Otway, Thomas (Drama Criticism)
Thomas Otway 1652-1685
English playwright and poet.
Thomas Otway is widely considered one of the greatest English playwrights of the Restoration era. During his short life he wrote ten plays: four comedies and six tragedies. His tragedies The Orphan (1680) and Venice Preserv'd (1682) have earned Otway acclaim as England's greatest tragedian next to William Shakespeare. Despite the high regard these two plays command, critics continue to debate what contemporary events they make allusions to and are divided on what exactly are their major themes. However, nearly all agree that they express the nihilistic disillusionment and pessimism that are hallmarks of Otway's dramas. Even Otway's comedies are dark works, depicting deeply flawed, weak, and deceitful characters who never learn to rise above their worst instincts. Few, if any, of Otway's dramas offer audiences any final catharsis; typically they end in chaos and death, the universe portrayed as absurd and offering no hope for redemption. This unswerving cynicism is the focus of most critical analyses of Otway's work, most often by scholars who seek to understand it in relation to Otway's unhappy life and the politically tumultuous times in which he lived.
Otway was born in Milland, Sussex, on March 3, 1652. His father was an Anglican priest and rector. Most of the rest of Otway's early biography remains a matter of conjecture, much of it pieced together from clues in Otway's letters and the autobiographical poem, The Poet's Complaint of his Muse (1680). His father probably remarried soon after Otway's mother's death. Otway attended schools at Winchester and at Christ Church, Oxford, although he was forced to leave Oxford before he received his degree because of financial difficulties resulting from his father's death in 1671. For reasons that remain unclear, Otway's father left his entire inheritance to Otway's stepmother and half-sister; biographers usually point to this as one of the key reasons Otway's plays so often depict pathetic orphans and tyrannical, treacherous fathers. Despite the popular success of many of Otway's dramatic productions, the death of his father precipitated what for Otway would be a lifetime of poverty.
After leaving Oxford, Otway moved to London and began his stage life. He first worked as an actor before starting to write his own plays for the Dorset Garden Theatre. For a brief period Otway was patronized by John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, but this relationship soon fell apart when Otway fell in love with Rochester's mistress, Elizabeth Barry, to whom Otway had given the heroine's role in his first play, Alcibiades (1675). Barry spurned Otway's advances, and the resulting personal and artistic frustrations would later become material for The Poet's Complaint of his Muse. Moreover, the loss of Rochester's financial assistance led Otway to dedicate the rest of his plays to a number of British royalty and illustrious figures in hopes of finding a new patron. None of these efforts proved successful, so in 1678 Otway joined the military, where, despite his rank of lieutenant, he received little of the salary he had been promised. He returned to theater life in London, where despite the popular success of several of his comedies and tragedies, he was unable to gain financial stability or independence. His most reliable source of income during this period came from tutoring Charles Beauclark, the illegitimate son of Charles II. In 1680 Otway received an honorary master's degree from Cambridge, although the circumstances leading to this honor remain unknown. In 1685 Otway died in a Tower Hill tavern. He was almost certainly debt-ridden, and some early biographies claim that he starved to death or choked on a piece of bread he had begged on the street.
Major Dramatic Works
Otway's first play, Alcibiades, is styled as a Greek tragedy. The title character is a virtual orphan: dispossessed of his power in Athens by an uprising, he finds tenuous refuge in his adopted country, Sparta, the enemy of his homeland. Revenge, honor, insanity, and murder—both intended and accidental—are the main themes in the play, and Alcibiades, buffeted by violence and treachery, finally commits suicide. Otway's next play, Don Carlos (1676) is also a tragedy featuring an orphan-like figure as the protagonist. Don Carlos, a prince, is betrothed to a princess, yet for political reasons she is instead married to Don Carlos's father, the king of Spain. The conflict of the play revolves around the love between the prince and the new queen and the struggle between the patriarchal power of the king and the discontent and jealousy of his son. The play is fraught with intrigue and violence, and ends with Don Carlos and the queen dying in each other's arms. Don Carlos was immediately successful upon its in initial staging and was continually performed throughout the eighteenth century. Otway's first comedy was the darkly humourous Friendship in Fashion (1678), a scathing reproach of false friends. The play focuses on illicit affairs, cuckolding, and sexual conquest as social power; yet in the midst of these dishonest activities, tender and true love does emerge. Caius Marius (1679), a tragedy that borrows scenes from several Shakespeare plays, including Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, is viewed as one of Otway's most political plays. Written at the time of the so-called Popish Plot (a supposed plot to return Protestant England to Catholicism), Caius Marius presents both Tory and Whig political factions in a negative light.
