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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VII. The Restoration Drama

§ 10. The Orphan and Venice Preserv’d

While Otway was away in Holland on military service, his first comedy, Friendship in Fashion, was produced (1678). His genius, however, most assuredly did not lie in the direction of comedy. On his return to London, Otway produced (1680) The History and Fall of Caius Marius, half of which tragedy, as he frankly admits in the prologue, is taken bodily from Romeo and Juliet. In the same year (1680) appeared The Orphan, a tragedy in blank verse, and the earlier of the two plays upon which Otway’s reputation rests. The plot is supposed to have been suggested by Robert Tailor’s comedy The Hogge hath lost his Pearle (1614), which it resembles, or, more probably, by a work entitled English Adventures. By a Person of Honour (attributed to Roger Boyle, earl of Orrery), published in 1676, which narrates the escapades of Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk. With this play, Otway stepped out of the rank and file of restoration dramatists into his own particular place among great English tragedians. He abandoned the artificial emotions of heroic personages in favour of the joys and sorrows of ordinary human life. The Orphan is, for the period, a singularly domestic play. Two brothers, Castalio and Polydore, are in love with Monimia, their father’s ward. Castalio secretly contracts himself to her in marriage; but Polydore, overhearing their plans for meeting, and unaware of the nature of the tie which unites them, contrives to supplant his brother on the wedding night. Castalio, seeking admittance to the bridal chamber, is supposed to be Polydore and rudely repulsed; and he spends the night cursing all womankind. With the morrow come explanations, and the misery of the situation becomes clear. Whether the plot makes too large demands on the reader’s credulity, or whether it shocks his sense of decorum, the pathetic irony of the situation in which the characters find themselves is indisputably brought home with great tragic force.

A comedy called The Souldier’s Fortune followed (1681), in which the poet drew upon his military experiences. Langbaine discovered in this piece numerous borrowings—notably from Boccaccio and Scarron; but the episodes are so common to plays of intrigue that it is difficult to say whence Otway derived them. There is, however, more than a suggestion of Molière’s L’École des Maris.

Otway’s next play, Venice Preserv’d, or a Plot Discover’d, a tragedy in blank verse, was first acted in February, 1682. The story of this tragedy is taken from an anecdotal history entitled La Conjuration des Espagnols contre la république de Venise en 1618, published in 1674 by the Abbé de Saint-Réal. An English translation had appeared in 1675. The finest character in the play, Belvidera, is, however, purely the creation of the poet’s genius; and the scenes between her and Jaffier, the weak, but at heart noble, conspirator who is persuaded by his wife to reveal the plot to the senate, are beyond praise. Jaffier, torn between his passionate affection for Belvidera and his almost equal devotion to his friends and their cause, presents a signally true picture of the human soul seeking vainly to reconcile contending ideals. His remorse and shame under the stinging reproaches of his dear friend and fellow-conspirator Pierre, his inability to free himself from the clinging love and fascination with which Belvidera has enmeshed him, his agony of grief on the senate’s breach of its promise to spare the lives of all the conspirators as the reward of his treachery—all these successive phases through which his sensitive, but weak and vacillating, spirit has to pass are depicted with consummate skill and true tragic power.

Otway’s political leaning reveals itself in the secondary title, with its obvious reference to the popish plot, and, still more clearly, in the prologue and epilogue; and the play is further disfigured by some scandalous “comic” scenes, written to ridicule Anthony, earl of Shaftesbury, in the character of Antonio, a lascivious old senator.

In Venice Preserv’d and, to a less extent, in The Orphan, Otway produced plays which, for intensity of feeling and for the display of elemental emotions, are worthy to rank with the later masterpieces of the Elizabethan age, and with some of Fletcher’s plays in particular. The language of their finest passages is of a notable simplicity, admirably conveying the poet’s conception of his characters. Unfortunately, passages of noble poetry are, at times, intermixed with lines of almost ludicrous ineptitude. More pathetic and convincing pictures of women overwhelmed by grief, confusion and hopelessness cannot be imagined than those drawn by Otway in his Monimia—“the trembling, tender, kind, deceived Monimia”—and the still finer Belvidera—a masterpiece of insight into the human heart. Both characters were originally performed by Mrs. Barry, the celebrated actress who appeared in Otway’s first play, Alcibiades, and for whom the poet had conceived a hopeless passion. Some of his letters to her have been preserved, and prove how deeply he had fallen under her influence. His unrequited passion for this fascinating woman had a manifest share in the uplifting of his genius from the dusty commonplaces of lesser retoration drama to the heights of characterisation and expression which he reached in his two great tragedies.