James Shirley, Aphra Behn and the Performing of Women’s Parts

Assoc. Prof. Teresa Grant

The Caroline playwright James Shirley (1596-1666) enjoyed considerable success on the Restoration stage, with 18 of his plays being revived over the 15 years following Charles II’s return in 1660. Critics such as Valerie Traub, Julie Sanders and Kim Walker have written of the conflicting impulses which Shirley’s ‘interlude’ in The Bird in A Cage reveals: the Danae myth acted by imprisoned women played by boy actors from the Cockpit interrogates at once 1630s anti-theatricalism, Caroline performative culture, women actors and the behaviour of Queen Henrietta Maria. It also adumbrates the coming of the actress on the Restoration stage less than 30 years later.

This paper will take as its starting point critical discussions about The Bird in A Cage but then seek to widen them to think through Shirley’s other interludes such as the device of ‘The Contention for the Golden Ball’ in The Constant Maid (1640), an idea which Shirley reused with a comic frame in The Triumph of Beauty (1646). Kim Walker thinks The Bird in the Cage seeks to contain women’s agency and that Shirley puts various strategies to work ‘recuperating such deviancy for patriarchy’ and Katherine Heavey has argued of The Constant Maid that ‘Shirley deliberately subdues any real personality in Hornet’s objectified niece’ who plays Helen in the interlude. However, the popularity of Shirley (and especially of The Constant Maid) on the Restoration stage demands that we look more closely at these readings. What was it about these plays which appealed to a Restoration audience even (or perhaps especially) in radically-changed performance conditions? How did Shirley (or the company) update The Constant Maid when it was published with considerable additions in 1661 as Love Will Find Out the Way? What does Aphra Behn’s re-use of the adultery plot of The Lady of Pleasure in her The Lucky Chance (1686) tell us about, as Roy Booth puts it, ‘the leading female dramatist of the Restoration stage finding in Shirley an anticipation of the effects she needed’? The evidence of real Restoration interest in Shirley, especially from Aphra Behn, suggests that later seventeenth-century readers did not construe his plays as containment strategies for recuperating female deviancy from patriarchy but rather works that allowed women a freedom to perform and produce drama in just such a way as the Restoration stage had licensed. 

You can watch the recording of the plenary lecture here.

Teresa Grant is Associate Professor in Renaissance Theatre at the University of Warwick, UK. With primary research interests in early modern theatre (especially on the uses of animals on the stage), she also publishes more widely on Renaissance culture. She is general editor (with Eugene Giddens and Barbara Ravelhofer) of the 15 vol. The Oxford Complete Works of James Shirley, the first volume of which will be published in early 2021. Her current project 'The Printing and Publishing of Shirley 1629-1659' is funded by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship for 2020-21.

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