It is for Venice Preserv'd and, to a lesser degree, The Orphan, two tragedies written toward the end of his career, that Otway is principally remembered. As with many of Otway's other tragedies, The Orphan tells a tale of deceit that ends in unrelenting tragedy. The twin brothers Polydore and Castalio both fall in love with Monimia, an orphan who has been raised in their household. Eventually Castalio convinces Monimia to marry him, a secret he keeps from his brother. On the night of the clandestine marriage, Polydore goes to Monimia's room, pretending to be Castalio, and ravishes her. Only after the liaison does Polydore learn of the marriage, and, ashamed of his actions, challenges his brother to a duel he intends to lose. Polydore dies, and Monimia ends her own life by drinking poison. Venice Preserv'd, as the title suggests, takes place in Venice, where rebels are hatching a plan to overthrow the senate. Jaffier, the play's most likable character, has married Belvidera, the disinherited daughter of an Italian senator. His resentment toward his father-in-law causes Jaffier to support the conspirators, but his wife's pleas to save her father from death leads Jaffier to expose the impending rebellion in exchange for the senate's promise to spare the lives of the captured plotters. The senators go back on their promise and execute Jaffier's comrades. The play concludes when Jaffier stabs to death his best friend, Pierre, commits suicide, and the grieving Belvidera goes mad.
The critical assessment of Otway's work varies greatly. His comedies are usually regarded as inferior, although there has been a handful of scholars who argue that individual works, especially Friendship in Fashion and The Souldiers Fortune (1681), deserve greater respect and attention. In the last fifty years, scholarship has focused almost exclusively on The Orphan and Venice Preserv'd, the latter widely hailed as Otway's masterpiece. The popularity of these two works made them mainstays of the English stage until the early nineteenth century, and each was revived in the 1990s. Although few have doubted their enduring qualities, they have received some scathing assessments. Samuel Johnson declared that The Orphan's design was incomprehensible and that the speech was too often inelegant, complaints that have resurfaced in modern analyses by scholars who, for example, are confused about the reasons why Castalio would keep his engagement to Monimia a secret. Similarly, the plot and characters of Venice Preserv'd are occasionally condemned as inept or incoherent, although most modern scholars have rejected these claims, arguing that Otway's bleak vision of the world is well crafted and executed. Most would agree, however, that Otway offers his audiences no easy answers or clear messages and, furthermore, that there are many elements in both plays that can lead to multiple interpretations.
Most critical commentary on Otway's The Orphan and Venice Preserv'd is less about their intrinsic merits than about their major themes. One line of inquiry commonly associates both works with Otway's political beliefs, and many scholars have tried to link scenes and characters from each to contemporary events. A contrary view tends to minimize the significance of politics in Otway's plays. In the case of The Orphan, it is not uncommon to find scholars who argue that political concerns are much less important to the play's development than Otway's depiction of human relationships, which like so much of Otway's work, is characterized by betrayal and deceit. Critical divisions are even more pronounced in the case of Venice Preserv'd. Many critics argue that the play should be read as Otway's disgust, during the Exclusion Crisis, with the Whig party's attempts to enact legislation that would prohibit the Catholic James from succeeding his brother, Charles II, as King of England. Others have countered this position, arguing that although Otway was decidedly against the Whigs, his characters suggest that he was not entirely enamored of the Tories either. A handful of scholars have suggested that the play is essentially apolitical and that domestic breakdown defines Otway's thematic objectives. Still others find in it a masterful exposition of Otway's conviction that the world is not rational, that humanity is unable to control its worst impulses, and that life is a meaningless chaos. Throughout these many competing interpretations, critics agree that Venice Preserv'd represents the deepest level of dramatic tragedy, since Otway leaves his audience with no hope of resolving or even mitigating this dark vision of humanity and the universe.
