Thomas Otway Otway, Thomas (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Alcibiades: A Tragedy (play) 1675

The Cheats of Scapin [adaptor; from the play Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière] (play) 1676

Don Carlos, Prince of Spain (play) 1676

Titus and Berenice [adaptor; from the play Bérénice by Jean Racine] (play) 1676

Friendship in Fashion (play) 1678

The History and Fall of Caius Marius: A Tragedy (play) 1679

The Orphan; or, The Unhappy Marriage (play) 1680

The Poet's Complaint of His Muse; or, A Satyr Against Libells. A Poem (poetry) 1680

The Souldiers Fortune (play) 1681

Venice Preserv'd; or, A Plot Discover'd (play) 1682

The Atheist; or, The Second Part of the Souldiers Fortune (play) 1683

Windsor Castle, in a Monument to our Late Sovereigh 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

John Robert Moore (essay date March 1928)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Moore, John Robert. “Contemporary Satire in Otway's Venice Preserved.PMLA 43, no. 1 (March 1928): 166-81.

[In the following essay, Moore argues that Venice Preserv'd is principally an attack on the Earl of Shaftesbury and that much of the play cannot be understood without a grounding in late-seventeenth-century English history.]

From the accession of Charles II, English drama manifested a continuous strain of political satire, most of it in favor of the Court party. The Roundheads, the citizens, the Presbyterians, the opposers of the Crown, above all the foremost Liberal of the day,1 Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the Earl of Shaftesbury, were fair game to be attacked in a prologue, an epilogue, and even at times in a full-length character portrayal or an entire play.

Especially was this true during the troublous years 1678-1682, during which five of Otway's plays were produced. The two struggling theatres of the time, dependent alike on Court patronage and Court sanction, with audiences drawn chiefly from the Royalist faction,2 became openly partisan. During these four years, few plays were produced which were not largely political in their allusions, if not in their entire plots. Of these plays many served their factional ends and have been forgotten. Otway's Venice Preserved, through its passion and its beauty, has so completely outlived its contemporary allusions that the modern reader is likely to slight them, and the modern editor who approaches the play without special study of the history of the period is sure to misunderstand them.

The Cavalier Parliament of 1661-1678, though monarchist in sentiment and loyal to Charles personally, did not support all of his policies: it opposed the French rapprochement and the Dutch Wars, and it demanded the continuance of the repressive acts against Catholicism. Moreover, it was opposed to the creation of a standing army, and during the eighteen years of its existence it came gradually to demand the control of appropriations, primarily for the sake of thwarting the King's desire for a standing army.

But despite its partial independence, the Cavalier Parliament had stood as a buffer between the King and the Country party; its successor was so certain to be less favorable to Charles that not until 1678 was the Opposition able to force a dissolution, which was followed by an overwhelming Whig victory at the polls. In 1677 Shaftesbury, after an ineffectual attack on the constitutionality of so prolonged a session, was confined in the Tower for a year without trial, and was able to secure his freedom only by an abject apology to the House of Lords.3 But long before 1678 Charles, depending more and more upon secret grants from France to maintain his freedom from Parliamentary control, had extended his arbitrary power and had prorogued the Parliament from time to time, although he dared not dissolve it.

The King was repulsed for a time by the Parliamentary inquiry into the Popish Plot in 1678, when “the truths that would have saved the Whigs remained hid, but a liar came to their deliverance;”4 and it was not until after more than three years of life-and-death struggle with the Whigs, headed by Shaftesbury,5 that the King triumphed in the main purpose of his tortuous policy—the absolute supremacy of the Crown.

Venice Preserved was first acted in February, 1682, at a time when the struggle of Charles for arbitrary power was being rewarded with success. The Oxford Parliament had been dissolved by the King nearly a year previously; and, with a three-year pension from Louis XIV, Charles was able to rule England for the remaining years of his life without summoning a parliament.6 Shaftesbury, the former Lord Chancellor but never a real confidant of Charles, had for nine years known of the King's secret adherence to the Catholic religion;7 and during that time he had come gradually to surmise much of the underlying policy of his royal master.8 As late as 1679 there had been hopes of drawing Shaftesbury back into the party of the King,9 but before the dissolution of Parliament in March, 1681, the breach was final. Soon afterwards Shaftesbury was arrested on a charge of treason supported by suborned witnesses,10 and was brought before a grand jury in London. But he was saved from certain sentence to death (he would have been tried by a special jury of peers of the King's own choosing11) when the grand jury refused to declare a true bill. Even after this virtual acquittal Shaftesbury was held, at first in confinement and later on bail, until February, 1682, the month in which Otway's play was produced. Within the year following, Shaftesbury had failed as a revolutionary leader, had escaped to Holland, and had died in exile.

