Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012

The career of James Shirley, a prolific playwright, began in 1625, when King Charles I ascended the throne, and ended in 1642, when the outbreak of civil war led to the closing of the theaters. The dominant dramatist of his era, Shirley wrote most of his approximately thirty plays for Christopher Beeton’s company, Queen Henrietta’s Men, at the Phoenix Theatre (also called the Cockpit), an indoor private playhouse, and when Philip Massinger died in 1640, Shirley became the principal playwright for the King’s Men. The closing of the theaters two years later ended his career as dramatist, but he had the rare satisfaction of seeing his works revived successfully in the 1660’s.

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Shirley cannot be credited with landmark innovations or significant lasting influence, but he did produce a steady stream of popular plays in which he exploited the themes, devices, and character types of others while creating works uniquely his own, and he was in large measure responsible for the continued vitality of Renaissance drama into the 1640’s. Whereas his tragedies are derivative and suggest the decadence of the serious drama of the period, the comedies not only recall those of his excellent predecessors but also look forward to the comedies of the Restoration.

An antilicentiousness links Shirley to the Elizabethans more closely than to the Restoration playwrights. Whatever his genre—comedy, tragedy, or tragicomedy—virtue is rewarded, and although sexual wrongdoing is not condoned, reformation is accepted. His plays are not homiletic but are entertainments in the mainstream of earlier Elizabethan practice. Therefore, plot development and pacing are primary, sometimes to the detriment of characterization. In the comedies, this does not lessen the realism, for the characters are recognizable types, and the action is set in a realistically portrayed London. Shirley’s London is not the city of Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, or Thomas Middleton (merchants and apprentices are rare in Shirley’s comedies); it is closer to the Restoration London of George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve. Like those of these later playwrights, Shirley’s plays are urbane comedies of manners that dramatize the often contrasting values of town, country, and court through skillfully developed plots that intermingle different comic modes: intellectual, sentimental, and situational.

The Master of the Revels licensed Hyde Park on April 20, 1632, and it probably was first presented at the Phoenix soon after to coincide with the seasonal opening of Hyde Park, a favorite London gathering place and sporting center which recently had become a public facility. Popular when premiered, the play was regularly performed prior to the closing of the theaters and was revived in 1668, when (according to diarist Samuel Pepys) horses were brought onstage for the racing scenes.

Hyde Park shares traits with earlier Elizabethan comedies: clever servants, letters that advance plots, disguise, and multiple plots. In addition, the romance between Carol and Fairfield recalls that of Beatrice and Benedick in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600), whose ambience resembles that of Hyde Park, although Shakespeare’s Italian milieu has become London’s fashionable world of gentry and nobility. Carol also is descended from Kate of The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594, pb. 1623); both are termagants who mock suitors and obscure their true feelings with biting wit. Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s scornful lady character is another ancestor of Carol. Other links in characterization and in theme with earlier themes may also be rather easily traced. Despite these echoes of past practice, Hyde Park presents a realistic portrait of social habits in London at the height of the Caroline period. Further, although Carol and Fairfield recall Elizabethan predecessors, they also are forerunners of Millamant and Mirabell, bickering lovers in Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), their verbal sparring paralleling the proviso scene and marital conditions agreement in Congreve’s play.

In each of the three plots of Hyde Park, the action of which occurs on a single day, a woman is pursued by two rivals for her hand. During the play, the woman’s position in each triangle changes unexpectedly. Mistress Bonavent’s marriage to Lacy ends before it is consummated when her merchant husband surprisingly returns after a seven-year absence. Julietta, whom Lord Bonvile attempts to seduce, becomes instead his prospective wife. Carol, who earlier entered into an antimarriage pact with Fairfield, does a turnabout and proposes to him—allegedly to save the seemingly distraught man’s life. Carol is important in the scheme of the play because she represents feminism, which questions enforced or arranged marriages and argues for greater freedom for women to make their own choices, including not to marry at all. Shirley balances the Carol-Fairfield story with the Bonavent plot, which stresses the importance of marriage as a social institution. Typical of comedies, the play ends on a conciliatory and celebratory note, with a couple reunited and marriages in prospect. Atypically, most of the suitors are unsuccessful (Lacy, Rider, Trier, and Venture), although they seem unaffected by their failure.

Its title notwithstanding, only the third and fourth acts of Hyde Park take place in the London park, where the suitor plots converge against a background of foot and horse racing, events that are metaphors for the main actions. Just as there are unexpected victors in the races, so are there surprise winners and losers in the suitors’ pursuit of the women. The anticipated winners do not always prevail, with dark horses sometimes suddenly overtaking them. The racing motif strengthens the unity of the romantic story lines and focuses attention upon the theme of unpredictability in the course of love. More important, and the thematic core of the play, is Lord Bonvile’s attempted seduction of Julietta. When she reacts to him with a lengthy and eloquent paean to chastity, he is repentant and asks for her hand in marriage. His reformation, the conversion of a lecher by dint of a woman’s virtue, distinguishes him from the rake of Restoration drama and highlights a primary difference between this play and the licentious comedies of manners of the age that followed.

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