Alcibiades: A Tragedy 1675
The Cheats of Scapin 1676
Don Carlos, Prince of Spain 1676
Titus and Berenice 1676
Friendship in Fashion 1678
The History and Fall of Caius Marius: A Tragedy 1679
The Orphan; or, The Unhappy Marriage 1680
The Souldiers Fortune 1681
Venice Preserv'd; or, A Plot Discover'd 1682
The Atheist; or, The Second Part of the Souldiers Fortune 1683
The Poet's Complaint of His Muse; or, A Satyr Against Libells. A Poem (poetry) 1680
Windsor Castle, in a Monument to Our Late Sovreign K. Charles II of Ever Blessed Memory. A Poem (poetry) 1685
The Works of Thomas Otway: Consisting of His Plays, Poems and Love-Letters. 2 vols. (poetry, plays, and correspondence) 1712
The Complete Works of Thomas Otway. 3 vols. [edited by Montague Summers] (poetry, plays, and correspondence) 1926
The Works of Thomas Otway: Plays, Poems, and Loveletters. 2 vols. [edited by J. C. Ghosh] (poetry, plays, and correspondence) 1932
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SOURCE: Hume, Robert D. “Otway and the Comic Muse.” Studies in Philology 73, no. 1 (January 1976): 87-116.
[In the following essay, Hume rejects scholarly opinion that Otway's comedies are badly written and profane, arguing that they are in no way more risqué than those of his contemporaries. Hume contends that Otway's comedies are actually scathing satires on society and should be viewed separate from the “light comedies” of the era.]
We now think of Otway as a writer of tragedies. The domestic simplicity of The Orphan (1680) is often praised, while the flaming passions and harrowing pathos of Venice Preserv'd still have some power to move us. Articles on Otway's pathos, politics, religion, and tragic vision abound. Yet he did write some comedies, and about these there has been a conspiracy of silence. In his own age, Otway was considered a comic writer of some importance. Even the splenetic author of A Comparison Between the Two Stages (1702) singles him out, with Dryden, as a writer who triumphed in both comedy and tragedy.1 The reason for neglect of the comedies is not far to seek, for they are, as the same writer observes, “highly loose and prophane.”
Only two or three modern critics have had a kind word for Otway's comedies—works which admittedly require a strong stomach. They are not graceful, amusing displays of wit and manners, but...
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SOURCE: Brown, Laura. “Affective Tragedy.” In English Dramatic Form, 1660-1760: An Essay in Generic History, pp. 86-95. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.
[In the following excerpt, Brown analyzes Otway's inclination, in The Orphan and Venice Preserv'd, to deviate from the model of heroic drama. Brown notes that Otway's innovations add sympathetic sentiment and are a harbinger of the change from aristocratic dramas to moral dramas aimed at a bourgeois audience.]
Thomas Otway's mature affective drama, represented by The Orphan (1680) and Venice Preserved (1682), but clearly prefigured in the early near-heroic Don Carlos (1676) and Titus and Berenice (1676), reveals the depoliticization characteristic of the purest versions of the form. The simple domesticity of Otway's tragic plots entails not merely the choice of love over empire, which we have seen to be common to Dryden and Lee, but the elimination of empire altogether. Along with honor and empire, Otway necessarily eliminates status, even as a nominal label attached to a primarily pitiable character or as a nostalgic reflection of past heroism. Otway's protagonists are neither princes nor kings, but private men or, more important for the subsequent evolution of serious drama, women. The beset heroine is the natural recourse of affective form, since she is by definition a weak, domestic being...
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SOURCE: Warner, Kerstin P. “Otway's View of the Political Scene (1679-1683): Emerging Political Awareness.” In Thomas Otway, pp. 31-57. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.
[In the following essay, Warner interprets Otway's writings as responses to the political unrest in Restoration England.]
We have seen that there was a good deal of interest in the personal details of Otway's life, yet comparatively little attention has been paid him as a critic and observer of the political scene. In this chapter we will deal selectively with this side of the poet's work, in order to present his view of the series of social and political crises of the Restoration.
The Poet's Complaint of His Muse is autobiographical to the point at which Reason lifts “the veil of Dotage” from the Bard's eyes and shows him his Muse as she truly is, “a rampant, tawdry Quean.” The last figure in her degenerate train of flatterers is “a Beest of Monstrous guise … and Libell was his name.” More than half of this poem, from this moment on, is political satire directed against the evils of Libell and his mother, “the Good Old Cause” of the Cromwell Protestants: it is plain that Otway's purpose is to show that his own misfortunes as an artist are the result of the political convulsions which followed upon the Popish Plot crisis.
But this poem is not the only timely political...
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Criticism: The Orphan (1680)
SOURCE: Marshall, Geoffrey. “The Coherence of The Orphan.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 11 (1969): 931-43.
[In the following essay, Marshall proposes that confusion concerning the cohesiveness of The Orphan can be remedied if one views the tragedy as a plea for plain and direct communication between people and a warning about the frequency and magnitude of errors when they speak artfully and ambiguously.]
