An introduction to a forgotten masterpiece
Venice Preserv’d has been called a ‘masterpiece’ by the theatre critic Michael Billington and ‘the last great verse play in the English language’ by the fascinating critic and provocateur Kenneth Tynan. Yet it’s rarely read, studied, analysed, or staged nowadays. But this brief introduction to Thomas Otway’s Restoration tragedy about sex, politics, betrayal, and – for want of a better word – ‘bromance’ hopes to bring this underrated classic to a few more people’s attention. So it’s our job to try to explain why Venice Preserv’d is so good.
The Restoration period (following the restoration of the monarchy in England in 1660, and lasting until nearly the end of the seventeenth century) is known for its comedies: the ‘Restoration comedy’ used to be a popular ‘theatre style’ in its own right, sent up on the popular TV improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway? But the tragedies have not lasted so well as, say, Aphra Behn’s The Rover or William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. Who now reads John Dryden’s tragic dramas, save scholars? We read and watch Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra rather than Dryden’s Restoration rewriting of it. But there is one play which is, or should be, the exception to this, and that play is Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d.
The play, in summary, is about a conspiracy. It was written and first staged just after the Popish Plot of 1678, and it seems fair to assume that original theatregoers would have drawn parallels between the events of Venice Preserv’d and that recent conspiracy. Otway’s source for the play was a French novel, A conspiracy of the Spaniards against the state of Venice (1675), by L’abbé de Saint-Réal, although Otway departs from his source material when it suits him. In summary, the plot is this: Jaffeir, a nobleman, has secretly married Belvidera. Belvidera’s father Priuli disapproves of the match, and cuts off his daughter’s inheritance, despite the fact that five years before, Jaffeir had saved Belvidera’s life during an accident at sea.
Pierre, Jaffeir’s close friend, persuades him to join a conspiracy to overthrow the Venetian Senate. (Pierre’s reasons are numerous, but they include the fact that one of the senators, Antonio, has stolen Pierre’s mistress off him.) Jaffeir agrees, but when he learns that ‘overthrow’ means ‘exterminate’, and that all of the senators will be murdered, he betrays his fellow conspirators, on the condition that they will not be executed for their planned crime. Belvidera also prevails upon him to turn over the conspirators to the law.
The senators agree to spare the lives of the guilty men – but they had their fingers crossed behind their backs, it would seem, for they then arrest the conspirators and prepare to torture and execute them. (Both a scaffold for execution, and a wheel for torturing the conspirators, usually appear on the stage.) To spare his friend from the agonising torture of being broken on the wheel, Jaffeir stabs Pierre, and then stabs himself. Belvidera comes on stage, deluded and thinking she sees the ghosts of both men, and then dies.
Otway was a Tory and a royalist, and when he wrote Venice Preserv’d, the Whigs – political enemies of the Tories – were stirring up debate by opposing the heir to the throne, James (brother of King Charles II), on the grounds that he was a Catholic. Instead, the Whigs favoured the illegitimate (but Protestant) Duke of Monmouth as the successor to the crown when Charles died. Might we analyse the central plot of Venice Preserv’d – whereby a group of conspirators plan, but fail, to overthrow the senate – as some sort of allegory for what was going on in Otway’s England? Do the conspirators represent the Whigs, in their desire to ‘overthrow’ the status quo?
Well, partly. In his introduction to Venice Preserv’d (included in the great-value anthology of Restoration Plays (Everyman)), Robert G. Lawrence suggests that both the conspirators and the senators represent ‘two kinds of English Whigs’, both of them heavily influenced by the Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury was the leader of the Whigs and a vocal supporter of the Duke of Monmouth as a successor to the throne when Charles II died. But, as Lawrence points out, Antonio – one of the corrupt senators whom the conspirators are seeking to overthrow – is also portrayed as similar to Shaftesbury. As Lawrence wittily puts it, ‘The drama therefore creates the perplexing situation of Renault (representing Shaftesbury) plotting assiduously to overthrow Antonio (who also represents Shaftesbury).’
However, analysing Venice Preserv’d as a ‘Whigs seeking to overthrow … more Whigs’ seems something of a convoluted and self-defeating idea, given the words of the Epilogue, which acknowledge that the foiled conspiracy that the audience has just seen played out on stage may well be played out in real life. The parallels between Antonio and Shaftesbury may be there to provide balanced nuance and to do what great drama so often does: act out the two opposing sides of a debate in a way that takes into account the contradictions and complexities of both sides. So although Antonio is Shaftesburylike, it is perhaps going too far to claim therefore that the senators are simply synonymous with the Whigs. It’s perhaps more likely that Otway sought to emphasise the shared qualities and similarities between the two sides, without losing the ‘Whigs against Tories’ narrative altogether. After all, the ‘Whigs’, as represented by Pierre and Jaffeir, are allowed a noble, even heroic death. And of course, the Epilogue makes it clear that the play is designed to serve as a relief but also a warning: the conspiracy from the Whigs has been averted and the conspirators dealt with, but we shouldn’t get too complacent, Otway seems to be saying.
Venice Preserv’d is a fine example of a Restoration verse tragedy, but it also has some genuinely comic moments, such as when the ageing and lecherous senator Antonio essentially turns up at Aquilina’s house on a ‘booty call’, and calls her by his pet name for her (‘Nacky’) at great length to try to cajole her into a ‘game at rump’ (i.e. some how’s-your-father). Nor is all of it in verse: such a comic moment as the one just mentioned is rendered in fine prose, so, as with many a good Shakespeare play, we get a mixture of the two, with low moments of humorous prose and glimpses of high tragedy rendered in moving and powerful verse.
Otway was just thirty years old when Venice Preserv’d was first performed; three years later, he died in poverty. His play, like the Venice it depicts, has been preserved and, although not as well-remembered or as frequently staged as the Restoration comedies, it is probably the finest example of Restoration verse tragedy.
Image: William Blake’s portrait of Thomas Otway (1800), via Wikimedia Commons.