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W it W ith ou t M oney: A Fletcherian Antecedent to K eep the W idow W akin g Charles R. Forker In 1927, C. J. Sisson published his now famous reconstruc­ tion of the two sordid London scandals which prompted Dekker, Rowley, Ford, and Webster to collaborate on a popular drama, now lost, called Keep the Widow Waking. The play was first presented at the Red Bull in 1624. Its farcical subplot merci­ lessly ridiculed a widow of means, one Anne Elsdon, who had been tricked into marriage by a disreputable tobacconist, Tobias Audley. Audley with the help of four seedy accomplices had lured Mrs. Elsdon to a drinking party, got her drunk, and after keeping her inebriated for nearly a week, not only forced her to sleep with and marry him, but ransacked her house of all valuables. The title of a broadside ballad, obviously written to advertise the play and further humiliate Mrs. Elsdon, reveals the playwrights’ handling of their subject, for it is called “keep­ ing the widow wakeing or lett him that is poore and to wealth would aspire gett some old rich widdowe and grow wealthye by her, to the tune of the blazing torch.”1 The ballad, which gives the play’s underplot in outline, celebrates the resourceful ingenuity of the young husband-to-be and tells of how he bests three rivals for the widow’s hand, winning the prize himself by his superior wit. The final stanza of the ballad underscores the crude profit-ethic which characterized Audey’s behavior in life and which clearly delighted audiences when it was reenacted on the stage: Therefore lett yong men that are poore, come take example here, And you whoe faine would heare the full discourse of this match makeing, The play will teach you at the Bull, to keepe the widdow wakeing.2 172 Charles R. Forker 173 The phrase which gave the play its title and which also serves as the refrain of the ballad had long since become notori­ ous as a kind of jocose shorthand for that bawdily familiar situ­ ation in which a clever young adventurer exploits a dullerminded widow, suddenly taking possession of both her body and her money in a single maneuver. G. B. Harrison, in an arti­ cle published a few years after Sisson’s, called attention to an earlier instance of widow-baiting, which gave one Oliver Oatmeale (in a satirical pamphlet on the affair) an occasion for the same salacious joke.3 We learn from Oatmeale how in 1594/95 an unscrupulous grocer named Peters conspired with a man called Vaughan and a professional confidence-woman known as Doll Phillips to relieve the widow Mescall, a London tripe-seller, of her savings and property, at the same time compelling her to submit to various lewd and superstitious indignities. Like Anne Elsdon, her later counterpart, Mrs. Mescall was made drunk, detained at a place away from her own home, and ultimately forced into a marriage with the duplicitous grocer, who then bragged shamelessly of his conquest. Doll Phillips, who sounds from the evidence as though she might well be the original of Jonson’s Doll Common, insinuated herself into Mrs. Mescall’s house by pretending to bear a letter from a distant friend and by appeal­ ing to the widow’s belief in the promise of hidden treasure from the Queen of the Fairies.4 Before tricking the old woman out of her gold and jewelry, Doll seems to have performed an operation upon her which can only be described as a sixteenthcentury rape of the lock. Having induced Mrs. Mescall to part with an intimate love-token, Doll apparently cut it with shears from the woman’s pubic hair; “for want of a chaire, such as men vse to sit in when they are trimde,” writes Oatmeale, the absurd victim appears to have been persuaded by her “vpstart Barbar” to “aduance one foote vpon a Treuot [i.e., a tripod], and make the other leg standing foolishly by, accessarie to the others intollerable follie.”5 Jeffrey Kexon, an irreverent balladmonger of the period, immortalized this unseemly incident in some doggerel verses which...


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pp. 172-183
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