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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VIII. Ford and Shirley

§ 11. His Tragedies

To the closing of the theatres, which checked the production of Shirley’s dramas, we are indebted for the preservation of an exceptionally large proportion of them; for the enforced cessation of acting during the puritan domination led to the printing of many plays that might otherwise have perished in manuscript. Out of some forty dramatic pieces recorded as Shirley’s, not more than three have been lost. Of the remainder, seven are tragedies, twenty-four are comedies, three are masques and three belong to none of the recognised dramatic types of the time. The tragedies, though comparatively few, contain Shirley’s most memorable work. They begin with The Maides Revenge (1626), based on a story of the jealousy of sisters from Reynolds’s God’s Revenge against Murder. The characters are mostly familiar types re-drawn with fair skill. The comic element reaches a climax in an amusing farcical scene in the study of a quack, who is seen treating a succession of patients. Five years passed before Shirley again attempted tragedy; and, when The Traytor appeared, in 1631, he showed that he had mastered the technique of stagecraft. The plot of this really great drama is a free treatment of the story of Lorenzino de’ Medici, who, as the Lorenzo of the play, is represented as a villain of consummate agility and daring; prompted solely by unscrupulous ambition, he plays with amazing skill upon the licentious nature of his brother the duke and upon Sciarrha’s fiery sense of family honour. Although the way in which Cosmo yields his betrothed to his friend Pisano fails to convince, the plot, as a whole, is admirably contrived and well knit, and, in general effectiveness, ranks with such a play as Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maides Tragedy, to which, probably, it is indebted. Shirley’s favourite device of concentrating the comic element in one elaborate scene is well exemplified here in the mock trial of Depazzi by his page. Few plays of the period convey so vivid a picture of the Italy of the renascence on the side of ambition and intrigue.

In the same year, Shirley produced Loves Crueltie, in which he achieves a rare intensity in the depicting of unlawful passion. The initial motive which launches the heroine on her downward career is as natural as it is original. Clarissa’s husband has a friend, Hippolito, who refuses to meet her, lest her beauty should tempt him to disloyalty to his friend. Piqued by curiosity, she visits Hippolito at his dwelling, and, without disclosing her identity, involves him in the intrigue that finally brings disaster on the whole group. In spite of the disgusting talk of the old rake Bovaldo, the moral effect of the play is sound and impressive to a high degree. One leading situation is to be found in the novelle of Margaret of Navarre and of Cinthio; the rest may be of Shirley’s invention.

The Dukes Mistris (1636) would be better classified as a tragicomedy, since the four main characters are happily reunited at the close, and only the two villains die. But the tone of the drama is serious throughout, except for the comic underplot, which turns on the assumed preference of the hero’s friend Horatio for ugly women. The distinction of the play lies in the lofty character of the two heroines, the neglected duchess, to whom the wandering affections of the duke finally return, and Ardelia, who resists successfully the solicitations of the duke and, finally, is married to her betrothed. In the killing of the villain Valerio, behind the arras, there is an evident reminiscence of the death of Polonius.

The Polititian, also, might be called a tragicomedy, since the plot ends happily for most of the persons who claim our sympathy, and the tragic element is hardly greater than that in Cymbeline, which, in the figure of the villainous step-mother, it somewhat resembles. The story is said by Langbaine to resemble one in the first book of the countess of Montgomery’s Urania; but the question of priority needs further examination. Though not printed till 1655, this play may have been produced in the Dublin period (1636–40). Like The Gentleman of Venice (licensed 1639), the date of the production of which is, also, subject to some uncertainty, it has prefixed to it interesting “small characters” of the persons, summarising their chief qualities. The plot is laid in Norway, and moves in an atmosphere which, at times, recalls King Lear and Hamlet.

In The Cardinall (1641), Shirley believed that he reached his highest achievement, and, but for The Traytor, which surpasses it in construction, we should be obliged to agree. Its quality is indicated when we say that, though strongly reminiscent of Webster’s Dutchesse Of Malfy, it is not altogether unworthy of its great model. A peculiar change takes place in the fifth act, in which the cardinal, hitherto somewhat in the background and scheming on behalf of a favourite nephew, comes forward as a villain of the deepest dye, seeking in rape and murder the satisfaction of his own lust and revenge. Another unexpected turn is given at the close by the discovery that the dying confession of the cardinal, which the convention of the tragedy of blood leads us to accept as genuine, is a mere trick contrived to poison the duchess with a pretended antidote. But the excess of ingenuity, and the double catastrophe, do not prevent us from understanding the claim that we have a tragedy greater than any produced in England between its own date and the nineteenth century. In the intensity of its interest, the vitality of its characters, the splendour of its poetry and the impressive fusion of the great tragic motives of ambition, love and revenge, it brings to a fitting close the tremendous file of Elizabethan tragedy.