Thomas Southerne Essay - Critical Essays

Southerne, Thomas


Thomas Southerne 1660-1746

Irish playwright.

Southerne is best remembered for his plays The Fatal Marriage (1694) and Oroonoko (1695). Modern critics have been interested in these works for their contribution to the development of the sentimental drama and their sympathetic portrayal of women trapped in marriages to unworthy men. In addition, Southerne's plays are esteemed for their social and psychological realism.

Biographical Information

The son of a brewer and his wife, Southerne was born in Dublin, Ireland, where he attended Trinity College. In 1680 he relocated to London to study law at the Middle Temple. Southerne had an interest in the theater, and in 1682 his first play, The Loyal Brother, was produced with the aid of John Dryden, who wrote the play's prologue and epilogue. In 1685 Southerne joined the English army, and over the course of a long military career eventually rose to the rank of captain. Despite the failure of The Loyal Brother, Southerne continued to write plays, gaining his first theatrical success in 1690 with Sir Anthony Love, a comedy which, like many of Southerne's subsequent works, contains multiple plots. In 1696, following his greatest successes with The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko, Southerne was awarded a master's degree from Trinity College. His later years, though marred by the dismal reception of his final stage production, Money the Mistress (1726), were happy ones, as Southerne enjoyed friendships with prominent literary figures such as William Congreve, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope. During this time, he also published two editions of his collected works. Southerne died in 1746.

Major Works

The works with which Southerne is most often associated, The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko, are regarded as tragedies in the “pathetic” tradition: sentimental dramas that depict the sorrowful lives of their main characters. The Fatal Marriage deals with the victimization and suffering of a woman who believes her husband is dead, and Oroonoko is about a slave rebellion in Surinam that ends with the principal figures committing suicide. Both plays were based on novels by Aphra Behn, and both contain split plots. The minor plot in The Fatal Marriage adds comic relief, whereas in Oroonoko subordination of women in marriage is thematically tied to the enslavement of black Africans. Two other plays by Southerne, both comedies, The Wives' Excuse (1691) and The Maid's Last Prayer (1693), have been the subject of increasing critical commentary since the twentieth century for their characterization of women trapped in marriages to rakish men. While these plays were not successful with audiences of the time, each has come to be regarded as a major dramatic piece concentrating on the problems of marriage and the unequal relationship between husbands and wives.

Critical Reception

Southerne's first three dramatic works, the comedies The Loyal Brother, The Disappointment (1684), and Sir Anthony Love, as well as his final three, The Fate of Capua (1700), The Spartan Dame (1719), and Money the Mistress, have been almost totally neglected by literary critics. With the exception of Sir Anthony Love, all were box-office disappointments and had brief stage runs; Money the Mistress suffered the ignominy of being roundly booed during its stage premier. The overwhelming body of critical attention has focused on The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko, two tragedies for which Southerne gained his greatest contemporary esteem. The Fatal Marriage is praised mostly for its psychological complexity and dramatic tension. Oroonoko, Southerne's most enduring work, enjoyed a stage life of over 150 years. It was produced throughout Europe and America well into the nineteenth century to promote abolitionist ideals. Whether or not Southerne himself intended the play to advance anti-slavery sentiments has been the subject of intense debate, although it does seem clear that he recognized some of the evils and cruelties inherent in the institution. The Wives' Excuse and The Maid's Last Prayer, neither of which were popular in their own time, have in the last half century garnered praise from critics who argue that they deserve to be included among Southerne's best plays for their suspenseful plots, realistic dialogue, sympathetic portrayals of women, psychological insight, and scathing commentaries on the moral bankruptcy of the society they portray.

Opinion on the stature of Southerne as a dramatist has varied considerably over the centuries. In his own day, Southerne was considered a worthy playwright, overshadowed by Shakespeare but the equal of Thomas Otway. John Dryden and Alexander Pope lavished praise on Southerne for his facility with language and his ability to stir the emotions of his audience. In the nineteenth century Southerne was routinely derided as an inferior verse dramatist whose plots were unrealistic, and whose major and minor storylines failed to complement each other thematically. Twentieth-century literary critics were kinder, most concluding that Southerne's minor plots are well fashioned and help to accentuate the major plot's thematic concerns. A number of modern critics have concentrated on Southerne's depictions of women, most concluding that he was one of the first English playwrights to portray female characters sympathetically, although this view has been challenged in recent decades by critics who view Southerne's work as hostile to women. In the final analysis, however, there is widespread agreement that Southerne's plays have been undeservedly neglected and should be included among the best examples of late seventeenth-century drama.

