"The Dark Disorders of a Divided State": Otway and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Thomas Otway's sixth play, The History and Fall of Caius Marius: A Tragedy (Dorest Garden, Autumn 1679), is cast in the form of a Roman history and traces the violent contest between Caius Marius and Sylla (sic) for the war consulship against Mithridates. His Roman materials are drawn from Plutarch's lives of Gaius Marius and Sulla into which are woven scenes from Romeo and Juliet dealing with the forbidden love of Marius jr., son of Caius Marius, for Lavinia, daughter of Metellus, one of the leaders of Sylla's faction. Otway's combination of Plutarch and Shakespeare has tended to strike critics as so odd and audacious that serious criticism of the play is rarely attempted. George Odell describes the combination as an "astounding idea," and J. C. Ghosh writes the play off as a "clumsy patchwork with the seams staring."1 More recently, Kerstin P. Warner, who is sympathetic if confused about the play, finds it "difficult to fathom what inspired Otway . . . to graft Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet onto such forbidding material. "2 As R. D. Hume points out, for modem ears the substitution of Roman names for the household names of Romeo and Juliet-a substitution which produces lines such as "Marius, Marius! wherefore art thou Marius?" (II.267)-can "only seem ridiculous."3However, the parts of the play are more successfully harmonized than this suggests. In both his Roman tale and . the Shakespearean love tragedy, Otway develops his characteristic themes of the limits of rationality, the failure of discourse, and the collapse of order. The feuding fathers of Romeo and Juliet disturb the peace of Verona and their brawls result in injuries and deaths amongst their kin and households. Otway, using the materials from Plutarch, expands the conflicts engendered by the fathers into civil war and wholesale massacres of the population of Rome. Alongside this development of domestic brawls into civil conflict is the transformation of the lovers from self-assertive and attractive young people growing toward a mature love into confused and sensual children, who, like the people of Rome, are by turns rebellious or cringingly subservient toward their oppressors. Unlike the love of Romeo and Juliet, the relationship of Marius jr. and Lavinia does not. represent an alternative to patriarchal and civil violence but partakes of the flaws, the passions and incoherences, which disfigure the public realm.

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