Cupid’s Whirligig, by Edward Sharpham (1576-1608), is a city comedy set in London about a husband that suspects his wife of having affairs with other men and is consumed with irrational jealousy. It was first published in quarto in 1607, entered in the Stationer’s Register with the name "A Comedie called Cupids Whirlegigge." It was performed that year by the Children of the King’s Revels in the Whitefriars Theatre (a private theatre) where Ben Jonson’s Epicene was also said to have been performed.
It was again published in 1611, 1616 and 1630, each with an epistle to Robert Hayman before the play, however, the only other record of it being performed is an amateur performance by apprentices at Oxford on 26 December 1631. Its authorship was not known until 1812, when scholars connected it to Edward Sharpham’s other play, The Fleire, written on 13 May 1606.
About the Author
Edward Sharpham was baptised on 22 July 1576, the third son of Richard Sharpham of Colehanger, a manor in the parish of East Allington. His father having died when Sharpham was five his mother married Alexander Hext, with whom she had three children. Having been widowed a second time in 1588, she subsequently married Charles Barnaby of Clement's Inn.
In 1592 Sharpham's mother began a lawsuit against a Thomas Fortescue, alleging he had murdered her first husband by poison and also used witchcraft to make her fall in love with him. Four years later Sharpham himself also sued Fortescue and another man, William Bastard, on a charge of having tampered with evidence relating to his mother's suit.
Although Sharpham appears never to have had chambers there and was not called to the bar, he remained associated with the Middle Temple and its literary circle for the rest of his short life. He is believed to have been the 'E.S.' who in 1597 wrote The Discoverie of the Knights of the Poste, a pamphlet of the popular 'conycatching' genre detailing the tricks of conmen active on the road between London and Exeter. He may also be the 'E.S.' who contributed a commendatory poem to the publication of Ben Jonson's Volpone (1607), although Jonson later described Sharpham as a 'rogue'.
His first known play, The Fleire, was written for one of the popular boys' theatre companies, the Children of the Blackfriars. Composition date is some time between late 1605 and the play's appearance in the Stationers Register on 13 May 1606. Cynical in tone, The Fleire is a court-oriented satire similar to Marston's The Malcontent and The Fawne. The play's popularity, at least as text, is shown by its being reprinted three times.
Cupid's Whirligig was Sharpham's second and last play, produced early in 1607 and printed later the same year with a dedication to fellow Devonian and author Robert Hayman. Again, it satirises court life in a general way, though it has been speculated that the character Nucome, carefully described as 'Welsh', may actually be a veiled attack on the king's Scottish favourite Robert Carr. This play too was eventually reprinted three times.
On 22 April 1608, aged 31, Sharpham made his will. He died the next day and is buried in St. Margaret's, Westminster.
- Sir Timothy Troublesome - A jealous Knight
- The Lady Troublesome - The jealous Knight’s wife
- The Young Lord Nonsuch - a Begging Soldier, Slacke, a Swaggering Captain
- Old Lord Nonsuch
- Alderman Venter - A Merchant
- Master Correction - The Pedant
- Mistress Correction - The Midwife
- Peg - The Lady Troublesome’s Kinswoman
- Nan - Old Venters Daughter
- Nucome - The Welch Courtier
- Boy - Nucomes Page
- The four Scholars
- Master Exhibition - The Innes-a-court man
- Wages – a servant to Sir Troublesome
Acts 1 & 2
Sir Troublesome, overcome with jealousy, suspects that his wife is cheating on him, so he devises a plan to geld (castrate) himself and see if his wife gets pregnant. Distraught Lady Troublesome claims that she is innocent. Young Lord Nonsuch is in love with Lady Troublesome and sends her a love-letter saying that he will come visit her that evening; the Lady shows her husband the letter and together they hatch a plan to catch him and save her reputation. That night, Young Nonsuch arrives disguised as a servant; Sir Troublesome does not recognize him and bribes him to stand guard alone with his wife. A happy Nonsuch takes this opportunity to try and sleep with Lady Troublesome, but she rejects him and sends him away. Sir Troublesome recognizes his signet ring too late as he leaves, and he proceeds to call his wife a bunch of names before leaving to geld himself.
