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Epicoene, or the Silent Woman

Epicoene, or the Silent Woman

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Epicœne, or The silent woman, also known as The Epicene, is a comedy
Comedy , as a popular meaning, is any humorous discourse or work generally intended to amuse by creating laughter, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in...

 by Renaissance
English Renaissance theatre
English Renaissance theatre, also known as early modern English theatre, refers to the theatre of England, largely based in London, which occurred between the Reformation and the closure of the theatres in 1642...

 playwright Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson
Benjamin Jonson was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best, and his lyric poems...

. It was originally performed by the Blackfriars Children
Children of the Chapel
The Children of the Chapel were the boys with unbroken voices, choristers, who formed part of the Chapel Royal, the body of singers and priests serving the spiritual needs of their sovereign wherever they were called upon to do so....

, a group of boy player
Boy player
Boy player is a common term for the adolescent males employed by Medieval and English Renaissance playing companies. Some boy players worked for the mainstream companies and performed the female roles, as women did not perform on the English stage in this period...

s, in 1609
1609 in literature
The year 1609 in literature involved some significant events.-Events:*January 1 - the Children of the Blackfriars perform Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One at Court....

. It was, by Jonson's admission, a failure on its first presentation; however, John Dryden
John Dryden
John Dryden was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the Age of Dryden.Walter Scott called him "Glorious John." He was made Poet...

 and others championed it, and after the Restoration
English Restoration
The Restoration of the English monarchy began in 1660 when the English, Scottish and Irish monarchies were all restored under Charles II after the Interregnum that followed the Wars of the Three Kingdoms...

 it was frequently revived—indeed, a reference by Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys FRS, MP, JP, was an English naval administrator and Member of Parliament who is now most famous for the diary he kept for a decade while still a relatively young man...

 to a performance on 6 July 1660 places it among the first plays legally performed after Charles II's ascension.


The play takes place in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

. Morose, a wealthy old man with an obsessive hatred of noise, has made plans to disinherit his nephew Dauphine by marrying. His bride Epicœne is, he thinks, an exceptionally quiet woman; he does not know that Dauphine has arranged the whole match for purposes of his own.

The couple are married despite the well-meaning interference of Dauphine's friend True-wit. Morose soon regrets his wedding day, as his house is invaded by a charivari
Charivari is the term for a French folk custom in which the community gave a noisy, discordant mock serenade, also pounding on pots and pans, at the home of newlyweds. The loud, public ritual evolved to a form of social coercion, for instance, to force an as-yet-unmarried couple to wed...

 that comprises Dauphine, True-wit, and Clerimont; a bear warden
Bear-baiting is a blood sport involving the worrying or tormenting of bears.-Bear-baiting in England:Bear-baiting was popular in England until the nineteenth century. From the sixteenth century, many herds of bears were maintained for baiting...

 named Otter and his wife; two stupid knights, La Foole and Daw; and an assortment of "collegiates," vain and scheming women with intellectual pretensions. Worst for Morose, Epicœne quickly reveals herself as a loud, nagging mate.

Desperate for a divorce, Morose consults two lawyers (actually Dauphine's men in disguise), but they can find no grounds for ending the match. Finally, Dauphine promises to reveal grounds to end the marriage (in exchange, Morose must come to financial terms with him). The agreement made, Dauphine strips the female costume from Epicœne, revealing that the wife is, in fact, a boy. Morose is dismissed harshly, and the other ludicrous characters are discomfited by this revelation; Daw and Foole, for instance, had claimed to have slept with Epicœne.


For Epicœne, in contrast to his usual practice in comedy, Jonson relied to some extent on a variety of sources. While most details of characterization and plot are, as usual, his own invention, he found the scenario in two orations by Libanius
Libanius was a Greek-speaking teacher of rhetoric of the Sophist school. During the rise of Christian hegemony in the later Roman Empire, he remained unconverted and regarded himself as a Hellene in religious matters.-Life:...

: in one, a groom in Morose's situation argues for permission to commit suicide to escape his marriage, while in the other an elderly miser plans to disinherit a nephew who laughed at him. The coup de theatre of Epicœne's unveiling, while traditionally viewed as derived from the Casina of Plautus
Titus Maccius Plautus , commonly known as "Plautus", was a Roman playwright of the Old Latin period. His comedies are the earliest surviving intact works in Latin literature. He wrote Palliata comoedia, the genre devised by the innovator of Latin literature, Livius Andronicus...

, is closer both in spirit and in execution to Il Marescalco of Aretino
Pietro Aretino
Pietro Aretino was an Italian author, playwright, poet and satirist who wielded immense influence on contemporary art and politics and invented modern literate pornography.- Life :...

