, and Epicoene’s
last chance to stage Truewit’s self-deception and to attempt to deceive the
audience yet again. Truewit’s last lines are simply an attempt to regain
his own authority. Clerimont and Dauphine say all that there is to be said:
Clerimont: A boy!
Truewit either does not recognize his position in the play at this point or
chooses to ignore it (both are viable options) and appeals to the audience
one final time. This last speech is his final attempt to (re)create a sense
of closure and his own authority. At the moment of revelation of the super-plot,
however, the play has already begun again, and Truewit cannot put a stop to
this narrative and his newly unmasked role in it.
Dauphine: Yes, Mistress Epicoene.
- How seriously criticism has taken Truewit’s role as wit has led to
many polarized viewpoints, of Truewit, of the play in general, and of Jonson
in particular. I refer to these critical oppositions not to take sides, or
to try to fuse these positions with my own “new” position, but to argue that
by taking up these positions criticism may be missing the critical act the
text itself has already undertaken. Traditionally, the most troubling aspect
of Truewit is his treatment of or vocalization about the treatment of women.
Many want to attribute his misogynistic attacks to Jonson, but I think this
is both unfair and unnecessary. This is not to say that Jonson does not participate
in misogynistic rhetoric in this play or elsewhere. He may or may not. I
am simply dubious of these claims when they are based on support derived from
the speeches of Truewit. I am more interested in investigating the ways that
the reader potentially duplicates the very critical positions the text already
stakes out and, in turn, the way he or she imitates the same misunderstandings
about the construction of meaning that Epicoene stages.
- For example, Truewit locates the subversive quality of the dissolution
of gender identity and says about the Collegiates, “cry down, or up, what
they like or dislike in a brain or a fashion, with most masculine, or rather,
hermaphroditical authority” (1.1.69-70). Truewit catches himself when he
declares the women “masculine.” That would be a clear delineation of boundaries,
a boundary the women have crossed. But he corrects his assertion by placing
the Collegiates within the realm of the hermaphroditcal. Kari Weil argues
that the hermaphroditical “calls attention to the visible and physiological
fact of two differently sexed but noncomplementary bodies brought together
in an unrelieved process of joining and splitting that manifests the irreparable
divisions wrought by desire. [. . .] s/he is the figure of the displacement
of origin and is the locus of generative play” (63). The myth of the Hermaphroditus
“presents the union of male and female as forever incomplete, two bodies competing
with, rather than complementing, each other” (10). Truewit’s speech stages
for us the very structures of differentiation that criticism, rather than
revealing them as structures of difference, competition, play, or even violence,
repeatedly acts out. In this way, I want to argue, that we are not reading
an anti-chauvinist or misogynistic Jonson,
a Jonson sympathetic to one group of women or hostile towards another circle,
or even a Jonson of modern critical theory; rather, I want to argue that much
like the rest of the play, Truewit’s view of women simply stages the critical
positions potentially available to Jonson’s audience. As readers, however,
we are offered privileged insight: we can appropriate one of the various positions,
which would necessarily establish a rivalry with another position in this
play, or we can simply name these critical positions and see them as a form
of literary and social commentary themselves.
- In act 2 scene 2 (specifically lines 48-76), we see Truewit’s misogynistic
harangue to Morose. Some may wish to argue that Truewit's misogyny is just
an act to fool the old man. And perhaps it is. But his speech will actually
devolve into a language of violent conquest when Truewit shockingly contends,
"A man should no doubt overcome any woman. Think he can vanquish 'em,
and he shall: for though they deny, their desire is to be tempted. [. . .]
Though they strive, they would be overcome." Clerimont responds, “O,
but a man must beware of force.” To which Truewit responds, “It is to them
an acceptable violence, and has oft-times the place of the greatest courtesy”
(4.1.72-76). Truewit must be seen here as a satirical figure only. Clerimont
attempts to rein in Truewit’s violent rhetoric, only to have Truewit justify
himself. Earlier in the same scene, after Truewit expounds on the ways in
which women ought to hide their defects (31-46), Dauphine condescendingly
says, “How camest thou to study these creatures so exactly? I would thou
wouldst make me a proficient” (47-48). Dauphine’s flattering language here,
steeped in irony, is beautifully echoic of the way in which he, Clerimont,
and Truewit utilize complimentary language to speak to the fools of the play.
- When Dauphine asks Truewit how he came to study women “so exactly,”
we must keep in mind as a pretext that Truewit contends that he has unparalleled
understanding of the “natural” workings of things. Truewit proclaims this
knowledge to our attention when he lauds himself for helping Dauphine's plan:
"I saw it must necessarily in nature fall out so: my genius is never
false to me in these things. Show me how it could be otherwise" (2.4.65-66).
Then, only 10 lines later, his true insight into “nature” begins to be revealed.