Principal Works

The Loyal Brother; or, The Persian Prince (play) 1682

The Disappointment; or, The Mother in Fashion (play) 1684

Sir Anthony Love; or, The Rambling Lady (play) 1690

The Wives' Excuse; or, Cuckolds Make Themselves (play) 1691

Cleomenes, The Spartan Hero, by Dryden, completed by Southerne [with John Dryden] (play) 1692

The Maid's Last Prayer; or, Any, Rather Than Fail (play) 1693

The Fatal Marriage; or, The Innocent Adultery [adaptor; from the novel The History of the Nun, or, The Fair Vow-Breaker by Aphra Behn] (play) 1694

Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave [adaptor; from the novel Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave by Aphra Behn] (play) 1695

The Fate of Capua (play) 1700

The Spartan Dame (play) 1719

Money the Mistress (play) 1726

The Works of Thomas Southerne. 2 vols. [edited by Robert Jordan and Harold Love] (plays and letters) 1988


John Wendell Dodds (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: Dodds, John Wendell. “Conclusion.” In Thomas Southerne Dramatist, pp. 204-19. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1933.

[In the following essay, Dodds examines Southerne's place in the history of English drama.]

In him the poets' Nestor ye defend!
Great Otway's peer, and greater Dryden's friend.

—Prologue to Money the Mistress

Thomas Southerne emerges from a candid appraisal of his life and work with a greater importance in the history of the English theatre than he has hitherto been granted by the critics who have touched him only in passing. … [The] esteem in which the poet's work was held by his contemporaries, as well as the unexpectedly long and continuous stage history of his two best plays, would alone support such an estimate. Moreover, his most effective work bears the test of a close critical scrutiny. This is not to say that such an examination reveals in Southerne unsuspected depths of genius, yet it is significant and not a little surprising to find how closely the quality of his most enduring drama approaches the best of its kind. But lest his advocate be accused of a critical myopia not unknown to special pleaders, it is advisable to draw together here the threads of Southerne's activity, and to place them in perspective against the background of the Restoration and eighteenth-century theatre. Thus it will be possible to illuminate with greater clarity his successes and his failures, and more importantly, to indicate his place in the development of English drama.


We find Southerne a man capable, beyond most of his fellow-craftsmen, of adapting himself to a difficult age. His dramatic activity extended over a span of forty-four years, and the history of his artistic life in that period is one of lightly-poised sensitiveness to public taste and opinion. Politically and professionally he was an opportunist; if such a philosophy reflected invidiously on his artistic integrity, it at least brought him financial competency and a high degree of theatrical success. Nor was any taint of hypocrisy his; a character singularly honest and straightforward in its personal relations brought him to his grave as full of honor as of years. He conquered the environment that had beaten down Lee and Otway, greater geniuses than he, and had checkered even Dryden's life with disappointment. That Southerne succeeded where better artists failed makes him a fascinating object of study against the background of the Caroline and Orange theatre.

Not the least of his good fortune came from an ability to find harbor with generous patrons, a feat which he accomplished by sailing with the prevailing political wind. He began his career on the stage as a loyal Jacobite. The Loyal Brother, or The Persian Prince (1682) was a spirited defense of James and a thinly-veiled attack on Monmouth's ambition. On the accession of James to the throne, Southerne entered the king's army and was on the verge of preferment when the Revolution swept down and destroyed all such hopes. When he returned to the theatre, discretion seemed the better part of political wisdom for an ambitious young dramatist. The Wives' Excuse, therefore, he dedicated to Thomas Wharton, who had voted for the Exclusion Bill in 1680 and had been named privy counsellor and comptroller of the household as soon as William became king. In 1695, with Oroonoko, he sued for the patronage of William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, who had also been active in advocating the Exclusion Bill and was privy counsellor under William and Mary. Such trimming to the wind of patronage did not escape the eye of contemporary satire. In some verses purporting to represent The Last Will and Testament of Mr. Tho. Brown, published in A Letter From the Dead Thomas Brown, to the Living Heraclitus (1704), Southerne is attacked for his inconstancy:

