Context: The Fair Penitent is a domestic tragedy; the playwright in his prologue styles it "A melancholy tale of private woes." It is the story of a young woman who is led astray, the first of Nicholas Rowe's "she-tragedies," plays based on man's inhumanity to woman. The woman of this play is beautiful young Calista, a native of Genoa, who falls in love with Lothario. The immoral Lothario, the archetype of the inconstant lover, steals into Calista's chamber and spends a night with her; but when the girl speaks of marriage, Lothario laughs and leaves her. Despite his treatment, Calista continues to be infatuated with him and is forced to allow an interview with him on her wedding day, after her father has given her in marriage to Altamont. Lothario visits her and is discovered by her husband, who has long been Lothario's enemy. In the fight that ensues, Lothario is killed, and Calista, after a scene with her husband and her father, runs out. At the opening of the fifth act of the play, Calista is found in a room hung with black, keeping watch over Lothario's body, which lies on a bier. Though the dead man has ruined her, Calista still loves him. A mournful song is heard, and Calista picks up a devotional book, placed beside her to encourage her penitence. After glancing at it, she throws the book from her, to look at a skull and bones which lie upon a table. From contemplating the bones she turns to the corpse of Lothario, to gaze upon it in awful contemplation:
CALISTA [throwing away the book.]I have more real anguish in my heartThan all their pedant discipline e'er knew.What charnel has been rifled for these bones?Fie! this is pageantry;–they look uncouthly,But what of that, if he or she that owned 'emSafe from disquiet sit, and smile to seeThe farce their miserable relics play?But here's a sight is terrible indeed;Is this the haughty, gallant, gay Lothario?That dear perfidious–Ah!–how pale he looks!How grim with clotted blood, and those dead eyes!