Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Death's Release: Comedy and the Erotics of the Grave in the Widow's Tears

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Death's Release: Comedy and the Erotics of the Grave in the Widow's Tears

Article excerpt

The grave's a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace.

--Andrew Marvel (1)

comedy is really about death and dying

--Marjorie Garber (2)

The animal dies. But the death of the animal is the becoming of consciousness.

--Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (3)

George Chapman's comedy The Widow's Tears (1612) depicts the tomb as an erotically charged space that operates as the proving ground for female chastity. Although the play initially appears to reproduce prevailing ideologies about the lustful widow, its female protagonist, Cynthia, instead gestures towards a self-determined future no longer circumscribed by conventional stereotypes. The site of Cynthia's struggle with her husband Lysander is a tomb, and its (presumed) corpse functions as the focal point of an erotic triangle. By exploiting the graveyard setting, and in particular the symbolic value of the corpse, Chapman reconfigures early modern widowhood within a framework in which the erotic and thanatotic converge.

Early Modern Widows

The status of the widow in early modern culture was a matter of contestation. On one hand, the widow was a threatening figure, because she was no longer under male marital control either in her sexual appetites or her social position. The stereotype of the sexually incontinent widow, eager to discard her mourning weeds in favor of the wedding sheets of a virile suitor, was, in fact, pervasive, and formed the basis for one of the theater's most popular stock characters. This sterotype implied that such a widow, particularly if relatively young, could potentially emasculate a would-be suitor through her previous sexual experience. As Lawrence Stone puts it:

   it was generally assumed that young widows, suddenly deprived of
   regular sexual satisfaction by the loss of a husband, were likely
   to be driven by lust in their search for a replacement ... Suitors
   of widows were expected to make aggressive sexual advances, unlike
   suitors of virgins, who in upper-class circles were virtually
   untouchable before marriage. (281-82) (4)

Although easy to mock, the image of the lusty widow betrayed a deep cultural discomfort with unfettered female sexuality.

Further, the widow's unmoored status threatened the ideology that undergirded Protestant companionate marriage. Ostensibly, companionate marriage offered an equalization of the genders as it "assumed that the wife was capable of the sympathy, understanding and intelligence necessary to maintain her side of the partnership" (Honig 64). (5) Edmund Tilney's advice to suitors in his conduct book would seem to support this notion: "Let hir person be sought, not hir substance, crave hir vertues, not hir riches, then shall there be a joyfull beginning, and a blessed continuance in amitie, by which all things shall prosper, and come to happie ende" (111). (6) But Tilney's idea of an intellectually and emotionally prosperous union does not comprise two hearts and two minds; on the contrary, he advocates a companionate marriage that absorbs the female spouse into the male:

   In this long, and troublesome journey of matrimonie, the wise man
   maye not be contented onely with his spouses virginitie, but by
   little and little must gently procure that he maye also steale away
   hir private will, and appetite, so that of two bodies there may be
   made one onelye hart, which she will soone doe, if love raigne in
   hir. (112)

True accord in a marriage is achieved only when the husband has grafted his wife's will onto his own, not so much through subjugation as by drawing her will into sympathetic agreement with his.

But what happens to the woman whose autonomy has been subsumed by her husband if she finds herself widowed? In a revealing analysis of Hans Eworth's Tudor portrait of the widow Lady Dacre, Elizabeth Honig suggests that portraits of widows in the gentry and aristocracy bear their late husbands' masculine qualities. …

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