James Shirley

Shirley has been called "the last of the Elizabethans" partly because he was actually the last of the dramatists of his age to be born (in 1596, in London) and the last to die (in 1666, from exposure to the Great Fire), but even more because his work bears an extremely close and interesting relationship to that of his fellows while at the same time, especially in comedy, it anticipates much of the material and characters of the Restoration, if not its spirit. After attending the Merchant Tailor's School, Oxford, and Cambridge as an Anglican, he was converted to Roman Catholicism and abandoned what might have been a career in the church for school-teaching at St. Albans Grammer School, in Hertfordshire. In 1624, however, he gave up his head-mastership, and took up his residence at Gray's Inn, London, although there is no evidence that he ever actually became a lawyer. But in the following year his first play, Love's Tricks, was licensed, and he continued to write voluminously for the stage, first for the Queen's Men and later for the King's. Not one of the least significant phases of his life was his four-year sojourn in Ireland, where the production of several of his plays in his friend John Obilby's new Dublin theater marks one of the earliest signs of dramatic activity in that country. During the first days of the Civil War Shirley attended his patron, the Duke of Newcastle, on some of the Royalist campaigns, but after the defeat at Marston Moor he returned to his former profession of school-teaching, the closing of the theaters in 1642 precluding his earning a living in the manner he would have preferred. Nevertheless, he continued to write for the reading public, and saw that his plays as well as his poems and some pot-boiling works were put into print. He also edited the first collected edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, and according to tradition essayed to write for the stage once more after the Restoration, but if so none of his attempts struck the popular taste sufficiently to be known today as his.

It was both an advantage and a handicap to Shirley to have had before him the examples of his great predecessors; in fact, the playwright was so steeped in his study of these men that scarcely one of his scenes but has its parallels which have gone before. At the same time, however, so great was Shirley's ingenuity and dramatic sense that out of this material he was able to construct plays of considerable effectiveness and even originality--plays which in general read with naturalness and ease even though they fall sadly short in the usual Elizabethan poetry. He can claim to have written successfully in four different fields: masques, such as the lavishly produced The Triumph of Peace (1634); comedies of manners, such as Hyde Park (1632) and The Lady of Pleasure (1635), all dealing with the lower levels of fashionable society in the time of Charles I; tragi-comedies, such as The Young Admiral (1633) and The Politician (1639); and pure tragedies, the best of which are clearly The Traitor (1631) and The Cardinal (1641), decadent as these are in their excessive ingenuity, their reminiscences of other plays, their horrors, and their use of the old motives of lust, madness, and revenge.

†This article was originally published in Elizabethan and Stuart Plays Ed. Charles Read Baskervill. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1934. p. 1577.

Shirley's Plays


Shirley's Plays

Related Sites

British Theatre

James Shirley: Poems

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