libshellish (formerly known as eshell) is a C++ library for adding basic shell-style input support to applications. While it does not add the complete power of a Unix shell to applications, it does provide a simple, client-extendable framework for adding console-style interactivity to software. It takes over the tasks of user input collection and dispatches the input to a set of client-defined "command handlers". Amongst other things, this is often useful when writing test applications for libraries which have no native GUI.

libshellish has evolved to be fairly useful since its original creation in 2001 and it is often used (by me) in the creation of test programs for C++ libraries.

Screenshots are available here (22k) and a much older screenshot (20k).

Its main features are:
  • Provides an interface for getting input from the keyboard. If libreadline_cpp is linked in and supports GNU Readline or BSD editline then full command editing and\ command history are supported, otherwise it uses plain old std::cin.
  • Allows clients to plug in their own commands by mapping single-token strings (i.e., command names) to so-called command handler functions.
  • The "command handler" interface is modelled off of traditional C-style argc/argv usage and common shell conventions, so it is easy to understand. It is, of course, much more flexible and simpler to use than the traditional argc/argv!
  • Comes with a number of built-in shell-like commands (cd, pwd, sleep, which, alias, set/unset, etc.). Client-written extensions may be distributed as DLLs, extending the "generic" shellish client application, or as standalone shell-like apps.
  • Supports command aliasing, either coded in client code or typed in at the console.
  • Provides support for doing environment-variable expansion on arbitrary strings. e.g. "echo $HOME".
  • Provides app-wide access to command-line arguments passed in to main().
  • If the optional libs11n support is activated, it provides full history/alias/environment persistance via session files.
  • Easy to work with and to integrate into new projects.
  • Provides a plugin framework which can load arbitrary DLLs. This is primarily used to add new commands to the shell at runtime.


  • The C++ STL is required.
  • libreadline_cpp is highly recommended but not required. If it is not available then shellish uses stdin for all user input, which means that no interactive command-line editing is possible, nor will the command history be available.
  • libs11n 1.2+ is optionally used for session support. It is not required, however.
Development Status: let's call it "stable beta". The current architecture has been in use since early 2004, and has steadily undergone improvements along the way. The project itself was started in 2001, and it has evolved considerably since then through three complete rewrites.

License: it is released into the Public Domain. It is designed to be linked to libreadline_cpp (see below), if the configure script can find it. If it is linked against a fully-functional readline_cpp then it links against GNU Readline and the resulting binary then necessarily falls under the GNU GPL.

What is readline_cpp?
This is an optional - but highly recommended - supplemental library which shellish supports if its configure script finds it. It is available from its own page. readline_cpp offers a front-end for collecting input from the console, and it supports GNU readline if it is available. Linking against GNU readline necessarily causes the resulting binaries to be released under the GNU General Public License (GPL), and using that support will change the license under which your copies of shellish and readline_cpp are maintained.


Filename Size (bytes) Date (Y.M.D)
libshellish-2007.05.29.tar.bz2 138028 2009.07.27

While the source tarball is quite large, half of it is the build-related files.

So how do i use shellish?

You can start by Reading The Fine Manual. :) That manual is quite out of date, from when this software was called "eshell". The overview it gives is still accurate, however. It may just be simpler to look at the two sample applications in the source tree, src/shellish/client.cpp and src/shellish/test.cpp.

Known bugs and shortcomings

  • Wildcard expansion support was removed at some point because its implementation (using GNU's wordexp() function) was too problematic. While this isn't a big problem for some applications, it does limit feature possibilities for other apps.
  • The home/tilde expansion (e.g. ~user == /home/user) appears to be broken.
  • Its parsing framework is pretty primitive and does not allow the full expressive capabilities of "real shells". For example, we cannot do the following in shellish:
    $> mycommand || another_command
    Adding such features is beyond the scope of libshellish.