"A Fine and Private Place": Chapman's Theatrical Widow

By Hodgson, Elizabeth | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

"A Fine and Private Place": Chapman's Theatrical Widow


Hodgson, Elizabeth, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


I.

MARVELL underestimates the amorous imagination when he says that "the grave's a fine and private place, / But none ... do there embrace." In Bartholomew Fair Quarlous argues almost the opposite, that suitors must "visit [a widow] as thou wouldst doe a Tombe, with a Torch ... flaming hot." (1) Sex in the cemetery, it seems, is not an impossibility but a positive convention. (2) The eroticized widow, that epitome of the sexual attractiveness of grief and a standby in early modern drama, is rendered still more dramatic when she is encountered in the graveyard itself. Here both setting and role make her a walking social embodiment of the very idea of secret desire. Her veiled disguise, her carefully managed enactment of sorrow, her curiously masked and anomalously public social role, and especially her public sexual secrecy all make her a figure whose private interiority is urgently in question. In Jacobean tragicomedies, this disguised self-dramatization means that the widow in a tomb raises in her most complicated characterizations the same questions about embodied performance that playwrights asked of drama itself. Chapman's play The Widow's Tears (ca. 1605) offers fascinating insights into these concerns, as in it Chapman questions the sexual privacy of the tomb and the widow who symbolizes it by creating an extended graveyard-performance within the play itself, one which invents the most extravagantly sexualized widow's grief imaginable while theatricalizing and burying its meaning from the scrutiny of the inquisitorial characters and from the audience. (3) More explicitly and yet more ambiguously than Shakespeare does in Hamlet, Chapman's whole play-structure questions whether anything can really be known about a widow's love and grief through its analogy to dramatic performance itself. With a theatrical test more personally enacted than Hamlet's professional players', Chapman's characters stage-manage a test of a widow's loyalty in the charnel-house. In Chapman's hands the "play-memorial" of Shakespeare's revenge-tragedy becomes instead a much more realistically enacted "theatrical fiction," paradoxically much less transparent than Hamlet's staged "images of the occluded truth" (Neill 259). Chapman's play has been particularly elusive of judgment precisely because The Widow's Tears' reinvention of a popular widow-narrative so closely interweaves the inscrutability assigned to womanly grief and the inscrutability of a theatrical performance. Reenacting the "Widow of Ephesus" legend which forms his central source and citing the idiom of performance so visible in conductbooks for widows, Chapman engages in but also challenges cultural efforts to locate a widow's meaning by pressing the relationship between her affect and performativity tout court. (4)

Francis Barker, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and others have argued for the complex interrelationships between theatricality and different ideologies of inwardness and privacy in the period, and this particular play by Chapman pursues similar questions in relation to the particularly troubling subject of a widowed woman's sexual value and meaning. (5) The double meanings of those theatrical categories which suggest both revelation and concealment ("perform," "act," "show") are invoked in relation to feminine knowability, a question which the play asks on both linguistic and structural levels through the figure of the widow. Chapman is after a more profound question than Hamlet's of how to understand or how to judge widows. (6) Not just a simple satire, either, of womanly constancy or of "the ideal of widowhood," (7) Chapman's play, through its explicit dramatizations of cemetery-seductions, questions the very meaning of such a "discovery." The impossibility and inadvisability of seeing through the widow's tears, or The Widow's Tears, on all of these levels, would seem to be Chapman's point. (8) The misogynist assertion of woman's doubleness (9) and the ideological privileging of inwardness collide with particular force in the presence of the widow's tears, especially as Chapman stages such a direct intersection of theatrical and widowly performativity.

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