Staged readings of James Shirley’s The Politician

Event Date: 
04 Apr 2019

Times and places of the readings

These readings will take place at The Attenborough Centre, the University of Sussex, on Wednesday 13th March 2019 at 5pm, and Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, on Thursday 4th April 2019. They will be performed by students of the University of Sussex and University College Dublin.


The text will be the edition prepared by Andrew Hadfield and Duncan Fraser for the forthcoming Complete Works of James Shirley (Oxford University Press) under the general editorship of Eugene Giddens, Teresa Grant, and Barbara Ravelhofer. 


Plot resumé

The Politician tells the story of Gotharus, a sly and ambitious Norwegian politician who tries to manipulate the weak (un-named) king into making Haraldus, the son of his mistress, the formidable Marpisa, heir to the throne, by marrying her to the gullible ruler (Gotharus mistakenly believes that Haraldus is his son). He persuades the king to send his only son, the popular prince Turgesius, and his disaffected, honest old uncle, Olaus, on a dangerous military expedition from which they are not expected to return. The plan fails miserably: Turgesius wins a notable victory and returns to Norway more popular than ever. Gotharus therefore tries to set father against son by forging letters which suggest the prince is plotting a palace coup to overthrow his father; he also arranges to have the prince assassinated. 


Haraldus is an inept conspirator, so Gotharus gets him drunk, which, unfortunately, makes Haraldus seriously ill, his misery enhanced because he is convinced that Gotharus is his father. Marpisa denies this, but nonetheless she has to admit that she is Gotharus’s mistress, at which the distraught boy sadly expires. 


Gotharus’s plan to assassinate Turgesius leaks out, and the people are furious to learn that their champion is under threat from within the court. Marpisa, blaming Gotharus for her son’s death turns against him and, with the furious army and the people at the gates, Gotharus in desperation hides in a coffin which he has had prepared for Turgesius. The people carry it off for burial, believing it to contain the body of the prince. They encounter the still living prince and, breaking it open, they discover the dead Gotharus. 


Marpisa reveals that she poisoned her ex-lover with a cordial, which she then takes herself. The king, realising how wrong he has been about everything, offers to abdicate and let Turgesius rule, but he is persuaded not to by his son, who explains the need for an ordered monarchy and succession. Turgesius reveals that he is planning to marry Albina, the virtuous widow of Gotharus, demonstrating that, at last, order has returned to Norway.


Composition and performance

The Politician is probably the fifth of the six plays Shirley staged during his time as resident dramatist for the Werburgh Street Theatre in Dublin. The Royal Master and The Constant Maid were probably written in London. These were followed by plays almost certainly written in Ireland: two comedies, The Doubtful Heir (Rosania, or, Love's Victory) and The Gentleman of Venice, the darker The Politician, and finally Shirley’s last Irish play St. Patrick for Ireland. 


There is no documentary evidence for The Politician’s date of composition or first performance, but as Henry Burnell’s play Landgartha (known to have been performed at Werburgh Street in March 1640) was heavily influenced by The Politician, Shirley’s play probably just pre-dated Burnell’s.  


Since the 1650s there have been, to our knowledge, only two public performances of The Politician: staged readings at Shakesperare’s Globe (1999) and the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford (2015), but no dramatic productions.


Shirley in Dublin

Shirley, who, at age forty, was the coming man of the Caroline stage, went to Ireland in 1636. He had been persuaded by his friend and collaborator, John Ogilby (1600-1676), the theatre impresario, and dancing master, who had been tasked with establishing a theatre in Werburgh Street, Dublin, by Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, the Lord Deputy of Ireland. Wentworth was very keen on drama and seems to have thought that a good theatrical tradition would help him establish his rule in Ireland and would cement the often uneasy alliance of New English officials and Old English Dubliners. The theatres in England were closed because of another bout of the plague, so a chance to find gainful employment for the next few years would surely have appealed to Shirley.


The Werburgh Street Theatre was right in the heart of seventeenth-century Dublin, next to the castle and Christ Church Cathedral. Shirley was thus writing work to be produced next to the centres of power in English Ireland. Whether Shirley was part of an inner circle and was privy to government policy, or was really a hired writer is hard to determine. His first Irish play, The Royal Master, was dedicated to the earl of Strafford, but we do not know how close he was to the Lord Deputy – certainly he was far too humble to feature in the earl’s social circle – or whether he was simply a writer for hire. Whatever the case, he managed to serve both the royalist and parliamentary regimes and seems not to have been damaged by Wentworth’s fall from grace and execution on 12 May 1641. It is also quite possible that the version of The Politician we have, which can be read as a reflection on the disastrous policies of The Lord Deputy of Ireland, was originally much less critical of monarchic power and that Shirley, an obsessive reviser of his plays, adapted the performance text to take a stricter line after the outcome of the civil war became clear. He would have had every reason to take this course if, whilst in Ireland, he had carried out what was surely Strafford’s theatrical vision, a celebration of the established hierarchy.  


Themes and interpretations

In The Politician the audience sees a court spiralling out of control as a result of self-serving machinations and ambition – a situation that could be mapped onto events in the British Isles in the late 1630s. We observe a weak-minded but autocratically inclined king who cedes political power to his chief adviser, rather as Charles I relied on Strafford in Ireland. We witness a nation lapse into civil war through the weakness and lack of foresight of a feeble monarch and the cunning plotting of a ruthless, over-mighty courtier, who must surely, one way or another, have reminded playgoers of Strafford. 


From another perspective, the play can be seen to reflect on sexual morality, rule and power. The sexual licence of the king makes an explicitly political point, and it does so partly by making a distinction between mere debauchery and uncontrolled sexual passion. Blinded by his idolatrous obsession, the king loses his moral and religious bearings, and with the loss of his internal moral compass goes the capacity to act rationally and rule effectively. 


Shirley’s legacy

An ambitious and self-confident writer, Shirley saw himself as the heir to the great Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and his knowledge of and immersion in that earlier drama led to his own plays being resonant with allusions to their works. However, it must be acknowledged that Shirley’s current reputation is not strong: The Politician has provoked little academic interest since it was written, and the same is true of its theatrical history.  This is a pity, as the play rewards careful reading and it can be effective and engaging theatre: it is well-crafted, the characterisation is complex, and the writing that conveys that characterisation is often extremely subtle, delicately exploring the complicated ambiguities of apparently familiar words.