I recently ran across the phrase "Constantine's fatal dower," which sounded like a quotation, so I googled it.
The specific reference to Constantine that started my quest comes from Canto XIX of Dante's Inferno. Of course Dante wrote in Italian and didn't use that phrase exactly — or even close to it, as far as I can tell! Cary (1822) says "plenteous dower." Wright (1833) says "fair domains." Johnston (1867) is maybe the first to use the phrase "fatal dower" in his translation... and I believe he's using the adjective "fatal" only because the phrase "fatal dower" was a handy stock phrase.
My question is, where did this stock phrase come from?
The Fatal Dowry (1632) was a stage play. I'm not sure what the "dowry" was in that case, specifically.
1680 (Dryden's translation of Ovid's Epistles) is the earliest instance of the exact phrase "fatal dower" I can find. In this case, the "fatal dower" is literally a sword, with which Canace's father intends her to kill herself.
Are these the nuptial gifts a bride receives? / And this the fatal dower a father gives?
And then there's nothing until the 1830s, when "the fatal dower of beauty" breaks out all over Google's search results! What happened?
[Helen's] beauty, like that of Paris, was her fatal dower.
1834: female beauty as fatal dower.
1836, poetically describing a gazelle or musk-deer. Again the idea of "beauty" is coupled with the phrase "fatal dower."
The musk-pod is its fatal dower, / Like beauty, still the prey of power.
1839: female beauty as fatal dower.
1841. In this case I think "fatal dower" just means "undesirable marriage," not literally death-dealing and not literally a dowry-gift, although I didn't read the entire poem to find out.
Chilly smote, at that dread hour, / Th' announcement of her fatal dower
O'er the young heart ...
There is no city in Europe which inspires its admirers with such passionate affection as Florence. Of the land to whom Fortune has given the fatal dower of beauty it is the eye and the light.
1867: Verdi's Don Carlos has the aria O don fatale ("O fatal dower") — again, female beauty.
1893: female beauty as fatal dower.
And then as we get into the 20th century, the phrase comes loose from its moorings and starts being used for all kinds of random things!
1893: Egypt as "fatal dower" to its masters.
1914: infertility in the male line as fatal dower of the Galton family.
1921, Bret Harte: "knowledge all alone" as fatal dower.
But where did this stock phrase originally come from, and specifically how did it get associated with female beauty?