"Things like Truths, Well Feigned": Mimesis and Secrecy in Jonson's Epicoene

By Sanchez, Reuben | Comparative Drama, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

"Things like Truths, Well Feigned": Mimesis and Secrecy in Jonson's Epicoene


Sanchez, Reuben, Comparative Drama


I

In The Light in Troy, Thomas M. Greene takes as his subject "the literary uses of imitatio during the Renaissance, but emphasizes as well that these "uses" extended beyond the literary to many other areas of educational, aesthetic, artistic, and political expression. (1) We do not know why imitatio, known as mimesis to the Greeks, became so pervasive, nor do we know why it eventually faded in significance, but we do know that it remained in Ben Jonson's time a central concern for theorists and artists alike. (2) For example, the significance of imitatio may be seen most clearly in a play like Jonson's Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (first performed December 1609 or January 1610); from start to finish it is, after all, a play about imitation, and it is difficult to believe Jonson does not intend to offer a critique of imitatio via this problem play. On the one hand, he is in keeping with the dominant precept of his age. On the other hand, he intentionally and paradoxically uses that precept as avenue and obstacle to understanding. Jonson's critique of imitatio is given its vitality by means of his understanding of the Renaissance concept of secrecy. By combining imitatio and secrecy, Jonson at once acknowledges his debt to Aristotle and Sidney and yet, as artist and theorist, avoids relying too heavily upon them. (3)

Jonson, of course, recognizes and appreciates what Aristotle and Sidney meant by imitation, but the manner in which he practices that art exhibits his independence from both, and therefore his interest in originality. After all, in Discoveries he contends that one must remain vigilant regarding the dangers of imitation:

   Nothing is more ridiculous than to make an author a dictator, as the
   Schools have done Aristotle. The damage is infinite knowledge
   receives by it; for to many things a man should owe but a temporary
   belief, and a suspension of his own judgement, not an absolute
   resignation of himself, or a perpetual captivity. Let Aristotle
   and others have their dues, but if we can make farther discoveries
   of truth and fitness than they, why are we envied? Let us
   beware, while we strive to add, we do not diminish, or
   deface; we may improve, but not augment. (4)

Jonson strikes a balance between a recognized poetics and one's own attempt at "discoveries" strikes a balance, that is, between what Greene calls the "opposition originality/imitation" (5) While Jonson acknowledges that one might learn from, add to, or improve upon Aristotle, he departs from Aristotle where he practices the art of imitation in Epicoene by presenting a patently false "speaking picture."

Though the Latin term imitatio was dominant during the Renaissance, Jonson prefers the Greek mimesis; further, Jonson is not as interested in relying upon Juan Luis Vives or Roger Ascham, two of the better- known theorists regarding imitation, as he is in relying upon Aristotle. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines mimesis as the imitation of three different types of human action, or praxis: the imitation of thinking (as in dialogue and soliloquy), the imitation of physical actions leading to a specific result, and the imitation of genre and form. The first two types constitute the formal causes of poetry. But Renaissance humanists also believed that because it imitates rhetorical models, the third type of imitation could be considered rhetorical imitatio, the final cause of poetry. In The Defense of Poesy, Sidney alludes to both the formal and the final causes of poetry: "Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis--that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture--with this end, to teach and delight" (6) Like Sidney, Jonson believes that mimesis can be an aid to, or adjunct of, rhetoric, and therefore that the causes of poetry can be both formal and final. Although he differentiates between "poesy. …

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