Ben Jonson. Epicene, or The Silent Woman. Ed. Richard Dutton. The Revels Plays. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003. xiv+338pp. ISBN 0 7190 5543 1.

Tom Lockwood
University of Birmingham

Lockwood, Tom. "Review of Ben Jonson, Epicene, or The Silent Woman. Ed. Richard Dutton." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.3 (January, 2007) 7.1-3<URL:>.

  1. Richard Dutton's wonderful edition of Epicene, no longer so new now as when published in 2003, has me itching to teach the play again. That this should be the response to such a deeply and carefully learned edition is a tribute both to the clarity and the force of Dutton's critical writing in the edition's long introduction, and the usefulness of his annotations to the play-text. Even before a reader gets to the text - clear and accurate in those portions of it I have spot-checked - the introduction is packed with critical aperçus that take a reader right to the heart of the play. The world Epicene that stages, Dutton writes, 'is essentially a world of single men', before adding: 'If, in Jonson's fiction, it is invaded by women, they are women who pointedly behave as if they were single men' (18), a brilliant characterisation of the play world's sexualised motivations. As part of a later exploration of the play's treatment of the Collegiate Ladies as would-be patrons, Dutton asks whether this might refract Jonson's own experience as a client of Queen Anna, or of Lucy, Countess of Bedford. Is gender in this aspect part of the play's meaning? It may well be, he concludes, but moves immediately to the crucial counter: 'The fact is that Jonson was very touchy about his position both with men and with women, and with associates…as well as with superiors' (22); gender is only one of the vectors of social interaction that the play places under pressure. Further in, the section on the play's 'Reception' (72-88) has some brilliantly illuminating speculations on the play's inadvertent, post-composition topicality when revived around 1619/20 and again in 1636. On the earlier occasion Dutton explores the ways in which the play might have picked up not only the resonance of the Essex divorce of 1613, but how 'a play about an old man…married to a much younger woman/man' may have looked in the context of James' infatuation with Buckingham (77-8); by the mid-1630s, this 'tale of a fastidiously reclusive man tricked into marrying a loudly domineering "wife"' may again have looked different in the light of Charles and Henrietta Maria (78-9). This may be a play notable for its 'remorselessness' (again Dutton's perfectly chosen description) (59), but the extraordinary strength of this Revels Epicene is that its historicizing method is always at the service of opening out the play rather than confining it to a minutely described past.

  2. The edition has four appendixes, of which D, the fourth - Dutton's forme-by-forme collation of 40 copies of the 1616 folio - may have taken the most time to compile, but is (I should imagine) likely to be least used other than by specialists. (It does, however, contain notice of a finely accidental typographical joke, Stansby's compositors having contrived to re-set the correctly composed 'mistake' (3.6.104) as 'mtstake' [51-2, 326]; the edition here draws on David Gants' reconsideration of the resetting of parts of Epicene). The other appendixes contain much that more of those working on the play will want to have so readily to hand. Appendix C offers English translations of Jonson's many classical sources, while Appendixes A and B both offer what the title of the first calls 'Related documents', the literary texts that form one of the matrixes within which Dutton locates the play: Francis Beaumont's commendatory poem from the 1616 folio; Edward Herbert's 1608 Satyra Secunda ('Of Travellers: From Paris'), an 89-line verse letter addressed to Jonson from Paris; Jonson's 'An Epigram on the Court Pucelle' (Underwood 49); and a full, modernised and lightly annotated text of The Entertainment at Britain's Burse, edited by its discoverer, James Knowles, and here occupying the whole of Appendix B. These appendixes make available in full the material on which Dutton draws illuminatingly in the third section of his introduction, 'The "moment" of Epicene' (pp.10-26). This is (as he makes clear) a moment that is both textual and personal, these intertexts of the play a written equivalent of 'the Strand demi-monde mirrored in the play' (p.16). The compliment that Harold Love once paid Henry Woudhuysen's work on Sidney is apt here: 'His study is remarkable for the careful way in which a bibliographical culture is superimposed upon another of the intricate alliances forged by blood ties, politics, and religion among the Elizabethan ruling class and the points of fit carefully charted' (Attributing Authorship, 71). The points of fit need only slightly adjusting - 'the Elizabethan ruling class' elbowed out by the Jacobean 'West End world of wits and braveries' (18) in which the play is situated and for whom it was first performed - for the appreciation to work fully. Epicene in Dutton's account of it is both a play intensely alive to its contemporary textual contexts and to the personal networks, the social geographies, that produce those texts.

  3. As useful and as rewarding as the introduction and appendixes are Dutton's annotations: those new to the play would be well supported; those familiar with it already will still find new matter for thought. All that is stopping me, then, from teaching the play from this edition is the continuing absence of a paperback reprint - an absence Manchester University Press seems unlikely soon to rectify (although the Revels Jonsons were once available in paperback), and one that unfortunately will keep Richard Dutton's fine work out of the hands of many of the undergraduates who might learn so much from it. In the meantime, their teachers have much for which to be grateful.
Works Cited
  • Love, Harold. Attributing Authorship: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • Woudhuysen, H.R. Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts, 1558-1640. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).