Epicœne, or The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson might well be termed The Crying Game of Renaissance drama. Every act, every scene and, indeed, every single word of Jonson’s comedy leads to the culminating act which reveals the Epicene is not only undeserving of the silence attributed to her within the subtitle, she is not even deserving of the woman part!
Just as in The Crying Game, the big revelatory moment of Jonson’s satire is the startling admission by the audience that it has been fooled. Of course, one must keep in mind that one of the reasons a play noted British poet John Dryden singled out as the most sublimely plotted of all stage comedies has not been as routinely performed for audiences since Dryden’s day as even the most forgettable of Shakespeare’s comedies is that fooling an audience into believing a male actor is a female character was infinitely easier back when actual female characters were always played by male actors. With the addition of the word “actress” to the lexicon of the stage, the casting of the play’s silent “woman” became infinitely trickier even for those audiences unfamiliar with the play’s delightfully unforeseen twist. By the end of the 18th century, Epicœne had pretty much exhausted its popularity and has only rarely enjoyed successful revivals.
While the play’s culminating shock of the revelation of identity looks forward to the similar—if far more incendiary and explicit—disclosure in The Crying Game, its author looked back into history for inspiration. The main plot mechanism of its main character—with the unlikely name of Morose—being something a precursor to the Grinch in his incapacity to withstand incessant noise with any good humor only to find himself saddled with a wife who will not stop chattering was lifted almost intact from the circumstance laid out in the Sixth Declamation of Libanius. (Libanius was a representative of one of Plato’s most useless of rhetoricians: a Sophist.) The climax of gender revelation harkens back to a plot device utilized by Titus Maccius Plautus in a comedy titled Casina.
One interesting historical influence on the play concerns the reaction to its original production by one Lady Arabella Stuart who infamous complained that Epicœne “introduced an allusion to her person and the part played by the Prince of Moldavia.” This complaint actually resulted in the Epicœne, or The Silent Woman being suppressed from production for a short period. And who was this apparently powerful Lady Arabella? The great-great-granddaughter of King Henry VII, cousin to Queen Elizabeth and pretty high up on the list of heirs to the British throne. Far more fascinating, however, is the fact that after being imprisoned for the crime of getting married without first receiving permission from King James, Lady Arabella succeeded in a daring escape plan by…disguising herself as a man!