. Finally, a comic duel between La Foole and Daw is usually seen as an echo of the mock-duel between Viola and Aguecheek in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Some more local details are also borrowed from the classical misogynistic
Misogyny is the hatred or dislike of women or girls. Philogyny, meaning fondness, love or admiration towards women, is the antonym of misogyny. The term misandry is the term for men that is parallel to misogyny...

 tradition. True-wit's speeches condemning marriage are larded with borrowings from Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

's Ars Amatoria
Ars Amatoria
The Ars amatoria is an instructional love elegy in three books by the Roman poet Ovid, penned around 2 CE. It claims to provide teaching in three areas of general preoccupation: how and where to find women in Rome, how to seduce them, and how to prevent others from stealing them.-Background:After...

and Juvenal's Satire VI
Satire VI
Satire VI is the most famous of the sixteen Satires by the Roman author Juvenal written in the late 1st or early 2nd century. In English translation, this satire is often titled something in the vein of Against Women due to the most obvious reading of its content...

. John Aubrey
John Aubrey
John Aubrey FRS, was an English antiquary, natural philosopher and writer. He is perhaps best known as the author of the collection of short biographical pieces usually referred to as Brief Lives...

's claim that Morose was modelled on Elizabethan businessman Thomas Sutton
Thomas Sutton
Thomas Sutton was an English civil servant and businessman as well as being the founder of Charterhouse School. He was the son of an official of the city of Lincoln, and was educated at Eton College and probably at Cambridge...

 is no longer credited.

Stage history and reception

The play premiered at the Whitefriars Theatre
Whitefriars Theatre
The Whitefriars Theatre was a theatre in Jacobean London, in existence from 1608 to the 1620s — about which only limited and sometimes contradictory information survives.-Location:...

 in December 1609 or January 1610, acted by the Children of the Queen's Revels, led by Nathan Field (who may have played True-wit or Dauphin). Little heed is now given to Fleay
Frederick Gard Fleay
Frederick Gard Fleay was an influential and prolific nineteenth-century Shakespeare scholar.Fleay, the son of a linen draper, graduated from King's College London and Trinity College, Cambridge , where he received mathematical training that was key to his later achievements...

's hypothesis that Jonson himself played Morose. Jonson hinted to Drummond that the play failed; he mentioned certain verses calling the title appropriate, since the audience had remained silent at the end. A report from the Venetian
Venice is a city in northern Italy which is renowned for the beauty of its setting, its architecture and its artworks. It is the capital of the Veneto region...

 ambassador shows that at least one person spoke up in response to the play: Arbella Stuart
Arbella Stuart
Lady Arbella Stuart was an English Renaissance noblewoman who was for some time considered a possible successor to Queen Elizabeth I on the English throne....

, who complained of a personal reference to a recent intrigue involving the prince of Moldavia
Moldavia is a geographic and historical region and former principality in Eastern Europe, corresponding to the territory between the Eastern Carpathians and the Dniester river...

. Whatever trouble this complaint may have caused Jonson was apparently covered over by Stuart's subsequent marriage to William Seymour. That the play remained current is suggested by a Stationer's Register entry in 1612 which indicates the intention to publish a quarto of the play.

The play influenced at least two minor plays before the interregnum: Peter Hausted
Peter Hausted
Peter Hausted , Doctor of Divinity, was a "playwright, poet, preacher" in early 17th-century England. In his own time, he was notorious as a flamboyant preacher against Puritan and sectarian dissent in the Church of England, and was remembered for the riot that accompanied the 1632 debut of his...

's Rival Friends (1631) and Jaspar Mayne's The City Match (1639).

After the Restoration
English Restoration
The Restoration of the English monarchy began in 1660 when the English, Scottish and Irish monarchies were all restored under Charles II after the Interregnum that followed the Wars of the Three Kingdoms...

, Epicœne was frequently revived and highly appreciated; in the course of a lengthy analysis, Dryden calls it "the pattern of a perfect play." Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys FRS, MP, JP, was an English naval administrator and Member of Parliament who is now most famous for the diary he kept for a decade while still a relatively young man...

's diary records several viewings of the play. The first, in early summer of 1660, seems likely to have been among the first plays performed after Charles II
Charles II of England
Charles II was monarch of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland.Charles II's father, King Charles I, was executed at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, at the climax of the English Civil War...

's return to London. Pepys saw the play again in January of 1661, with Edward Kynaston
Edward Kynaston
Edward Kynaston was an English actor, one of the last Restoration "boy players," young male actors who played women's roles.-Career:...

 in the title role.

