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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1702

First produced: 1631

First published: 1635

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy of blood

Time of work: c. 1480

Locale: Florence, Italy

Principal Characters:

Alexander, Duke of Florence, enamored of Amidea

Lorenzo, his kinsman and the next in succession

Amidea, betrothed to Pisano and scornful of the duke

Sciarrha, and

Florio, her brothers and avengers

Pisano, enamored of Oriana, though engaged to Amidea

Cosmo, his friend, engaged to Oriana

Oriana, loved by Pisano, formerly by Cosmo

Morosa, her mother

Petruchio, Pisano's servant, in Lorenzo's hire

Depazzi, an informer for Lorenzo


James Shirley was one of the first playwrights to learn his trade from the printed page rather than in the theater. THE TRAITOR displays a talent carefully nurtured on Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson, but at the same time capable of original, powerful poetry. In his own day his position in the theater was that of competent journeyman playwright, yet his works graced the boards for generations. THE TRAITOR, which remained in theatrical repertoire for over a hundred and fifty years, was attributed falsely in the late seventeenth century to a Jesuit who died in Newgate Prison. Shirley's reputation has only recently been rescued from critical neglect.

The Story:

The reign of Alexander, the young Duke of Florence, began in a cloud of conspiracy, for his cousin Lorenzo had played the role of the loyal kinsman to seat the duke and was now playing the villain to unseat him, under the pretext of establishing a republic. For this purpose he appealed through pressures and persuasion to Cosmo, beloved of Oriana, to give over his suit in favor of Pisano, who had become enamored of the girl through the influence of his servant Petruchio, secretly in the hire of Lorenzo. Pisano, in turn, was to break his engagement to Amidea so that the duke might have her later for his lustful purposes.

From a man exiled at Lorenzo's request, the duke received a message which told of the prince's treachery. Confronted with this evidence, Lorenzo denied everything and cleverly reinstated himself and even strengthened his plot by recounting the examples of his loyalty to his kinsman. Restored to favor, Lorenzo undertook to procure the beautiful Amidea for the duke. By design, he attempted to accomplish his purpose through the offices of her brother, the hot-headed Sciarrha.

Sciarrha, reacting as Lorenzo had expected, renounced the duke and, acting on hints from Lorenzo, agreed to murder his ruler in Amidea's chamber that night. Sciarrha, in the presence of his brother Florio, tested his sister's chastity by advocating the assignation. She rejected his proposal, however, and her other brother threatened Sciarrha's life should such degradation be visited upon them. Her devotion to virtue and Florio's threat to murder Sciarrha were greeted with great elation, but before a pact could be made Pisano arrived to declare that Amidea was no longer paramount in his affections, and that he was in love with and desired to marry another. This news was withheld from Sciarrha for fear that he would embark on a reckless course of revenge harmful to them all.

Meanwhile, Cosmo's attempts to place his friend Pisano in Oriana's affection proved unsuccessful. In spite of her mother's pleadings, Oriana remained, for the time being, loyal to Cosmo.

The plans for the assignation which was supposed to end in murder were well laid. In order to arouse the populace, Depazzi, picked because of his political innocence, was to spread the news of the ruler's death even before the murder. Lorenzo would then quiet the citizens and the uneasy nobles by consenting to act as interim ruler until the state could be delivered from tyranny and be proclaimed a republic.

Sciarrha made sure that nothing was lacking in his lavish entertainment of the duke. A masque which depicted the downfall of treachery was portrayed before the youthful ruler, but he remained unmoved, so intent was he on the lovely Amidea. When Amidea received the duke in her chambers, her brothers were concealed behind the arras as she pleaded with him to abandon his wicked pursuits. Threatened with her suicide before his eyes, the duke repented and declared his determination to be a ruler worthy of her esteem. The brothers then appeared to congratulate their revered leader and urged him to hide in order to discover the author of the traitorous plot against him.

Lorenzo, when told the duke had died according to the plans made, cleverly accused the brothers of treachery and denied any complicity in the plot. The duke attempted a reconciliation of the plotters, but without success.

After the people had been quieted by the duke's appearance before the mob, Lorenzo claimed repentance equal to the duke's, much to Sciarrha's anger and disgust. Lorenzo, continuing to play the villain, told Sciarrha that Pisano had broken off his marriage contract with Amidea and that Oriana was to be led to the altar by her mother's duplicity. Infuriated by this news, Sciarrha once again became Lorenzo's ally. Pisano would die and Sciarrha would also be a willing tool in the conspiracy against the duke. Lorenzo released the former conspirator, Depazzi, from his service.

