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The Cardinal is a Caroline era stage play, a tragedy by James Shirley. It was licensed for performance by Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels, on 25 November 1641, and first published in 1653. Nineteenth-century critics like Edmund Gosse, and twentieth-century critics like Fredson Bowers, have considered it among his finest works. Arthur H. Nason judged it "first among Shirley's tragedies." Bowers called Shirley's play a "coherent Kydian revenge tragedy, polished and simplified in his best manner."
The play belongs to the final phase of Shirley's career as a London playwright, when he was no longer serving as the house dramatist of Queen Henrietta's Men. The Cardinal was acted instead by the King's Men at the Blackfriars Theatre.
The play was published in Six New Plays, an octavo collection of Shirley's works issued by the stationers Humphrey Moseley and Humphrey Robinson in 1653 — one of a series of Shirley collections that appeared in this era. Moseley and Robinson were the booksellers who published the first Beaumont and Fletcher folio in 1647.
The play was revived early in the Restoration period, with an initial performance at the Theatre Royal in Vere Street on 23 July 1662. Samuel Pepys saw the play on 2 October 1663, again on 4 August 1667 and a third time on 27 April 1668. At least the second of those three performances starred Becky Marshall as the Duchess Rosaura.
Two lords praise the qualities of the Duchess, who has just finished mourning for her lost husband. The Cardinal plans to marry her to his nephew, Columbo, and the lords disapprove of this plan. Alphonso brings news that the Arragonians are preparing for war against them. The Duchess tries to take on happiness with her ladies and asks them for their opinions of the men at court. Valeria praises Alvarez, whom the Duchess is inclined towards. Celinda praises Columbo, whom the Duchess does not like. The Secretary brings news that the men are preparing for war and Columbo has been chosen as general. Columbo comes to say goodbye, and the Duchess behaves as though she will actually miss him, weeping and everything. The King and Cardinal arrive to see Columbo off, and the King decrees that Columbo will marry the Duchess on the day of his return. Celinda and Valeria talk about how sad it is that Columbo is going off unmarried, and may die without an heir—they seem to volunteer for the duty of being his baby mama. As soon as she’s alone, the Duchess says that she doesn’t plan to tempt or betray him, but to secure “the promise I first made to love and honour,” which is her contract to Alvarez. Alvarez comes in and they discuss their love and plans to be with each other, which are currently being mucked up by the Cardinal and Columbo. The Duchess wishes for Columbo to die in war or else give up all thoughts of her.
Hernando, Alphonso, and Columbo are holding a war council and discuss the lack of preparedness and training among the army. Columbo receives a letter from the Duchess asking him to release her from any contract or agreement, and he gets real angry. He immediately talks himself out by deciding that this is just a ruse on her part to get him to come home to her faster. The Duchess plays nice with the Cardinal. The Secretary returns with Columbo’s response. She instructs him to take two thousand ducats from the steward and seems pleased with the letter’s contents, but doesn’t say what they are. In a very short and opaque exchange, the King seems to approve of Alvarez as husband for the Duchess, perhaps as a reward for some deed he’s done regarding the war. The Duchess enters with a letter from Columbo releasing her from contract to him. The King thinks it strange, but consents to let her marry Alvarez, and says he’ll be a guest at their wedding. The Cardinal enters just after this agreement and is furious. He accuses her of being devious and also hasty, and not questioning the validity of the letter. She accuses him of being too partial to his own family and not thinking Alvarez a worthy match. He threatens her with gossip and the loss of her reputation. They argue, the Duchess resolves to marry Alvarez, and the Cardinal is left to send letters to Columbo to figure out the next step.
Valeria and Celinda are shocked that Columbo would give up his claim to the Duchess and suspect “a spell” at work. Two lords bring in the news that the army has triumphed and Columbo is marching homeward. The Cardinal’s mad that Columbo gave up the Duchess and thinks this lessens somewhat the glory he has won. The King counsels the Cardinal to celebrate the Duchess’s marriage to Alvarez and let his anger go, while the Cardinal protests that he just doesn’t understand why his nephew would give her up. The secretary wrangles some bumbling servants to present some kind of play for the King and court, in celebration of the Duchess’s marriage. Columbo joins in part of the masque, vizarded, and the masquers get Alvarez to join in a little. They take him offstage, ostensibly to costume him, and then bring him back dead. Columbo takes responsibility immediately. All the other masquers have escaped. Columbo protests that this murder was justice and revenge, and accuses the Duchess of witchcraft and malice. He produces the letter the Duchess wrote asking him to release her, which he says is proof of her attempt to discredit his fame. The King says he is just as much to blame for Alvarez’s murder, since he sided with the Duchess, and refuses to pardon Columbo. The Cardinal counsels Columbo to beg for his life, but Columbo refuses and is escorted to prison.