Item. To S———rn, who for Gain
And Place of Trust, turn'd Cat in Pan
And a good Cause declining left,
Because of present Pence bereft,
I give my Inconstancy of Temper,
To prove that he's not Idem semper,
But with each Point of Mind can vary,
And several hooks at several Seasons carry.(1)

The Tryal of Skill, or, a New Session of the Poets, published the same year, satirizes his opportunism in the same manner:

Tom S—Petition'd the next, and besought
          The Court, that he must be preferr'd,
For he two Fat Places already had got,
          And most grievously wanted a Third.
When the Judges amaz'd at his Temper and Suit,
          Remanded him back to White-hall,
And declar'd, who had lost his Esteem and Repute,
          Was not fit for their Business at all.
Such a Question as this drew the Blood into's Face,
          And away from the Querists he ran,
Well knowing how near it came up to his Case,
          That so lately had turn'd Cat in Pan.

The theatre, so hard a task-master to many a starving playwright, proved rich in financial reward to this fortunate Irishman. From the very first, when he “raised the price of prologues” by paying Dryden twice as much as had ever been given for one, he was active in obtaining the highest possible returns for his labors.2

The changing morality in Southerne's play is another evidence of his sensitiveness to new dramatic fashions. Between 1690-93, when the comedy of manners was still the accepted comic tradition, he turned out in rapid succession three plays that were conventionally ribald in conception and execution. He wrote them with a pen dipped in the common well of Restoration cuckoldry and wenching. Double-entendre, cynical attacks on the church, fifth-act victories for debauchées, a sparrow-like concentration on the one all-important business of sex—these were there in abundance. Even the sub-plots of The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko were comedies of manners in miniature. By 1695 Southerne had written five plays all stamped with the formula of lubricous wit. It was the fashion.

Then in 1698 the storm of Collier's Short View descended on this infected stage and sent the worried playwrights scurrying for shelter. The extent of their baffled rage may be determined by anyone who will examine Vanbrugh's or Congreve's disconcerted replies to the indictment. Accepting tacitly the parson's premise that “the business of Plays is to recommend Virtue and discountenance Vice,”3 they found his position impregnable, and went down to a fore-doomed argumentative defeat. To be sure, the stage was not reformed overnight—some of the most brilliant examples of the comedy under fire came after 1698—but Collier had brought to the surface purgative tendencies that had been running underground for over a decade, and were ultimately to result in a drama made safe for sensibility. For us, the important thing is Southerne's reaction to the dispute.

Collier does not include Southerne in his survey of iniquity. Our poet was as liable as any to attack, but Collier was gunning after bigger game. For his share of the general abuse Southerne had to wait until 1719, and Arthur Bedford's Serious Remonstrance In Behalf of the Christian Religion, Against the Horrid Blasphemies and Impieties which are still used in the English Play-Houses, etc. In this strident and extravagant book—the reductio ad absurdum of Collier—Southerne is included with the other innumerable heretics. Chapter and verse of The Fatal Marriage are cited to show “The Devil honour'd by the profane Cursing of the Stage,” and “The Scriptures perverted to the Honour of the Devil.” Type examples selected for anathema are such phrases as “Confusion,” and “The Devil is in it.” But in spite of the fact that he was not singled out by Collier for attack, Southerne sensed that a new scale of values was entering the theatre, and forthwith he gave up comedy, turning instead to a form least likely to give offense—classical tragedy.

Southerne's acceptance of the new code is pointed out in Charles Boyle's Prologue to The Fate of Capua.

But he despairs of pleasing all the nation,
'Tis so debauch'd with whims of reformation.
He's done his best: here is no wanton scene
To give the wicked joy, the godly, spleen.
Not one poor bawdy jest shall dare appear,
For now the batter'd, veteran strumpets, here
Pretend at least to bring a modest ear.

