William Cartwright



The Plays and Poems of William Cartwright, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (1951)

Works (1651)

Comedies Tragi-Comedies, With other Poems, by Mr William Cartwright (London, 1651)


Dramatic Workss

William Cartwright, of Christ Church, Oxford, was one of the best known Oxford poets and dramatists of his time. His greatest triumph was the tragi-comedy The Royal Slave, which was produced at Christ Church, with sets and costumes by Inigo Jones and music by Henry Lawes, before Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria on 30 August 1636. It so impressed the royal audience that a second performance was commanded at Hampton Court on 12 January 1636/7. Although published in Oxford in 1639 and again in 1640, the play was sufficiently in demand for it to circulate quickly and widely in manuscript copies, of which twelve are currently recorded (CaW 80-91), besides a number of copies in manuscript miscellanies of the various prologues and epilogues to these performances and of individual songs in the play, with or without Lawes's settings.

While three other plays by Cartwright, The Lady-Errant, The Ordinary, and The Siege were probably (though not certainly) performed in the mid-1630s, they were evidently not so successful and none was printed until 1651. Even then, the existence of marked-up prompt-books for the first two of these plays (CaW 75 and CaW 77) bears witness to revivals by the Duke's Company in the 1670s.


Cavendish's considerable corpus of verse, which included a variety of occasional poems, royal or personal panegyrics, religious and commendatory poems, was not established until the posthumous publication, by Humphrey Moseley, of Cartwright's Comedies Tragi-Comedies, With other Poems (London, 1651), a publication which is marked not least by the extraordinary number of prefatory commendatory poems, which serve not only to honour Cartwright but to define the community of like-minded royalist poets and composers flourishing in London in the Interregnum. It is clear, however, that many of Cartwight's poems printed here had circulated much earlier in manuscripts, in Oxford and other circles, and they are represented in a number of extant manuscript miscellanies and commonplace books. Moseley himself, in his preface ‘To the Reader’, declared ‘we found not these Sheets among his Books: so strangely scatter'd were these excellent Peeces that till now they never met all together’, and he claimed that nothing had been kept back from the edition except ‘one short Paper of Verses’ that ‘hath been twice already Printed’. As Evans notes (p. 833), it is difficult to verify to what extent Moseley had access to Cartwright's own manuscripts – none of which is known to survive today – but ‘the generally excellent quality of Moseley's text seems to favour his assertion’.

The Canon

A few additional poems, subsequently attributed to Cartwright, have been added to Moseley's canon by Evans under the category ‘Poems of Doubtful Authorship’ (CaW 63-74). One brief Latin poem tentatively added to this group (CaW 66) would seem to be written by a ‘William/Gulielmus Cavendish’, but the apparent absence of any surviving example of the poet's handwriting, except for his signatures in Oxford Caution and Subscription Books (CaW 132-134), allows for no comparison to identify the writing, and the manuscript would appear to derive from the Cartwright family of Aynho, Northamptonshire, rather than from the poet's family in Gloucestershire. Yet more obvious discrepancies rule out a commonplace book of ‘William Cartwright’ now owned by Smith College (MS 91), which dates from at least eight years after his death.

Peter Beal