Open main menu

Wikipedia β

The Fair Penitent is Nicholas Rowe's stage adaptation of the tragedy The Fatal Dowry, the Philip Massinger and Nathan Field collaboration first published in 1632. Rowe's adaptation, premiered onstage in 1702 and first published in 1703, was a great popular success through much of the 18th century, and was praised by critics as demanding as Samuel Johnson ("There is scarcely any work of any poet so interesting by the fable and so delightful in the language").[1]

In making his adaptation, Rowe eliminated characters and simplified the action "to create a more focused play than the original." He pursued "neoclassical simplicity" but in the process sacrificed the "underlying moral principles" of the original.[2] Rowe shifted the setting from Dijon to Genoa, and changed the main characters' names:

Fatal Dowry Fair Penitent
Rochfort Sciolto
Charalois Altamont
Romont Horatio
Novall Junior Lothario
Pontalier Rossano
Beaumelle Calista
Bellapert Lucilla

Rowe also accentuated the role of the female protagonist, making the play much more a vehicle for a female star performer, a "better acting piece" for a prominent actress.[3] Where the original "concentrates largely on the legal and political affairs of the cuckolded husband," Rowe focused far more directly on the domestic tragedy of Calista's infidelity.[4]

The play was staged at both of the major London theatres of the day, Drury Lane and Covent Garden; the former production starred Mrs. Siddons as Calista. The 1703 first edition was dedicated to the Duchess of Ormond—but did not credit the original authors of The Fatal Dowry, leading to later critics' accusations of plagiarism against Rowe, as in William Gifford's edition of Massinger's works.


The eponym "Lothario," meaning "a man who seduces women," stems from the character in this play. The origin of Lothario as a name indicating a seducer though predates the play. The latter is thought to be written in 1619. The character of Lothario as a seducer, albeit in different circumstances, appears earlier in Don Quixote by Cervantes. In this story Lothario is urged by his lifelong friend Anselmo to attempt to seduce his wife in order to test her faithfulness. At first most unwilling he eventually enters into the scheme with skill and success. This earlier Lothario is a successful seducer.

Malcolm Goldstein edited The Fair Penitent for a modern edition in 1969. Critics, both traditional and modern, have debated whether Calista is actually "penitent" for her infidelity.[5]


  1. ^ Quoted in Brawley, p. 158.
  2. ^ Logan and Smith, pp. 98-9.
  3. ^ Howe, pp. 124-7. In the original production of The Fatal Dowry, all the female roles were played by boy actors, since women did not appear on the English stage until the Restoration era.
  4. ^ Marsden, p. 152.
  5. ^ Freeman, p. 261.


  • Brawley, Benjamin Griffith. A Short History of English Drama. New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1921.
  • Freeman, Lisa A. Character's Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
  • Goldstein, Malcolm, ed. The Fair Penitent. Regents Restoration Drama series; Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1969.
  • Howe, Elizabeth. The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660–1700. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith, eds. The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
  • Marsden, Jean I. Fatal Desire: Women, Sexuality, and the English Stage, 1660–1720. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2006.