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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

§ 12. His Comedies of Manners and Romantic Comedies

The comedy of Shirley falls into two main classes, the comedy of manners and romantic comedy, the latter sometimes described in the early editions as tragicomedy. The scenes of the comedies of manners are, with one exception and that only nominal, laid in London or its immediate neighbourhood, and the time is contemporary. One or two are satirical in purpose, others are dramas of situation or intrigue; but all serve to lay before us a lively picture of city life in the time of Charles I. Though noblemen appear occasionally among the dramatis personae, the scenes are not laid at court, and the society represented is that of the man about town and the well-to-do citizen. This group of plays, ten in all, begins with Shirley’s first dramatic attempt, Love Tricks: or, The Schoole of Complement (1625). This somewhat dilettante and imitative production contains much topical satire, and it is redeemed from insignificance by the detached comedy scene which gives the play its sub-title, and which, in an amusing manner, parodies the affectations of polite address by the device of a school where they are taught for a fee to all comers. The Wedding (1626) shows a great advance in construction, and the serious plot is skilfully conducted to an effective dénouement. It turns upon the interruption of a wedding by a charge against the purity of the bride; and the interval before the lady’s character is cleared serves to test the qualities of the chief persons more deeply than is usual in this kind of comedy. The farcical underplot, here again, provides a highly comic scene in the duel between a fat man and a lean one, both arrant cowards. The Wittie Faire One (1628) is bright in dialogue and ingenious in construction, with somewhat conventional characterisation. But the modern reader finds it hard to accept an ending as happy in which a girl of character and spirit accepts as husband a rake who has been frightened into respectability by the preposterous device of all his friends behaving as if he were dead. The principal comic scene is provided by a foolish knight receiving lessons in geography from his tutor. Changes: Or, Love in a Maze (1632) is admirably named, since the plot is so contrived that the three pairs of lovers attach and detach their affections as often as possible in the course of five acts. The farce consists in dressing up a page as a rich widow, who is wooed by the foolish knight, Sir Gervase Simple. An amusing piece of satirical literary criticism is introduced in the scene where Caperwit, the poetaster, discusses the function of adjectives in verse. The value of Hide Parke (1632) is almost altogether in the minutely realistic study of fashionable life, especially of horse racing in the park. The underplot lacks emphasis, the interest is scattering and the characterisation is sketchy. The Ball (1632), again, is highly topical, being evidently designed to dissipate slanderous reports that had been circulated concerning the newly originated subscription balls, and, perhaps, also to give the actors opportunity for personating “divers… lords and others of the court,” as the master of the revels complained they did. Romantic interest is entirely subordinated to the exposing of a variety of typical humbugs and fraudulent adventurers. On the title-page of the original edition, Chapman is named as Shirley’s collaborator; but, in spite of a strong suggestion of the older method of Jonson in the handling of the types, it is clear that, in the play as we have it, Chapman’s share is negligible. Though in execution a lively picture of contemporary manners, The Gamester (1633,) in its main intrigue, is strongly reminiscent of the novella. It was made, says Sir Henry Herbert, “out of a plot of the king’s, given him by mee,” but Langbaine found the story both in the Ducento Novelle of Malespini and in Margaret of Navarre’s Heptameron. Though coarser in tone and incident than is usual with Shirley, the comedy is worked out with great ability, and the sordid improbability of the Hazard-Wilding plot is, in part, atoned for by the fine romantic spirit of the underplot of Leonore and Violante. The making and unmaking of the younger Barnacle as a “roarer” supplies some good farcical scenes. The conduct and influence of the chaste wife, Bellamia, raise The Example (1634) to a much loftier level than the preceding play. The difficult feat of rendering a would-be adulterer’s conversion plausible is skilfully accomplished here, though why he should insist, later, on fighting with the husband is not made very clear. Here, again, Shirley shows himself critical of current literary style; and, in the character of Sir Solitary Plot returns again to the method of the comedy of humours. The Lady of Pleasure (1635) is frequently regarded as Shirley’s best performance in its kind. The main plot, which turns on the curing a wife of her desire for a life of fashionable folly, is thoroughly sound and well carried out. The minor plot of the young widow Celestina gives occasion for some fine speeches, but is less convincing in itself. The satire against rakish men about town is scathing enough; but, like many satirists, Shirley proves unable to touch pitch without defiling himself. In The Constant Maid, a play of the Dublin period, the author displays no new or striking characteristics. It is a conventional comedy of artificial misunderstandings, supported by an equally conventional underplot and a masque.

