James Shirley Essay - Critical Essays


The pervasive antilicentiousness present in his plays is a trait that links James Shirley to his Elizabethan predecessors more closely than to his Restoration successors. Whatever the genre—tragicomedy, comedy, or tragedy—virtue is either rewarded or, at least, honored. While sexual wrongdoing is not condoned, reformation is accepted. The plays are not, however, homiletic; they are entertainments in the mainstream of earlier Elizabethan practice. As such, careful development of plots and rapid pacing are primary, sometimes to the detriment of characterization. Compare, for example, the Duchess in The Cardinal with her counterpart in The Duchess of Malfi; the former is shallow, the latter more fully realized. Perhaps because character development is not a central concern in his plays, there are more stereotypes than individuals. This does not detract from the realism of the comedies, however, because the characters are recognizable types, and the action takes place in a realistically portrayed world, a London that Shirley’s aristocratic audience would recognize. Not the London of Dekker or Jonson (city merchants and their apprentices are rarely seen in Shirley’s comedies), it is closer to the Restoration London of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve.

In most of Shirley’s plays, there are echoes of earlier dramas. Like his contemporaries and predecessors, he borrowed situations and devices with impunity. Nevertheless, Shirley was more original than most of his fellow playwrights, for though there are frequent similarities or parallels between his and earlier plays, one rarely can point to a direct source. Thus, while The Cardinal is in the same revenge tragedy tradition of The Duchess of Malfi and certainly must have been written with Webster’s play in mind, the earlier work is not its source; there is not even close borrowing. Similarly, although the Enoch Arden motif in Hyde Park has an analogue in Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday: Or, The Gentle Craft (pr. 1600), Dekker’s play is not at all a source and, according to Norman Rabkin, “There are no known sources” for Hyde Park.

In almost all of his many and varied plays, Shirley uses the old conventions, but he infuses them with a new life. The Cardinal may reflect the decadence common to tragedies of the previous decades, but it offers interesting variations on a hackneyed theme. That Shirley’s comedies have a distinctive artfulness is confirmed by the critical consensus that they herald the next age as much as they recall the past.

The Wedding

Shirley’s most noteworthy plays are the comedies Hyde Park and The Lady of Pleasure and the tragedy The Cardinal; a fourth, The Wedding, is an early work that is of interest as a Fletcherian tragicomedy. The Wedding was a popular play, both on the Caroline stage and in the Restoration. Probably first done at the Phoenix on May 31, 1626, it was printed several times (the first in 1629 with a commendatory poem by John Ford) and was considered a valuable enough property to be included in a 1639 repertory list as a “protected” play. Though Shirley calls it a comedy, it fits Fletcher’s description of tragicomedy: “In respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy.” There are two plots, one serious and one comic, and as in so many early seventeenth century plays, the comic underplot functions fairly independently of the serious business.

The main plot involves the planned marriage of Gratiana, daughter of Sir John Belfare, to Beauford, her “passionate lover.” Marwood, Beauford’s friend, claims to have seduced Gratiana, which leads to a duel in which Marwood apparently is fatally injured. Beauford then confronts Gratiana, and though she proclaims her chastity and labels Marwood’s charge false, Beauford renounces her, and they decide to end their lives. Meanwhile, Marwood, believing he is dying, affirms the truth of his charge, claiming that Cardona, a gentlewoman, had served as bawd. Beauford, having arrayed his quarters as for a funeral, receives news of Marwood’s death (“His last breath did forgive you”) and a warning that he “must expect/ No safety from the law.” Cardona then is brought to Beauford and confesses that while Marwood did “viciously affect” Gratiana, “I knew her virtue was not/ To be corrupted in a thought.” Therefore, she reveals, “I did, in hope to make myself a fortune/ And get a husband for my child . . . woo my daughter to/ Supply Gratiana’s bed. . . .” Gratiana is brought to Beauford in a coffin, still very much alive, though she has “solicited” her death with prayers, and they renew their vows to each other. Belfare recovers from his temporary madness (brought on by his daughter’s disappearance on the eve of her wedding), and Marwood reappears, alive after all and fully recovered. When Cardona tells him of the switch she engineered, he asks forgiveness (“I never had a conscience/ till now.”) and agrees to marry Milliscent, the girl he unwittingly had seduced.

The subplot deals with the pursuit of Jane, Justice Lanby’s daughter, by three suitors: Rawbone, “a thin citizen,” and Lodam, “a fat gentlemen,” both Jonsonian humor characters; and Haver, a poor young gentleman who disguises himself as Rawbone’s servant in order to have freer access to Jane. The first of the men is a penurious usurer, but Lanby tests his daughter by pretending that he wants her to marry Rawbone. To Lodam—who brings no wealth to a bride, only his own ample self and an imperfect knowledge of foreign languages—Lanby says: “I must refer you, sir, unto my daughter. If you can win her fair opinion, my consent may happily follow.” Jane, however, is in love with Haver, who provokes a duel between Lodam and Rawbone and then takes Rawbone’s place (in disguise) in the combat. When the men meet at Finsbury to duel, the result is a broadly comic scene. In its aftermath, the benevolent Lanby pretends to force an immediate marriage between Jane and Rawbone, knowing full well that the apparent Rawbone is Haver in disguise. Jane goes along with the gambit, though believing that her father is cozening her. Lodam’s consolation for his lost quest is a dinner; Rawbone gets to deliver the epilogue of the play.

