Thomas Otway’s career as a dramatist lasted only eight years (his first play, Alcibiades, was performed in 1675; his last, The Atheist, in 1683), but during that brief period he was able to establish himself as one of the leading playwrights of his day. Venice Preserved secured Otway a more lasting reputation. Acted 337 times during the eighteenth century, it continued to be popular during the nineteenth century and remains one of the more frequently anthologized plays from the period.
Otway lived and wrote during the turbulent reign of Charles II (1600-1685). A popular but troubled monarch, Charles was plagued by a long series of political crises. One such crisis, known as the Popish Plot, involved an alleged attempt by the Catholic Church to overthrow the English government. Though a hoax, the Popish Plot played on deep-seated national fears, inciting considerable furor and helping bring to a head the long-standing conflict between the king’s supporters (the Tory party) and his opponents (the Whig party). Otway’s loyalty lay staunchly with the king, and Venice Preserved, his best-known play, with its portrait of a Venice racked by political strife and double-dealing, can be seen in part as a celebration of Charles’s political victory over the Whig opposition.
How appreciative the initial audience of Venice Preserved was of its political dimension is amply suggested by the extent of royal patronage: King Charles attended the play’s third night (the profits of which traditionally went to the author), and two months later the king’s brother, James, duke of York (later King James II), and James’s wife, the duchess of York, attended special performances. The royal brothers no doubt took particular relish in the savage personal satire against their foremost political opponent, Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury, portrayed by Otway in the characters of Antonio and Renault as a corrupt, debauched sensualist without moral or political principles. (Soundly defeated and in fear for his life, Shaftesbury fled England several months before the play opened.) It is unlikely, however, that either Charles or James was able to discern any grander satirical scheme at work. Though clearly anti-Whig in its sentiments, Venice Preserved does not effectively “reduce” to a coherent political allegory, and no historical counterparts exist for the three lead characters, Jaffeir, Pierre, and Belvidera. In fact, except for the personal attack against Shaftesbury and a general parallel between the murky...
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