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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001) 399-416
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The Widow Hunt on the Tudor-Stuart Stage
Early in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614), the gallant Quarlous advises a friend against seeking his fortune through "thy exercise of widdow-hunting":
There cannot be an ancient Tripe or Trillibub i' the Towne, but thou art straight nosing it, and 'tis a fine occupation thou'lt confine thy selfe to, when thou ha'st got one; scrubbing a piece of Buffe, as if thou hadst the perpetuity of Pannyer-alley to stinke in; or perhaps, worse, currying a carkasse, that thou hast bound thy selfe to aliue. I'll be sworne, some of them, (that thou art, or hast beene a Suitor to) are so old, as no chaste or marryed pleasure can euer become 'hem: the honest Instrument of procreation, has (forty yeeres since) left to belong to 'hem, thou must visit 'hem, as thou wouldst doe a Tombe, with a Torch, or three hand-fulls of Lincke, flaming hot, and so thou maist hap to make 'hem feele thee, and after, come to inherit according to thy inches. A sweet course for a man to waste the brand of life for, to be still raking himselfe a fortune in an old womans embers; we shall ha' thee, after thou hast beene but a moneth marryed to one of 'hem, looke like the quartane ague . . . For that will be thy legacy. She'll ha' conuey'd her state, safe enough from thee, an' she be a right widdow. 1 [End Page 399]
Quarlous expresses cruelly a reaction toward hunting a widow's fortune that, to me, goes without saying.
Beyond revulsion, Jonson's passage registers particularities of his era in multiple ways that merit consideration: the notion of gallants, likely younger sons of gentry or nobility, seeking fortunes by marrying rich, old widows, the presupposition of widowhood being the least encumbered status available to women, the envy among gallants over an independence for women who ought to be subordinate, the fear among gallants of failing to gain control of the money or losing independence because a widow outmaneuvers them, and the self-loathing of gallants over the need to undertake a degrading process combined with the attraction that the process proffers an easy mode of gaining wealth and victory. Thus, there is anticipation as well as surprise when Quarlous goes to no little trouble to marry the selfsame widow, Dame Purecraft, whom he has vilified: "Why should not I marry this sixe thousand pound, now I think on't? . . . Why should I not marry the money, when 'tis offer'd mee? . . . I were truly mad, an' I would not!" 2 Quarlous finally confesses that, however despicable, he embraces the widow hunt as he would any prize of the marriage mart. Moreover, afterward he gloats over outwitting other pursuers.
According to social historians, Quarlous's perspective, however common on stage, stands at odds with available data on widowhood from the era. Amy Louise Erickson calculates that "up to 45 per cent of all women could expect to be widowed some time in their lives," many at fairly young ages, and that remarriages constituted no less than twenty-five percent of all marriages (the highest proportion until the late twentieth century). 3 And a few plays seem to flesh out demographic data. John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Middleton's The Puritane; or, The Widow of Watling Street and Women Beware Women, Phillip Massinger's A New Way To Pay Old Debts, James Shirley's The Lady of Pleasure and Hyde Park, and Richard Brome's The Court Beggar focus on widows as people. But Bartholomew Fair, and many more plays, along with ballads and advice books, concentrate on widows as prey. These promote a set of stereotypes, paying so little heed to widows apart from objectification as financial and sexual goals that, not uncommonly, they remain unnamed, merely labeled for their role.
This lack of attention to widows as people cannot...