Mar 26 2014
As everybody knows, widows are dangerously licentious creatures. Having once been exposed to “the marital act,” their blood runs hot in their veins as a constant inclination towards promiscuity overwhelms them…
Okay, maybe “everybody” doesn’t know that, but a large percentage of Renaissance Europe did. The “lusty widow,” a stock character in English Renaissance drama, spoke to a greater social problem: the fact that widows occupied a dangerously liminal zone in the era’s hierarchical order. On the one hand, they had a greater amount of both social freedom and legal rights (generally concerning property law) than either wives or unmarried ladies. On the other, they were still legally subservient to men and, of course, still subject to all the natural weaknesses of the female body and brain that justify such divisions. As Juan Luis Vives puts it in his Instruction for a Christian Woman, a handbook for female education that was nearly as influential in Protestant England as it was in Vives’s native, Catholic Spain,
“Many be glad, that their husbands be gone, as who were rid out of yoke and bondage: and they rejoice that they be out of dominion and bond and have recovered their liberty: but they be of a foolish opinion. For the ship is not at liberty, that lacketh a governor, but rather destitute: neither a child that lacketh his tutor, but rather wandering without order and reason.” (Instruction for a Christian Woman, Juan Luis Vives, trans. Richard Hyrd, 1557)
Indeed, as easy as it is to say that widows remained generally “subservient to men,” the question arises: to whom exactly were they responsible? The men in the family into which they were born, those in the family into which they married, their own adult sons (if they had any)? Should they remarry in order to gain a new husband? According to Vives, the answer to this latter question is “yes” but only if their lascivious inclinations would otherwise lead them to damnation; remarriage otherwise would serve as a poor alternative to a life newly dedicated to Christ. And should a widow need a new spouse, she should never choose a young, handsome man (who would only further enflame her riotous libido) but rather “something past middle age, sober, sad, and of good wit” (Ibid.).
Webster further wrote The Duchess of Malfi at a time of changing ideas about the role of all women within their own engagement process. The increasingly prevalent Protestant ideal of companionate marriage, a marriage between spiritually compatible individuals, led to a parallel emphasis on female choice and consent. For at least one Puritan writer, speaking to his widowed sister, this appears to be particularly true of second marriage:
“As a well wishing brother [I] open my mouth and utter my mind unto you, not that I mind to persuade or dissuade marriage with you, for therein you may best be your own judge, for you know best where your show(?) wringeth you: neither need you any counselor to bid you cut where it wringeth you.” (A View of Mans Estate, Andrew Kingsmill, 1574)
So exactly what is the duchess’s crime in her remarriage? Disobedience? Lust? Socially transgressive behavior? How harshly would the play’s original audience have judged her? In this, as in so many things, Webster denies us easy answers.
— Megan Smith, dramaturg