Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

A Spirit of His Erection: Social Advancement in George Chapman's the Widow's Tears

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

A Spirit of His Erection: Social Advancement in George Chapman's the Widow's Tears

Article excerpt

GEORGE CHAPMAN'S The Widow's Tears may represent Renaissance comedy at its oddest and most disturbing. (1) At first blush the story (in the first three acts, which this essay will initially focus upon), presenting a former servant aggressively courting a widowed countess, seems to carry a genuinely subversive, if often distasteful, charge. Though "subversive" is an overworked word, the elevation of this character, Tharsalio, employs a toxic bundle of misogynist tropes as thin cover for the play's anti-establishment fantasy in which rootless masculine energy--sheer phallic aggression--overleaps all boundaries to make a man elite. For one example, after Tharsalio swears to the Countess Eudora that he will sexually "mount into my lord's succession, yet vow I never to assume other title, or state, than your servant's," he immediately breaks that promise and leverages his sexual succession into mastery of all the wealth, prestige, power, and privilege their marriage affords him (2.4.250-52). As the plot unfolds, the audience confronts a modified version of the romance-of-origins motif when Tharsalio's wedding masque reveals that his own family long ago possessed the palace where he has served. Unlike the conventional romance-o-forigins paradigm, no one discovers a foundling's parentage. Instead (and this is a crucial point), the full story of the historical status of Tharsalio's family is merely a fact obscured and withheld from the spectator or reader; however, this fact fails to carry any weight in the represented world of the play so long as he is just a poor younger brother in a gentle but decayed family. Thus, although Tharsalio does insist from the start that he possesses "gentry" as a quality in his favor (1.2.88), everyone from the Countess herself to Tharsalio's own family considers his courtship to be a shocking violation of social decorum and class endogamy. In sum, the first three acts of Chapman's play represent a marriage that, in its paradoxes, appears as both a picaresque fantasy of a social upstart and as a myth of the enduring greatness of the elite, the delayed but inevitable triumph of dynastic inheritance. Following Fredric Jameson, this essay will demonstrate how the play's ambivalences constitute aesthetic resolutions to specific social contradictions of early modern status, enlisting a genre synthesis that attempts to symbolically transform common cultural scripts about social advancement. The play offers a snapshot of evolving literary genres harnessed by a social formation grappling with changes in the ways people perceived and experienced hierarchy, mobility, and status. While structural and generic peculiarities create opportunities for the representation of Tharsalio as an odd hybrid--an anti-hierarchical patriarch, brashly stealing the elite status he theoretically always innately held--the play ultimately must use misogyny to more fully cloak and disperse its anti-patriarchal impulses, a point further stressed in this essay's concluding account of acts 4 and 5.

The play's central ambiguity--that Tharsalio is both an upstart and an aristocrat--contributes to the mixed critical reaction to The Widow's Tears. Whether they praise the play or recoil from it, critics struggle to express the contradictory impulses of the text, alternately dark and comic, bitter and triumphant, and often stubbornly inconsistent. The observation that "paradox is at the play's core" strikes a ubiquitous critical note. (2) Even critics who propose totalizing readings acknowledge that "the play seems to pull us in two directions at once" or that it is "mixed and puzzling." (3) Samuel Schoenbaum points out "the disquieting effect left by this mirthless comedy," in which Chapman "sought the elusive resolution of his own contradictions." (4) This essay builds on Schoenbaum's assessment, but it focuses on social contradictions and resolutions rather than biographical ones. (5)

What follows will move from an initial thematic reading to an unabashedly structuralist interpretation of the paradoxical Tharsalio narrative before recontextualizing it in history. …

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