While Thomas Otway's The Orphan (1680) has a place in literary history (due mostly to a century and a half of popularity on stage), the play has seemed puzzling and unsatisfying to most literary historians. Even Dr. Johnson, writing when the play was a staple of the repertoire, seems to have very mixed feelings about it: “Of this play little new can easily be said. It is a domestic tragedy drawn from middle life. Its whole power is upon the affections; for it is not written with much comprehension of thought or elegance of expression. But, if the heart is interested, many other beauties may be wanting, yet not be missed.”1 In our own time, Aline Mackenzie Taylor's analysis of The Orphan's stage reputation reveals that the play has been attacked for improbable plotting, confused characterization, and a “morbid moral tone.” Mrs. Taylor has also suggested that the ideas expressed by the major figures seem to clash, and, therefore, “It is...
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SOURCE: Taylor, Aline Mackenzie. Introduction to Thomas Otway: The Orphan, edited by Aline Mackenzie Taylor, pp. xiii-xxx. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.
[In the following essay, Taylor provides an overview of the plot and characters of The Orphan, gives a textual history of the play, and places the drama in the context of the political and social movements of the era.]
The present edition of The Orphan; or, The Unhappy Marriage, is based on the first quarto (Q1), published in May 1680.1 It is an unattractive little volume; but for all its crowded print, and obvious misprints, it suggests the quality of Otway's verse when it was spoken by Betterton and his friends on the stage of the Dorset Garden playhouse. It is verse designed for a style of acting that was neither naturalistic nor pantomimic, but declamatory and formal, its effect depending on the speaking voice and the diction of the actor, “the soul of lively action,” as John Marston once called it.2 The pages are littered with colloquial elisions and contractions, uncouth to the eye. Initial capitals mark the accented words; without them the verse often goes haltingly. The pointing shows little regard for conventional syntax, for it was designed to mark the actor's “breathings” and to indicate the pace of the lines. Indeed, on the printed page Otway's verse has much in common with the...
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SOURCE: Munns, Jessica. “The Beast of Reason: The Orphan; or, The Unhappy Marriage.” In Restoration Politics and Drama: The Plays of Thomas Otway, 1675-1683, pp. 129-66. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Munns surveys critical interpretations of The Orphan and analyzes the impact of patriarchal power on familial relations and social degeneration in the play.]
The Orphan; or, The Unhappy Marriage, first performed at the Duke's Theatre in February or March 1680, stands between Otway's two tragedies set in republican states, Caius Marius and Venice Preserv'd.1 Its setting—an isolated and initially idyllic country estate—and its subject matter—incest and fratricide—would seem to represent a departure from the earlier and later plays' urban locations and concerns with the nature of authority, and the rights, dues, and obligations of citizens and governors. There are, however, more similarities than differences between these works, not only in their characterizations—powerful fathers who seek to control their children's sexuality, paired male friends who become divided, lonely heroines chaste yet passionate—but also in their dramatic trajectories, which move a particular unit, be it state and/or family, from order to self-devouring chaos. Issues of governance, or more precisely, issues of what it is that...
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Criticism: Venice Preserv'D (1682)
SOURCE: Berman, Ronald. “Nature in Venice Preserv'd.” ELH 36, no. 3 (September 1969): 523-39.
[In the following essay, Berman explores Venice Preserv'd as a study of human nature and the influences of society, declaring that the play is “a rigorous and intelligent representation of the failure of freedom to acknowledge the limits of creation.”]
It is probably surprising to discover how many of our best literary minds have taken positions on Venice Preserv'd. Dryden, Addison, Dr. Johnson, Hazlitt, Lord Byron, Goethe—in a way the criticism of this play has become a strand of our intellectual history.1 Two judgments in particular seem to me valuable, Dryden's eloquent phrase “but nature is there,”2 and Dr. Johnson's summary “it is the work of a man not attentive to decency, nor zealous for virtue; but of one who conceived forcibly, and drew originally, by consulting nature in his own breast.”3 Dryden and Johnson seem to share the implicit understanding that Otway's idea of Nature was dialectically and psychologically sound. Their proximity to the play, and the critical quality of their minds ought to warn us to take seriously their sympathy for Otway. There is another critic of some importance. One of the most penetrating remarks on literary “influence” that I know is that of Balzac's Vautrin, who reminds us of his ancestry: “My...
