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Venice Preserv'd is an English Restoration play written by Thomas Otway, and the most significant tragedy of the Englishmarker stage in the 1680's. It was staged first in 1682, with Thomas Betterton as Jaffeir and Elizabeth Barry as Belvidera. The play was soon printed and enjoyed many revivals through to the 1830s.

Plot

The play concerns Jaffeir, a noble Venetianmarker who has secretly married Belvidera, the daughter of a proud senator named Priuli, who has cut off her inheritance. Jaffeir is impoverished and is constantly rebuffed by Priuli. Jaffeir's friend Pierre, a foreign soldier, stokes Jaffeir's resentment and entices him into a plot against the Senate of Venice. Pierre's own reasons for plotting against the Senate revolve around a senator (a corrupt and foolish Antonio) paying for relations with Pierre's mistress, Aquillina. Despite Pierre's complaints, the Senate does nothing about it, explaining that Antonio has senatorial privilege. Pierre introduces Jaffeir to the conspirators, led by blood-thirsty Renault. To get their trust, he must put Belvidera in Renault's care as a hostage. In the night, Renault attempts to rape her, but she escapes to Jaffeir. Jaffeir then tells Belvidera about the plot against the Senate, and against her father. She devises a plan of her own. Jaffeir will reveal the conspiracy to the Senate and claim the lives of the conspirators as his reward. It is only after Belvidera informs him of the attempted rape that Jaffeir agrees to do this, but the Senate breaks its word and condemns all the conspirators to death. In remorse for betraying his friend and losing his honour (by betraying his oath to the conspirators), Jaffeir threatens to kill Belvidera, unless she can get a pardon for the conspirators. She does so, but the pardon arrives too late. Jaffeir visits Pierre at his execution. Pierre is crestfallen because he is sentenced to die a dishonourable death and not the death of a soldier. He forgives Jaffeir and whispers to him (unheard by the audience) to kill him honourably before he is executed. Jaffeir stabs his friend, Pierre, on the gallows, and as a form of atonement commits suicide. Belvidera then goes insane and dies.

Context

The play contains a fair number of political asides in it. The character of Senator Antonio is a reference to Shaftesbury, and the grand plot resembles the Gunpowder Plot, among others, most notably the so-called "Spanish Conspiracy" against Venice of 1618. The oceanic city of Venice had been used as a stand-in for Londonmarker before, but the subtext most noticeable to contemporaries was the parallel with the Monmouth Rebellion or the meal-tub plot (see, for example, Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel). Therefore, one reason for the play's outstanding initial success was its political allusiveness.

Venice Preserv'd also has several feminist issues. As the play was written in the Restoration period, when the legal protections for women were few, the emotional heart of the play is the vulnerability of women. Aquillina, the play's courtesan, is shown very little regard by the men in the play. Her lover, Pierre, refuses to reveal the plot against the Senate to her, suggesting that women shouldn't talk out of bed, and Antonio never calls her by her name, but refers to her only as his "little Nacky" (a slang term for a woman's genitalia). Belvidera is reduced to collateral when she is left in the hands of men her husband barely knows. Jaffeir's honour takes precedence over Belvidera, and the tension over love and honour is the male characters' crisis. At the end of the play, Jaffeir chooses his devotion to his friend over his devotion to his wife, and the two men die honourably, whereas Belvidera is left to die an inglorious death resulting from her madness. Contemporary theater-goers were sensitive to the tragic tension between the public and private obligations of the characters.

Venice Preserv'd was one of the first of the she-tragedy plays. Contemporary audiences responded to the pathos of the character of Belvidera, which was written for the tragedienne Elizabeth Barry and capitalised on Barry's phenomenal success in the role of the similarly helpless Monimia in Otway's The Orphan (1680). Of all of the characters, Belvidera is the most powerless in the face of overwhelming social and political turmoil. Each of the characters has a conflict between the social and personal laws of class and self. Belvidera has to struggle against duty to father and to love. Jaffeir has to struggle against "honour" and love, as well as friendship and ideals. Priuli must decide between love of daughter and personal pride. Belvidera remained a starring role for actresses because her tragic situation was most affecting for audiences.

Success of the play

Otway was the toast of London after Venice Preserv'd, and yet the financial situation of the theater meant that he did not grow wealthy from his work. In 1692, Robert Gould (To Julian, Secretary of the Muses) wrote, "Otway, though very fat, starves." Venice Preserv'd has not survived to the 21st century as a byword for tragedy, but it was one of the best-known and most important of English tragedies for over 100 years.

On April 10, 1864, John Wilkes Booth told Louis J. Weichmann that he was done with the stage and that the only play he wanted to present henceforth was Venice Preserv'd. Although Weichmann did not understand the reference at the time, it was later assumed to be a veiled allusion to the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincolnmarker.

References

  • Howe, Elizabeth (1992). The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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