Friday, April 14, 2017

Otho the Great

When John Keats got together with Charles Brown to write the play Otho the Great they had a rather curious collaboration. According to Brown, he provided "the fable, characters, and dramatic conduct of a tragedy" while Keats "was to embody it into poetry."

Brown said he told the story to Keats only one scene at a time, and Keats "went on, scene after scene, never knowing nor inquiring into the scene which was to follow until four acts were completed." When they got to the fifth act, though, Keats disagreed with how the play should end, and wrote the final act on his own.

The first four acts of Otho the Great do indeed have some lovely poetry, but as one might expect, they lack a certain forward momentum. In Act I, we meet the villain, Conrad, and his sister, Auranthe, who are both determined to get closer to Otho, the Holy Roman Emperor. The plan is to have Auranthe marry Ludolph, Otho's estranged son. Ludolph has been secretly fighting for his father in the wars against Hungary, but in disguise. He explains his actions by saying:

                    Not as a swordsman would I pardon claim, 
                    But as a son. The bronzed centurion,
                    Long toil'd in foreign wars, and whose high deeds
                    Are shaded in a forest of tall spears,
                    Known only to his troop, hath greater plea
                    Of favour with my sire than I can have.

Ludolph wants love and recognition, but on his own terms. In the second act, he meets with his father and requests nothing more than a "lenient banishment." Instead, Otho grants him Auranthe in marriage, a kindness so great Ludolph can scarcely believe it. As it turns out, Otho knew it was his Ludolph who fought for him in disguise. Father and son are reconciled, and neither suspects that Auranthe is not the paragon of virtue she appears.

In Act III, a holy abbot named Ethelbert comes forward with information that Otho's truly virtuous niece Erminia has been framed for a crime by Conrad and Auranthe. Otho doesn't want to believe that his new daughter-in-law is a criminal, and when a witness refuses to corroborate the abbot's story, Ludolph turns on his cousin Erminia. Still, seeds of doubt have been planted. In Act IV he reflects:

                    Auranthe! My life!
                    Long have I lov'd thee, yet till now not lov'd:
                    Remembering, as I do, hard-hearted times
                    When I had heard e'en of thy death perhaps,
                    And thoughtless!--suffered thee to pass alone 
                    Into Elysium!--now I follow thee,
                    A substance or a shadow, wheresoe'er 
                    Thou leadest me,--whither thy white feet press,
                    With pleasant weight, the amorous-aching earth,
                    Or thro' the air thou pioneerest me,
                    A shade! Yet sadly I predestinate!

Indeed, Ludolph is following his love into death. When in the fifth act he discovers that Auranthe is guilty, he falls into a sickness no physician can cure. Keats gives him these lines as he is dying:

                    She's gone! I am content--Nobles, good night!
                    We are all weary--faint--set ope the doors--
                    I will to bed!--Tomorrow--
                    Where is your hand--father, what sultry air!

The historical Ludolph perished in a fever, but Keats makes that fever his longing for a false love.