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SOURCE: Kelsall, Malcolm. Introduction to Thomas Otway: Venice Preserved, edited by Malcolm Kelsall, pp. xi-xxii. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.
[In the following essay, Kelsall probes the texts that influenced Venice Preserv'd, considers its relation to the political intrigue and environment in the latter half of the seventeenth century, and demonstrates that Otway's flexible script that can be adapted to suit any given era.]
The only edition of Venice Preserved to appear in Otway's lifetime was the quarto of 1682 printed for Joseph Hindmarsh and recorded in The Term Catalogues for Easter (May) of that year. This is the basis of the present edition. The copy-text is from the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Mal. B. 272). This has been collated with the “variant” first quarto in Bodley (in which the final “e” is omitted from “theatre” on the title page), but no substantive variants have been found. There were two issues of a second edition in 1696, one printed for R. Bentley and James Knapton, the other for Knapton alone, and a third edition in 1704. These have been collated with the first quarto, as has also the text printed by Tonson in the collected edition of Otway's Works, 1712. The first quarto was carelessly set; the second follows the first closely but corrects numerous errors; the third was set from the second but introduces several unnecessary...
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SOURCE: Canfield, John Douglas. “Absurdist Satire.” In Word as Bond in English Literature from the Middle Ages to the Restoration, pp. 300-11. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Canfield evaluates the power of words and vows in Venice Preserv'd. He maintains that the characters use language to forge bonds and to define honor, yet notes that words change meaning due to circumstance and motive.]
The satire of Otway's Venice Preserved is darker than that of The Knight's Tale or Antony and Cleopatra, its absurdity a vision not of the illusory power of language but of its total breakdown. By the end of the play, the code of the word as bond of loyalty, trust, fidelity, constancy has been destroyed, replaced by meaningless gestures, mad ravings, and nonsense.1
The conflict in the play is triple sided, and Jaffeir is caught in the middle of the triangle. He has three contending loyalties: to his friend and fellow conspirators and their code of liberty and justice; to his country, its leaders, and its code of honor and humanity; and to his supposedly transcendent jewel, his wife, Belvidera. Ironically, he who articulates to the Venetian Senate the aristocratic standard of constancy in the face of adversity—“a steady mind / Acts of itself, ne'er asks the body counsel” (4.2.48-49)—manifests a most...
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SOURCE: Leissner, Debra. “Divided Nation, Divided Self: The Language of Capitalism and Madness in Otway's Venice Preserv'd.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 2 (fall 1999): 19-31.
[In the following essay, Leissner argues that in Venice Preserv'd Otway was not making a political statement but rather was writing a drama in reaction to the changing social and economic climate of late seventeenth-century England.]
Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd; or, A Plot Discovered (1682) is an enigma, if judged by the interpretations of scholars who have tried to associate Otway's drama with plots and political parties in England from 1678 through 1682. The often contradictory conclusions that scholars have reached when they try to determine who represents whom in the drama suggest that the nature of the play's characters resists strictly allegorical interpretations. But for all that, the characters answer in personal terms to the politics of Otway's day. I shall argue that in Venice Preserv'd, Otway does not recreate historical events as such, but, rather, dramatizes a national neurosis in which England's social and political turmoil, generated by the acceleration of capitalism, surface as symptoms of psychological turmoil in its citizenry. I shall demonstrate that the very neurosis from which the English suffered as a result of these controversies also afflicts Jaffeir, the...
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Ghosh, J. C. “Introduction: Bibliography.” In The Works of Thomas Otway: Plays, Poems, and Love Letters, edited by J. C. Ghosh, pp. 67-84. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1932.
Details editions of Otway's works in print through 1932.
Davis, Bertram H. “Otway's Life and Legend: Biography and Autobiography.” In Thomas Otway, pp. 1-30. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.
Provides an overview of Otway's life, works, and critical reception.
Munns, Jessica. Introduction to Restoration Politics and Drama: The Plays of Thomas Otway, 1675-1683, pp. 11-26. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1995.
Provides a brief biography of Otway, discusses prevalent themes in his works, and analyzes the political and social forces behind his writings.
DePorte, Michael. “Otway and the Straits of Venice.” Papers on Language and Literature 18, no. 3 (summer 1982): 245-57.
Views Venice Preserv'd as a deeply pessimistic play about human nature.
Durant, Jack D. “‘Honor's Toughest Task’: Family and State in Venice Preserved.” Studies in Philology 71, no. 4 (October 1974): 484-503.
Evaluates the bond of family...
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