By 1726 the reformation was almost complete, and in Money the Mistress Southerne gave himself over to moralized comedy, where the sentiments were “honourable and virtuous” and the manners “instructive of youth.”4

Even if Southerne had not declared his purpose to write down to the public taste, a survey of his plays in chronological order would show his progressive attempt to adjust his methods to popular demand. When he began to compose plays in 1682, the heroic wave, whose crest had just broken with Dryden's rejection of rhymed tragedy, was still strong, and a heroic manner seemed the most logical for a young dramatist to adopt. In two years he followed The Loyal Brother with The Disappointment, a curious medley of intrigue, comedy, and sentiment, which showed him fumbling for a suitable medium and at the same time anticipating in a striking way the drama of sensibility. Then, after six years of silence, there came the rapid succession of his comedies of manners, each run from the same mold. Then a turn to tragedy and within two years The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko, tragi-comedies similar in mood and effect. The mingling here of a serious and a humorous action was in accordance with what Southerne considered the popular demand5 and with Dryden's pronouncement in his Preface to Sebastian, King of Portugal (acted 1689): “the Genius of the English cannot bear too regular a Play … the English will not bear a thorow Tragedy; but are pleas'd, that it should be lightned with Under-Parts of Mirth.”6 Between Oroonoko in 1695 and The Fate of Capua in 1700, however, came Collier, and an increasingly strong aversion on the part of the critics to tragi-comedy. So Southerne's next two plays, The Fate of Capua (1700) and The Spartan Dame (1719), were written to fit not only the changed morality but also the taste for more regular tragedy of critics who were bending more and more to French neo-classicism. And then, in 1726, the final comedy, this time a complete capitulation to the...

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Anthony Kaufman (essay date March 1973)

SOURCE: Kaufman, Anthony. “This Hard Condition of a Woman's Fate: Southerne's The Wives' Excuse.Modern Language Quarterly 34, no. 1 (March 1973): 36-47.

[In the following essay, Kaufman explores psychological elements in The Wives' Excuse.]

Few would disagree that a real change of sensibility occurred in Restoration comedy after the Revolution of 1688. The reasons for the collapse into sense have been well explored, as has its rather distasteful by-product: sentimental comedy. But critics have not yet fully defined the achievement of the 1690s. Congreve is a master, of course, and Vanbrugh and Farquhar receive their due. Even Cibber has his defenders. But...

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Eugene M. Waith (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Waith, Eugene M. “Admiration in the Comedies of Thomas Southerne.” In Evidence in Literary Scholarship: Essays in Memory of James Marshall Osborn, edited by René Welleck and Alvaro Ribeiro, pp. 89-103. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Waith examines each of Southerne's plays, seeing in them many of the developments that were taking place in English comedy at the close of the seventeenth century.]

One of the best-publicized developments in the history of English drama is the sad change of heart (and I use all these words advisedly) that came over the writers of comedy as the eighteenth century neared and then arrived. The publicity...

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Robert L. Root, Jr. (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Root, Robert L., Jr. “Conclusion.” In Thomas Southerne, pp. 118-28. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Root argues that Southerne is an important dramatist deserving of greater scholarly attention.]

References to Thomas Southerne in his lifetime are plentiful but usually brief. The picture that emerges from what amount to little more than footnotes to other men's lives is that of a well-fed, jovial companion and guest. Except for some back-biting by such a figure as William Broome, the references are always affectionate, cheerful, good-natured. He is teased about his deafness, asked after by corresponding friends, and applauded for...

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Julia A. Rich (essay date spring 1983)

SOURCE: Rich, Julia A. “Heroic Tragedy in Southerne's Oroonoko (1695): An Approach to a Split-plot Tragicomedy.” Philological Quarterly 2 (spring 1983): 187-200.

[In the following essay, Rich compares the major and minor plots in The Fatal Marriage and Oroonoko.]

The Restoration split-plot tragicomedy, combining as it frequently does wildly disparate tones in its “upper” and “lower” plots, can present difficulties to the modern reader searching for coherence. Should these works, many of them enormously popular in their own age, be dismissed as artistically unsatisfactory efforts to entertain an undiscriminating audience? Or do at least some of...

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Harold Weber (essay date May 1984)

SOURCE: Weber, Harold. “The Female Libertine in Southerne's Sir Anthony Love and The Wives Excuse.Essays in Theatre 2, no. 2 (May 1984): 126-39.

