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'I know not whether she be man or woman' (Shirley, 1986: IV.ii.93): Subversive Presentations of Women in James Shirley's Revenge Tragedies

Sian Lorna Dawson[1], Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick



This article will discuss the subversive presentation of women in Renaissance playwright James Shirley's last revenge tragedy, The Cardinal (licensed 1641, printed 1652). It begins by debating whether chastity, typically imposed upon women as a form of restraint and submission to patriarchal expectation, can in fact empower women. Initially, I argue that, in The Cardinal, the desire to retain one's chastity becomes a means of denying male sexual desire, thus giving women a form of power over men. However, there is substantial evidence within the play and its original performance conditions to suggest otherwise. Chastity is in fact enforced by several male characters within the play, by the boy-player performing the female role and by the playwright himself. I then go on to argue that Shirley in fact uses unfavourable characters, which are deliberately shunned by the audience, to voice radical thoughts about the injustice of the inequality between men and women.

Keywords: James Shirley, women in the Renaissance, Renaissance tragedy, subversive, dramatic conventions



James Shirley is a lesser-known English Renaissance playwright who was born in London in 1596 and died in 1666, fleeing from the Great Fire of London. Within the past decade, Shirley's works have increasingly captured the attention of academics in English Literature, and are being newly edited for Oxford University Press. His dramatic works are intriguing partly because of the unusually ambiguous portrayal of female characters within them, as noted by Chalmers, Sanders, Tomlinson (Chalmers et al., 2006) and Collie (Collie, 2010). However, the aforementioned critics primarily focus their attention on Shirley's comedies, leaving his tragedies largely neglected. By analysing Shirley's revenge tragedies, I hope to develop our understanding of Shirley's unusual portrayal of women within Renaissance drama. In doing so, my article will also interrogate current debates regarding the position of women within Renaissance tragedy.


Historical Context

Shirley's career as a 'professional playwright', someone whose livelihood depended on 'writing plays for stage companies to produce for paying audiences and one whose craft was perfected through intensive study and extensive use of dramatic techniques' (Clark, 2004: 8), began in 1624 when he was 28 years old. The vast majority of Shirley's plays were performed during the reign of the Stuart king Charles I, who reigned from 1625 until his execution in 1649. During Charles's reign, England experienced increasing religious, political and financial turmoil; most infamously, Charles repeatedly ignored and defied the advice of his Parliament before completely dissolving it, ultimately resulting in civil war in 1641. This civil war divided the country into three groups: royalists, who supported the King; parliamentarians, who supported Parliament, and neutralists who believed that the 'polarisation of King and Parliament […] did not meet the needs of the people' (Butler, 1984: 18-19). Butler argues that playwrights used the stage as a space in which to explore the contemporary political unrest of the period. Doing so naturally led to experimentation with dramatic conventions and additionally, the exploration of other controversial issues besides politics (Butler, 1984). Shirley was a staunch royalist, demonstrating his conservative views regarding the governing of England. However, he nevertheless actively engaged in this culture of theatrical experimentation in order to explore other controversial topics. Bradbrook identifies Shirley specifically as belonging to a group of playwrights who were 'consciously playing' with dramatic conventions, 'different systems of characterisation' in particular, to create a 'sophisticated perversion of them' (Bradbrook, 1980: 67).


Women in Renaissance Tragedy

To be conservative in terms of dramatic technique meant adhering to dramatic conventions laid down by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and the ancient Roman dramatist, Seneca. Literary figures, such as Sir Philip Sidney in 1580, John Milton in 1671 and John Dryden in 1679, all emphasised the importance of adhering to the conventions of tragedy set down in Aristotle's Poetics (Draper, 1986). Seneca, who wrote around three hundred years after Aristotle's death, was a popular Latin model for revenge tragedies (Bowers, 1971). Wallace argues that the reverence for Aristotle's theory, which primarily 'focus[ed] upon the individual (male) hero and his tortured or spiritual mind', rendered Renaissance tragic theory unconsciously masculine (Wallace, 2007: 152). She continues that, if women are given substantial parts within a play, it is because 'they are productive metaphors for wider anxieties within tragedy' and (Wallace's tone is scathing) are 'good to think with' (Wallace, 2007: 152). So, to demonstrate a conservative attitude towards gender in Renaissance drama, one acknowledges that men are superior to woman by placing the 'individual (male) hero' (Wallace, 2007: 152) in the limelight.