But the duke's repentance was short-lived when he received assurances from Lorenzo that Amidea would soon be more tractable in order to save her brother, who seemed bound for his own destruction. Amidea tried in vain to persuade Pisano to take his wedding party elsewhere that he might escape Sciarrha's fury, and she even pleaded with Oriana, who was more than willing to return Pisano to his rightful loved one; but Pisano refused to be moved. He refused to fight back, however, when Sciarrha demanded satisfaction, and so he was murdered before Lorenzo's watchful eyes and guard. Further supplication to Sciarrha to deliver his sister to the duke's lust proved useless until Lorenzo pointed out that the brother's execution would only make Amidea's ruin more certain. At last Sciarrha agreed to send his sister to the duke's bed that very night.

Amidea, in double mourning for a lover lost and a brother's life forfeited, begged to die rather than suffer ignominy. Sciarrha again tested her chastity with his unacceptable proposals. Amidea knelt in prayer for her brother's soul when she realized he must kill her in order to protect her. Later Florio promised Lorenzo that he would bring his sister to the duke—in secret, however, to spare her shame.

After the corpse of Amidea had been prepared, the duke entered his chamber and cried out in horror when he kissed her cold lips. In Lorenzo's presence he wished that he too might die, and Lorenzo killed him with Petruchio's help. Though he protested that only his grief spoke out, the duke died in full knowledge of the treachery his kinsman had planned. He was placed in bed with his intended victim. Though Sciarrha had pretended to share in Lorenzo's plans, he fought and killed Lorenzo, receiving in the struggle his own death wound. Petruchio was sent to the torture chamber. Cosmo assumed the rule of the city and promised to make what amends he could to Oriana and Florio.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

James Shirley was lauded by some as "the last of the Elizabethans" and by Charles Lamb as "the last of a great race." He edited the first collected edition of the plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher in 1647, and he had the distinction of writing the last tragedy to be performed before the upheaval of the Civil War began: THE CARDINAL (1641). Indeed, he could probably be called the savior of the English drama—for it is his dramatic skill that provided some continuity between the Elizabethan and Restoration periods. His play THE TRAITOR made its contributions to this end by perpetuating some of the qualities of the early Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

It had been the practice of earlier Elizabethan dramatists to introduce integral subplots that gave the play full, world-view importance. The plot of THE TRAITOR incorporates the state, but there is no international involvement; and the involvement of the spiritual and allegorical worlds—represented by the presence of the Furies and Lust—is almost negligible. The reduction of involvement in a multiple number of spheres also brought about the appearance, in later Elizabethan plays, of fewer places of action. In the twelve scenes of THE TRAITOR, for example, only two are exterior scenes—one in a street, one in a garden. The remaining scenes are restricted to rooms within the homes of different individuals and to one rather large hall.

Accompanying this scaling down of the world-view and places of action was a diminishing in the earlier Elizabethan traditions of the blood-revenge style. Rather than searching through the ethical problems and the psychological motivations of the character entangled by revenge, as the earlier writers of this style had done, the revenge was put to the baser task—to some extent even within THE TRAITOR—of simply placing characters in opposition to one another and creating suspense and complications within the plot. De-emphasizing the psychological in the tragedy of blood gave rise to stock character types—particularly the Machiavellian villain of which Lorenzo is representative. Perhaps the closest that THE TRAITOR brings the reader to pangs of conscience within a developing character is the concern evidenced by Sciarrha that his younger brother, Florio, not take part in the revenge. He realizes that his revenge has wounded his soul "almost to death" and that he has become "more spotted than the marble"; he fears the same for his brother.

It is also through Shirley's characterization of Sciarrha that he comes closest to the Kydian form of revenge tragedy. As in the earlier form, Sciarrha's feeling of overpowering duty to revenge arouses excessive emotional excitement; and, with each step in the revenge, he receives a feeling of relief—death being his welcomed final relief from what he recognizes has been a ruthless life. For this characterization, Shirley may owe some credit to Foreste in CRUEL BROTHER (1627) by Sir William Davenant. He can, however, in his characterization of and plot development with Sciarrha in THE TRAITOR, be credited with saving the revenge tragedy from total disintegration at the end of the Elizabethan period.

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