It is against the party of Shaftesbury that every line of contemporary satire in Venice Preserved is directed. The Popish Plot is attacked or belittled—in the Prologue as a fraud, in the play itself as a thing of no consequence. Parliament, dissolved by the King in the preceding year, is held up to scorn. And Shaftesbury himself, the chosen friend of John Locke, and for all his faults, the chief Liberal leader of the age, is attacked in every conceivable way, both as a malicious leader and as a doting fool, as a man of unbridled licentiousness and as an impotent weakling. Dryden, with more skill as a satirist, could concede that there was some truth in the Popish Plot, and that Shaftesbury was a man of great native ability and of real integrity as a judge;12 with Otway there is as little attempt at artistic restraint as at truth or consistency. Every charge which more than forty years of public life had raised against Shaftesbury is hurled at him with frightful vehemence.

With such exceptions as Davies, who, to some degree, followed fairly direct traditions, and Genest, who followed Davies in part, later commentators have taken their history from such partisan sources as Dryden's satires on Shaftesbury; and they have repeated from one edition to another the incorrect or at least inadequate explanations of their predecessors. For this the historians are partly responsible; there was no authentic life of Shaftesbury until a half century ago, and special study of the Popish Plot has been even more backward. As one historian says, “There is nothing in English history of equal importance with the Popish Plot of which so little is known.” However, the main events of the time can perhaps be followed with sufficient clearness for most of our present purposes.

Otway seems to have been on principle a Tory and a Royalist; in addition, he was a Court poet. During a period of four and a half years, the King, on account of the excitement of the Popish Plot, attended the theatre much less than usual. Of the twelve plays he is known to have seen, six were by Otway.13 He saw Venice Preserved in February, 1682, perhaps, according to his custom, at the first night's performance. None of Otway's plays would seem to have been withheld from performance by the King's order, as was the fate of many other plays of the time (even including one of Dryden's). It was no easy task for the playwright to suit the exacting political requirements of the Court. Tate complained bitterly of the suppression of his Sicilian Usurper on the third day, despite his careful wrenching of the plot so that “every scene is full of respect to Majesty, and the dignity of Courts, not one altered page, but what breathes loyalty.”14

The two royalist poets who seem to have given most satisfaction at this time were Dryden and Otway, both of whom, according to tradition, followed hints from Charles himself for the attacks directed at Shaftesbury.15 The frequency and the tone of Otway's political allusions in his other plays are indicated by the citations in the footnotes.16 Of Venice Preserved it is usually stated that Otway attacks Shaftesbury under the character of Antonio, and that the Prologue and the Epilogue are attacks upon him and upon the conduct of the inquiry into the Popish Plot. The sub-title of the play, A Plot Discovered, has been repeatedly pointed out as a reference to the Popish Plot. Further attempts to trace allusions have been halting, and often utterly erroneous.

In six respects contemporary allusions may be traced farther and more precisely than previous students of the play have done: (1) in the frequent recurrence of formal swearing; (2) in the portrayal of Shaftesbury as Renault; (3) in the more open assault on Shaftesbury as Antonio; (4) in the explicit references to the Popish Plot; (5) in the reduction of the serious aspects of the conspiracy, which in Otway's source (Abbé Saint-Réal's historical romance, Conjuration des Espagnols contre la république de Venise en 1618, either in the original French text of 1674 or in the English translation of 1675) was of vast magnitude, to a bubble which collapses at the first push, and against which the senators are forewarned by an anonymous letter even before Jaffeir comes to betray the conspirators; and (6) in the scornful presentation of the Senate, apparently with reference to Parliament.

