Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd: An Ideal Source for a Tory Message
Note: The following analysis is an example of the historical biographical approach to literature.
In his article "Political Interpretations of Venice Preserv'd," Philip Harth argues that recent critical attempts to describe Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd as a "Tory 'political document,' either as allegory or as parallel," have been misguided (355). Indeed, the presence of so many conflicting opinions about what each component of the play represents might seem to lend support to Harth's argument. The Senate has been seen as the English Court and, conversely, as the English Parliament, while the conspirators have been viewed both as the Popish Plotters and as the Whig exclusionists (Harth 345). However, the existence of so many divergent opinions does not mean that Venice Preserv'd, as Harth implies, contains no political message beyond its prologue, its epilogue, and its depiction of Antonio (358). Harth admits that Otway chose to make a play from Saint-Real's A Conspiracy of the Spanish against the State of Venice because of its "unique parallel" to current events, but he argues that Otway is thereby confined merely to "imply[ing] a parallel between Venetian and English history" and that, although he can add a few characters, he cannot "invent any vehicle to serve his political tenor" (347-49). Yet Otway may have chosen Saint-Real's work precisely because it enabled him, with the addition of just a few characters and no major changes, to present his Tory message. Otway chooses as his source a story in which a conspiracy can be condemned and yet the conspirators can seem sympathetic and their accusations against the Senate can appear credible. A storyline that enables the playwright to express these seeming contradictions is ideal for a Tory who would never condone the Popish Plot to murder his king but who yet despised the way the Whigs manipulated it for their political gain.
Venice Preserv'd was first performed on February 9, 1682, in the wake of tumultuous political events. Titus Oates had exposed before a magistrate the details of a supposed Popish Plot. A group of Roman Catholics were allegedly planning to murder King Charles II so that his Catholic brother James, the Duke of York, would succeed him to the throne ("Oates" 1). At this point, the Whigs in Parliament sought to pass a bill (against the opposition of the Tories, who supported Charles) that would have excluded James from the throne (Edie 350). Perhaps the revelation of this supposed Plot genuinely frightened the Whigs and made them fear that Roman Catholicism might be forcibly reinstated in England by James (as "Bloody Mary" had tried to do in 1553). Or perhaps they merely used the Plot, and the fact of James Catholicism, as a pretense to assert their power over the King, to subject the succession to the prerogative of Parliament. Charles must have thought so, for although he loved his illegitimate son, whom the radical Whig leader Shaftesbury wished to succeed him, more than he did his brother James, Charles nonetheless actively fought the exclusion (Edie 353). After becoming independent via a subsidy from Louis XIV, he dissolved the Parliament and never summoned it again. The Whigs turned to London as their source of power. And when Charles arrested Shaftesbury for treason, he was acquitted by a London jury packed with Whigs. In response, Charles issued a writ to proceed against London's charter, which had exempted the city from direct royal interference. Just ten days after the proceedings were delayed, and before further action had been taken, Venice Preserv'd was performed for the first time (Bywaters 257).
In light of these events, and considering that Otway was a Tory, it might at first seem logical that any rebels he depicted would represent the Whig exclusionists, whose insistence that the crown submit to Parliamentary authority "was barely short of revolution" (Edie 351). In that case, the Senate would have to represent the English Court of the King. However, such an interpretation is highly unlikely considering that the audience's sympathies naturally rest with Jaffier, a conspirator, and not with the corrupt senators. Priuli cruelly drives out Jaffier and Belvidera, saying, "May the hard hand of a vexatious need / Oppress and grind you" (1.1.56-7). Although Jaffier had saved his daughter's life, when the two marry, Priuli abuses his power to see to it that a "troop of villains" seizes all of Jaffier's property; indeed, his "cruel hand" signs the commission allowing these "sons of public rapine" to destroy Jaffier's possessions, throwing the very bed in which he consummated his love with Belvidera "amongst the common lumber" (1.1.232-50). Antonio reveals himself to be a pervert in the scenes with the whore Aquilina (3.1.14-140; 5.1.153-225). Jaffier, on the other hand, though initially motivated by revenge, seeks to fulfill the noble ideals of love and honor, ultimately choosing the latter by dying for his friend Pierre, who says, "This was done nobly" (5.3.101).
