Shirley, James (1596–1666), playwright, was baptised 7 September 1596 at St Mary Woolchurch, London, eldest child of James Shirley, draper, and his wife Catherine. From October 1608 he attended Merchant Taylors’ School before leaving in about the summer of 1612 to work for the scrivener William Frith. He may have studied at St John's College, Oxford, during 1614–15. In Easter 1615 he matriculated at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA (4 April 1617). He moved to St Albans, where he married (1 June 1618) Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Gilmet, mayor of St Albans, through whose means Shirley secured a reversion to the mastership of the free school there on 2 November 1618. On 19 September 1619 he was ordained a priest in the Church of England, receiving a clerical living at Wheathampstead near St Albans soon after. Presumably he surrendered this post on becoming master of the free school in January 1621. He was still a clergyman in November 1623, but probably left the priesthood in 1624.
According to his first biographer, Anthony à Wood, he converted to catholicism about the time he became a schoolmaster. This claim cannot be dismissed out of hand as Wood spoke with one of Shirley's sons when preparing his account, but it is contradicted by all the available primary evidence: Shirley continued as a Church of England cleric until at least November 1623; all his children were baptised within the Church of England, the last baptism occurring in 1641; he subscribed to the act of uniformity in 1662, whereby he acknowledged the anglican rite; and he was buried in a Church of England graveyard. At the very least, he appears to have conformed to the established church for much of his life and certainly cannot be called a conscientious catholic as Wood avers.
About the summer of 1624 he resigned his mastership of the school and moved to London, where he lived in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate, in order to pursue a career as a playwright. His literary talents had long been evident and he had written poetry intermittently since 1616. In London he became part of a circle of poets and playwrights, centred on Gray's Inn, that included John Ford, Phillip Massinger, and Richard Brome. From 1626 to 1636 he wrote for an acting company, formed by the theatre manager Christopher Beeston, that performed at the Cockpit theatre in Drury Lane and enjoyed the patronage of the new queen Henrietta Maria. The Cockpit was a private theatre, which attracted a sophisticated audience composed mainly of the aristocracy and gentry. Shirley catered to these discerning theatre-goers by providing them with realistic plots and witty dialogue while eschewing bawdiness, buffoonery, and sensationalist violence; his comedies tended to be amiably rather than bitingly satirical.
His first play, entitled ‘Love's tricks’, was licensed in February 1625 and he was to write prolifically up to 1642. He wrote about forty plays in total, of which only three have not survived. His versatility is reflected in the manner in which these works include tragedies, tragi-comedies, comedies of manners, and romantic comedies set variously in Spain, renaissance Italy, and London. He was most renowned for his comedies, although he considered his 1641 tragedy ‘The cardinal’ to be his best work. As well as introducing masques into many of his plays, he also wrote three stand-alone masques. The most spectacular of these was his ‘Triumph of Peace’, performed in 1634, which gained him the approbation of the king. In 1646 he published a collection of his non-dramatic poetry, which owes much to the style of Ben Jonson.
Shirley is seen as the last in the line of great English playwrights who flourished in London during the early seventeenth century, but he is often seen as least as well as last in that pantheon, due to his unoriginality, rigid adherence to established dramatic conventions, excessive moralising, and reliance on stock characters. Certainly he borrowed liberally from the works of Ford, Fletcher, Shakespeare, and Massinger, as well as from more obscure Spanish playwrights, but what his plays lacked in terms of novelty they gained from Shirley's dexterous manipulation of the dramatic bequest provided by his illustrious predecessors and contemporaries. His strengths lay in complex and logical plots, clearly conceived characters, and the brilliance of his poetry and use of language. Moreover, he was ahead of his time in the manner in which he based his plays around one crucial scene. Overall, he is regarded as an accomplished but somewhat lightweight playwright.
In many of his plays he praised aristocratic values and idealised kingship while lampooning materialistic social climbers. This helped him to gain the patronage of wealthy nobles and (in 1633–4) the favour of the royal couple. His ‘Gamester’ (1633) was based on a plot provided by the king, who thought it the best play he had seen in many years. In 1633 he was described as being a member of the queen's household, and was admitted as such to Gray's Inn in January 1634. Then (3 February 1634) his masque ‘The triumph of Peace’ was performed before the king. The most expensive masque yet enacted, it was the greatest success of Shirley's career, and the king ordered it to be performed again a few days later. That said, ‘The triumph of Peace’ is not well regarded by modern critics, and Shirley's literary writing style was not suited to this art form.
After the high point of 1634 he seems to have been surpassed in the queen's favour by rival playwrights Thomas Davenant and Thomas Killigrew, both of whom were more skilled courtiers and better at producing the extravagant and elaborate masques demanded by Henrietta Maria. The outbreak of the plague forced the closure of the London theatres for seventeen months in May 1636, causing the breakup of Henrietta Maria's company at the Cockpit and leaving Shirley out of work. That November he accepted an invitation from the lord deputy of Ireland, Sir Thomas Wentworth (qv), to accompany him back to Dublin, where he was to serve as playwright for a recently established theatre – the first of its kind in Ireland.
Even allowing for the closure of the London theatres, this seems a strange decision: he was relegating himself to a cultural backwater, and his previous patron, the queen, was known to be hostile to Wentworth. Clearly Shirley had concluded that his association with the queen had taken him as far as it could go. Moreover Wentworth was seen as a rising star and was widely tipped for promotion to a key office of state in London. Presumably, Shirley hoped that after a relatively brief but financially rewarding exile in Dublin he could return to the London stage bolstered by the patronage of the king's chief minister. In order to maintain his profile during his absence, he returned briefly to London in spring 1637 to arrange for the publication of thirteen of his plays there during 1637–40.
