"The Most Valued Things Have Most Alloys": Thomas Otways's Venice Preserv'd

By Eriksson, Åke | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

"The Most Valued Things Have Most Alloys": Thomas Otways's Venice Preserv'd


Eriksson, Åke, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


That Venice Preserv'd poses something of a critical challenge is claimed so often as to have become a critical commonplace. Frequent attempts to account for the play's political aspects and to read it as ideologically reflecting contemporary political debate have resulted in somewhat tiresome discussions about which characters represent Tories and Whigs, and critics who "have proved that the senator Antonio can only be Shaftesbury" (Bywaters 258). Such discussions may interest the literary historian but often ignore the text as a unified whole.

In this article I seek a grander view of the play, a reading that encompasses several aspects of the action. Otway's drama is less a polemic than an investigation of general issues concerning the individual's position within a civic context. My aim is to discover how this play that posits the problem of private versus public demands can elicit tragedy in the clash between those two spheres. While each can be viewed and discussed as a separate entity, they are ultimately linked with and influence each other. I suggest that the play's staying power rests not primarily in contemporary political allegory but in a close examination of central moral issues that signify beyond localised political affairs and pure pathos.

In opposing the topical political interpretation some focus on the domestic drama, claiming that Venice Preserv'd is a play "whose meaning is not essentially political" (Waith 251). The true merits and the meaning of the play are allegedly to be found elsewhere, mainly in the domestic tragedy enacted between the two main characters. How then do we regard the political content? As a topical account, an allegory of contemporary party conflicts, or as a poorly integrated sideline to a play that elicits tragedy only in depicting the two lovers' demise? Both of these opposite interpretive stances disregard crucial elements of the play and its functions. The domestic interprétation ignores the play's political framework and distorts it focus: the conspiracy, the actors involved, and how Venice is preserved.

The problem of political allegory is more complex, though. If we accept that to understand the play fully we need to try to put ourselves in the position of the contemporary reader or theatregoer or even in the position of the author himself, we will inevitably end up facing other problems. Yes, Venice Preserv'd is considered Otway's finest tragedy and commanded the attention of producers and authences alike for decades after its first run in 1682. And the play's political allusions, as Harry M. Solomon suggests, surely contributed to the interest it stirred at its first production (Solomon 291). But are we then to assume that later authences less aware of the rather specific political milieu some say is so important simply did not understand it? And if they saw the same weaknesses that critics have complained about, how did the play remain so popular?

Many critics focus on how the play came to be and on the work's historical milieu. In this milieu, one must include the author, the authence, and the specific socio-intellectual context, which "exerts a powerful effect on the mindset of the author and so contributes to the shaping of the text. Context helps shape the expectations and responses of the original authence and powerfully affects their decoding of the text" (Hume 27). As Robert Weimann points out, however, how a literary work came to be is practically unknowable. Moreover, the play also works in a time continuum, changing as it ages. We are interested not just in the original authence, but in how other authences decode a text. As Weimann observes, "Obviously, we cannot afford to isolate these two necessary aspects: merely to do the former is to fall back into some kind of antiquarianism" (103). Critics who overstress the contemporary allegorical interpretation of Venice Preserv'd can create a fixed view of the play that discounts its later popularity and fails to account for interpretative problems. …

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