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the lady of pleasure

13 august 2019

In the introduction to his 1962 edition of Six Caroline Plays, A.S. Knowland says that

The reign of Charles I was not an inspiring one for the student of drama. Most of the great writers of the Jacobean period were stale, silent, or dead. (vii)
I bought Knowland's book anyway when I spotted it, for $5, on a shelf with other tiny volumes at a bookstore in Rochester, NY last month. Not only was the book in perfect condition, but it was one of those lovely blue Oxford University Press volumes printed by Vivian Ridler in the mid-20th century, the only flaw in which were their minuscule type. Read 'em before the eyes go, that's my philosophy.

James Shirley's Lady of Pleasure kicks off the collection. This breezy comedy of decadent manners at city and court features deft, loosely rhythmic blank verse, and a lot of detail about frivolous lives in the run-up to the English Civil War. The Lady of Pleasure lacks a lot of dramatic conflict, however – and good comedy, no less than melodrama or tragedy, depends on dramatic conflict, people at cross-purposes, to drive the viewer's interest forward.

Instead of real antagonism, though, we get a set of mismatched characters. The central discrepancy is between the title character herself, Aretina Bornwell, and her longsuffering husband Sir Thomas. Well born as he is, Sir Thomas seems to have married up in the sense of social rank, and now finds himself continually placating Aretina's taste for nightlife, expensive clothes, and gambling. He would rather live in the country, where his fortune would be adequate for a semi-retired life; but his wife has insisted that they move to the big city and spend like there's no tomorrow.

Aretina is not averse to gentleman callers, either, but the ones she attracts are so lightweight that it's hard for Sir Thomas to work up much anxiety over them. They consist of a bunch of losers with names like Kickshaw, Scentlove, and Littleworth, and they pose more of a threat to the Bornwell bank accounts than to Aretina's honor. But she seems vulnerable on the romantic side when Sir Thomas, intent on teaching her a lesson, starts to flirt with a fetching teenage widow named Celestina. Aretina explains:

Her beauty's worth my envy, and I wish
Revenge upon it, not because he loves,
But that it shines above my own. (Act 3, Scene 2; 45)
Aretina's counterattack consists of goading her male retinue to heap verbal abuse on Celestina. The young widow gives as good as she gets, though, and has bigger fish to fry. A character for some reason known only as "Lord," famed for posthumous devotion to a deceased mistress, is galvanized out of his torpor by Celestina, and lays siege to her virtue. In the end, both Celestina and Aretina pull up their pleasure-loving ways and resolve to live more virtuously. Sir Thomas is satisfied, and Lord repents a little. All ends blandly enough.

A nice role for a young character actor is provided by Aretina's nerdy nephew Frederick, who only has to spend a few hours among his aunt's entourage before he's drunker and randier than any of them. Otherwise, The Lady of Pleasure does not do much to redeem the blank impression most people have of Caroline comedy. Not because Shirley lacked gifts as a poet – the language is splendid at times – but because his stagecraft, or the conventions of his theater, didn't make for really engaging drama.

Shirley, James. The Lady of Pleasure. 1637. In Six Caroline Plays. Ed. A.S. Knowland. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. 3-86.