The consensus among critics is that of all Nicholas Rowe’s plays, The Tragedy of Jane Shore is his greatest. The tenderness and pathos of this play show how thorough and affectionate had been Rowe’s study of great Elizabethan drama. The proof of Rowe’s power is in the fact that such a play held the stage so long and was so popular even in an age much different from his own.
The Ambitious Step-Mother
Rowe’s first play, The Ambitious Step-Mother, produced in 1700, continues the tradition of heroic drama. It is set against the exotic Oriental background characteristic of the type. The play opens with Arsaces, the aged Persian king, on his deathbed. Real power is in the hands of the second wife, Artemisa. He had contrived to have her first husband killed and had then wedded her. She has gained control over the king, who is infatuated with her beauty. Artemisa is determined to secure the succession of the crown for her own son, Artaban. Arsaces had sent into exile his elder son, Artaxerxes, who has now returned, demanding his right of succession. In order to make her plan succeed, Artemisa finds a supporter in a scheming courtier, Mirza, who seeks revenge because the king’s son Artaxerxes rejected the offer of his daughter Cleone for his bride. Instead, Artaxerxes chose to marry Amestris, the daughter of his counselor, Memnon.
The scheming Mirza then confides a plan for estranging Artaxerxes and Memnon, and Artemisa bars the way of Artaxerxes to his dying father’s bedside. Their plot is complicated by the fact that Cleone, although rejected by Artaxerxes, is passionately in love with him and deaf to her father’s desires. In the meantime, Mirza devises a plot to overpower his and the queen’s enemies. Artaxerxes, Memnon, and Amestris are all seized by guards at the annual Festival of the Sun. It is Mirza’s intent that Artaxerxes and Memnon shall be executed on the morrow, but he does not take into account Cleone. She dons masculine dress and offers the two prisoners the chance of escaping through Mirza’s palace. Meanwhile, Amestris, confined in Mirza’s palace, is sexually assaulted by Mirza. In the struggle, she stabs him with his own poniard. In one last revengeful attempt, he bids the captain of the guard to drag Amestris near him, and he stabs her. As she lies dying, Artaxerxes and Memnon enter to hear the tale of her wrongs and her last appeal to her lover. She dies, whereupon Artaxerxes stabs himself. So ends the tragedy, showing the innocent suffering along with the guilty.
Rowe’s ending was severely criticized by many as too barbarous, even though he defended it on the basis of Aristotle’s precept that terror and pity are the ends of tragedy. Others saw weakness in the characterization. Perhaps certain spectacular scenes made up for this deficiency, however, because the play had a good run.
Rowe’s Tamerlane, produced in 1701, also employs the Oriental theme. Although Christopher Marlowe had written his Tamburlaine the Great (pr. 1587), on the same subject, there is little similarity between the two. Rowe intentionally perverts historical truth when he presents the Oriental conqueror as a prototype of the ideal political leader, William III. His dedicatory letter includes comments about how the two share courage, piety, moderation, justice, love of their subjects, and hatred of tyranny and oppression. It is evident that just as Tamerlane typifies William III, so Bajazet represents Louis XIV. The action of the play centers on Tamerlane’s camp, where he is about to battle Bajazet. When the contest goes in Tamerlane’s favor, he takes no personal pride in victory. He remarks, in fact, that all such pride is vain “pretence to greatness.” Bajazet defies him as a dervish and declares his own conception of good rule, which in his view necessitates the ruler’s thirst for more territory, this being the call of nature. Although in British terms, such ideas of sovereignty are villainous, Tamerlane nevertheless releases Bajazet and restores to him his captive queen, all of which will eventually be his undoing.
Tamerlane’s religious tolerance is great, also—so great, in fact, that he takes into his council the Christian Italian Prince Axalla. This act alone angers Bajazet, who wants to conquer all lands and make all people followers of Mohammet. Because he is not able to win the argument, Bajazet attempts to stab Tamerlane with a concealed dagger, an act that Tamerlane forgives as he has certain others. Bajazet is not satisfied, however, and plots with a general, Omar, who supported Tamerlane in his rise to power but who now is angry with him because Tamerlane has not allowed him to take Bajazet’s daughter Selima as his bride. Selima has given her love to Axalla, and Omar, in vengeance, arrests them both. Selima’s father, Bajazet, attempts to kill her, but she is saved by the arrival of Tamerlane with Axalla, who has escaped in the disguise of a slave. Another pair of lovers are not so successful. Arpasia, who had been contracted to her countryman of royal lineage, Moneses, had been forced earlier to become one of Bajazet’s brides. Moneses appeals to Tamerlane to undo this terrible wrong, but Tamerlane feels that he cannot interfere. Bajazet decides to have Moneses killed, and as his henchmen struggle with Moneses and strangle him, Arpasia sinks in a fatal swoon.
Tamerlane has effective dialogue, but it is less impressive theatrically than The Ambitious Step-Mother. Probably the greatest weakness in the play lies in the crude contrast between the high-souled Tamerlane and the villain Bajazet. It did remain a popular play, however, evidently because of its political allegory. It was acted at various London playhouses, usually on William III’s birthday, until 1749, a period of forty-eight years. Dramatically, critics generally agree, the tragedy has little to recommend it. The love scenes are either insipid or unreal....
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