(1) A unique feature of the play is the vast amount of offering and taking of formal oaths of loyalty and of truth, without a parallel in English drama. In addition to frequent reference to vows, repeated protestations of loyalty, and a fair proportion of ordinary swearing for the sake of emphasis, no less than nine passages—129 lines in all—are devoted to the formal act of swearing, only one of which is derived from Otway's source,17 while several serve no apparent purpose in the story. Accordingly, it seems possible to regard these passages as allusions to the trials for the Popish Plot, which from first to last were conducted by the use of questionable or suborned witnesses,18 and which are, as Pollock has said, “a standing monument to the most astounding outburst of successful perjury which has occurred in modern times.”19 This conjecture is supported by the satirical references to swearing in Otway's next play, The Atheist, which was produced in the year following.20

When the public had for two and a half years been agitated so deeply by the discussion of the Plot,21 and had at last begun to discredit the oaths which were sworn to establish its existence, such passages as these would have great contemporary interest:22

Were truth by sense and reason to be tried,
Sure all our swearers might be laid aside:(23)
Well said! out with't; swear a little—
By sea and air, by earth, by Heaven and hell,
I will revenge my Belvidera's tears!
Hark thee, my friend; Priuli—is—a senator!(24)
… Swear that thou wilt be true to what I utter;
And when I have told thee that which only gods
And men like gods are privy to, then swear
No chance or change shall wrest it from thy bosom.
When thou wouldst bind me, is there need of oaths?


… There's no religion, no hypocrisy in't:
We'll do the business, and ne'er fast and pray for't;


Swear then!(25)
Shall I swear?
No! do not swear. I would not violate
Thy tender nature with so rude a bond;
But as thou hop'st to see me live my days
And love thee long, lock this within thy breast.(26)
… I must have the oaths
And sacred promise of this reverend council,
That in a full assembly of the Senate
The thing I ask be ratified. Swear this,
And I'll unfold the secrets of your danger.
We'll swear.
                                                                      Propose the oath.
                                                                                                              By all the hopes
Ye have of peace and happiness hereafter,
We all swear.
                                                                      To grant me what I've asked,
Ye swear.
We swear.(27)
By all that's just—
                                                                                Swear by some other powers,
For thou hast broke that sacred oath too lately.


All I received in surety for thy truth,
Were unregarded oaths—and this, this dagger,
Given with a worthless pledge thou since hast stol'n:
So I restore it back to thee again,
Swearing by all those powers which thou hast violated. …(28)
… Swear that my love shall live,
Or thou art dead!
                                                                                Swear to recall his doom—
Swear at my feet, and tremble at my fury.
I do. [Aside.] Now, if she would but kick a little bit—
one kick now, ah-h-h-h.
Swear, or—
                                                                      I do, by these dear fragrant foots
And little toes, sweet as—e-e-e-e, my Nacky, Nacky, Nacky.(29)

The ghost of Hamlet's father, with its insistence on Hamlet's taking the oath, no doubt has amused the unthinking spectators. How much more amusing must such an orgy of swearing30 have been, when it was at last safe for the triumphant Court to laugh at the Popish Plot!

(2) Davies,31 and Genest32 after him, seem to be alone in conjecturing that Renault may represent a serious satire on Shaftesbury, to supplement the facetious picture drawn in the character of Antonio. This plausible conjecture deserves much more attention than it has received. In the Prologue, these two characters alone are described in words which call for contemporary application. Frederick and James W. Tupper...

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Malcolm Elwin (essay date 1928)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Elwin, Malcolm. “Lee and Otway.” In Handbook to Restoration Drama, pp. 121-45. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1966.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1928, Elwin offers a brief overview of Otway's life and plays, drawing attention to what he considers Otway's masterpiece, Venice Preserv'd.]

Thomas Otway's Venice Preserved has held the stage down to modern times and preserved his own name for the attention of every devotee to the slightest study of the drama. The sad story of his short life was known to every early Victorian society miss who sat through a presentation of his greatest play and, with fond fancy and the very...

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David R. Hauser (essay date July 1958)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hauser, David R. “Otway Preserved: Theme and Form in Venice Preserv'd.Studies in Philology 55, no. 3 (July 1958): 481-93.

[In the following essay, Hauser argues that critics who have complained about the structure and unity of Venice Preserv'd have not considered how Otway's careful imagery and realistic depiction of emotion overcome this supposed lack of coherence.]

Otway's Venice Preserv'd has been repeatedly judged one of the finest of Restoration tragedies, yet almost all modern critical discussions have emphasized the play's defects, thereby producing a confusion as to precisely where the excellence of the play...

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William H. McBurney (essay date 1959)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: McBurney, William H. “Otway's Tragic Muse Debauched: Sensuality in Venice Preserv'd.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 58 (1959): 380-99.

[In the following essay, McBurney argues that Venice Preserv'd deserves more than qualified praise, maintaining that it ranks among the greatest English tragedies.]