The most numerous group of Shirley’s plays is that of romantic comedy. The scenes of these fourteen dramas are laid in the Mediterranean countries, usually Italy, and the action, in almost every case, takes place at court. The list of dramatis personae is headed by a king or duke, and most of the characters are courtiers. The nature of the incident is often appropriate to the nominal scene; but the kind of social intercourse pictured, to a large extent, is that of the court of Charles I. The main plot is usually serious, and, much oftener, than in the comedy of manners, comes within sight of tragedy, thus accounting for the name “tragicomedy,” by which they are sometimes described in early editions. There is more stress on character, too, than in the lighter comedies, and the plot is apt to work up to a more exciting climax and to make more use of suspense.

The distinction between these two types of comedy was much less clearly recognised by Shirley at the beginning of his career than later. Thus, the first two comedies of manners have several characteristics of the romantic comedy, and, on the other hand, The Brothers (1626), though laid in Madrid and touching depths of feeling not usually reached in light comedy, is not a court comedy, and, in the story of Jacinta and her lovers, deals with material quite appropriate to the group we have just been discussing. The main theme is the foiling of the tyrannical father who seeks a wealthy alliance for his daughter; and this familiar type is nowhere more unmercifully ridiculed. But the more serious secondary theme which gives the name to the play, the enforced rivalry of two brothers for the approval and fortune of their father, is saved from tragedy only by the resuscitation of the parent who had pretended death in order to test his elder son. In The Gratefull Servant (1629), the type of romantic comedy is thoroughly established. The tone of the main plot is raised to an uncommon height by the disinterested Foscari, who is willing to be supposed dead rather than hinder the marriage of his betrothed lady to the duke. This kind of generosity, which occurs not unfrequently in Shirley, forms a link between him and Thomas Heywood, and has the effect of giving the reader an amiable impression of the author rather than of convincing him of the probability of the story. In the disguised heroine Leonora, and, in the self-important steward Jacomo, one is forcibly reminded of Twelfth Night. The conversion of the unfaithful husband Lodwick, in the underplot, is very dubiously managed.