The conspirators cannot represent the Whig exclusionists, for whom Otway held not a grain of sympathy, but they might represent the Popish Plotters, who fell victim to the Whigs' manipulation. Otway implies in his prologue that "there's not in't [the Plot] one inch-board evidence" (9). Yet the Whigs' frenzy over the Popish Plot lead to the deaths of 35 people, and they used the Plot to consolidate and assert their power ("Oates" 1). Even Harth admits that the Venetian conspiracy, that "spectacle of a disaffected minority planning to wreak revenge on their countrymen," can resemble "only the Popish Plot" (352).
Yet Harth will not concede that the Senate must therefore represent London's corrupt oligarchy of Whigs who sought, like Antonio, to prove the existence of, and cruelly squash, the "bloody, horrid, execrable, damnable, and audacious plot" (5.1.142-43). Although he writes that in the character of Antonio Otway is "outrageously caricaturing Shaftesbury," the leader of the Whigs, he claims that the Senate is not really corrupt (358). Harth argues that Otway had no choice but to include the Senate's betrayal of their oath to the conspirators, because the betrayal was in his source (347). Yet the presence of this betrayal in the source actually suits Otway's purpose; he wishes to portray the Senate as untrustworthy. In fact, he even adds the characters of Antonio and Priuli (Harth 347). Their decadence confirms the corruption of the Senate. Harth, however, contends that "the behavior of Priuli and Antonio" is not "evidence that corruption is rife among the Venetian senators" because we cannot "draw generalizations . . . from a sample of two senators" (356). However, if Otway did not desire his audience to draw such generalizations, surely he would have introduced at least one respectable senator in his play.
It may be true that the conspirators are prejudiced against the Senate because of their desire for personal revenge (Harth 356). But this does not mean that their accusations must be inaccurate. Not all prejudices are incorrect, and few arise without some motivation. In order for the audience to discredit Pierre's claims, it would have to be presented with some alternative view of the Senate. But the characters of Priuli and Antonio, as well as the Senate's betrayal of its promise not to kill the conspirators, only reinforce Pierre's accusations. Because Otway gives us no other portrait of the Senate, it is safe to assume that Pierre, despite his suspect motivations, is correct when he asserts that "our senators / Cheat the deluded people with a show / Of liberty" and that in Venice, "innocence / Stoops under vile oppression, and vice lords it" (1.1.153-55, 254-55). Indeed, Pierre's desire to "check the growth of these domestic spoilers, / That make us slaves and tell us 'tis our charter" probably resembles Otway's own wish to see London's charter revoked so that the Whigs would not continue to grow in power, exempt from royal influence (1.1.163-64; Bywaters 259).
Any confusion as to whom the conspirators and senators represent on the English political scene may stem from the absence of a king in the play. Since the Popish Plotters were presumably conspiring to kill the King, and not plotting against the Whigs, having the Venetian conspirators conspire against a Senate that represents the Whigs is an imperfect allegory. Obviously, since he is restricted by his source, Otway is not free to "invent a political allegory about England without jettisoning Venetian history" (Harth 348). But nor does this mean, as Harth assumes, that Otway cannot use the play to present a specific, Tory message. The absence of a king, which at first seems to limit Otway's ability to communicate a Tory assessment of current events, actually aids him in that it allows him to express sympathy for the conspirators (i.e. the Popish Plotters) while avoiding any mention of regicide (Bywaters 263). Because the conspirators plot against the senators instead of a king, Otway can criticize his enemy (the Whigs) and sympathize with their victims (the Popish Plotters) without, at the same time, supporting their conspiracy (to kill the King).
