Divided Nation, Divided Self: The Language of Capitalism and Madness in Otway's Venice Preserv'd

By Leissner, Debra | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Divided Nation, Divided Self: The Language of Capitalism and Madness in Otway's Venice Preserv'd


Leissner, Debra, Studies in the Literary Imagination


Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd; or, A Plot Discovered (1682) is an enigma, if judged by the interpretations of scholars who have tried to associate Otway's drama with plots and political parties in England from 1678 through 1682. The often contradictory conclusions that scholars have reached when they try to determine who represents whom in the drama suggest that the nature of the play's characters resists strictly allegorical interpretations. But for all that, the characters answer in personal terms to the politics of Otway's day. I shall argue that in Venice Preserv'd, Otway does not recreate historical events as such, but, rather, dramatizes a national neurosis in which England's social and political turmoil, generated by the acceleration of capitalism, surface as symptoms of psychological turmoil in its citizenry. I shall demonstrate that the very neurosis from which the English suffered as a result of these controversies also afflicts Jaffeir, the "hero" of Venice Preserv'd, through whom Otway translates the psychological turmoil of a citizenry and a nation into the language of madness.

Otway captures a collective personal history of many English citizens who tried to balance public and private concerns in unstable, "distracted times," a term with which Otway begins his prologue and that he repeats six times in some form throughout the play. Twentieth-century psychoanalytic theorists attempt to define the perimeters of "public" and "private" within the individual psyche through their analysis of language--particularly Jacques Lacan, who views the unconscious as a language in itself. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari expand Lacan's ideas to propose a relationship between individual and group psyches in capitalist economies that proves useful when analyzing the effects of seventeenth-century political events on Otway's drama. In what follows, I will often draw on the work of these theorists.

The distraction upon which Otway builds has its beginnings in the early half of the seventeenth century when many English citizens found that shifting governmental authority affected their ability to govern themselves in both a public and private sense. Individuals who tried to remain neutral in the conflict between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell by retreating into a private sphere were often dragged into the public fray against their wills. Edward Hyde, first earl of Clarendon, recounts the tale of one lord who successfully withheld funds requested by Charles I only to find his estate confiscated by the new parliamentary regime (2: 53-55). Those who attempted a public role were in equal peril, as Susan Staves notes when she summarizes the political and economic nature of this peril as a lack of "perspective" in which sudden reversals in national affairs stymied citizens' plans and their overall sense of security (23). The crisis did not abate quickly. Henry Neville observed in 1681, the year before Otway published Venice Preserv'd, that "We are to this day tugging with the same difficulties, managing the same debates in Parliament ... which our ancestors did before the year 1640" (147).

Most critics concerned with political interpretations of the play attempt to connect Otway's rebels either to the Popish Plot (1678) or to the Exclusion Crisis (1679-81). However, these incidents make apparent two more fundamental crises that were largely responsible for sparking national division in late seventeenth-century England: the failure of Charles II to establish an absolute monarchy and the "rage of parties" in Parliament. J. R. Jones argues that Charles issued the Declaration of Indulgence (1672), which authorized toleration of religious dissent, in the belief that it would free him from the control of both Parliament and the church (174-79; 197-200). However, Charles was forced to revoke the declaration when Parliament contested his right to such power and when the opposition saw the measure as promoting Catholicism. …

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