If, as seems probable, Fleay is right in identifying the next play, The Bird in a Cage (printed 1633) with The Beauties, licensed in 1633, the number of Shirley’s lost plays is reduced to two. A sarcastic attack on Prynne, then in prison, forms the dedication, and may have suggested the re-naming of the play. The comedy contains some novel spectacular elements, such as the birdcage in which the hero gets himself smuggled into the castle where the princess is confined, and the play of Danaë, appropriately acted by the ladies-in-waiting to amuse their mistress. The scene at the close, where the lovers stand together against the wrath of the outwitted duke, is not without nobility. The Young Admirall (1633) won the special approbation of the master of the revels as being in the “beneficial and cleanly way of poetry.” It is, indeed, exceptionally free from coarseness, and, in every respect, an excellent piece of stagecraft. The interest of plot is very high, the motives adequate and varied, the characters clearly conceived and originally presented and the speeches often highly poetical. It turns on a series of problems, such as love against patriotism, and conjugal love against filial love. Amusing farce is provided by a trick played on Pazzarello, a coward who is persuaded that a witch has made him invulnerable. The source of the play is stated by Stiefel to be Lope de Vega’s Don Lope de Cardona; and the same scholar has found, in Tirso de Molina’s El Castigo del Pensèque (printed in 1634) a Spanish original for The Opportunitie (licensed in the same year). This amusing play turns upon the matrimonial opportunities lost by a travelling adventurer who arrives in Urbino and is mistaken by everyone for the absent son of a prominent courtier. Shirley departs from his source in the last act by depriving the hero of both the ladies he had wooed, whereas the Spanish author makes him lose the duchess but marries him to one of her ladies. The point of the plot of The Coronation (1635) lies in the successive discovery of two brothers of a reigning queen, whose crown thus shifts from head to head, producing a succession of effective situations, in which lies the chief merit of the play. It contains a masque, but no low comedy. This piece was included in the second folio of Beaumont and Fletcher’s works, but no considerable part of the play is to be ascribed to any hand but Shirley’s. The main interest of The Royall Master, performed first in Dublin and printed in 1638, lies not in a somewhat conventional, if skilful, central intrigue, but in the secondary figure of the young girl Domitilla, who imagines that the king is in love with her, and is cured of her infatuation by her royal master, who pretends to seek her love basely. This situation is taken from the Decameron; the main plot is stated by Stiefel to be Spanish in origin. Another Dublin play, licensed in 1640, is The Doubtfull Heir. The interest here, as in The Coronation, lies in the surprises of the action, the fortunes of Ferdinand, the lost heir of Murcia, undergoing a series of most violent changes; while the charm of the piece is in the constancy of the hero and his betrothed, which gave the play its original name Rosania, or Love’s Victory. There are two plots of almost equal importance in The Gentleman of Venice (1639). In one, an interesting contrast of character is elaborated between the duke’s son, supposed to be the gardeners, and the gardener’s son, supposed to be the duke’s. In the other, a plot of an uncommonly painful nature is handled with delicacy. The Arcadia, printed in 1640, but, perhaps, performed some years before, is a frank dramatisation of the main incidents of Sidney’s romance, with much elaboration of the farcical elements. The Humorous Courtier (printed 1640), also of uncertain date of production, has an ingenious plot, but is spoiled by the gratuitous coarseness of the scenes dealing with Orseolo, the pretended misogynist but actual libertine, who gives the play its name. The main plot turns on the testing of her courtiers by the duchess of Mantua, who, secretly betrothed to the duke of Parma, gives out that she means to marry at home and enjoys the spectacle of her lords covering themselves with ridicule in their efforts to gain her hand. The Imposture (1640) was considered by Shirley to be in the first rank of his compositions. It is, indeed, cleverly manipulated, and the interest is well maintained through a highly complicated plot. But the devices are lacking in both novelty and probability. An ambitious favourite, seeking to secure the daughter of the duke of Mantua for himself, substitutes for her his own discarded mistress when the son of the duke of Ferrara comes wooing. The low comedy is supplied by a young coward Bertholdi, who seeks to ingratiate himself with the gallants by offering to each in turn the hand of his widowed mother, a lady of wit and independence. The Sisters (1642) was the last play by Shirley performed before the theatres were closed. It is a lively and amusing treatment of the theme of the proud and the humble sister. After the former has been fooled by a captain of bandits masquerading first as a fortune teller and then as a prince, she is discovered to be the child of a peasant, and the estates and the real prince go to her modest rival. The farce is frankly absurd, but, on the stage, must have been highly amusing. The dedication has an interesting picture of the condition of poets in England just before the war began, and the prologue contains eulogies of Shakespeare, Fletcher and Jonson. The Court Secret, the latest of Shirley’s regular dramas, was not acted till after the Restoration. It deals with the familiar theme, already several times employed by him, of the hidden heir, and surpasses other works on the subject only in the extreme intricacy of the plot. Mendoza, the father of the supposititious prince is handled with some freshness and humour, being rendered miserable by the possession of “the court secret,” but without the courage to reveal it. The real and the false princes are treated with a delicacy of comparison that distinguishes them clearly from the similarly situated but broadly contrasted pair in The Gentleman of Venice.

A number of miscellaneous pieces remain to be mentioned. The most curious of these is the extraordinary hodge-podge written for the Dublin theatre, and called St. Patrick for Ireland (printed 1640). The main plot, derived from the life of the saint, may be regarded as something between a chronicle history and a miracle-play; the love story is tragicomedy; the figure of Rodamant is farcical. The device by which a lover gets access to a virtuous girl in the guise of a god is as old as Josephus and was already familiar on the English stage. A bracelet making the wearer invisible is used both in the serious and in the low comedy parts. Though the piece contains scenes and speeches that might find appropriate enough place in regular dramas, the effect of the whole is grotesque; and even the noble figure of St. Patrick suffers in dignity from its patchwork background.

Interesting in a different way is the allegorical drama, Honoria and Mammon (pub. 1659), an elaboration of a morality, A Contention for Honour and Riches, which Shirley had printed in 1633. The purpose of the “Moral,” as he calls it, is the exalting of the scholar as against the courtier and the soldier, and the exposing of the deceitfulness of riches. In its form, there is much conventional dramatic material; but, on the allegorical side, it is a more interesting production. The characters, which, in the earlier form, are largely abstractions, become, in the revision, types; and this change makes them much more effective for the pictures of contemporary life in which lies the main value of the piece.

The Tragedie of Chabot Admirall of France (licensed 1635) is ascribed on the title-page of the quarto to Chapman and Shirley. Chapman was dead before the play was acted, and Shirley may have given it some revision; but, in all essentials, it is evident that it is the work of the older poet. Like most of Chapman’s tragedies, it is founded on French history; it is full of his weighty diction and serious thought; and it is much less well adapted to the popular stage than we should expect had Shirley had any considerable share in it.