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.
The poem I read in school was Death the Leveller by Shirley:
The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.
Some men with swords may reap the field,And plant fresh laurels where they kill:
But their strong nerves at last must yield;
They tame but one another still:
Early or late
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath
When they, pale captives, creep to death.
The garlands wither on your brow,
Then boast no more your mighty deeds!
Upon Death's purple altar now
See where the victor-victim bleeds.
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb:
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.
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.
James Shirley was born in London in September, 1596. He received a standard classical education at the Merchant Taylors’ School from 1608 to 1612, and he may have attended St. John’s College, Oxford. He matriculated at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, in 1615, received the bachelor of arts degree in 1617, and continued working for his master of arts at Cambridge. After receiving his M.A., he was ordained in the Anglican church, married Elizabeth Gilmet, with whom he had two daughters and a son, and took a curacy in Lincolnshire. He left this post to become headmaster of a grammar school in St. Albans, about which time he converted to Catholicism.
Among the fruits of Shirley’s work as a schoolmaster, which preceded and followed his career as a dramatist, are several grammar texts. His first published work was the 1618 narrative poem Eccho, and his 1646 Poems &c. by James Shirley includes both witty verse and poetry in the Ovidian tradition. Shirley is remembered, however, primarily as a prolific playwright who dominated the Caroline stage.
In 1625, Shirley came to London and took up lodging in Gray’s Inn. A favorite of Queen Henrietta Maria, he wrote during the next decade twenty-two of his thirty-one extant plays for Queen Henrietta’s Men, Christopher Beeton’s company at the Phoenix. When the theaters were closed in 1636 because of the plague, Shirley went to Ireland and stayed until 1640, writing plays and managing John Ogilby’s St. Werburgh Street playhouse in Dublin.
This self-exile may have cost him the poet laureateship, which became vacant when Ben Jonson died in 1637 and was awarded the following year to William Davenant. Shirley returned to England in 1640 and succeeded Philip Massinger as principal playwright of the King’s Men at Blackfriars. Only three of his plays for the company had been produced when the Puritans closed the theaters in 1642 and effectively ended his career as a dramatist.
During his seventeen-year career he wrote more than forty comedies, tragedies, tragicomedies, and masques, primarily for the privileged audiences of London’s private stages. Soon after the civil war began, Shirley fled with a patron, William Cavendish (later the duke of Newcastle), and fought against Oliver Cromwell for two years. When he came back to London about 1645, he resumed teaching, married for a second time (his first wife apparently having died), and continued to write occasional masques, grammar texts, and poetry. In the Great Fire of London, he and his wife, Frances, were severely burned and fled to St. Giles in the Fields, Middlesex, where they died on October 29, 1666.
Coming late in the golden age of Renaissance drama, Shirley was no innovator but wrote in the manner of his Elizabethan predecessors: the revenge tragedy of Thomas Kyd and John Webster, the city comedy of Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger, the humors comedy of Ben Jonson, and the tragicomedy of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. His tragedies reflect the decadence of the serious drama of the period. His comedies, on the other hand, not only recall the past but also look forward to Restoration comedies of manners by George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve.
Exploiting proven themes, devices, and character types of others while creating dramas uniquely his own, Shirley was largely responsible for the continued vitality of the Renaissance drama into the 1640’s. His antilicentiousness links him to the Elizabethans more closely than to the Restoration playwrights, for though his plays are not homiletic, he rewards virtue and encourages reformation. In his realistic and urbane comedies of manners, which are peopled by recognizable types, he usually dramatizes the contrasting values of town, country, and court.
The Cardinal is one of his memorable works, a revenge tragedy echoing Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (pr. 1614), Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1585-1589), John Ford’s The Broken Heart(pr. c. 1627-1631), and even William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601). Like these antecedents, it includes the murder of a rival, support for the murderer by a Machiavellian villain, madness (feigned or real) as a result of grief, a play-within-a-play, and revenge as an obsessive motive.
His other noteworthy plays are the comedies Hyde Park and The Lady of Pleasure. The former probably premiered to coincide with the seasonal opening of Hyde Park, a favorite London gathering place and sporting center which recently had become a public facility. The three plots have a common device: A woman is pursued by two rivals, within the triangle her position changes unexpectedly, and the suitor surprisingly is unsuccessful. With its Enoch Arden motif, termagant woman, verbal sparring, and conversion of a lecher, Hyde Park is a lively portrait of Cavalier London.
The Lady of Pleasure also is a highly entertaining, fast-paced comedy of manners about London’s upper classes and their pastimes. Shirley develops in it variations on the theme of honor, and the play may be a commentary upon a Platonic love cult in the Caroline court. Perhaps because of its satire, the play was not popular with contemporary audiences, but later playwrights adapted plot elements, characters, and even dialogue from it for their use. Most notable is Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s indebtedness in his 1777 The School for Scandal, whose Sir Peter and Lady Teazle are descendants of Shirley’s Sir Thomas Bornwell and his wife, Aretina; the conceit of the scandal school also owes something to Shirley.
Perhaps the most telling measure of his success as a dramatist is the fact that Shirley, unlike most of his Renaissance predecessors and contemporaries, had the satisfaction of seeing his works revived successfully in the 1660’s, though occasionally adapted and presented as if by current playwrights.
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.
His style was admired by Thomas May, John Ford, Philip Massinger, and the actors Garrick and Kemble. Adaptations from the late seventeenth to the nineteenth century attest to Shirley’s lasting popularity. He also inspired great musicians such as William Lawes and Matthew Locke. Shirley’s famous poem “The Glories of Our Blood and State” from his entertainment The Contest of Ajax and Ulysses is said to have seized Oliver Cromwell “with great terror”.
Caroline drama would be unthinkable without Shirley. Charles I personally suggested the plot for Shirley’s highly successful 1633 comedy The Gamester. Shirley wrote for a wide variety of venues, ranging from the Blackfriars Theatre to Banqueting House, Whitehall, and the first public playhouse in Dublin. He was fond of strong yet nuanced female characters. Critics still appreciate his elegant craftsmanship, his fast-paced, witty dialogues, and his detached portrayal of social manners.