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the widow's tears

6 april 2022

The Widow's Tears (George Chapman, 1612), despite the sound of the title, is a comedy. As the insouciant Tharsalio explains early in the play, the whole notion of a grieving widow is hilarious:

You vow widowhood in their lifetime, and and they believe you, when even in the sight of their breathless corpse, ere they be fully cold, you join embraces with his groom, or his physician, and perhaps his poisoner. (Act 1, Scene 1; p. 12)
Tharsalio is laying siege to such a virtuous widow, Eudora, who so far won't even listen to the suits of various rich potentates who have come to court her, let alone this obnoxious idiot (who used to be her late husband's page). Meanwhile, Tharsalio has a brother, Lysander, husband to the virtuous Cynthia, who has also vowed she will never marry after her husband's death – a promise that's a little difficult for Lysander to confirm. Tharsalio proceeds to undermine Lysander's faith in Cynthia, planting prehumous doubts of her widowed fidelity in Lysander's mind.

The Tharsalio-Eudora plot, as editor Akihiro Yamada points out, is really a subplot. It gets resolved halfway through when the pair get married. This development is perfunctory; in one scene she's threatening to have him beat out of doors, and in the next he announces their engagement. While it lasts, the subplot offers some good dirty scenes, such as one where a procuress whets Eudora's interest by describing how Tharsalio can satisfy nine women a night. Sheer counting statistics win Eudora over, but not without numerous double entendres.

Eudora: Do not come again.
Tharsalio: I'll come again, believe it, and again. (Act 1, Scene 2; p. 23)
Halfway through the play, the Lysander-Cynthia main plot gets into gear. This couple seems to have spent most of their married life talking over how celibate she's going to be after he kicks off. The topic is so nettlesome to Lysander that he can't resist faking his own death just to see how she'll take it. The experiment is seasoned by a bet with Tharsalio, who is in charge of stage-managing the pretended funeral – Tharsalio of course putting his money on Cynthia's changeableness, and Lysander putting his, less confidently, on her hewing to her vow.

The main plot reaches a point of "what on earth is going on" remarkable even for an old farce. Lysander ships home a sealed coffin purporting to hold his remains. Cynthia swoons into a vigil in his tomb, refusing to eat. Lysander shows up disguised as a soldier whose duty it is to guard crucified corpses. Cynthia falls for this soldier and they start making out, a development that annoys Tharsalio enough to steal one of the corpses and thus expose Lysander to crucifixion in turn. Whereupon Cynthia comes up with a solution: hang up her husband's corpse so that the "soldier" can be saved.

You're not sure who knows what about whom in this madcap sequence, and it never really resolves. Chapman opts for a deus ex machina in the form of a corrupt Governor who shows up and lays down the law, without the interpersonal problems ever getting resolved. If The Widow's Tears has some huge problems as coherent drama, it certainly makes for a wacky five acts, and probably that's all its audience wanted.

Yamada's 1975 edition is exemplary in its thoroughness. He collated copies of the 1612 quarto from libraries all over Europe and North America. Yamada edited The Widow's Tears as if nobody were ever going to edit it again, which, nearly a half-century later, has proven to be the case. For a while in the 1960s and '70s, publishers paid great attention to editions of old plays for classroom and scholarly use, and then for various reasons both supply and demand dried up, to the point where you're lucky if your local college library still has one of these excellent Revels editions in readable condition.

Chapman, George. The Widow's Tears. 1612. Edited by Akihiro Yamada. London: Methuen, 1975.