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Masque of Owls: Textual Essay

James Knowles

The Masque of Owls was printed in F2(3) on sigs. S1-2 (pp. 125-8) and reprinted in F3 on 3N3r-v. F2 contains one error (the date of performance), one misplaced and misunderstood heading (‘The third, varied’ (165), treated as if it were simply part of a speech and set to the right of the column), and two misprints (‘Prinee’ for ‘Prince’ (2) and ‘peney’ for ‘penny’ (94)). At 88, the metre requires ‘they’re’, but F2 prints ‘they are’ (which is itself, as H&S suggest, probably an error for ‘they’are’). In addition, F2 indents 52 unnecessarily, omits a space in ‘soagen’ (80), and has three misplaced hyphens (‘maine-shire’ 62, ‘all-be-wrought’ 129, and ‘Bird-bringer’ 157). These errors were present in all copies collated. F3 corrects 2, 80, and 94.

There is no clear provenance for this text, and its briefness makes comment on the underlying base-text difficult. The use of hyphenated forms (129 and 157) and the unusual ‘little-little’ (85) are features that might be connected to Jonson’s own manuscript as they repeat his particular use of hyphens. By the same token the imitation of classical metre in ‘whis-|per’ (167-8), also found in Sej., 2.361-2, might equally reflect Jonson’s own hand. The most telling feature, however, remains the inclusion of the original and varied versions of the Third Owl (115-34, 165-78), which strongly suggests that the copy comes from Jonson’s own manuscripts, or possibly those of a close associate. The case is analogous to the revised version of Pleasure Rec. (with Wales added) as presented in F2, with the evasive comment, ‘This pleased the king so well, as he would see it again, when it was presented with these additions’ (305-6). The documents surrounding Pleasure Rec. suggest otherwise, and it may be that, if we had such contemporary descriptions of Owls, we might have a clearer sense of whether ‘The third, varied’ represents an alternative version simply found amongst Jonson’s drafts after his death or whether the substitution of lines performed in the varied version 165-78 for 115-34 was the result of censorship. Orgel ( Masques, 431 ) argues the original lines ‘would have been found offensive’ in puritan Coventry and that 165-78 were ‘evidently substituted in the original performance’.

If this were the case, Owls would present interesting, and neglected, testimony to the contemporary pressures Jonson faced in his masque production, although the absence of the kind of glossarial comment found in Pleasure Rec. (along with the lack of SDs, the incorrect date, and so on) might equally suggest that the text was never prepared for publication. Alternatively, the retention of the Third Owl’s substitute speech at the end of the text and the ambiguous ‘varied’ heading might also, as with Bolsover, indicate the ways Jonson used to deploy print to circumvent censorship generated by the immediate circumstances of performance. (The original speech could have simply been suppressed and the ‘varied’ version silently substituted.) Here, in contradiction to the usual sense that more exclusive manuscript circulation permits the publication of sensitive material, it is the public forum of print that allows Jonson to voice his more controversial thoughts. Of course, the publication of such satire would be helped by the likelihood that the probable targets would either be dead or in no position to object to the satire.

The CWBJ text follows F2, accepting the emendations of ‘his’ for ‘this’ (41) and ‘they’re’ for ‘they are’ (88), and treats 165 as a heading.

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