Although the play's absence of a king removes the issue of regicide, Otway must still deal with the wholesale murders allegedly planned by the Popish Plotters. It was rumored that the Roman Catholics were planning to carry out a "general massacre" in the city of London, "which was a notorious Whig strong hold," and that the Plot might include setting a fire like the one the Catholics had allegedly ignited in 1666 (Bywaters 262, 256). The conspirators may not be planning to kill a king in Venice Preserv'd, but they do intend to "[s]hed blood enough, spare; neither sex nor age" in the city of Venice and to "Burn! / First burn, and level Venice to . . . ruin!" (3.2.332-34; 1.1.278-79). This issue is potentially explosive for Otway, for although he apparently believed the Popish Plot to be fictitious, many Tories did not; they thought it had merely been exaggerated by the Whigs (Harth 359). Titus Oates was at one time very popular, and had even received a pension. Indeed, it was not until about two years after Venice Preserv'd was first performed, in 1684, that Oates was imprisoned, and not until 1685 that he was charged with perjury ("Oates" 1).
David Bywaters (author of "Venice, Its Senate, and Its Plot in Otway's Venice Preserv'd") does not perceive this issue to be a problem for Otway, because he believes that the conspiracy represents a mere parody of the Whigs' irrational fear of the Popish Plot. But it is both unconvincing and unnecessary to argue that the play's conspiracy is "hollow and silly" (Bywaters 260). As Jessica Munns points out in her article, "'Plain as the light in the Cowcumber': A Note on the Conspiracy in Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd," Belvidera's "horrified reactions" to the bloody details of the conspiracy would be "absurd if from the first the plot is viewed as ludicrous and impossible" (55). These details are no parody; they can be found in Otway's source (Harth 352). On the one hand, these details allow him to draw a parallel to the Popish Plot; on the other hand, they require him to condemn it. Because so many people, Whigs and Tories alike, believed the Popish Plot was real, Otway had to be very careful not to appear as though he condoned or excused it.
Fortunately, by adding a single character to his source, Belvidera, Otway can condemn the conspiracy without, at the same time, exonerating the senators who suppress it. Therefore, he can show that although he did not approve of the Popish Plot (assuming it was real), he nonetheless despised the Whigs who sought to expose and crush it. Through Belvidera, he is able to denounce the conspiracy:
Nay, be a traitor too, and sell thy country? Can thy great heart descend so vilely low, Mix with hired slaves, bravoes, and common stabbers, Nose-slitters, alley-lurking villains? join With such a crew . . . To cut the throats of wretches as they sleep? (3.2.159-64)
Although Belvidera roundly condemns the conspiracy, her condemnation does not imply respect for the Senate. As Otway carefully reminds us, she desires to preserve her father's life despite the fact that he has, in her own words, "persecuted me to my undoing, / Driven me to basest wants" (3.2.154-55). She pleads with Jaffier, "Save thy poor country" (4.1.46). But this "certainly does not refer to its political system" (Harth 355). Just because Belvidera wishes Jaffier to "[s]ave the poor, tender lives / Of all those little infants which the swords / Of murderers are whetting for this moment," does not mean she approves of the senate (4.1.47-50). For, "faced with such a prospect, Abraham pleaded that even Sodom should be spared" (Harth 355). Likewise, just because Otway would never wish to see London desecrated by Catholics does not mean that he supports the Whigs who exposed, exaggerated, and crushed (if they did not actually fabricate) the Popish Plot.
If Otway criticizes the Popish Plot through Belvidera's words, then he also condemns the Whigs' treatment of the Plot through the Senate's treatment of the conspiracy. Jaffier asks for the Senate's "oaths / And sacred promise" that it will spare the lives of the conspirators he exposes (4.2.57-63). The entire Senate swears three times, saying, "We all swear," "We swear," and "Elst be curst forever!" (4.2.67-74). But they renege on their promise, just as the senators did in Saint-Real's work. Not only do they refuse to spare the lives of the conspirators, but they also intend to subject Pierre to "a tormenting and shameful death, / His bleeding bowels, and his broken limbs, / Insulted o'er by a vile, butchering villain" (4.2.348-51). Indeed, it is Belvidera herself who describes this torture, saying that Jaffier's eyes "'twill stream / Like my eyes now" (4.2.351-52). This is further evidence that Belvidera's opposition to the conspiracy does not imply support of the Senate.
Finally, Otway takes a direct shot at the Whigs in Pierre's speech before the Senate:
Curst be your Senate; curst your Constitution. The curse of growing factions and division Still vex your councils, shake your public safety, And make the robes of government you wear Hateful to you as these base chains to me! (4.2.156-60).
