Skip to main content

Plot Summaries

Dr. Eva Griffith

Durham University Research Associate

on the OUP/AHRC Complete Works of James Shirley

All queries to:

30th June 2009

Dear Reader of these plot breakdowns

The present work should be regarded as a work-in-progress for reasons stated below. It should in no way be used at any time as a substitute for reading entire plays.

For most of this collection of plots from the plays of James Shirley I have used William Gifford’s early 19th century edition. If I give page references they are from this edition. As he divides acts into scenes I follow, putting what I believe to be non-existent scene-divisions in the original Shirley into square brackets (I have not referred to all originals but from what I know generally, I have done this).

In this version of the plotlines (i.e. in the files I have given here) I have cut down many of my personal responses; however I will not have cut all of them. Some of them represent ‘hooks’ for me to try and remember the plot, some are genuine critical responses.

At the beginning of this work, i.e. from Volume I of Gifford, I tried to formulate three kinds of summary. In the (eventual) 5 documents, these consist of:

1) a kind of ‘soundbite’ (a small piece of information/response – a ‘blurb’ on the back of a book)

2) a larger, but still pithy, narrative-style description

3) an act-by-act description of each play

The act-by-act description was naturally done first, and the other two were reductions. For each of the third type of summary, I have put the characters on stage in bold, so that the reader can see at a glance what character dynamics are taking place within each scene. Along with each play section is a ‘Dramatis Personae’ as given in Gifford, along with Alexander Dyce’s notes written after Gifford’s death as well as Gifford’s notes.

Today – while this work is in progress - you will probably find typos, spelling mistakes and infelicitous grammar typical of something which has been worked on quickly between other things; also some abbreviation (I hope these will be understood) and some curious Eva-isms (turns of phrase). Could I please ask those of you working more intently on the individual plays (and therefore more plot conscious of the individual work than I can be) that if you detect I have misunderstood a plot-point in the play or have failed to express it clearly enough (perhaps through an aberration of my mind; perhaps because the meaning in the text is ambiguous or unclear itself) please tell me informing me at the above email address. In this way I may improve these summaries and not confuse anybody else who chooses to read them for the edition.

It will become clear if you read all the plots here given (Gifford Vols I-III) that I eventually gave up with the second narrative type summary and then also gave up on the soundbite type. This was due to the demands of other things on the project. However, I intend to complete work on plays in Vols 4 and 5 (Vol.4 near completion) and then return to the reductions as I feel they serve a purpose. If you find the shorter narrative kind of most use, you may find consulting R. S. Forsythe's The Relations of Shirley's Plays to the Elizabeth Drama (New York: Columbia UP, 1914; repr. Benjamin Blom, 1965) of some value.

Please bear in mind that at the beginning of this work I was a near Shirley-virgin. What I had read in Nason’s book in terms of plot-lines was displeasing to me, in that it constantly drew unfavourable comparisons between Shirley and other playwrights (other playwrights winning), particularly Shakespeare as I remember it. What was needed was something a little more objective, I felt. Also something that would provide a nudge to the memory in terms of comparing Shirley play with Shirley play as I read them. I had also not read much Shirley criticism or works using Shirley’s plays as exemplars, comparative material etc. when I began and still prefer to remain this objectively responsive for the time-being. Reasoning that in the end comparisons - particularly in terms of similar themes and characters - may be interesting, I have included much of Gifford’s cross-referencing to other plays, particularly those of Massinger and Jonson, the which authors I believe Gifford also worked on. If any of you can also see similar themes, characters etc. that remind you of other play-texts/playwrights of the era, then please inform me if you so wish. Perhaps in the future we might supply the ability to ‘post up’ other scholars’ versions of Shirley plot-lines or thoughts about Shirley material in relation to other plays of the period.

I myself have a particular interest in the word ‘complement’ used in Shirley’s plays. I have detected that he uses this word (spelled in this way and in the other more familiar way) in almost all of his plays (if not all – and usually more than once) and am working towards a paper/article about the use of this word in Shirley. I think he may have included a use for this word that is not referred to in the OED. If, therefore, you come across a reference to this word in these files along with the page on which it occurs, it is because of this other project that I am proceeding with. I did attempt to cut them all out of this version of these files, but I may have missed one or two.

Finally, I have not included a plot breakdown of Changes Or Love In A Maze. This is because this is the play I am editing for the edition and may be easily added later ‘down the line’.

I do hope this collection, as it stands, may be of some use; however, without more time and some in-put in terms of improving the accuracy of what is happening in these plays, I would repeat the warning that nothing will replace reading them.

With all best wishes,

Eva Griffith.


Please click here to read the plot summaries