“What a beautiful, most painful, and in some respects disagreeable play is this Venice Preserv'd!” wrote Leigh Hunt after seeing Fanny Kemble in the role of Belvidera at Covent Garden in October, 1830. “Otway's genius, true as it was to nature, had a smack in it of the age of Charles II. … Sensuality takes the place of...

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Bessie Proffitt (essay date winter 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Proffitt, Bessie. “Religious Symbolism in Otway's Venice Preserv'd.Papers on Language and Literature 7, no. 1 (winter 1971): 26-37.

[In the following essay, Proffitt argues that critics have often ignored one of the subtlest aspects of Venice Preserv'd, namely the play's biblical imagery and themes.]

The complexity of Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd has led to a wide range of critical opinions, each of which has obvious and legitimate claims to accuracy. For example, “the horrors of political and sexual corruption” which William H. McBurney sees in the play clearly are basic to any reading of it.1 In the same vein, R....

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Jack D. Durant (essay date October 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Durant, Jack D. “‘Honor's Toughest Task’: Family and State in Venice Preserved.Studies in Philology 71, no. 4 (October 1974): 484-503.

[In the following essay, Durant argues that the plot and themes of Venice Preserv'd are best explained by examining the play's interplay between political and domestic conflict.]

Critics of Venice Preserved will probably always wonder how exactly to interpret the language of the play, especially the erotic language and the rhetoric of pathos. For example, when Jaffeir compares himself to a trusting lamb who would yield his throat to the sacrifice rather than relinquish his affection for the...

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Jean H. Hagstrum (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hagstrum, Jean H. “Restoration Love and the Tears of Morbidity.” In Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart, pp. 72-99. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Hagstrum discusses satire and pathos in Otway's comedies and tragedies.]

Thomas Otway fully deserves the reputation he possessed for over a century following his death—that of a tender, loving writer whose serious works, more than those of any other Restoration dramatist, aroused the pity that Aristotle required and who remained for generations the examplar par excellence of the pathetic. Since that quality was admired greatly as, along...

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Kerstin Lund-Baer (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lund-Baer, Kerstin. “Introduction” and “Summary and Conclusion.” In The Orphan: Tragic Form in Thomas Otway, pp. 3-6; 103-08. Stockholm: Uppsala University, 1980.

[In the following excerpts, Lund-Baer argues that The Orphan cannot be understood without a grounding in contemporary events and social trends and that the play's thematic concerns were creatively constructed to express Otway's views on the moral order.]

“It is not written with much comprehension of thought or elegance of expression.”1 The quotation is from Lives of The English Poets and the words are those of Samuel Johnson whose verdict on Thomas Otway's tragedy...

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Michael DePorte (essay date summer 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: DePorte, Michael. “Otway and the Straits of Venice.” Papers on Language and Literature 18, no. 3 (summer 1982): 245-57.

[In the following essay, DePorte argues that Venice Preserv'd offers no solutions to the problems that it depicts and no answers or lessons to ease the pain of uncertainty.]

Venice Preserv'd is a play about betrayal: betrayed oaths, betrayed secrets, betrayed bonds of family and friendship, and, not least, betrayed expectations.1 The play is disorienting from first to last, for the audience as well as for the characters, because in many ways it skews familiar patterns of comedy. The heroes are young lovers...

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Derek Hughes (essay date June 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hughes, Derek. “Otway's The Orphan: An Interpretation.” Durham University Journal 75, no. 2 (June 1983): 45-54.

[In the following essay, Hughes argues against critics who find the design and plot of The Orphan to be disjointed, insisting that Otway skillfully created a work of deep psychological complexity and thematic unity.]

The problem of The Orphan (1680) is familiar. The play claims our attention through its historical importance and promptly forfeits it through its apparent ineptitude of design, since its action proceeds entirely from what most readers deem a singularly motiveless deception: Castalio's tragic yet seemingly...

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Katharine M. Rogers (essay date winter 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Rogers, Katharine M. “Masculine and Feminine Values in Restoration Drama: The Distinctive Power of Venice Preserved.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 27, no. 4 (winter 1985): 390-404.

[In the following essay, Rogers argues that Venice Preserv'd is one of the only plays of the period that realistically balances the values and motivations of its male and female characters.]

The serious drama of the Restoration offers stimulating intellectual debates (such as Almahide's with Almanzor on the possibility of suppressing passion, in John Dryden's I Conquest of Granada, V.ii) and inspiring displays of manly friendship (such as the...