During his time in Ireland he definitely wrote ‘Rosiana’, ‘The royal master’, and ‘St Patrick for Ireland’, and also probably wrote ‘The constant maid’, ‘The gentleman of Venice’, ‘The opportunity’, and ‘The politician’. These plays and many of Shirley's older plays all became part of the Dublin theatre's repertoire. His first original play performed in Dublin in late 1637, ‘The royal master’, was a success. Largely a rehash of his earlier work ‘The coronation’, it was a typical Shirley play, relating a tale of political and sexual intrigue, containing a conservative political message based around the need for order and unity, and pitched at an aristocratic audience. So too was ‘The doubtful heir’, which contained a sub-plot involving a financial dispute between soldiers and merchants, in which the latter are ridiculed and are only redeemed when they enlist to join the army. This piece of social commentary reflects the high proportion of military officials attending the Dublin theatre as well as the greater importance of the army to the royal establishment in Ireland.
Interestingly, one character in ‘The royal master’ comments sardonically on the popularity of masques, which he held to be vulgar and gaudy. Further, in a prologue to one of his plays written in 1639, Shirley mentioned that he had lost favour at the royal court because he was unwilling to flatter. Such sentiments seem inappropriate coming from the author of the overblown masque ‘The triumph of Peace’ and from a man who assiduously courted wealthy patrons throughout his career. In part, he was putting a retrospective gloss on his failure to maintain the queen's patronage. Also, his very disavowal of flattery was itself a subtle attempt to ingratiate himself further with his new patron. Although a devoted supporter of the king, Wentworth was uncomfortable with the sycophancy and ostentation associated with the royal court. By decrying the superficiality of court life, Shirley was reassuring Wentworth of his commitment to him and to the Dublin theatre.
However, by the close of 1638 he was becoming increasingly exasperated by the poor turn-out at the Dublin theatre. In prologues to various plays, he rebukes the locals for spurning the theatre for pageants and other vulgar popular entertainments. Outside Wentworth's circle, there does not seem to have been much demand in Ireland for Shirley's highbrow offerings, which made few concessions to local tastes. He clumsily tried to remedy this in ‘St Patrick for Ireland’ (1639), which blends elements of a formal play with a processional miracle pageant. This play represented one of the greatest challenges of Shirley's career, being wholly unlike anything else in his oeuvre. He appears to have researched the life of St Patrick (qv), and some of the scenes are based on historic traditions surrounding him. The saint is portrayed as a British protestant missionary, and the paganism of the Irish bears a close resemblance to the protestant caricature of catholicism. In a nod to Wentworth's ecclesiastical policy, St Patrick's protestantism is of a specifically anglican stripe, while the lord deputy's colonial agenda is served by the depiction of the Irish soldiers as murderers and rapists.
This play must be accounted one of Shirley's worst and painfully demonstrates his limitations as a playwright, as his recycling of plots and stock characters drains the production of its apparent novelty. In a genuine departure, the play is liberally interspersed with elaborate dances and songs and with spectacular stage effects, including a scene where St Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, presumably with the aid of a trapdoor. However, the sophisticated metropolitan within Shirley cannot resist poking fun at this gimmickry, thereby subverting the populist thrust of the play. As a result of his attempt to have it both ways, the plot is uncharacteristically confused and somewhat bizarre, veering wildly between comedy, tragedy, and farce. The incongruously dignified figure of St Patrick, who appears rarely, adds another jarring note. In the prologue Shirley wrote regretfully that during his time in Dublin he had come to realise that the Irish audiences’ theatrical preferences were not his own, and that he hoped they would enjoy his attempt to accommodate them. This statement lays bare his conflicted approach to this play and his disillusionment with Dublin. A planned second part to the play never materialised. However, it remains of interest as the first play to deal principally with Irish themes.
In April 1640 he left Ireland for good to take up the position of leading playwright to the company of King's Men at the Blackfriars theatre. He enjoyed an Indian summer as playwright for the most prestigious company and venue in London until the theatres were closed in September 1642 by parliament. With civil war in England beginning, he headed north to serve under the royalist general (and his patron) William Cavendish, earl of Newcastle. Following the royalist army's defeat at Marston Moor in July 1644 and Newcastle's subsequent flight from England, Shirley returned to London, where he lived in the parish of St Giles-in-the-field. In July 1646 he was convicted of recusancy; however, it is likely that he boycotted the established church services, which at that time would been presbyterian in content, because of his anglicanism, not because he was a catholic. That year, he published a collection of non-dramatic poetry in which he reiterated his devotion to the royalist cause despite parliament's triumph in the English civil war.
After a period of poverty, he found employment as a teacher at Whitefriars, wrote and published two Latin grammar books, and wrote a number of masques to be performed by his pupils. One of these, ‘Cupid and Death’, was performed before the Portuguese ambassador in March 1653. During the late 1640s and 1650s he also arranged the publication of his previously unpublished plays and masques. In the mid 1650s, his first wife having died, he married a widow, Francis Blackburne. Despite the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he did not attempt to resurrect his career as a playwright, but his plays were regularly performed by the reestablished theatre companies. He seems to have been relatively well off by the time of his death. Forced to flee his house by the great fire of London in September 1666, he took refuge in St Giles, Middlesex, where he died two months later. He was buried with his wife (who apparently died on the same day as he did) in the church at St Giles on 29 October 1666 and was survived by three sons and two daughters from his first marriage.