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Modern performances of Shirley’s works are exceedingly rare. If you know of any please contact us.

The Cardinal

produced by Troupe, Southwark Playhouse, 26 April – 27 May 2017

The state of Navarre is in crisis. An unscrupulous Cardinal has the ear of the King and is hungry for power. The Duchess Rosaura longs to marry the Count D’Alvarez, but the Cardinal wants her for his brutish nephew. To tighten his grip on the Kingdom, the ruthless Cardinal will stop at nothing to secure the marriage. But in the Duchess it seems he has finally met his match…

Hailed as James Shirley’s tragic masterpiece, The Cardinal (1641) was one of the last plays staged in England before Oliver Cromwell’s ban on theatre. With remarkably lucid and fast-paced dialogue, it is the captivating story of a religious monster and his relentless pursuit of power.

Starring Stephen Boxer (King Lear, National Theatre) and Natalie Simpson (King Lear, Hamlet and Cymbeline, Royal Shakespeare Company), directed by Justin Audibert (Snow in Midsummer and The Jew of Malta, Royal Shakespeare Company) and produced by Troupe (After October, Flowering Cherry and The White Carnation, Finborough Theatre).

The nationals gave the production four stars, with very favourable reviews by Michael Billington and others. Review links below:

The Cardinal

(introduction to the play in the programme)

There’s treason in some hearts, whose faces are

Smooth to the state.

Licensed in November 1641, The Cardinal was one of the last tragedies performed in the reign of Charles I. Shirley’s play anatomizes political struggle in the kingdom of Navarre, whose ruler is eclipsed by a power-hungry Cardinal. Supine courtiers creep about in fear of spies while war looms at the border. The young Duchess Rosaura, just widowed, is caught up in the Cardinal’s schemes for dynastic grandeur. Despite the King’s promise that she would be free to choose her next husband, Rosaura finds she must marry the Cardinal’s nephew Columbo, a man she abhors. When Columbo is despatched to lead a military campaign, the Duchess seizes her opportunity and asks him in a letter to release her. Columbo mistakenly believes that his fiancée merely wishes to test him and shows himself generous. In Columbo’s absence, Rosaura claims the hand of gallant Alvarez, whom she has long secretly desired. To the Cardinal’s anger, the nuptials proceed. Columbo returns from the field and kills Alvarez at the wedding. Rosaura becomes the Cardinal’s ward, and feigns madness to survive and plan her vengeance.

A poet’s art is to lead on your thought

Through subtle paths and workings of a plot.

I will say nothing positive; you may

Think what you please…


One such subtle path leads to the conventions of revenge tragedy, thoroughly familiar to Shirley’s audiences. Shades of HamletThe Duchess of Malfi (republished 1640) and The Spanish Tragedy colour the play, which toys with audience expectations and holds quite a few surprises. It is tempting to imagine Shirley as he wafts a Duchess of Malfi to Elsinore where she moves to strike back against villainous attacks, strategically adopting a distracted disposition.

This woman has a spirit that may rise

To tame the devil’s.

Shirley’s Duchess attests to a sea-change in female characterization in drama of the period. 1630s London offered unprecedented opportunities for women to patronize public spaces such as leisure gardens, the city’s first shopping malls, and playhouses. Cognizant of this, Shirley’s plays addressed ladies in the audience as arbiters of wit and presented attractive, urbane female figures. A radiant adversary to the Cardinal’s crafty allure, Rosaura challenges his pre-eminence in an elegant verbal fandango. She is deceptive and even manages to weep at Columbo’s departure for battle. Some critics find her emotional agility disturbing, yet Shirley simply shows us what characters are capable of when pushed into a corner. Some act their expected role with bravura, to the point of believing in their own performance.

The secretary must have a play to show his wit.

The taut economy of Shirley’s play knows no secondary characters. Everyone deserves balanced consideration. Columbo knows that kings and cardinals need butchers – like himself – who ‘like to a floating island move in blood’, and bluntly voices some home truths (‘soldiers are your valiant fools’). His incapacity for subtlety can also be refreshing. Columbo clips effusive rhetoric with the gruff ‘no poetry’. He plays off beautifully against a character living by the pen, the Duchess’s secretary. The secretary is a one-man subplot providing a running commentary on events, memorably calling the Cardinal an ‘overgrown lobster’. With the secretary, comedy corrects oversized tragic pathos.

The short-haired men

Do crowd and call for justice.

Shirley’s tragedies often set the clock ticking for their protagonists. Drenched in the triumphant scarlet colours of the church, The Cardinal yet articulates palpable discomfort with such splendour. Pictures and hangings intimate oppressive interiors which may hide something rotten beneath the rich drapery. The Cardinal, an ulcerous pendant at the King’s ear, winds up his creatures like automata. The play may gesture at contemporary princes of the church. Pope Urban VIII Barberini and his Cardinal nephews were on good terms with Charles’s Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria; Cardinal Richelieu, hammer of the French Protestants, womanizer, and admiral, waged a war against Spain in 1641. Closer to home, William Laud, ambitious Archbishop of Canterbury, was (falsely) rumoured to covet a cardinal’s hat. Puritans denounced his rich church ceremonies as ‘popish’ and viewed his influence over Charles I with alarm. The Commons charged Laud with high treason in 1640, and kept him imprisoned in the Tower at the time The Cardinal was staged. In 1642, the playhouses were closed down by ‘the short-haired men’.

Your phrase has too much landscape and I cannot

Distinguish the figure perfect.

The Cardinal hinges on terms of visual perception. One early meaning of ‘landscape’ was a painted backdrop. A ‘perspective’ was a looking-glass, or a flat scenery with a vanishing point suggesting depth where there was none. Shirley learned about perspective when he collaborated with Inigo Jones in a spectacular masque for Charles I, The Triumph of Peace (1634), which tempered courtly hyperbole with anti-illusionistic elements. Similarly, jaded comments lace the preparations for the wedding masque in The Cardinal. Like Charles I, the play’s king appears to be a stickler for protocol, especially when his royal person is involved (‘contempt of majesty transcends my power to pardon’), yet his final lines ‘none have more need for perspectives than kings’ express a crying need for judicious leadership. For Shirley, perspective was not just a way of seeing but thinking. Perspective meant an ability to consider different points of view and discern the consequences of one’s actions.

Do not I walk upon the teeth of serpents?

Shirley considered The Cardinal as ‘the best of my flock’. A quintessentially Caroline writer, he liked poised understatement; colloquialisms temper the strictures of blank verse. His clear-sighted drama seems knowing, even calculating; many critics feel that Shirley’s characters do their thinking behind the scenes. His characters require neither gods nor devils to engineer their own tragedy with great resourcefulness.

Nowadays, Terry Eagleton has declared tragedy ‘unfashionable’ because ‘it smacks of virile warriors and immolated virgins, cosmic fatality and stoical acquiescence … as an aristocrat among art forms, its tone is too solemn and portentous for a streetwise, sceptical culture’. Over 300 years ago, Shirley had already reflected on such concerns. He does immolate his Duchess but at least she is allowed some agency in the matter. The Cardinal was an aristocratic play with an instinctive scepticism about courtly trappings. It was written for a streetwise society which only a few years later sent, in Marvell’s famous words, its very own ‘royal actor’ out onto the ‘tragic scaffold’.

Prof. Barbara Ravelhofer, Durham University

Honoria and Mammon

produced by The Owle Schreame Theatre Company, at Shirley’s church, St Giles-in-the-Fields, London, Friday 13 Sept – Friday 13 Dec 2013. Director: Brice Stratford

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