The Cardinal (play)

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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."[1] Bowers called Shirley's play a "coherent Kydian revenge tragedy, polished and simplified in his best manner."[2]

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 Rosaura.


The Cardinal begins with a conflict over an arranged marriage. The Cardinal has persuaded the King of Navarre to arrange a marriage between the duchess Rosaura and the nobleman Don Columbo, the Cardinal's nephew, who is away from court and serving in the war against Arragon. Rosaura writes to Columbo, demanding to be released from the contract; and Columbo, who thinks that Rosaura is merely hinting to have him return, replies with the desired response. Rosaura shows Columbo's letter to the King, and wins the King's permission to marry the man she wants, Count d'Alvarez. Columbo returns on their wedding night, and murders d'Alvarez; but through the Cardinal's influence and the prestige of his own victory over Arragon, Columbo escapes any consequence of his crime. Columbo vows that if she ever marries again he will kill her new husband just as he killed the old. Rosaura is judged to have gone mad, and becomes the ward of the Cardinal.

Rosaura obtains the aid of a colonel named Hernando, who has his own reasons for hating both Columbo and the Cardinal. Hernando kills Columbo in a duel. The Cardinal plans revenge: he intends to rape Rosaura, then poison her. As he makes the attempt, however, Hernando stabs him, but is fatally wounded in the process. The wounded Cardinal confesses his crimes to the King and his nobles; he claims to have poisoned Rosaura at dinner, and offers her what he says is the antidote. To prove his good faith, he samples the potion himself. Only after Rosaura has drunk is it revealed that the supposed antidote was in fact the poison; the Cardinal, thinking his wound is fatal, has determined to take Rosaura with him in death. The Cardinal is delighted with his revenge — then learns that the wound Hernando inflicted was not fatal. In poisoning Rosaura, he has also poisoned himself.

Shirley tells his story in "a succession of strong and brilliant scenes" that relate the plot "swiftly and vigorously."[3]


  1. ^ Nason, p. 347.
  2. ^ Quoted in Logan and Smith, p. 156.
  3. ^ 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.