The Whigs had already begun to experience "growing factions." One moderate group had proposed, as a solution to the issue of James's Catholicism, a regency of his Protestant daughters, while a more radical faction, under the leadership of Shaftesbury, had sought to substitute the Duke of Monmouth, and "despite Charles's opposition to either move, controversy had risen and raged" (Edie 355). In allowing Pierre to curse the Senate and its constitution, Otway is probably cursing the oligarchy of Whigs who ruled London and the charter that freed them from royal interference.
Jessica Munns epitomizes the Senate's abuse of the conspiracy:
Venice is preserved by its plots. Nothing else could hold the greedy and self-seeking senators together, but, against the anarchy of rebels who mirror them in corruption, they justify and consolidated their rule. Antonio's ridiculous speech and his anxiety to "prove there's a Plot with a Vengeance" (5.128-29) place Antonio and the senate (but not the conspiracy) in a satiric light. Rather, the cynical exploitation of an "actual" plot by a frivolous and decadent pervert plays off with bitter irony against Jaffier's agonies of betrayal, his suicide, and the deaths of Belvidera and Pierre. (56)
This "decadent pervert," we should recollect, is a direct caricature of Shaftesbury, who, in the view of the Tories, manipulated the Popish Plot in order to advance his own "frivolous and decadent" views about political order. The Tories opposed Shaftesbury's attempt to subject succession to the power of Parliament, because with it "crept in the possibility of an elective monarchy," and they believed, as one Tory wrote in The Original of Kingly and Ecclesiastical Government, that "[k]ings are not children of the most voices, but children of the most high" (Edie 357).
Otway's choice of source enables him to present a Tory message even in the body of his play. The parallels between the conspiracy and the Popish Plot and between the senators who rule Venice and the Whigs who rule London are too uncanny to be ignored. It is also the only logical association. As Bywaters argues, "[s]ince neither the senate nor the conspiracy against it is politically respectable, neither can be Tory; yet since the two factions are violently opposed, both can not be Whig" (256). The only political groups on the scene at the time were the Tories (who supported the King), the Whigs (who sought exclusion), and the Roman Catholics (who were accused of the Popish Plot). If neither side can be Tory, and only one can be Whig, then there is only one plausible solution: one side (the Senate) must represent the Whigs, and the other (the conspiracy) must represent the Popish Plot.
Yet arguing that Venice Preserv'd is indeed a Tory "propaganda piece (which it is)" does not mean that we must exclude thematic interpretations; a historical analysis of Venice Preserv'd in no way conflicts with the fact that today the play "is remembered . . . as a tragedy of pathetic love" (Loftis 18). It is not true, as Harth asserts, that one can present Venice Preserv'd as a propaganda piece "only at the cost of contradicting the way most readers and spectators over the years have responded to its plot and characters" (355). For the sympathies and outrages evoked by the plot and characters fit ideally with Otway's political message. We can hate the senators as he hates the Whigs. We can disapprove of the conspiracy as he disapproves of the Popish Plot. Yet we can sympathize with the conspirators as he sympathizes with the Popish Plotters, for, in the words of John Dryden, another Tory poet of the age, "that Plot, the Nation's Curse" is "[b]ad in itself, but represented worse" ("Absalom and Achitophel" 108-9).
Bywaters, David. "Venice, Its Senate, and Its Plot in Otway's Venice Preserv'd." Modern Philology. 80 (1983): 256-63.
Dryden, John. "Absalom and Achitophel." Dryden: Poems and Prose. London: Penguin, 1955.
Edie, Carolyn Andervont. "Succession and Monarchy: The Controversy of 1679-1681." The American Historical Review. 70.2 (1965): 350-70.
Harth, Philip. "Political Interpretations of Venice Preserv'd." Modern Philology. 85 (1988): 345-62.
Loftis, John. The Politics of Drama in Augustan England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
Munns, Jessica. "'Plain as the light in the Cowcumber': A Note on the Conspiracy in Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd." Modern Philology. 85 (1987): 54-7.
"Oates, Titus." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Redmond: Microsoft, 1998.
Otway, Thomas. Venice Preserv'd; Or, a Plot Discovered. British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan. Ed. George H. Nettleton and Arthur E. Case. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1969.