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WITHIN the last decade editions of Ben Jonsonsingle plays and groups of plays-have multiplied with significant rapidity. Epicæne, as the most popular comedy of the great Elizabethan, should not be the last to be accorded the dignity of a separate volume. Contemporary popularity may not indicate the presence of lasting qualities of art. Epicæne, however, of all Ben Jonson's dramas, was not only listened to with most pleasure in its author's day, but it held the stage longest, and is now best known to the general reader. Such popularity must spring from positive artistic merits. Epicæne does not stand first in intellectual grasp or moral greatness; its satire has the tone of ridicule rather than moral indignation. But its intrigue is the finest Jonson ever contrived; it contains some of the most inimitable of his comic characters, and at least one of the best situations any comedy affords; it reflects with due subordination to plot the manners of its age, and merits thereby the distinction of being the first comedy of manners in English; it is of perennially comic force, infinite in wit, and pervaded by a spirit more nearly gay than any other work of its author. In addition to these excellences, and in part because of them, Epicæne is to-day the most actable stage-piece from Jonson's pen.
This comedy is in no sense difficult to read and enjoy, but thorough study discloses in it depth and meaning which serious students seldom recognize, and casual readers entirely overlook. The realistic portrayal of manners leads one to a better understanding of the life and mind of the early seventeenth century in England, the satire on false criticism of poets and poetry conduce to a clearer knowledge of Jonson's critical theories, the admirable mechanical structure exemplifies the extreme of classic influence in English comedy, and the heterogeneous sources emphasize once more the fact of the author's unparalleled scholarship and illustrate the manner in which he appropriated and adapted ancient material to his use. Moreover, a unique opportunity is here afforded for the study of Jonson's prose style. His other prose comedy, Bartholomew Fair, is in the vernacular of Smithfield, but Epicæne, with its men and women of fashion, is in the speech of the better quarters of London, and is distinguished by Latin phraseology, and by constructions and a vocabulary, which prove that the influence exerted upon Jonson by the classics was one not only of idea and technique, but of linguistic expression as well.
To enable students to approach Ben Jonson through an authentic text of Epicæne, and to facilitate such considerations of the comedy and its author as are here suggested, is the purpose of the present edition.
I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Albert S. Cook for his continual interest and help in my work; and to other members of Yale University for their kindly assistance - Professor Thomas R. Lounsbury, Professor William Lyons Phelps, and Mr. Andrew Keogh; also to Professor Frederick M. Padelford, of the University of Washington, and Mr. Frederick J. Teggart, of the Mechanics' Library of San Francisco.
A portion of the expense of printing this thesis has been borne by the Modern Language Club of Yale University, from funds placed at its disposal by the generosity of Mr. George E. Dimock, of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a graduate of Yale in the class of 1874.
A. H. BRITISH MUSEUM,
January 2, 1906.