He says of Epicoene, "I'll be acquainted with her first, by your favour"
(76). Truewit's simultaneous ignorance of the super-plot and of “nature”
are both put on display here. At the end of the play, he takes credit for
his blunder in helping to push Dauphine's super-plot and implies a knowledge
that is clearly absent here in act 2. His ignorance is revealed in his sexual
appetite for Epicoene, the pun being on "acquainted." By using
“acquainted,” Jonson links Truewit’s desire to Epicoene's supposed female
sexual organ. Truewit’s reveals his own comical know-nothingness of both
the super-plot and of Epicoene’s “nature,” the two obviously being inseparable.
- Truewit’s “authorial” position is called into question one last time
in his final speech. His chastisement of Daw and La Foole reveals his own
appropriation of the chivalric ethos of the two fools:
We are all thankful to you, and so should the womankind here,
specially for lying on her, though not with her! You meant so, I am sure.
But that we have stuck it upon you today, in your own imagined persons,
and so lately, this Amazon, this champion of the sex, should beat you now
thriftily, for the common slanders which ladies receive from such cuckoos
as you are. You are they that, when no merit or fortune can make you hope
to enjoy their bodies, will yet lie with their reputations, and make their
fame suffer. Away, you common moths of these and all ladies’ honors. (5.4.196-204)
In light of all of his previous insults aimed at women, what are we to make
of this speech at the end? There are a number of critical positions one could
take with regards to Truewit’s lambasting of Daw and La Foole. First, he
is right on the mark, and everything he says is correct. Second, he attempts
to rewrite (re-right) his position as an authority within this text. This
second option is even more fitting, and consistent of Truewit’s character,
if, as previously noted, the narrative has already begun again. Third, as
Truewit reproaches Daw and La Foole, he simultaneously, unconsciously, chastises
himself. His final speech allows the audience to see again Truewit’s self-projection,
his “own imagined person,” cast onto others, and we see how immune he is to
the irony with which he speaks. Finally, as readers, we are potentially allowed
the most privileged of positions: to be able to read simultaneously each of
these critical positions of Truewit’s final speech; to be able to believe
and not to believe a word he says.
- In his The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes observes:
Imagine someone [. . .] who abolishes in himself all barriers,
all classes, all exclusions, not by syncretism but by a simple discard of
that old specter: logical contradiction; who mixes language, even those
said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every charge of illogicality,
of incongruity. [. . .] Now this anti-hero exists: he is the reader of the
text at the moment he takes his pleasure. (3)
The only moment when “meaning” appears unified in Epicoene comes at
the very end when Epicoene is unmasked. “Meaning” for all of the characters
becomes most concrete when language itself has been muted. Daw and La Foole
are stricken, for once, silent. Clerimont can only manage to utter "a
boy" (5.4.189) and only Truewit (we should expect no less) can muster
any kind of response, perhaps out of both admiration and ego. Perhaps the
momentary lapse of speech stages most perfectly the critical position
of the play all along. Each individual is shown explicitly the role he or
she has always been tempted to appropriate all along: filling in every gap
of meaning with his or her self. The muted language on stage at the end of
the play creates a potential moment of non-appropriation for the audience.
The silence thrusts the audience member back onto him- or herself. The muted
language makes explicit once and for all the always-present gap of meaning
and reveals to the audience this space “outside” of themselves that they have
always occupied. Lest the audience fill the emptiness for too long, figuring
out what has just happened, Truewit pulls them back into the play, urges them
to fill the hall with noise, and allows them to bask comfortably as they reorient
themselves with their expectations of theatre. The play has begun again at
this moment, yet this reorientation, this typical call for applause, this
carrying on as if nothing has happened, is without a doubt yet another deception
within Epicoene. The final mask Jonson places on his text comes not
at the end of his play, however; the ultimate deception, and subsequent truth,
comes at the very beginning when Epicoene invites its reader to the
penultimate pleasure of this text: “to think nothing true.”
1. All quotations from the play, unless otherwise noted,
are taken from G.A. Wilkes, ed., The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson Vol.
III, in Epicoene, or The Silent Woman.
2. Riggs argues that Jonson “refrained from lampooning
contemporary women on the stage; Epicoene is the sole exception to that
rule ” (156). Jonson got into trouble because of his reference to the Prince
of Moldavia in act 5 scene 1. The prince had conned King James out of some
money, and later gave out that he was going to marry James's cousin, Lady Arabella
Stuart, who, for the good of the throne, was not to remarry. She took exception
to the allusion and was strong enough to have steps taken to see Jonson punished,
so he wrote the second prologue. See also Adams 99.
3. I use the word “audience” in its most general sense.
I mean Jonson’s seventeenth-century audience, an imagined audience from any
period, and even the reader of Jonson’s text. I will often use “reader” and
audience interchangeably throughout this paper. It is not my intention to imply
that a seventeenth-century audience would have the same or similar reaction
to Epicoene as would a modern audience, though this is certainly a possibility.
