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Forsaken Labours and Saltwater Satire in the Characters of Sir Thomas Overbury’s A Wife Now the Widow
As Miranda Anderson explains in The Renaissance Extended Mind (2015), ‘Character Writings were fashionable and witty collections of short essays on places, people and trades. They were purportedly intended to reform character by the study of examples, often of superlative ideal or admonitory characters, in an ethical tradition that links back to the Greek philosopher Theophrastus’ Characters’ (see p. 136). In this paper, I pay particular attention to the sketches of maritime temperament collated within the first and subsequent editions of Sir Thomas Overbury’s poem A Wife Now the Widow (first published 1614) and the implications these have for early modern understandings of physical and spiritual conduct at sea. From the satirical portraits of ‘The Sailor’ (1614) and ‘The Pirate’ (1616), for example, it would seem that there is something inherently forsaken, or at least theologically ambiguous, about the professional mariner. The particular caricature of ‘The Sailor’ offers an ambivalent depiction of the mariner’s constitution and perceived resolution and is particularly interesting as a focused study of the relationship between body, self, and world. In turn, ‘The Pirate’, by offering an intensification of ‘The Sailor’s’ devotional paucity, challenges land-based conceptions of the importance of repentance and dying well. In reading across satirical and devotional material in ways that are attentive to recent critical turns towards materiality, religion, and the body, I analyse the fluxive nature of marine ethics and transgressions in the early modern imagination: a dynamic that has far reaching implications for much of the poetry and drama produced in the period.