The Prunes of Islington

78hN9_HQTelevision shows like Made in Chelsea may entice modern viewers with a glimpse into the love and debauchery of London’s social elite, but had you been to the theatre in London  in the early seventeenth century you might well have enjoyed the similarly racy comedies of the dramatist, James Shirley.

James Shirley (1596-1666) is arguably the most significant dramatic writer of the late English Renaissance – yet the most recent edition of his plays appeared in 1888, and his complete works have never been edited. The James Shirley Project is producing a modernized-spelling edition of The Complete Works of James Shirley (Oxford University Press), as well as an authoritative original-spelling online text of his works.

Shirley is perhaps best known today for his poem ‘Death the Leveller,’ a lyric from his drama The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses (pb. 1659) which is reported to have ‘chilled the heart’ of Oliver Cromwell. But he was the author of over thirty tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies, too. Thinking about Shirley’s relation to his Elizabethan and Jacobean predecessors such as John Webster, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare, Charles Lamb spoke of him as ‘the last of a great race, all of whom spoke nearly the same language and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common.’

Modern performances of Shirley’s works are exceedingly rare. The Shirley project has funded the performance of a series of short scenes depicting moments of crisis in his plays. The following scene is from Act I ofThe Lady of Pleasure (1635), a smart, racy city comedy that might be called James Shirley’s answer to Sex and the City or Made in Chelsea. When the fifteen-year-old rich widow Celestina hits the high life in fashionable London, the whole town is aflutter. Celestina vies with other ladies, notably Aretina, for the finest salon and richest display of wealth. Celestina’s steward advises economic prudence but his admonitions fall on deaf ears.


Speakers: Sonia Ritter, Guy Henry
Director: Barbara Ravelhofer
Recording and editing: Dan Starza Smith and Alistair Brown
Recorded in London, 7 September 2012

Sponsored by the AHRC, and the Department of English, Durham University


Enter Celestina and her Steward.

Cel. Fie, what an air this room has.

St. Tis perfum’d.

Cel. With some cheap stuff is it your wisdom’s thrift
To infect my nostrils thus? Or i’st to favour
The Gout in your worships hand? You are afraid
To exercise your pen in your account Book?
Or do you doubt my credit to discharge
Your bills?

St.        Madam, I hope you have not found
My duty with the guilt of sloth or jealousy,
Unapt to your command.

Cel.                              You can extenuate
Your faults with language sir, but I expect
To be obeyed; What hangings have we here?St. They are Arras Madam.

Cel.                              Impudence I know’t,
I will have fresher and more rich, not wrought
With faces that may scandalise a Christian
With Jewish stories stuffed with Corn and Camels,
You had best wrap all my chambers in wild Irish,
And make a nursery of Monsters here,
To fright the Ladies comes to visit me.St. Madam I hope…
Cel.                  I say I will have other,
Good Master Steward, of a finer loom,
Some silk and silver if your worship please,
To let me be at so much cost I’ll have
Stories to fit the seasons of the year,
And change as often as I please.

St. You shall Madam.

Cel. I am bound to your consent forsooth, and is
My coach brought home?

St.                    This morning I expect it.

Cel. The inside as I gave direction,
Of crimson plush?

St.Of crimson Camel plush.

Cel. Ten thousand moths consum’t! Shall I ride through
The streets in penance wrapt up round in hair cloth,
Sell’d to an Alderman? ‘Twill serve his wife
To go a feasting to their country house,
Or fetch a Merchants Nurse child, and come home
Laden with fruit and Cheese-cakes; I despise it.

St. The nails adorn it Madam, set in method
And pretty forms.

Cel.                  But single guilt I warrant.

St. No Madam.

Cel.                  Another Solecism, oh fie,
This fellow will bring me to a Consumption
With fretting at his ignorance! Some Lady
Had rather never pray, than go to Church in’t;
The nails not double guilt? to market wo’t,
Twill hackney out to Mile-end, or convey
Your city tumblers to be drunk with Cream
And Prunes at Islington.

St. Good Madam hear me!

Cel.                  I’ll rather be beholding to my Aunt
The Countess for her mourning coach, then be
Disparag’d so! Shall any juggling tradesman
Be at charge to shoe his running horse with gold,
And shall my coach nails be but single guilt?
How dare these knaves abuse me so?

St.                                                        Vouchsafe
To hear me speake!

Cel.                              Is my Sedan yet finish’d?
And liveries for my men—Mules according
As I gave charge.

St.                    Yes Madam it is finish’d,
But without tilting plumes at the four corners.
The scarlet’s pure, but not embroidered.
Cel. What mischief were it to your conscience
Were my coach lin’d with tissue, and my harness
Cover’d with needlework, if my Sedan
Had all the story of the Prodigall,
Embrodered with pearle?

St.                                Alas good Madam,
I know ‘tis your own cost, I am but your Steward,
And would discharge my duty the best way,
You have been pleas’d to hear me. ‘Tis not for
My profit, that I manage your estate,
And save expense, but for your honour, Madam.

Cel. How sir, my honour?

St.                    Though you hear it not,
Men’s tongues are liberal in your character,
Since you began to live thus high, I know
Your fame is precious to you.

Cel.                                          I were best
Make you my governor; audacious Varlet,
How dare you interpose your doting counsel?
Mind your affaires with more obedience,
Or I shall ease you of an office sir!
Must I be limited to please your honour?
Or for the vulgar breath confine my pleasures?
I will pursue ’em in what shapes I fancy,
Here, and abroad, my entertainments shall
Be oftener, and more rich! Who shall control me?
I live i’th strand, whether few Ladies come
To live, and purchase, more than fame, I will
Be hospitable then, and spare no cost
That may engage all generous report
To trumpet forth my bounty and my bravery
Till the Court envy, and remove. I’ll have
My house the Academy of wits, who shall
Exalt with rich Sack, and Sturgeon,
Write Panegyrics of my feasts, and praise
The method of my witty superfluities.
The horses shall be taught with frequent waiting
Upon my gates, to stop in their career
Toward Charing Cross, spite of the Coachman’s fury.
And not a tilter, but shall strike his plume,
When he sails by my window! My Balcony
Shall be the Courtiers Idol, and more gaz’d at,
Than all the Pageantry at Temple Bar,
By country Clients.

St.                                Sure my Lady’s mad.

Cel. Take that for your ill manners. [Strikes him

St.                                Thank you Madam –
I would there were less quicksilver in your fingers. Exit.

The first phase of the project is being funded by the AHRC. It is conducted by Professor Barbara Ravelhofer at Durham University, Professor Eugene Giddens at Anglia Ruskin University, and Dr Teresa Grant at the University of Warwick. Project members are also producing a volume of critical essays on Shirley, articles, and papers. At Durham, research covers Shirley’s poems, entertainments, and last plays for the Oxford edition of his Complete Works.

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