However, Wallace's argument in fact suggests otherwise. She goes on to consider recent feminist research which argues that tragedy does deal with 'particular female concerns […] such as love, the sacrifice of virgins [and] marriage' (Wallace, 2007: 152). Indeed, there is an increasing wealth of feminist criticism contributing to this vein of thought. Haber argues that John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, written in 1612-13, 'call[s] into question the conventionally masculine perspective of […] tragedy' (Haber, 2010: 245) as it unusually puts the Duchess, a woman, in a position of power within the play. Pollard observes that revenge tragedy subversively puts 'power in the hands of those who wouldn't usually have it, especially women' (Pollard, 2010: 60). As a result, Wallace questions the extent to which Renaissance tragedy is subversive in its portrayal of women, asking

Does the fact that women play quite a central role in tragedy, in contrast to the marginal position they invariably held within society, suggest that tragedy is subversive? Or does tragedy merely offer a licensed space which allows fictional women relative freedom and prominence, without implicating external society? Do the negative, "nightmare" roles given to many women within this licensed space serve to confirm male misogyny?
(Wallace, 2007: 152)

There is indeed evidence to suggest that Greek dramatists themselves were experimenting with the characterisation of women in drama before Aristotle was even born. Clytemnestra has a central role in Aeschylus's The Oresteia (c. 458 BC), Antigone is the rebellious eponymous heroine of Sophocles' Antigone (c. 442 BC) and Euripides raises controversial issues regarding women in The Bacchae (c. 405 BC). Experimentation with dramatic conventions is thus simultaneously progressive and part of the dramatic tradition; a paradox that I believe is evident in Shirley's approach to experimentation.

However, openly to voice radically progressive opinions could potentially damage one's reputation and theatrical career. Wallace refers to the theatre as a space of 'relative freedom' (Wallace, 2007: 152, my emphasis), a phrase that is key to understanding the often ambiguous effects of Shirley's experimentation with the characterisation of women. In describing the freedom of the theatre as 'relative', Wallace acknowledges the societal limitations upon playwrights and their exploration of controversial ideas with regard to women. The Renaissance stage was dominated by men: only men were allowed to write plays to be performed and only male actors were allowed to perform these plays in public. Thus, even if women played subversive roles within drama, as many of Shirley's women do, their subversive actions were ultimately controlled and regulated by men: the playwright and the actors.

Despite the restrictions on the subversive characterisation of women, subversive ideas could be, and were, discussed outside the realm of the theatre. Both de Nettesheim and de la Barre wrote essays arguing that women were equal to men (Whaley, 2003; De la Barre, 1990). De Nettesheim in particular suggested that women should be allowed to develop intellectually rather than being 'permitted to conceive of nothing beyond needle and thread' (quoted by Whaley, 2003: 56). Despite the limitations inherent in the performance of female characters, 'sophisticated perversions' (Bradbrook, 1980: 67) of dramatic norms could give the audience food for thought to be discussed and developed on the ride home. In this way, controversial ideas that could only be touched upon within the performance could flourish into fully fledged debates outside the walls of the theatre. In his revenge tragedies, Shirley acknowledges the limitations that the masculine world of the theatre poses upon the exploration of subversive women. However, I believe he also encourages the audience to consider and explore in greater detail beyond the enclosing walls of the theatre the ideas that he is only able to touch upon onstage. In doing so, Shirley rarely waivers from the conventions of Renaissance tragedy, making his treatment of women in drama simultaneously conventional and subversive.


'You Cannot be so Cruel as to Deny Me' (SHIRLEY, 1986: V.III.145): The Chaste Duchess

I will now give an example of how I believe Shirley demonstrates a 'sophisticated perversion' (Bradbrook, 1980: 67) of dramatic conventions in his last revenge tragedy The Cardinal, performed in 1641 and printed in 1652.