In 1664, Pepys saw the play at the Theatre Royal
Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London. The large building is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", after a previous use of the site of the opera house's original construction in 1732. It is the home of The Royal Opera, The...

 with Elizabeth Knepp
Elizabeth Knepp
Elizabeth Knepp or Knipp was a British actress, singer, and dancer. The earliest theatrical reference to Knepp is from 1664, as being intended by Thomas Killigrew to play the part of Lusetta in his play Thomaso. This means that she was probably in his troupe, the King's Company, by that time...

 in the title role; this was probably the first performance in which a woman played Epicœne. Over the next century, a number of celebrated actresses, including Anne Oldfield
Anne Oldfield
Anne Oldfield , English actress, was born in London, the daughter of a soldier.She worked for a time as apprentice to a seamstress, until she attracted George Farquhar's attention by reciting some lines from a play in his hearing...

 and Sarah Siddons
Sarah Siddons
Sarah Siddons was a Welsh actress, the best-known tragedienne of the 18th century. She was the elder sister of John Philip Kemble, Charles Kemble, Stephen Kemble, Ann Hatton and Elizabeth Whitlock, and the aunt of Fanny Kemble. She was most famous for her portrayal of the Shakespearean character,...

, performed the part. Siddons, however, was directly associated with the play's departure from the stage. David Garrick
David Garrick
David Garrick was an English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer who influenced nearly all aspects of theatrical practice throughout the 18th century and was a pupil and friend of Dr Samuel Johnson...

 and George Colman
George Colman the Elder
George Colman was an English dramatist and essayist, usually called "the Elder", and sometimes "George the First", to distinguish him from his son, George Colman the Younger....

's updated version (1752), featuring Siddons, was a disastrous failure. Bonnell Tyler, echoing Reformation comments on the play, condemned Morose as ludicrously unnatural, and other reviewers were no kinder. Garrick replaced Siddons with a boy, responding to historically ill-informed complaints that a female Epicœne was ludicrous. The revamped casting did not save the production, and Epicœne vanished from the boards for over a century, a victim of the general collapse in popular taste for non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama.

In 1935, Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss
Richard Georg Strauss was a leading German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. He is known for his operas, which include Der Rosenkavalier and Salome; his Lieder, especially his Four Last Songs; and his tone poems and orchestral works, such as Death and Transfiguration, Till...

's opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...

 Die schweigsame Frau
Die schweigsame Frau
Die schweigsame Frau is an opera in three acts by Richard Strauss with libretto by Stefan Zweig after Ben Jonson's Epicoene, or the Silent Woman.-Performance history:...

, based on Jonson's play, premiered in Dresden
Dresden is the capital city of the Free State of Saxony in Germany. It is situated in a valley on the River Elbe, near the Czech border. The Dresden conurbation is part of the Saxon Triangle metropolitan area....


Epicœne in America

Major American revivals of Epicœne have been rare. An exception was the Shakespeare Theatre Company
Shakespeare Theatre Company
The Shakespeare Theatre Company is a regional theatre company located in Washington, D.C. Their self professed mission "is to present classic theatre of scope and size in an imaginative, skillful and accessible American style that honors the playwrights’ language and intentions while viewing their...

 of DC's 2003 revival with Daniel Breaker
Daniel Breaker
-Life and career:Born in Manhattan, Kansas, the son of a career military officer, Breaker grew up partly in Germany and attended Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, a performing arts school in Florida. He then earned a BFA degree from the Juilliard School in 2002...

starring as Truewit.

The play has been performed only twice in New York in the last several decades: once in the 1970s at Jean Cocteau Repertory and most recently in 2010, produced by (re:) Directions Theatre Company under the auspices of the "Anybody But Shakespeare Classics Festival," with a woman—Sarah Knittel—in the title role, alongside the following cast:
Michael Kirby.................Dauphine

Josh Odsess-Rubin........Truewit

Christopher Norwood......Clerimont

Robert Gonzales, Jr......Morose

Michael-Alan Read........Sir John Daw / Cutbeard / Captain Otter

Jack Cantor.................Sir Amorous La Foole

Lucy Gillespie.............Mistress Otter

Caitlin McColl.............Madam Haughty

Victoria Miller..............Mistress Centaur

Gina Marie Jamieson.......Mistress Mavis

Kathryn Lawson...........Boy / Mute / Parson / Mistress Trusty

The (re:) Directions production was directed by Tom Berger and Patrice Miller and performed at the 14th Street Theatre. Numerous alterations to Jonson's text included eliminating most of the gulling of Daw and La Foole, and giving Dauphine the play's final words. Most significantly, the revelation of Epicœne's true nature came not with a pulling off of her wig but with a dropping of her dress, exposing male genitalia. This choice—and the production as a whole—received unanimous critical acclaim.

Other performances

Epicoene; or, The Silent woman; a radio adaptation, starring Marius Goring, Laidman Browne, Gabriel Wolf, Norman Shelley, Vivienne Chatterton, June Tobin, and David Sppenser.
BBC, NPR Running Time: 99.7 min


Jackson, J. A. "'On forfeit of your selves, think nothing true': Self-Deception in Ben Jonson's Epicoene." EMLS 10.1 (2004).