A reader of the play may in fact have a different response altogether. But
members of each audience, including a reading audience, may always potentially
appropriate the very gestures the play stages, even if that gesture is to differentiate
ourselves from the fools. To see ourselves completely unlike the fools (or
completely like Truewit), and completely content in their gullibility’s usefulness
to the plot, and to privilege our position or our knowledge over their own,
is in many ways simply a duplication or an acting out of their own misunderstandings
of their position within this comedy. My own position as a reader is to be
fully conscious of my potential to be yet another fool, and to be perhaps utterly
foolish even as I assume this position. Rather than read or witness a Jacobean
Jonsonian comedy, or a comedy that is already staging modern theoretical discourses,
I would argue that we may simply be reading or witnessing Jonson’s staging of
us, the reader and/or the audience, modern or Jacobean.
4. Opposite my reading of Jonson’s relinquishing authority,
Richard Burt describes Jonson’s near obsession of having explicit control over
his audience. Making problematic the tenor of Jonson’s invitation to the “cunning
palates” of the prologue is that which he wishes to feed them, “his broken meat”
on line 27. Burt argues that, “Jonson’s insistence that his audience dine on
“his broken meat” . . . indicates less an easy, generous invitation than
an anxious need to coerce acknowledgement of the debt the audience owes him,
and hence his authority over them” (60).
5. For an analysis of Epicoene in the tradition
of Aristotle’s Poetics, especially with regards to anagnorisis,
see Barry B. Adams, “Jonson’s Epicoene and the Complex Plot,” Medieval
and Renaissance Drama in England 11 (1999): 197-98; 207-16.
6. Steve Brown comments further on how seventeenth-century
England would have received the relationship between Clerimont and the young
boy: “The turn-of-the-century satirists characteristically portray the young
debauched gentleman with a whore on one arm and a boy on the other, where there
is no question of conflicting ‘sexualities’ or of a ‘bisexuality’ combining
the two opposites. And this is true as well of the Puritan critics of the stage,
whose terrifying vision is that of an abandoned saturnalia of lust where distinctions
between women and boys disappear and the boys become contaminated by their approximation
to the ‘gentle’ sex” (254).
Just as there seems to be a personal context for the satirizing of these learned
women, there may also be a context for Jonson's not satirizing women at all,
but rather chauvinism, and quite possibly himself. Riggs writes: “To close
the circle as Jonson does at the end of Epicoene, is to expose the self-referential
character of the sexist stereotypes that pervade the play. In this respect
Epicoene counters the unalloyed male chauvinism of ‘On the Court Pucell.’
The author of the epigram is a prisoner of his own cliche anti-feminism; the
author of the comedy uses the same cliches to make his audience more critical
of its preconceptions” (156). Riggs’ contention is an important one: Jonson’s
play actively stages sexist stereotypes so as to diffuse them and render them
impotent. Rather than stopping at gender constructions, I have argued that
the whole play is a staging and unraveling of manifold expectations—from gender
roles to Jonsonian theatrical construction to language in general.
10. Jonson had contacts with and actually sought patronage
from women who were extremely learned, and by all accounts he respected them
highly. Both the Countess of Pembroke and Lady Mary Wroth were extremely educated,
refined in the arts of music, dance, and needlework. Pembroke was fluent in
several languages, and Lady Wroth continued the tradition with her own translations.
Both women were patrons to several male poets of the day, and very much respected
for their own contributions to the literary field (Hannay 41). Louise Schleiner
has done extensive research on the possible real-life learned ladies of Jonson's
play. She points to two different circles of learned women of the day with
whom Jonson had contact (11). This context is interesting on two levels: one,
it detracts from the notion that Jonson is attacking all women, and is therefore
a brooding misogynist; and two, it illustrates quite nicely a pattern of existing
dueling forces that complicate much of Jonson’s work and one’s response to it.
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- Adams, Barry B. “Jonson’s Epicoene and the Complex Plot.”
Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 11 (1999): 172-225.
- Anderson, Mark A. “The Successful Unity of Epicoene: A Defense
of Ben Jonson.” Studies in English Literature
10.2 (1970): 349-66.
- Baines, Barbara, and Mary C. Williams. “The Contemporary and Classical Antifeminist
Tradition in Jonson’s Epicoene.” Renaissance
Papers. Ed. Dennis G. Donnovan and A. Leigh Deneef. Southeastern
Renaissance Conference, 1977. 43-58.
- Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill, 1975.
- Brown, Steve. “The Boyhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines: Notes on Gender
Ambiguity in the Sixteenth Century.” Studies in English Literature
30.2 (1990): 243-63.
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Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.
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Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2004-, Matthew
Steggle (Editor, EMLS).