In that epilogue, Rawbone asks the audience “to wake a fool dormant amongst ye. I ha’ been kicked, and kicked to that purpose. Maybe they knocked at the wrong door—my brains are asleep in the garret . . . you must clap me . . . I shall hardly come to myself else.” Shirley thus draws the attention of the audience to a prevailing theme of the play: people coming to their senses, realizing the truth about themselves, and perhaps even reforming. Hence, the moral ambivalence that is present through most of the play (a trait common to tragicomedy) is confronted in the resolution, when Shirley has his characters face the consequences of their actions. Exclaims Marwood: “Into how many sins hath lust engag’d me!/ Is there a hope you can forgive, and you,/ And she whom I have most dishonour’d?/ I never had a conscience till now.”

The Wedding concludes with a typical assembly and reconciliation scene. The plots are linked not only by this scene but also by their common focus on marriage and the subplot’s function as a comic contrast to the serious (and potentially tragic) love story of the main plot; the presence of duels in both plots highlights this difference. The device of rival suitors recalls earlier plays, such as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594), which also features disguise, while the slapstick duel recalls Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (pr. c. 1600-1602) and anticipates Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (pr. 1775). Belfare’s madness harks back to the revenge tragedy of Thomas Kyd, and the bed trick was used earlier in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (pr. 1604), Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling (pr. 1622), and other Elizabethan plays. In sum, the play is highly derivative, with Shirley utilizing familiar devices, situations, and character types. The combination, however, does work, and the play apparently evoked from audiences the contradictory mix of responses typical of tragicomedy. Because of its genre, it lacks the realistic sophistication of Shirley’s later comedy of manners, but considered for what it is—an early work in the Fletcher mode—The Wedding certainly succeeds.

Hyde Park

A better play, Hyde Park was licensed on April 20, 1632, and probably was first performed at the Phoenix Theatre on or about that date, to coincide with the seasonal opening of Hyde Park, which King James I had made into a public facility under Sir Henry Rich, earl of Holland. It is an urbane comedy of manners that develops a realistic portrait of Cavalier London at the height of the Caroline period. Popular when it premiered, Hyde Park was revived in the Restoration, on which occasion actual horses were brought onstage for the racing scenes.

The action of the play, which occurs on a single day, consists of three plots, each of which, a critic has noted, is “constructed about a love triangle involving a woman and two male rivals.” Further, “each plot turns on a surprising change in the woman’s position within the triangle,” and each is developed as a different kind of comedy: “ high comedy appealing to the intellect, sentimental comedy appealing to ethical sensibilities, and simple situation comedy.”

On the seventh anniversary of the disappearance at sea of Bonavent, a merchant, his widow finally is ready to remarry, and Lacy is an anxious suitor. Advising against the marriage is the widow’s kinswoman, Mistress Carol (“We maids are thought the worse on, for your easiness”), “a malicious piece,” according to Lacy, who also says, “’tis pity any place/ But a cold nunnery should be troubled with her.” Carol is herself involved in a battle of the sexes with Fairfield, whom she persuades not to make any amorous overtures (“I had rather hear the tedious tales/ Of Holinshed than any thing that trenches/ On love”), and he goes home to “think a satire.” She does, however, trifle with two of her servants, she says, “when I have nothing else to do for sport.” The supposedly dead Bonavent returns in disguise at the start of the second act, learns of his wife’s remarriage that day, and meets Lacy, who invites him to join the wedding celebrations. The third story line concerns Fairfield’s sister Julietta; Trier, who is her suitor; and Lord Bonvile, who intrudes on Trier’s turf.

The third and fourth acts are set in Hyde Park and afford an opportunity for Shirley to depict the leisure class at play. Lord Bonvile advances his pursuit of Julietta as Trier hovers, Fairfield bids what he thinks is his final farewell to Carol, and the impending races (among men and horses) become a metaphor for all the competing lovers in the play. As the action progresses, Carol loses a second round to Fairfield, tricked by him and her servant into revealing her true feelings (“O love, I am thy captive . . .”), though still attempting to maintain some distance while Fairfield has the upper hand. The fourth act ends with Bonavent making his first move toward discarding his disguise and revealing himself to his wife.

At the start of the last act, Carol tells Julietta of her fears for Fairfield’s well-being as a result of a letter from him. When the presumably distraught suitor is found, Carol proposes to him—not for love, she avers, but because she is merciful and desires to save his life. He denies authorship of the plaintive piece (which was written by one of Carol’s servants) and tells her: “To save thy life, I’ll not be troubled with thee.” She pleads, “I know you love me still; do not refuse me,” and he relents: “Each other’s now by conquest, come let’s to ’em.” In the concluding...

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