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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

§ 27. The Fair Penitent

Rowe’s next piece, The Fair Penitent (1703), proved one of the most popular plays of its time. It is borrowed, as to plot, from Massinger and Field’s The Fatal Dowry (1632); but Rowe greatly reduced the older play, omitted its force and flavour, and deluged his version with a moral tone which is all his own. This simple domestic drama, written, like Rowe’s other tragedies, in rather fluent blank-verse, met with extraordinary success and was constantly before the public till 1825, or thereabouts. The author promises in the prologue that “you shall meet with sorrows like your own.” The public found that Rowe kept his word; and, to this fact, and to the rather cheap appeal of the last act, with its accumulated furniture of the charnel-house and the grave, rather than to any depth of tragic power in the play, the longevity of the piece must be attributed. The “haughty, gallant, gay Lothario” of this tragedy has become a familiar synonym for a heartless libertine, and was the model for Lovelace in Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe. No play was more popular in the eighteenth century.

Rowe’s solitary comedy, The Biter, produced in 1705, was a failure. According to Johnson, the author’s applause was the only sound of approval heard in the theatre at its production. It was succeeded by the tragedy Ulysses (1706), a tedious and ineffective drama which lacks Rowe’s usual strong appeal to the pity of his audience. Neither this play nor The Royal Convert (1707)—very dull, with a background of mythical British history—calls for special comment. Rowe’s last two plays bear a strong likeness to one another. The Tragedy of Jane Shore “in imitation of Shakespeare’s style,” produced in 1714, has been said to bear no closer resemblance to Shakespeare than is to be found in the fact that like some of his plays it is based upon an episode in the history of England. It is, however, a good acting play, which, even now, has not entirely disappeared from the stage. It afforded Mrs. Siddons one of her most tremendous opportunities for realistic acting. As Jane Shore, drifting half-starved about the streets of London, eye-witnesses report that the audience “absolutely thought her the creature perishing through want”—and “could not avoid turning from the suffering object.”

In the following year (1715), Rowe succeeded Tate as poet laureate and produced his last play, The Tragedy of the Lady Jane Gray. This play, as well as its predecessor, and, to some extent, Rowe’s other dramatic works, display a certain nobility of outlook and purity of purpose, in marked and refreshing contrast to the pruriency in which the English drama had for half a century been steeped. The unexceptionably moral and patriotic tone of Rowe’s last play, as well as its protestant spirit, affords a very striking proof of the change that had come over the English stage since the revolution and the publication of Jeremy Collier’s Short View.

Like Otway, Rowe attempted to move his audiences to pity and terror; but, with few exceptions, his dramas leave us cold and unmoved. He contrives situations with considerable skill, but he generally fails to make his characters rise to them; nor do they give vent to their feelings in language which is always either touching in itself, or suitable to the surrounding circumstances. His plays are the calm and finished performances of an author who felt but faintly the emotions which he sought to portray, and who, by the introduction of what he very aptly calls “the pomp of horror,” hoped to find his way to the feelings of his readers. Criticism and the public taste, in fact, have alike moved far since Johnson wrote of Rowe’s The Fair Penitent, “There is scarcely any work of any poet at once so interesting by the fable, and so delightful by the language.” He has, however, other claims to the respect of posterity. Of the significance of his edition of Shakespeare’s works (1709), something has been said in an earlier volume; while his translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia, which was first published as a whole in 1718 (shortly after his death), and of which at least nine editions appeared between that date and 1822, is, probably, at the present day, his least forgotten work. He also translated in verse Boileau’s Lutrin (1708). Rowe was an accomplished modern, as well as classical, scholar, and his personality is one of dignity, as well as of interest, in the history of English literature.