- Widows and Suitors in Early Modern English Comedy
Both threatening and desirable, independent yet vulnerable - her wealth bequeathing her a relative freedom from patriarchal control while at the same time making her a target for the most unscrupulous of fortune-hunters - the figure of the widow mobilized a whole series of anxieties and fantasies in the early modern period: a fact that, as this book sets out with admirable clarity, accounts in large part for her ubiquitous appearance in the city comedy and popular ballad literature of the time. Unerringly displaying her New Historicist credentials and methodology, Jennifer Panek reads the widow-narratives and remarriage-plots of Chapman, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton, Deloney, and others for the 'ideological work' they do in addressing these specifically male fantasies and fears, rather as Richard Helgerson once interpreted the 'prodigal' literature of the earlier Elizabethan period. She starts out by challenging the prevailing view that widow-plots articulated a basic cultural disapproval of remarriage on the grounds that it diluted the patrimony and cast doubt on the widow's fidelity to her first husband. While endemic in Catholic Europe, especially Italy and France, such attitudes were not reflected in English custom and practice, and Panek argues convincingly that the heavy prohibition of remarriage in, say, The Duchess of Malfi would have been [End Page 247] recognized by the contemporary audience as indicative of an alien and foreign culture.
The first three chapters of this book make the case that the widow-plots of early modern ballads and plays aimed rather at encouraging remarriage, principally by activating the fantasy by which a man (typically young and impecunious) not only gets rich quick but, more specifically, reasserts his control over this financially independent and sexually experienced woman by reducing her to the stereotype of the 'lusty widow.' The threat she potentially posed to the male ego and patriarchal economy thereby finds itself neutralized, and conventional gender roles are restored once more through a glorification of male sexual mastery. Subsequent chapters, however, go on to probe and scrutinize this thesis further, seeking to account for the more common view of sexual activity as degrading and effeminizing - a cultural coding that, in turn, threatens the compensatory fiction that had used widow-plots to put men back 'on top.' The final two chapters thus investigate the inherent instability of such cultural fantasies, for male social and sexual anxieties are not, it turns out, so easily assuaged. The texts examined here, such as Deloney's Jack of Newbury, are shown desperately trying (if not wholly succeeding) to re-contain such fears by developing as the 'ultimate fantasy' the somewhat more sinister narrative in which, having made her second husband's fortune, the widow then conveniently dies, leaving him not only rich but free. By seeing such fantasies of mastery as fundamentally unstable - as liable to slip and slide, and in need of constant maintenance - this book effectively eschews any simplistic reading of such texts as mere 'morality plays' and argues instead for their interest as documents that illuminate the complexities and contradictions of their culture.
Panek's crowning chapter looks at three plays by Middleton - a playwright curiously obsessed with widow-plots - showing how he demands of his audience an exceptional degree of intelligence and sophistication as he employs a multilevelled metatheatrical wit in order to expose the fantasy of male social and sexual mastery for the cultural construction that it is. This overall trajectory, putting the complex into the simple, is the most satisfying thing about the book, my only quibble being that it does not extend as far as challenging the model of 'anxious masculinity' which (explicitly based on the work of Mark Breitenberg, and, in turn, on that of Stephen Greenblatt), remains relatively simple throughout. This seems surprising when the insistence on reading questions of 'anxiety' and 'identity' as social rather than psychic phenomena has, in the light of more sophisticated psychoanalytic models of fantasy formation, come under increasing criticism over the last twenty years, and when ground-breaking work particularly in the...