The third Jonson play I've read, Epicoene is hilarious. I actually laughed out loud a few times when reading it. It is also strangely hard to get into. If I stopped reading for a moment to answer the phone or ask the Internet a question, I returned to it and it seemed like a different language; I just had to beat my brain against it until it let me back in.
These two characteristics might be connected. The plot is pretty complex, there are a lot of (very talkative) characters, and it repeatedly makes reference to really specific cultural "inside jokes," like the references to the College of women, which I'm still not sure I get. The resulting banter is funny, but you look away for a second and you get lost.
And, somewhat unfortunately, most of the humor is woman-bashing. In this play, women are assumed (and ultimately, proven) to be loud, over-talkative, ignorant, lascivious, and false (in the sense that their hair is false, their teeth are false, their faces are painted, etc.). The play begins with a discourse between two men on women's toilette habits. One of the men, Clerimont, despises "pieced beauty," preferring simplicity in dress and adornment (and, presumably, makeup). Truewit loves "good dressing" and would rather, if a woman has some physical imperfection, that she take any steps necessary to hide it.
Truewit maintains that women's art of adornment should be kept private, however, to maintain the illusion (on both sides) that it is natural beauty. But the play is itself an "outing" of fashion and feminine adornment. It describes many ways in which women might make themselves more beautiful and appealing--wearing perukes (little wigs), getting false eyebrows and teeth, painting their face to hide their complexion, getting their nails done, hiding bad breath by not talking unless eating, using oil, birdlime, asses' milk, and other strange concoctions for cleaning and purifying the face, wearing clothes in the latest fashion (which can change fortnightly) so that she can "come forth varied like Nature." Even Morose, the misanthropic rich uncle, can describe ladies' fashion in minutest detail: "that bodice, those sleeves, those skirts, this cut, that stitch, this embroidery, that lace, this wire, those knots, that ruff, those roses, this girdle, that fan, the tother scarf, these glove."
This preoccupation with the artifice of feminine beauty makes for the funniest part of the play, in which Otter rails against wives, who are "nasty, sluttish animals . . . scurvy clogdogdo[s],. . . very foresaid bear-whelp[s]" and against his wife in particular. He says her hair piece is "like a pound of hemp made up in shoe-threads," that every piece of her was made somewhere in town, and that, at bedtime, she takes herself apart like a German clock, and puts the pieces into boxes. His wife, of course, hears him, begins to beat him, and just when we think that she is going to get proper revenge, Morose, the master of the house, comes down the steps brandishing a great sword at her, at which she runs away screaming.
Very funny stuff. But very misogynistic.
As is the main thrust of the play, which is about Morose, who cannot abide noise, marrying who he thinks is a silent woman. Epicoene ends up neither silent, nor a woman, but the fact that Morose must specify that his wife be silent, above all other things, indicates a deep-seated distaste for female talk. The other women in the play are over-talkative and loud; they come to the wedding and end up drawing Epicoene into their circle, making her just as brash, opinionated, and verbose as they are. Morose is devastated when he realizes that his wife is talkative; he gets visibly depressed, at which she exclaims "You are not well, sir! You look very ill! Something has distempered you." Morose says, "Would not one of these have served?" to which Truewit replies, "these are but notes of female kindness, sir." The fact that Epicoene repeats herself, babbling in supposed care of him, is kind but is also female. Women can't shut up and they don't say anything worth saying.
Truewit himself later says that women "are governed by crude opinion, without reason or cause; they know not why they do anything; but as they are informed, believe, judge, praise, condemn, love, hate, and in emulation one of another, do all these things alike." Women are stupid.
It seems like the central thrust of all of this is containment, curbing something natural and undesired. The natural female form, with all its imperfections, must be hidden, painted over, pulled out, and corrected. The natural female voice should be (but, alas, cannot be) silenced, made still. Even though Morose, Jack Daw, La Foole, Otter, and even Truewit are the butt of jokes as often as the women, the jokes themselves seem to be about women and how naturally annoying they are, how much correction they need.
There is another passage that I find really fascinating--a discourse on courting women between the three principal gallants, Truewit, Dauphine, and Clerimont. Truewit is the true wit here; he knows how to court. He knows that a man must go where women are, must use force if necessary (rape? because women like it?), and must use various means to court various women. In other words, a man must seem to be something he is not, if it will please the woman he courts. Women want lies more than truth, I guess, to get them into bed.
In the end, Epicoene is not a woman but a young gentleman dressed up as a woman to gull Morose into making a bad marriage so that his nephew, Dauphine, can arrange to be his heir. I'm not sure yet what to make of this. I think, somehow, it ties into the falseness of femininity. A not-woman can pass as a woman if he takes part in all the false rituals of daily toilette, and of the falseness (to a man) of womanly speech. This play is very much about "seeming."