Jennifer Panek opens her book with the real life stories of two suitors,
each of whom wished to marry a widow. One gentleman, a doctor, imitated the
sexually aggressive suitors of comedy by climbing through her bedroom window
one night. The other rejected literary precedent, refused "to attempt any
dishonesty" (2) - and likewise failed to win the widow. In neither case, however,
is there any sign that the suitors in question evaluated the individual preferences
of their ladies. Instead, each began with the same "lusty widow" stereotype,
and evaluated it. From Panek's point of view, then, both stories illustrate
the degree to which early modern social and literary constructs about widows
evolved in lockstep, both influencing and distorting the evolution of the
In order to understand this relationship Panek argues in chapter one ("The
widow's choice") that remarrying widows were largely accepted even in Catholic
England, humanists like Vives notwithstanding. Beginning with Vivien Brodsky's
now famous study of Elizabethan marriage patterns and buttressing it with
the work of Boulton and Erickson, Panek establishes that marriage and dowry
patterns in England made such remarriages common in all ranks of life. They
also allowed English widows-unlike many on the continent-to choose their husbands
It is easy to see, then, how marriage with a widow of property might "make
a man" as contemporary writers were fond of saying (48-49). Yet if the evidence
from contemporary court cases, essays, plays and discourse are to be believed,
the threat posed by the widow's independence might just as easily 'unmake'
him. This is the subject of chapter two, "the widow's threat." Indeed, it
is the conflict between the opportunity widows represented and the anxiety
they caused that led to the literary resolutions of chapter three.
In "The suitor's fantasy," Panek argues that early modern comedy effectively
neutralized the anxieties of would-be suitors, both "enabling" marriage, and
misleading gentlemen such as the doctor of the opening pages. It accomplished
this, Panek says, by shifting attention away from aspects of widow-marriages
that threatened masculinity and focusing instead on "another, more stable
aspect of their masculinity-their physical virility" (81). If so, the "effeminizing
implications of male sexual desire" (Rackin and Moulton) may explain why early
modern playwrights so rarely describe the widow's person. Money and possessions
present no such threat.
The first play discussed in this chapter is Chapman's The Widow's Tears,
which Panek calls a "pro-marriage" comedy that assuages the anxiety that marrying
a widow aroused in men. Like most comedies about remarrying widows, this play
features the widow's sexual proclivities, "the successful suitor's youth,
poverty, physical prowess and audacity," his older and richer rivals, "the
widow's threatening tendency to recognize that she is her suitor's superior…and
the suitor's successful defusing of that threat by reducing the widow to her
sexual appetite" (90). She then identifies the same patterns in Wit Without
Money before discussing three plays in which the widow's desire is augmented
by aggression and threats of ravishment: Ram Alley, Greene's Tu Quoque,
and Amends for Ladies. Lastly, Panek closes the chapter with a lengthy
discussion of a play that exists only as a summary in the British National
Archives. Here the supposed husband of an actual widow arranged for her sexual
desires to be played on stage and recorded in ballad, the better to persuade
the court in his favor.
If, however, chapter three of Panek's book addresses the suitor's fantasy,
chapter four addresses the flip side of that fantasy: fear of the appetite
so wakened. Focusing on both direct and indirect expressions of this deterrent
to suitors, Panek begins with Jonson's description of a man's decrepitude
after just one month's marriage to a widow (Bartholomew Fair 1.3.65-70),
and then proceeds to the marital complaints of the Captain of The Phoenix
(132-38). Fear of such a marriage explains the ending of The Puritan,
Panek thinks, as the tricksters of that play might otherwise have endured
the sufferings of Lucklesse in Brome's The Northern Lasse. Lucklesse's
widow is sexually, domestically and financially controlling. Panek also turns
to the non-dramatic literature of the period - i.e. The Bachelor's Banquet,
Jack of Newbury and Swetnam's Bearbaiting of Widows - where
the tie between a remarried widow's jealousy and her sense of sexual deprivation
is made even more explicit. In short, Panek argues that alongside the fantasy
of marrying a widow runs another comic scenario to neutralize these fears:
that of "profiting from and yet escaping the widow" (125).
Having now described the threat of the widow, her pivotal role in male
fantasies, and the fear that tempered it, Panek's last chapter goes in a somewhat
different direction. Less closely tied to the preceding chapters, "A playwright's
response" offers a detailed study of the playwright most clearly fascinated
by remarrying widows: Thomas Middleton. In a lengthy analysis of four of his
plays (Michaelmas Term, A Trick to Catch the Old One, No
Wit, No Help Like a Woman, and The Widow) Panek examines the full
range of "parodic changes" Middleton rings "on the traditional widow-wooing
plot" (198). There are few conclusions drawn, either here or at the end of
chapter four. Panek does, however, compensate with four pages of general conclusions
that properly belong in a separate section, since they serve to sum up, not
chapter five, but the arguments of the book as a whole. Here Panek modestly
claims merely to "explore" the "ideological underpinnings and the role" played
by the anxiety-driven myths about widows in early modern comedy (198). In
fact, she does a surprisingly thorough job of outlining the range of complex
feelings about remarrying widows, both in early modern comedy, and in the
society as a whole.
Brodsky, Vivien. "Widows in Late Elizabethan London: Remarriage, Economic
Opportunity and Family Orientations." The World We Have Gained: Histories of Population and Social Structure. Eds. L. Bonfield, R.M. Smith, and K.
Wrightson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. 122-154.
Boulton, Jeremy. "London Widowhood Revisited: The Decline of Female Remarriage in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries." Continuity and Change. 5 (1990):
Erickson, Amy Louise. "Common Law vs. Common Practice: The Use of Marriage
Settlements in Early Modern England." Economic History Review. 43 (1990):
--------------------------. Women and Property in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 1993, 1995.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.