It would first be useful to provide a brief summary of the plot of The Cardinal. The chaste, widowed Duchess Rosaura asks her new suitor, Columbo, if he will release her from their proposed engagement. Columbo, thinking it is a joke, consents and the Duchess quickly marries Alvarez, the man she truly loves. Outraged, offended and jealous, Columbo kills Alvarez on his wedding night. The Duchess demands justice for Alvarez's murder but her request is denied. Thus begins a succession of acts of blood revenge causing innumerable deaths, culminating in the death of the Duchess.

Despite the title, The Cardinal, the Duchess Rosaura is arguably the tragic heroine of the play. The plot begins by discussing the implications of her widowhood, ends with the image of her death, and charts the downwards spiral of her love-life in between. However, simply having a female central character does not make this tragedy subversive, nor does it make the Duchess a subversive character. One could argue that the fact that the title refers to a male character who appears significantly less within the play, when clearly the titular character should be the Duchess, shows how Shirley is adhering to the masculinity of tragic theory but subtly questioning it. Why is the play not called The Duchess? Shirley might reply: because Aristotle states that the tragic hero is 'a man like ourselves' (Draper, 1986: 46). This is the start of numerous occasions in which Shirley adheres to conventions of tragedy in order to undermine and question them. This, I argue, is Shirley's 'sophisticated perversion' (Bradbrook, 1980: 67) of dramatic conventions.

This can be further demonstrated by analysing the characterisation of the Duchess. Nason comments that the Duchess must have been particularly challenging to characterise (Nason, 1915: 347). Starting as a pitiable, lamenting widow, the Duchess seemingly moves from man to man, quickly becoming Columbo's intended, then Alvarez's wife, then assuring the helpful soldier Hernando "I do love/ No man alive so well as you" (Shirley, 1986: V.iii.26-27). The Duchess's honourable character is questionable. Her morality is also jeopardized when she attempts to avenge her murdered lover Alvarez. Blood revenge may seem a perfectly justifiable response in the Duchess's situation; however, during the Renaissance period, it was deemed a criminal act equivalent to murder. 'Malice is the crux in determining murder', and blood revenge is motivated by intent or 'malice', thus blood revenge was considered to be akin to murder (Bowers, 1971: 9).

Shirley easily solves the problem of the Duchess being misinterpreted as a criminal. Throughout the entire play, she physically harms no-one. When Columbo is killed by Hernando to revenge Alvarez, the Duchess, far from committing the act herself, is 'at her devotions,/ Busy with heaven' (Shirley, 1986: IV.iii.51-52). Not only is the Duchess physically removed from the scene of revenge, she is associated with purity and innocence, demonstrated by her 'devotions' to 'heaven'. The Duchess physically commits no act of blood revenge throughout the entire play, being 'too weak' (Shirley, 1986: IV.ii.157) to do so.

Despite her seeming licentiousness, suggested by her multiple admirers, the Duchess actually retains her chastity throughout the entire play. When the Cardinal plans to revenge Columbo's death in Act V, he plots to 'rifle first [the Duchess's] darling chastity' (Shirley, 1986: V.i.91), showing how, even in Act V, after two marriages, the Duchess still remains chaste. The Duchess retains her chastity right through to death, showing how she in fact adheres to society's patriarchal expectations of women.

However, it is her adherence to patriarchal and dramatic expectations that gives the Duchess control over men. Collie makes a passing remark that there is something 'disconcertingly masculine about women who withhold their bodies from men' (Collie, 2010: 26). I do not entirely agree with this statement as retaining one's chastity is demanded of women alone. Rather, I argue that there is something disconcertingly powerful about women who withhold their bodies from men. This is reflected strongly in Shirley's play when the Cardinal himself complains to the Duchess 'You cannot be so cruel as to deny me' (Shirley, 1986: V.iii.145). In denying men sexual pleasure throughout the play, the Duchess is effectively in control of male desire and in a superior position that allows her to grant or 'deny' their wishes.

This is not wholly uncommon in Renaissance plays. Findlay argues that The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary, the 'first original tragedy written in England by a woman' demonstrates how 'virtuous behaviour could include mental resistance' (Findlay, 1999: 76-77). Similarly, by crafting a character that demonstrates 'virtuous behaviour' by adhering to patriarchal and dramatic expectations, Shirley 'sophisticated[ly] pervert[s]' (Bradbrook, 1980: 67) these expectations, using them to place the Duchess in a position of power over men. It is by adhering to dramatic conventions and societal expectations of women that Shirley subtly subverts the gendered hierarchy that rendered Renaissance women submissive and subordinate.