Acts 3 & 4
In the next act, Nonsuch is disguised as a begging soldier named Slacke and Sir Troublesome unknowingly hires his rival as his own servant. Slacke keeps attempting to seduce the Lady while at the same time whispering to his master to divorce her saying that she is pregnant with some other man’s child. Wages notices Slack’s devious plans and steps in to reconcile the Troublesomes by having Sir Troublesome eavesdrop on his wife as she exclaims how she wishes to be reconciled with her husband and that she is not pregnant. All is well, but then before supper, Captain Wouldlie visits Lady Troublesome and attempts to seduce her; her husband comes home to find them, and she pretends she’s protecting the Captain from a crazy man with a sword (Master Exhibition), which he believes.
Act Five starts with Slacke telling Sir Troublesome that it was a lie, Lady Troublesome is indeed sleeping with the Captain. He convinces Sir Troublesome to get a divorce, saying he should marry Peg instead. At this point in the play, Lady Troublesome loves Sir Troublesome who loves Peg who loves Nucome who loves Nan who loves Slacke who loves Lady Troublesome: Cupid’s Whirligig. Wages comes up with a plan to have 3 simultaneous weddings where everyone is masked, having the girls swap tokens to deceive their lovers and end up with the "right" partner. The play ends with Lady Troublesome and Sir Troublesome once again married, Peg and Nucome married, Nan and Slacke (Nonsuch) married, and Wages left on his own, unable to marry Mistress Correction (since she already has a husband).
The whole play is centered around whether Sir Troublesome is being cuckolded or not. The audience watches him struggle with finding the truth about this matter since he refuses to believe his wife. The question of how to know if you are being cheated on is one that is prevalent throughout the whole text. Sir Troublesome comes up with different schemes, all which fail, in attempts to prove that he is a cuckold. He is so obsessed with the idea that Lady Troublesome once states, "tis such a jealous fool, that if he catch but a Flea in her [my] bed, he will be searching to see if it bee a male or a female, for fear a comes to Cuckold him."
Alongside cuckoldry comes faithfulness. During discussions of what makes an ideal woman, faithfulness is a key factor; it is a proof the love they have for their husbands. At the end of the play, Nan's father, Alderman Venter, blesses her marriage to the Young Lord Nonsuch by saying that his blessing is to "make thee both fruitful, and a faithful wife." As mentioned in the section on allusions, Peg uses Penelope, Ulysses' wife, to prove how strong her love is for Nucome. Penelope was famous for her faithfulness, for being the good wife.
Sources & Allusions
This play’s plot is original, with no major source texts, though the way the Captain escapes is based on a trick from Boccaccio’s Decameron. The play shows signs of being hastily constructed, which is probably why it is lesser known than other Renaissance drama.
The characters in Cupid's Whirligig often allude to classical Roman Mythology. Along with Cupid, the god of desire, Venus, the goddess of love, is mentioned multiple times. Nan talks about her love in terms of these gods, saying, "Venus be my good speede, and Cupid send me good lucke, for my heart is very light." Peg also brings up another Roman allusion, her Ulysses, using his story to prove her character. She says. "I will prove as true unto his bed, as ere did she that did Ulysses wed," saying that she will be as faithful as Penelope, Ulysses' wife, who kept all of her suitors at bay during his loong absence. Biblical allusions are also present; at one instance, Sir Troublesome mutters, "the plague of Egypt upon you all," referring to the ten plagues God sent on Egypt in order for Pharaoh to let Moses take the Israelites away to the promised land.
- David Kathman, ‘Sharpham, Edward (bap. 1576, d. 1608)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- Cupids Whirligig, Act 4, Page 30
- Cupids Whirligig, Act 5, Page 42
- Cupids Whirligig, Act 3, Scene 1, Page 20
- Cupids Whirligig, Act 3, Scene 1, Page 21
- Cupids Whirligig, Act 2, Scene 1, Page 14
- Sharpham, Edward. Cupid’s Whirligig. Berkshire: The Golden cockerel press, 1926. Print
- Sharpham, Edward. Cupid’s Whirligig. Database of Early English Playbooks. Web. 30 Oct. 2012. http://deep.sas.upenn.edu/search.php
- Estill, Laura. "Whitefriars Theatre." The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. 2003. Web. 30 Oct. 2012. http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/WHIT17.htm?searchTerm=sharpham
- Harbage, Alfred. Annals of English Drama, 975 – 1700. London: Methuen, 1964. Print.
- Kathman, David. "Sharpham, Edward (bap. 1576, d. 1608)." David Kathman Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP. 30 Oct. 2012 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25239