The Ovids of Ben Jonson in Poetaster and in Epicoene


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In a seminal article on Jonson's use of classical material in Epicoene, Jonas Barish described the play as Jonson's attempt to reconcile the courtly "alien spirit" of Ovid and the "more kindred satiric attitude of Juvenal." The result, according to Barish, is dissonance; Epicoene contains "a series of brilliant discords, which ... fail to fuse into a unified whole."1 Barish's thesis has since been criticized,2 and the vulnerability of his argument to such criticism is clear. To begin with, a negative judgment as to the play's unity violates the history of the play's critical reception. Neander, in Dryden's An Essay of Dramatick Poesie, described the play as follows: "The action of the Play is intirely one; ... The Intrigue of it is the greatest and most noble of any pure unmix'd Comedy in any Language."3 Neander's opinion may not be definitive, nor is it necessarily Dryden's own; but it is one Dryden at least considered legitimate and one Barish's essay cannot account for. Furthermore, to "prove" dissonance is less easy than to "prove" unity-the critic arguing for unity always has two basic facts on which to ground his argument: the text itself, printed and read as a single unit, and any performance of the entire text. A play cannot be "proved" to have no unity without denying the validity of both text and performance. Yet as long as the play continues to be published as a single unit and continues to be read at one sitting, such unity has no particular need of a critical defense. The critical responses to the play, both negative and positive, are not so much attacks and defenses of the aesthetics of the play as explorations into the various facets of the text which reflect or constitute its basic unity-a unity which may be described as constituted by the author who wrote this unit, the text which preserves it, or by the audience that acknowledges this unit and the publishers who transmit the text.

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