Epicoene, Women, and the Language of the City
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Epicoene is a play about talking. Witty talk, foolish talk, talk suffused with affectation, eloquence, gossip, or innuendo-Epicoene encompasses them all in its vivid equation of the city and talking. Such a structuring of London by speech is an exuberant as well as uneasy proposition, and this tension is central to Epicoene’s significance as a staging of the relationship between the vernacular and the city. On one hand, everyday speech, and by extension its setting, is vital and human; any society that can exist without the intercourse of speech is, at best, arid and, at worst, sociopathic. On the other hand, the same speech easily becomes excessive, noisy, and threatening of order in its unruliness. As described in chapter one, this concern was not unique to Jonson, but Epicoene’s configuration of this urban tension in particularly gendered terms makes a significant connection of gender to language as an additional variable of social coherence. This chapter confronts Epicoene’s city talk in terms of the growing role of women as ‘city-talkers,’ arguing that the play’s concerns for language and the city reflect anxieties about women’s place in a changing society that are encompassed by women as speakers. The “silent woman” is not simply an ironic joke; it evokes and sets in motion a whole set of issues about women and language that includes questions of speech, silence, and levels of literacy, as well as the gender-inflected problem of language treated and commodified as mere fashion. The words, below, of one of the play’s memorable female speakers provide a useful encapsulation of these topoi with which to begin:
Yes, sir, anything I do but dream o’ the city. It stained me a damask table-cloth, cost me eighteen pound at one time, and burnt me a black satin gown as I stood by the fire at my Lady Centaure’s chamber in the college another time. A third time, at the lord’s masque, it dropped all my wire and my ruff with
wax candle, that I could not go up to the banquet. A fourth time, as I was taking coach to go to Ware to meet a friend, it dashed me a new suit all over-a crimson satin doublet and black velvet skirtswith a brewer’s horse, that I was fain to go in and shift me, and kept my chamber a leash of days for the anguish of it.1 (III.ii.57-66)
With these words Epicoene’s Mistress Otter offers us a London characterized by both fashion and social mishap. A preoccupation with fashion dominates this picture, and Mistress Otter vividly uses the sartorial in her approximation of sophisticated discourse. The Mistress’s confused attempt to make sophisticated conversation with the gentlemen Truewit, Clerimont, and Dauphine reflects her striving through language that is literally fashion as she describes fine “damask,” “black satin,” and the hazards of elaborate ruffs and their structuring wires. There is a non sequitur quality to her speech as she launches unbidden into this description of her sartorial misfortunes at the hands of the city. But the inanity of this woman’s effort to style herself via her language also offers an implicit critique of a language that is itself styled by fashion. Mistress Otter is in some respects an ancillary figure to the central plot of Epicoene. These brief lines signal her centrality to the play’s thematics, however, as they frame concerns with language as fashion and with levels of eloquence and literacy.