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Jessica Munns (essay date winter 1985-86)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Munns, Jessica. “‘The Dark Disorders of a Divided State’: Otway and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.Comparative Drama 19, no. 4 (winter 1985-86): 347-62.

[In the following essay, Munns shows how Otway portrays authority figures as repressive tyrants, focusing especially on The History and Fall of Caius Marius.]

Thomas Otway's sixth play, The History and Fall of Caius Marius: A Tragedy (Dorset Garden, Autumn 1679), is cast in the form of a Roman history and traces the violent contest between Caius Marius and Sylla (sic) for the war consulship against Mithridates. His Roman materials are drawn from Plutarch's lives of Gaius Marius and Sulla...

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Harry M. Solomon (essay date summer 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Solomon, Harry M. “The Rhetoric of ‘Redressing Grievances’: Court Propaganda as the Hermeneutical Key to Venice Preserv'd.ELH 53, no. 2 (summer 1986): 289-310.

[In the following essay, Solomon argues that critics of Venice Preserv'd have understood neither the age in which the play was written nor the author's political intentions.]

Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd (1682) has always posed interpretive problems for literary critics and stage directors.1 Although initially received as a Tory “Paean of Triumph” over the Whigs who sought to exclude the Duke of York from the throne, the play resists simple thematic...

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Robert D. Hume (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hume, Robert D. “The Unconventional Tragedies of Thomas Otway.” In Du Verbe au Geste: Melanges en l'honneur de Pierre Danchin, pp. 67-78. Nancy, France: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1986.

[In the following essay, Hume finds in all Otway's comedies and tragedies the playwright's characteristically pessimistic view of human nature.]

Otway is usually thought of as a Tory loyalist who started out writing rhymed heroic plays in imitation of Dryden and Lee and gradually evolved toward the pathetic and domestic modes in which he is considered a precursor of Banks and Rowe. This cliché has some truth in it, but it distorts our understanding of Otway's plays by...

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Jessica Munns (essay date spring 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Munns, Jessica. “Daredevil in Thomas Otway's The Atheist: A New Identification.” Restoration 11, no. 1 (spring 1987): 31-8.

[In the following essay, Munns speculates on who Daredevil is supposed to represent in The Atheist, concluding that is most likely Otway's early patron, the Earl of Rochester.]

The role of Daredevil in Thomas Otway's last play, The Atheist (Dorset Garden, July 1683), presents problems. Although he is a minor character with no direct plot significance, he is the atheist of the title and he figures prominently in a number of scenes. Daredevil accompanies the hero, Beaugard, on most of his adventures, and in the final...

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Jessica Munns (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Munns, Jessica. “‘The Monster Libell’: Power, Politics, and the Press in Thomas Otway's The Poet's Complaint of His Muse.” In Cutting Edges: Postmodern Critical Essays on Eighteenth-Century Satire, edited by James E. Gill, pp. 59-75. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Munns asserts that the Exclusion Crisis, coupled with Otway's own need for artistic patronage, led him to compose The Poet's Complaint, an ode that gives qualified support to royal authority.]

Thomas Otway's twenty-one stanza ode, The Poet's Complaint of His Muse; or, a Satyr Against Libells, was written in 1679 and published in...

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Simon Morgan-Russell (essay date summer 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Morgan-Russell, Simon. “Structures of Adultery: Otway's The Souldiers Fortune and Restoration Domestic Architecture.” ELH 65, no. 2 (summer 1998): 347-61.

[In the following essay, Morgan-Russell discusses public and private spaces in The Souldiers Fortune, concluding that the plot, which concerns adultery, is meant to offer political lessons.]

The subject of adultery in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England has seen a good deal of scholarly interest in recent criticism, particularly as the relationships between the participants in the adulterous transaction have been theorized. But few investigations have considered that the adulterous...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Ham, Roswell Gray. Otway and Lee: Biography from a Baroque Age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1931, 250 p.

Compares the lives, influence, and plays of Otway and Nathaniel Lee, including stage productions on which they collaborated.


Berman, Roland. “Nature in Venice Preserv'd.ELH 36, no. 3 (September 1969): 529-43.

Argues that Venice Preserv'd is the darkest type of dramatic tragedy, since it offers no solution to the problems that arise when humanity believes it can overcome its inability to live and govern wisely.


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