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JANET E. AIKINS A Plot Discover'd; or, The Uses of Venice Preserv'd within Clarissa Because Samuel Richardson's Clarissa is filled with allusions to the theatre as well as with actual quotations from plays, the relation between the novel and the drama has been variously explored.' Among recent studies, William B. Warner's controversial book cites Clarissa's absorption of dramaturgical patterns as evidence that the novel is 'indeterminate': 'The copresence of comedy and tragedy in Clarissa is early evidence that this text is not a unified organic body dominated by a single mythic design. instead, this text is much more like a geological formation, with layers of sharply differentiated strata that tell us of the successive acts of interpretation, each with its own peculiar set of haphazard intensities, that give this text its ambiguous shape.,2 Warner believes that 'the conjunction of tragedy and comedy in Clarissa is violent and inharmonious ' and that the novel itself lacks a stable structure to which all readers react alike. By contrast, Mark Kinkead-Weekes and others regard Clarissa as 'dramatic narrative' and as coherent tragedy. Despite such interest, no one has fully considered why the author included an actual night at the theatre in the work and why he chose Venice Preserv'd, or, A Plot Discover'd for this purpose. Otway's playis clearly not a 'key' to the novel as a whole; the performance that Lovelace and Clarissa attend is easily overlooked among the many and varied incidents within this complex work. Nevertheless, a closer consideration of the theatrical presentation reveals a telling analogy between the disturbing process of reading Richardson's narrative and the psychological warfare that constitutes the very 'action' of its plot. In the Venice Preserv'd .episode, narrative device is oddly transformed into the experiential centre of the book. To explain how the phenomenon occurs, I will trace the allusions and parallels to Otway's play that Richardson wove into the fabric of his novel. The conscious references to Venice Preserv'd expose a richness in the author's story-telling technique often denied by readers who feel that the work is too long. The allusions also reveal a difference between what would have seemed genuinely ambiguous to a reader of Richardson's day and what is fashionably called 'indeterminate' by today's critics because we have lost touch with the historical moment in which the work was written.3 I will suggest, for example, that conSidering the play's male protagonist as a generic model UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 551 NUMBER 31 SPRING 1986 220 JANET E. AIKINS for Clarissa, rather than the pathetic Belvidera, clarifies Richardson's conception of his tragic heroine. Such an approach marks a departure from the twentieth-century assessment of Clarissa and Belvidera as 'pathetic heroines: yet it accords with the interpretations given to the play in its productions during the 1740s, when Richardson was writing his novel. Modern criticism has demonstrated that Venice Preserv'dis anythingbut a simple didactic drama4 From the time of its first performance, its moral incoherence puzzled viewers and yet made it one of the most powerful plays on the stage. Actors such as David Garrick and Mrs Cibber contributed to the play's success by exploiting its complex interpretive potential. Moreover, the ethical dissonance that characterizes Venice Preserv'd was shared by other dramas of its era, including John Dryden's Allfor Love, Nathaniel Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus, and Nicholas Rowe's The Fair Penitent; these works anticipated the odd ambivalence within Clarissa that has prompted the current rage of critical interest. My purpose is to attempt to define this peculiarquality in Richardson's novel as something other than an 'indeterminacy' that would make the work the reader's 'plaything: a text open to creation by each new reader.5 Richardson used Venice Preserv'd as an allusive tool to shape his reader's response; at the same time, the play is a metaphoric weapon wielded by both Clarissa and Lovelace in their dramatic psychological confrontation. By examining the reader's engagement in the symbolic battle waged over Otway's play, we may better understand what Richardson might have envisionedin...


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pp. 219-234
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