Criticism of The Silent Woman in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

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      Dryden was the first English critic to break away from the theoretical and legislative molds to pioneer what is called practical or comparative criticism. Dryden’s wide reading and acute judgment certainly qualified him to make comparative estimates of literature. For the first time in the history of English literature, Dryden resorted to descriptive criticism and literary analysis and thus established himself as the first modem critic.

      In his examen of Jonson’s The Silent Woman in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, we get perhaps the first elaborate critical analysis of a literary work in English—something quite new, as Saintsbury, Watson and Daiches point out.

      Neander’s examen of ‘The Silent Woman’. After having argued against Lisideius and contended that English drama had merits superior to the French, Neander goes on to examine Ben Jonson’s The Silent Woman to show that the English could write plays as regular as the French, while embodying variety of characters as well.

      Observance of the unities. In The Silent Woman the unity of time has been so punctiliously observed that the entire action takes place in about three and a half hours—approximately the time required for its presentation on stage. This is even better than confining one’s action to the compass of a day. As for the unity of place, the action observes it by confining itself to just two houses in the city of London. The continuity of scenes is observed better than in any other English play, except Jonson’s own Fox and Alchemist. The unity of action is present. There is only one single action or plot, the end of which is the settling of Morose’s estate by Dauphine his nephew. The intrigue of it is the greatest and most noble of pure comedy in any language.

      Characterization: variety of ‘humors’ all relevant to action. Ben Jonson has presented a variety of characters, of different touches of humor, in the play. Morose is an old man whose humor is dislike of all noise except his own talking. Neander disagrees with critics who consider this a forced humor. He points out that it is not unnatural in a man who is old, lonely, ill-tempered and despotic. Furthermore, Ben Jonson was reportedly acquainted in person with such a man on whom the portraiture of Morose is based. Neander also refutes those critics who point out that such a humor is unnatural because it is peculiar to one man and thus not common. These critics cite Falstaff as a great comic character, resembling many men as he does in his lying, swearing, drunkenness, cowardice, etc. Neander points out that ‘humor’ by its very definition is “the ridiculous extravagance of conversation, wherein one man differs from all others”; if it is common and general, the quality ceases to be a ‘humor’. Falstaff, says Neander with acute judgment, is “a miscellany of humors or images, drawn from so many several men”—therein lies his comic effect.

      Besides Morose there are at least nine or ten different characters and humor in The Silent Woman. Thus there is variety of characters and senses of humor. And each of them is used by the poet to carry forward the main action to its successful end. Jonson’s skill at managing the plot is to be commended. There is more wit and acuteness of fancy in this play than in any other play by Jonson. The writer has further imitated the conversation of gentlemen with greater truth, gaiety and freedom than in any of his other plays.

      Ben Jonson has further shown his skill at the presentation of his characters; he introduces the most interesting with a pleasant description before they make an appearance on stage. Thus the audience is favorably inclined towards them and looks forward to meeting them. What is more, this method ensures that no part of their ‘humor’ is lost on the audience.

      Skillful management of plot. The plot contrivance in the play is commendable as it is extremely elaborate and the complexity is unraveled with case and skill by the author. The truth cannot be guessed till the very last moment, but when it is disclosed it appears inevitable. The contrivance is all the more to be admired because the play is a comedy and the characters and their actions are ordinary and common. The author has succeeded in making the commonplace interesting and effective. The action follows a rising upward movement, each successive act being more effective and absorbing than the previous one. Fresh difficulties arise in every scene, and suspense is maintained to the very end. To add to the interest of the play, fresh characters have been introduced even in the second and third acts. These characters are involved in under-plots or episodes which move along with the main action, impart variety and interest to the play. However, these under-plots are kept subordinate to the main action and do not interfere with it. Ben Jonson is thus successful in avoiding monotony even as he keeps the plays a single whole, coherent and regular.

      Conclusion. The critical analysis of The Silent Woman is a technical achievement of a high order, as David Daiches observes. The play is not just a good play to Dryden, it is “the pattern of a perfect play.’’. The examen of the play is conducted within the framework of a legislative treatise. It is true, as George Watson points out, that Dryden’s criticism is inaccurate when the facts do not suit the story he is determined to tell. Thus his endeavor to try and make The Silent Woman fit the rule of the unities distorts facts. In any case, we wonder, why try to make the play follow the unities when by Dryden’s own admission it is only a small fault to ignore the unities? The analysis may seem sketchy, patchy, even immature by twentieth-century standards. But we must remember that Dryden’s effort was a pioneering effort. In its attempt at comparative criticism, in its balancing of the qualities of the English drama against those of the French, the examen achieves a unique triumph in criticism in English.

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