However, this is not so straightforward. My own phrasing 'the Duchess retains her chastity' seems to assume that the Duchess is a real live person who can actively choose to remain chaste throughout the play. One must remember that the Renaissance audience was simultaneously complicit in the illusion of the drama and aware of its unreality (Greenblatt, quoted in Gurr, 2009: 13). This meant that, for the duration of the play, the audience would pretend to believe that the character of the Duchess was real, whilst simultaneously being aware that she was a fictional character crafted by a male playwright and played by a boy in his early teens (Gurr, 2009: 113). When played onstage, the Duchess's every action was controlled by the playwright and the boy player. Therefore, can her chastity ever be truly self-imposed, and does she ever have control over male desire, given that she is played by a boy herself and given that this power is permitted to her by the male playwright?

Furthermore, a strong case can be made arguing that the Duchess's chastity is in fact largely controlled by male characters within the play. The opening scene of the play announces that it was the Duchess's first husband's 'timeless death/ At sea [that] left her a virgin' (Shirley, 1986: I.i.6) rather than her own personal attempt to retain her chastity. When he kills Alvarez, preventing the consummation of the Duchess's marriage, Columbo threatens the Duchess 'never presume again to marry,/ I'll kill the next at th'altar' (Shirley, 1986: IV.ii.68-69), continuing, if 'You dare […] take another [husband], in thy bed I'll cut him from/ Thy warm embrace' (Shirley, 1986: IV.ii.71-73). In doing so, subtly at first, and then more openly, Columbo vows to prevent the Duchess having sex with any man, forcing her to be perpetually chaste. Even when the Duchess desires to retain her chastity, and seems to exert control over male desire by denying the Cardinal sexual pleasure, her chastity is ultimately defended by male forces. When the Cardinal attempts to rape the Duchess, it is Hernando who 'leaps out' (Shirley, 1986: V.iii) to defend the Duchess's honour. The Duchess dies a virgin, but she does not kill herself in order to retain her chastity: the Cardinal tricks her into drinking poison, gleefully exclaiming 'I am sure she's poisoned with that dose/ I gave her last' (Shirley, 1986: V.iii.257-58). Thus, to her last breath, her chastity is controlled and maintained by men. Although the Duchess retains her chastity unto death, this is primarily due to the efforts of men, malicious or defensive, showing that chastity does not necessarily give women power over men and that tragedy is merely a confined 'licensed space' in which women have 'relative freedom' as Wallace proposes.


'I Know not Whether She be Man or Woman' (SHIRLEY, 1986: IV.II.93): The Debauched Celinda

The tragedies that I am considering are revenge tragedies, tragedies that focus on those who waiver from convention and the law. Celinda is not explicitly identified as a revenger; however, she is of interest because she loses her virginity before marriage (and subsequently goes on to marry a different man again), defying patriarchal expectations and the cultural convention for women to remain chaste until their wedding night. Who is Celinda? Celinda, one of the Duchess's ladies, dotes upon Columbo. Insulted by the Duchess's request to end their engagement and her attempts to marry the effeminate Count D'Alvarez, Columbo takes Celinda as his 'mistress' in order to spite the Duchess. Hernando kills Columbo in a duel, and Celinda is left to bear her dead lover's child. Having lost her 'honourable fame' (Shirley, 1986: V.ii.27), Celinda is rendered 'ridiculous at court' (Shirley, 1986: V.i.27).

Although Aristotle's Poetics was a popular model for tragedies in the Renaissance period, Thomas Kyd's renowned play The Spanish Tragedy, written between 1582 and 1592, provided an additional, popular, contemporary style model for revenge tragedies of the period. Kyd's distinctive writing style incorporates effective literary devices, for example using parallel characters to create contrast or to reinforce a point. Shirley uses the 'Kydian device of parallel […] characters' (Bowers, 1971: 224) in order to create a contrast between Celinda and the Duchess. The Duchess is Columbo's first choice, an untouchable virgin and a character with which the audience is intended to sympathise. Celinda, in contrast, is Columbo's second choice; she is ravished by the general and is thereafter 'stain[ed]' by her 'court heresies' (Shirley, 1986: V.ii.37). As a result, the audience's opinion of her is greatly lessened. It is important that the paralleling of these two women encourages the audience to see Celinda in a negative light. Not only does it emphasise that her body is of considerably low value to men compared to that of the Duchess, her opinions are of little value as well. The Duchess herself announces that Celinda 'is not worth/ Considering' (Shirley, 1986: IV.ii.103-04), subtly instructing the audience how to react to this wayward character.

