Date of Graduation
The widow appears frequently on the Restoration comic stage, and yet, almost without exception, she provokes laughter only at her own expense. In the thirty-eight comedies examined in this study, widows suffer various types of abuse, from witty derision to physical assault. However, in virtually every instance--whether in her treatment by fellow characters or in her depiction by the playwright--the widow's exploitation involves her financial situation. Moreover, this common factor is a key to understanding why widowhood, essentially tragic, became comic during the Restoration. Traditionally an unwelcome reminder of death and the power of sexuality, even before the Restoration widows had been pictured unattractively, most often as the lascivious consorts of death. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, however, while this myth persisted, a new concern surfaced to influence greatly the artistic characterization of the widow. In the Interregnum and Restoration, England's economy suffered two major upheavals: first, Church, Crown and court lands were seized and sold; then, after 1660, a restoration of lands was attempted. Desperate to re-establish its traditional base for economic security, Restoration society sought to consolidate wealth, particularly land holding, along family lines. Any threat to this stabilization would have been feared, but the widow because of the dual nature of her destructive potential was particularly targeted. Representing the power of death and unleashed sexual passion, the widow menaced social order, but through her unprecedented ability to divide estates through bargaining for jointure and establishing trusts for her separate use, she had the potential to frustrate society's attempts at economic stabilization and thus perpetuate disorder. As an unattached, financially independent woman, the widow threatened not only England's society and economy but also the very chain of being, which established women as those to be controlled. In the classic pattern of comedy through degradation, then, Restoration society neutralized the widow's threat by treating her as a scapegoat, victimizing her through ridicule and abuse. The Restoration comic widow did not amuse; she menaced. When Restoration society faced her antic characterization on stage, behind their smiles hid a sneer.
Debord, Beverly Cardwell, "The Widow In Restoration Comedy." (1983). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 8732.