“On forfeit of your selves, think nothing true”: Self-Deception in Ben Jonson’s Epicoene

J.A. Jackson
Hillsdale College

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)[1]

  1. 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.[2]   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.[3]  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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.[4]  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.

  4. 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).[5]  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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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).

  8. 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.
    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)
    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. 

  9. 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. 

  10. 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). 

  11. 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 about.

  12. 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 hall:
    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.

  13. 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).[6]  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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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). 

  16. 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. 

  17. 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.

  18. 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. 

  19. 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; 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. 

  20. 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.

  21. 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.[7]  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.

  22. 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!
    Dauphine: Yes, Mistress Epicoene.
    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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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[8] or misogynistic Jonson,[9] a Jonson sympathetic to one group of women or hostile towards another circle,[10] 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.

  25. 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.  

  26. 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.    

  27. 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.

  28. 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).

7. There are, of course, those critics who view Dauphine as the grand manipulator to whom we "therefore tend to grant more authority than the lesser conspirators" (Carpenter 19).

8. 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.

9. In “The Contemporary and Classical Antifeminist Tradition in Jonson’s Epicoene,” Barbara Baines and Mary Williams argue, "One also notes that whereas the satire pertaining to men is embodied in specific individuals, the satire pertaining to women is often generalized.  In addition, the male sex is represented by witty, ingenious individuals, Clerimont, Dauphine, and Truewit, as well as by effeminate fools and idiots" (49).  Their overall point is well-taken and, I think, mostly accurate.  I would argue, however, that the play’s most pointed critique of women comes at the expense of the Collegiates, females depicted as pseudo-intellectuals, as Baines and Williams have also noted.  In a much larger sphere, however, satirizing these women displays a consistency within the play itself, because feigned intellect, masculine or feminine, is constantly under attack in this play.  For an analysis of satire with regards to “extravagance,” see W. David Kay, “Epicoene, Lady Compton, and the Gendering of Jonsonian Satire on Extravagance,” The Ben Jonson Journal 6 (1999): 1-33.

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.

Works Cited


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).