[In the following essay, Weber claims that Sir Anthony Love and The Wives' Excuse illustrate Southerne's fascination with and fear of female libertines.]

Men have rarely accepted with equanimity women's attempts to participate in the freedoms and pleasures of the male world. The prospect of women usurping the roles of men has usually produced the most emphatic accents of male rage. Juvenal has few kind words for women at any point in his sixth satire, but some of his most severe censure falls...

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Robert D. Hume (essay date February 1990)

SOURCE: Hume, Robert D. “The Importance of Thomas Southerne.” Modern Philology 87, no. 3 (February 1990): 270-90.

[In the following essay, Hume reviews a 1988 edition of Southerne's collected works and argues that Southerne deserves greater acclaim as one of the finest dramatists of his time.]

The appearance of a thousand-page “standard” edition of the Works1 of Thomas Southerne is cause for rejoicing among a few specialists, but probably leaves most others wondering, “And who the deuce may he be?” Thomas Southerne (1660-1746) was a friend and protegé of Dryden's; an early sponsor and longtime friend of Congreve's; and author of...

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Robert Jordan (essay date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Jordan, Robert. “Inversion and Ambiguity in The Maid's Last Prayer.Restoration 15, no. 2 (fall 1991): 99-110.

[In the following essay, Jordan proposes that The Maid's Last Prayer's “structural inconclusiveness may work as a deliberate image of its society's own inconsistencies and confusions.”]

Since John Harrington Smith's vigorous advocacy in 1948, the reputation of Thomas Southerne's dark comedies, The Wives' Excuse and The Maid's Last Prayer, has risen spectacularly. These plays, which could be dismissed as worthless fifty years ago, are now frequently listed among the major comedies of their half century.1...

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Mary Vermillion (essay date fall 1992)

SOURCE: Vermillion, Mary. “Buried Heroism: Critiques of Female Authorship in Southerne's Adaptation of Oroonoko.Restoration 16, no. 1 (fall 1992): 28-37.

[In the following essay, Vermillion argues that Southerne's stage adaptation of Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko betrays his antagonism toward female writers.]

While critics have long compared Thomas Southerne's 1695 play, Oroonoko, to its source, Aphra Behn's 1688 novel of the same name, no one has examined the problematics of a male playwright borrowing from England's first professional woman writer.1. This borrowing occurred during the period when women as a group first began openly...

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Helga Drougge (essay date winter 1993-94)

SOURCE: Drougge, Helga. “Love, Death, and Mrs. Barry in Thomas Southerne's Plays.” Comparative Drama 27, no. 4 (winter 1993-94): 408-25.

[In the following essay, Drougge discusses the complex depiction of comic heroines in six of Southerne's plays.]

Thomas Southerne's tragedies were once held in great esteem. Sophocles might have profited if he could have heard the “moving Moan” of Isabella in The Fatal Marriage, wrote Elijah Fenton in 1711:

If Envy cou'd permit, he'd sure agree
To write by Nature were to Copy Thee:
So full, so fair thy Images are shown,
He by Thy Pencil might improve his own.(1)

A modified version of...

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Peggy J. Thompson (essay date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Thompson, Peggy J. “Facing the Void in The Wives' Excuse; or, Characters Make Themselves.” Papers on Language and Literature 31, no. 1 (winter 1995): 78-98.

[In the following essay, Thompson argues that The Wives' Excuse has gone unappreciated, both in its own day and by modern critics, because the play delivers something completely different than what is expected of it.]

Despite expectations raised by the subtitle of The Wives' Excuse; or, Cuckolds Make Themselves, no cuckolding takes place in this 1691 play by Thomas Southerne.1 Mrs. Friendall ultimately rejects an affair with the seductive Lovemore and remains faithful to...

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Further Reading


Jordan, Robert and Love, Harold, eds. The Works of Thomas Southerne, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Collection of Southerne's works that includes a biography of the dramatist as well as introductory notes to his plays.


Drougge, Helga. “‘We'll learn that of the Men’: Female Sexuality in Southerne's Comedies.” Studies in English Literature 33 (summer 1993): 545-63.

Expores themes of female sexuality in three of Southerne's plays: Sir Anthony Love, The Wives' Excuse, and The Maid's Last Prayer.

Kaul, Suvir. “Reading Literary...

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