Skip to main content

National Heritage: Imagining Identities

Above: Images of Belvideras and Calistas throughout the Restoration. Click on the images for image details. 


In the push for power and Empire, the history of Mother England is riddled with conflicts. Wars and rebellions beg questions of origin. They tear apart both people and their stories. They edit. With the return of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660, the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, and the War of Austrian Succession, England inherits a multitude of questions regarding religious identity and the nature of national heritage. How does She imagine her origins? Or, how do her subjects rewrite and perform their own?  

The production of narrative negotiates conflict and constructs/maintains identities. On the stages of London at the turn of the century, poets “sought to establish a distinct dramatic tradition, one which was manifestly British" (Marsden, "Tragedy and Varieties of Serious Drama). The plays of the tragedians Thomas Otway and Nicholas Rowe, such as Venice Preserv’d (1682) and The Fair Penitent (1703) adapt the genre of Tragedy. Rowe claims to write a domestic tragedy-depoliticizing the stage and producing pity in the audience. In these tragedies, their females, Otway's Belvidera and Rowe's Calista, are center-staged. The nature of the woman-passivity-and the inability of the men which surround her to protect her, produce tragedy.

Over the eighteenth century, Venice Preserv’d (1682) and The Fair Penitent (1703) were each performed over three-hundred times on the London Stages. Many actresses stepped into the roles of Calista and Belvidera. Who are these women? The images on this page depict them. Look closely. Their hands visible and outstretched, the bow of the HMS Belvidera cutting the waves, they seem to be rather one woman. She is begging to be boarded by a British gentleman and protected by others. She is Lady Brittania. 



Adaptations at Mid-Century
National Heritage: Imagining Identities