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the wedding

19 august 2019

James Shirley's The Wedding is the kind of piece later critics would call a "problem play," but 17th-century contemporaries liked to call a "tragicomedy." It's a grim story of duels, deaths, and deceit, livened by some nasty humor. For a while, everybody in The Wedding looks like they're fixing to die. Then it all turns out great, after a "bed-trick" of the sort dear to Renaissance playwrights is revealed as the source of various confusions. They get to have their wedding, and presumably eat the cake, too.

The title festivity is the hitching of Gratiana Belfare to a likely lad named Beauford. (Heck, she'll barely have to change the name on her driver's license.) There's just one problem: Beauford's old pal Marwood reveals that Gratiana is a whore. This is not just the testosterone talking; Marwood claims to have slept with Gratiana, himself. Wedding guests: do they ever not cause trouble?

Beauford, naturally, has to slay Marwood, or at least to sthink that he's slain Marwood. This unfortunate turn of events puts a hold on the wedding, as does Gratiana's sudden running off to drown herself. Gratiana's father goes mad. A young man named Milliscent is strangely troubled by all the commotion. What could be up with him?

The nasty-comic subplot involves a skinny usurer named Rawbone and a fat citizen named Lodam, who are rivals for the hand of Jane Landby. The dubious humor of the two suitors is enhanced, or perhaps made more dubious, by a revolving set of servants who make the usual servant quips about bad masters that go back to Terence and Plautus. All the servants seem to be disguised as one another, and keep switching employers – doubtless easier to keep track of on stage than in the reading. It's a well-populated play, no doubt written for a professional company with a lot of actors to keep in work, but offering no very big parts for any particular star.

Should I spoil the plot? I suppose I already have, and the play opened nearly 400 years ago, anyway. Marwood never had sex with Gratiana at all, as it turns out. He tried. But Gratiana's gentlewoman companion Cardona craftily deflected Marwood's urges onto her own daughter Lucibel. (As happens numerous times in early-modern narratives, all women become identical after dark – a troubling detail that either doesn't bear thinking too much about, or bears a lot if you are interested in misogynist rhetoric.)

Where's Lucibel now? Disguised as Milliscent. The device of having a young woman dress up as a young man was facilitated by the fact that, as late as 1633, all the women in English plays were played by boys anyway. Gratiana shows up alive, Marwood shows up alive, Beauford beats a murder rap, Beauford marries Gratiana, Marwood marries Lucibel, and Jane marries neither of her disagreeable suitors, but her lover Haver, who has disguised himself first as a servant and then as his master Rawbone in a complicated plot to win her hand.

You could do worse than The Wedding, among old plays; you could do worse among Shakespeare's own catalogue. But Google isn't helpful in pointing me to any recent productions. Entering SHIRLEY WEDDING PRODUCTION gets a lot of images of weddings at a Virginia winery, but nothing about the Caroline playwright.

Shirley, James. The Wedding. 1633. In Six Caroline Plays. Ed. A.S. Knowland. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. 89-162.