Having manipulated the audience's perceptions of Celinda, Shirley then proceeds to use her as a mouth-piece for much more openly radical thoughts, not necessarily about empowering women but addressing the unequal treatment of the two sexes. In her complaint about the 'ridicule' she must suffer from the men at court for having lost her virginity, Celinda exposes the injustice that dishonourable women are condemned for their 'wandering fame' (Shirley, 1986: V.i.76), whereas the court men, who are as dishonoured and 'saucy' as herself, suffer little or no damage to their reputation for having sex out of wedlock. Whereas in the examination of the Duchess, the convention of female characters being played by boy players reminds the audience that the Duchess's actions are ultimately controlled by men, in this instance, it potentially reinforces Celinda's point. Like the Duchess, Celinda would have been played by a boy in his early teens (Gurr, 2009: 113) who was soon quite likely to grow to be such a 'saucy' fellow as Celinda describes. The recognition of this fact starts to erode the difference between the erring female character and the boy player who would undoubtedly discover the joys of sexual pleasure soon in his career, supporting Celinda's argument. The comment 'I know not whether she be man or woman' (Shirley, 1986: IV.ii.93) is also said referring to Celinda, the confusion implying there is perhaps little difference between debauched men and women. Celinda's argument is perfectly valid but her debauched status renders her an undesirable character, the force of her claims becoming weakened by her damaged reputation. As a result, she cannot 'curb the giddy spleens of men/ That live on impudent rhyme and railing at/ Each wandering fame they catch' (Shirley, 1986: V.i.74-76), she cannot attain equality between debauched men and women. This makes her the perfect voice for Shirley's more radical ideas. Thus, Shirley uses the conventional device of Kydian parallel characters in order to safely voice radical ideas.



At the start of this article and my research, I believed that James Shirley subverts the traditional assumption that a chaste woman is submissive in his characterisation of the Duchess Rosaura. My initial analysis suggested that her desire to retain her chastity, particularly when the Cardinal attempts to rape her, shows that she gains power over men by denying male desire. However, I ultimately rejected this idea as there is substantial evidence to argue that the Duchess's chastity is in fact controlled by men: not only is it controlled by several male characters within the play, it is also controlled by the male actor playing the part of the Duchess, and the playwright himself. By taking the debauched Celinda into consideration, I discovered that Shirley implements another conventional stylistic of tragedy, the 'Kydian device of parallel […] characters' (Bowers, 1971: 224), to manipulate the audience's feelings against Celinda and then use her as a voice for more radical opinions regarding the unequal treatment of men and women.

Although space requirements preclude further discussion of this issue in this article, my research has led me to believe that Shirley uses different types of unfavourable or errant characters, particularly revengers, to explore the injustice of the unequal treatment of men and women in other revenge tragedies such as The Traitor and The Maides Revenge.




I would like to thank Dr Tess Grant for all the support she has shown me over the past year, for introducing me to James Shirley, securing the opportunity to research his tragedies over summer and for taking an interest and believing in me.

I would like to thank the Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme at Warwick for providing me with the funding that enabled me to research this article using the facilities at Cambridge University Library.

Finally, I would like to thank the British Conference of Undergraduate Research for giving me the opportunity to present my research and providing a stimulating conference in March 2012.



[1] Sian Lorna Dawson studied English Literature at the University of Warwick and will be commencing a taught MA in English Literature in the same department in October 2012.



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To cite this paper please use the following details: Dawson, S. L. (2012), ''I know not whether she be man or woman' (Shirley, 1986: IV.ii.93): Subversive Presentations of Women in James Shirley's Revenge Tragedies', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2012 Special Issue, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at


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