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James Shirley's


Monday, November 18, 2019

7:30 PM | Lucille Lortel Theatre
Directed by Nathan Winkelstein
Featuring Oge Agulue, Keith Hamilton Cobb, Christian Conn, Christian Coulson, Sarah Herrman, Ethan Hova, Daniel Jose Molina, Max Gordon Moore, Nneka Okafor, Antoinette Robinson, Socorro Santiago, and more to be announced!
This rarely heard Early Modern gem paints a vibrant, macabre picture of Lorenzo de Medici, a licentious duke who works his means through a mass of intrigue to achieve his most passionate ends.

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James Shirley’s The Traitor, licensed in 1631 and probably written the previous year, takes up a burning question: is a subject ever justified in killing a bad monarch or does such an act always equal the heinous crime of treason? The play appeared just about a decade before the English Civil War ripped apart the nation and led to the execution of Charles I by Parliamentary leaders, men certainly considered traitors by those who remained loyal to the house of Stuart. Anger at Charles had been brewing since his ascension to the throne in 1625, partly because of his marriage to a Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France; partly because of the King’s special relationship with a detested favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, assassinated in 1628; and partly because of Charles’ attempts to raise money without Parliamentary consent. The King dissolved Parliament in 1629 and did not convene it again until 1640.


Shirley’s play is not an allegory. The characters cannot simply be mapped onto real-world figures in a one-to-one way. Nonetheless, the play’s action could not fail to resonate with the political moment in which it was written. The ruling Duke of Florence is a lustful man who schemes to seduce, and rape, the virtuous Amidea, beloved sister of Sciarrha and Florio, two Florentine gentlemen proud of their family’s honor. The Duke’s lustful impulses make him a prime example of a Renaissance tyrant, a man whose passions overwhelm his reason and render him bestial. Moreover, the Duke is cleverly manipulated and abetted by Lorenzo, his kinsman and also his favorite. The favorite was a stock villain in Renaissance tragedy: a figure who insinuated himself into royal favor for his own gain. Lorenzo proves to be the traitor of the play’s title, for it is gradually revealed that he intends to arrange the eventual murder of the Duke in order to seize the throne himself. In the end, having failed to get others to kill the Duke, Lorenzo does so himself. He is therefore guilty of the equivalent of regicide, and with no extenuating excuse except that of personal ambition.


The same is not the case for Sciarrha, the virtuous Amidea’s brother. The major action of the play involves Sciarrha’s furious struggles to revenge his sister’s attempted seduction by the Duke. He is repeatedly foiled, mainly by the actions of Amidea herself who refuses to kill a duly appointed ruler. Instead, she attempts to reason the Duke out of his lust and makes clear that she has her own way to escape his clutches—through suicide. The play thus maps out several approaches to treason. While Amidea categorically refuses to be made a whore, she also refuses to take the life of even an unjust sovereign. Her hotheaded brother, also having good reason to strike out at the Duke, lacks his sister’s scruples; he plots to kill the lustful ruler, but a series of plot reversals and surprises prevents him from carrying out his intent. Sciarrha is technically, therefore, never a traitor. That label belongs only to Lorenzo.


The play’s real hero, however, and also its chief victim, is Amidea. Constant in her chastity, loyal to a Duke who attempts to ruin her, and true to the values of hospitality, family honor, and love, Amidea repeatedly tries to convince her brothers to let these virtues guide their conduct. Like Julius Caesar’s Portia, she wounds herself with a poniard to show how little she fears death. In the end, still maneuvering to keep her brother, Sciarrha, from killing the Duke, Amidea is killed by Sciarrha when he becomes mistakenly convinced she has decided to sleep with her seducer. In the play’s subplot, another woman, Oriana, is also made the victim of men’s self-centeredness when Cosmo, who was to marry her, agrees to surrender her to his friend, Pisano, who pursues Oriana after throwing over Amidea. Male friendship is sustained only by the sacrifice of women’s happiness. 


 In developing the play, Shirley makes use of many stock theatrical devices, often giving them an unusual or ironic twist. For example, on the night he is to sleep with Amidea, the lustful Duke is presented with a masque denouncing lust. Unlike Claudius in Hamlet, who rises like a guilty creature from watching a play in which his crimes are staged, the Duke is utterly unmoved by what is enacted. Similarly, the playwright several times uses the familiar device of a figure hiding behind an arras to eavesdrop on a private encounter; includes several tests of women’s virtue such as we find in Cymbeline; and makes use of a comic figure, DePazzi, to comment on the actions of his betters. In doing so, Shirley shows his deep familiarity with Jacobean and Caroline stage conventions. He uses these conventions, however, to address the pressing political problem of how subjects are to respond to the actions of a bad ruler. By making the murderer of the lustful Duke an ambitious villain and highlighting the wronged Amidea’s loyalty and her struggle to prevent her brother from taking revenge, Shirley suggests that only villains would kill a king. Good subjects, however provoked, would not. The 1640s, ending in Charles’ execution, showed that many subjects came to feel differently. 

Jean E. Howard, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities
Department of English and Comparative Literature
Columbia University


James Shirley, gentleman, was born in London in 1596 and educated at the famous Merchant Taylors’ School before taking degrees at Oxford and Cambridge. He started his professional life as a minister, but after converting to Catholicism sometime in the 1620s, Shirley briefly became a school master and then took up residence at Gray’s Inn, one of the law colleges in London. During his eighteen years at Gray’s Inn, he wrote over thirty plays before the closing of the public theaters in 1642. Among these plays were a handful of tragedies, numerous witty and graceful city comedies, and many pastoral tragicomedies. A Royalist by inclination, Shirley wrote most of his plays for Queen Henrietta’s Men, although from 1636 to 1640 he lived in Dublin and wrote for the Werburgh Street Theatre. During the Interregnum Shirley survived by writing poetry and helping with John Ogilby’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  He died immediately after the Great Fire of London of 1666.


"Death's a devouring gamester,

And sweeps up all ; —what think'st thou of an eye ?
Couldst thou spare one, and think the blemish recompensed
To see me safe with the other ? or a hand—
This white hand, that hath so often
With admiration trembled on the lute,
Till we have pray'd thee leave the strings awhile,
And laid our ears close to thy ivory fingers,
Suspecting all the harmony proceeded
From their own motion without the need
Of any dull or passive instrument ? —
No, Amidea ; thou shalt not bear one scar,
To buy my life ; the sickle shall not touch
A flower, that grows so fair upon his stalk. . . .
Thy other hand will miss a white companion,
And wither on thy arm.   What then can I
Expect from thee to save me ?   I would live
And owe my life to thee, so 'twere not bought
Too dear."


Our OBIE Award-winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York. 


Casting subject to change.


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