Some time has passed, apparently, and Hernando in conversation with two lords remarks on the King’s pardoning Columbo and wonders whether they will manage to marry him to the Duchess yet. The lords talk about murdering Columbo. Columbo and Alfonso pass over the stage with their train. They all comment on his triumphant delivery from the jail and Hernando goes off to comfort the Duchess. The King and Cardinal enter and the King orders the Cardinal to go to the Duchess and try to reconcile her “to some peace." The Secretary fetches Celinda to come entertain the Duchess and insinuates that he’d like to sleep with her. The Duchess asks Celinda what she thinks of Columbo and laments all the misery he wrought for her. Placentia enters to announce Columbo’s presence. Columbo forces his way into her chambers and tells her she is “not worth / The humblest of my kinder thoughts”. He curses her with his revenge and says he’ll kill anyone else she ever presumes to marry, either at the altar or while they are in bed together. He then apologizes to Celinda and says she’s worth far more than the Duchess, and exits. The Duchess reprimands Celinda for inviting Columbo’s attentions, and Celinda sticks up for herself, attacking the Duchess’s jealousy, and leaves. Hernando arrives to entreat the Duchess to devise some revenge for Alvarez’s murder. He then proposes himself to carry out Columbo’s murder. The Duchess says she would be honored if he would undertake it on her behalf, but worries about the Cardinal. Hernando says Columbo must die first, then the Cardinal. She promises to marry him if he succeeds. As they finish planning, the Cardinal enters and Hernando glares at him as he leaves. The Cardinal tells the Duchess that she is being too severe in her anger over Columbo’s pardon and she needs to make nice. The Cardinal explains that Columbo’s many good deeds which benefitted the entire kingdom outweigh his murder of Alvarez, which only caused sadness to the Duchess. He continues, saying he condemns the murderous act, and craved pardon for Columbo only because he is his nephew, and not because he condoned the murder. The Duchess is convinced, and apologizes to the Cardinal. When he leaves, the Duchess says she’s still angry and hopes that Hernando’s plan succeeds to kill both Columbo and the Cardinal. Hernando sets up a duel between himself and Columbo, ostensibly to avenge his honor at being dismissed from the field during battle. Before they start fighting, he also announces his intent to avenge Alvarez’s death. In the fight, Hernando kills Columbo’s second and Columbo kills Hernando’s second. There’s a stumble, and Columbo ends up with both swords. Hernando grabs a sword from one of the slain men and manages to wound Columbo. Columbo forgives Hernando with his dying breath, and Hernando departs immediately.
The court is abuzz with gossip about Columbo’s death. The King is very sad about it, Hernando is suspected of the murder since he has fled, and the Cardinal has been appointed as the Duchess’s guardian. In the aftermath of all this, the Duchess has lost her wits and “turned child again.” Celinda has also been humbled greatly and is an object of some ridicule since Columbo died, since she thought for sure they were going to get married. The Cardinal is in a rage that the Duchess has gone mad and cannot now be aware of any revenge he might have in store for her. To kill her might be a welcome release, so he won’t do that. Celinda brings the Cardinal a document that makes him happy and able to plan a dastardly revenge for the Duchess. He promise to “rifle first her darling chastity, / ’Twill be after time enough to poison her” and seek his revenge on Hernando when she is dead. The Secretary talks to Placentia about how much he’d like to marry Celinda, both for her riches and her body. Hernando, in disguise, arrives with a letter for the Duchess. The Secretary recognizes him, but pledges his loyalty, and the two discuss the Duchess’s madness. The Duchess requests Hernando’s presence after receiving his letter. Celinda arrives to see the Duchess and is put off by the Secretary. She takes the opportunity to woo him a little in order to get a reputable father for her unborn child! The Duchess moves in and out of lucidity in conversation with Hernando, asking about what his plans are to dispatch the Cardinal. She promises still to marry him, and then departs for dinner with the Cardinal. Hernando stays behind and laments her madness, though she made sense on occasion. He overhears the dinner in the next room, and a song. As the diners move into the chamber, Hernando hides behind an arras to observe. Left “alone,” the Cardinal sets about wooing the Duchess and kissing her, deploying “some art to poison all her innocence.” After the kissing, the Cardinal marvels over the transformation of his anger into lust, and fears that he’ll “forgive Columbo’s death, / If she content to my embrace.” She protests, and he begins to rape her. Hernando leaps out and strikes the Cardinal, and the Duchess runs offstage. Hernando stabs the Cardinal with the same sword he used to kill Columbo, and the rest of the court rushes in. Hernando stabs himself also, and after denouncing the Cardinal as a rapist and celebrating himself for preventing the Duchess from harm, he dies. The Duchess finds her senses returned. The Cardinal confesses his many sins and asks for the King’s pardon, and then reveals that he poisoned the Duchess at dinner and she is already dying. He offers an antidote and his apologies. The Duchess says she had planned to murder the Cardinal that very night with her own hand, but Hernando beat her to it. She drinks the antidote, as does the Cardinal (to prove his good faith), and then the Cardinal changes his tune and says the antidote is extra poison and Duchess is definitely dying and he is glad of it. The Surgeon announces that the Cardinal’s wounds were not enough to kill him, and the Cardinal finds out he’s actually killed himself with the poison. The Cardinal dies. The Duchess dies. The King directs that their bodies be prepared for funeral. The play ends with a comic epilogue stating that the play is a tragedy and if the audience liked it, they should show it, or else the epilogue will convince the playwright to give up writing, and they’ll all be worse off if that happens.
Shirley tells his story in "a succession of strong and brilliant scenes" that relate the plot "swiftly and vigorously."
- Nason, p. 347.
- Quoted in Logan and Smith, p. 156.
- "Southwark Playhouse – Theatre + Bar | The Cardinal". southwarkplayhouse.co.uk. Retrieved 2017-05-10.
- Nason, p. 346.
- Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith, eds. The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
- Nason, Arthur Huntingdon. James Shirley, Dramatist: A Biographical and Critical Study. New York, Columbia University, 1915.
- Tomlinson, Sophie. Women on Stage in Stuart Drama. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.