Critical Evaluation

The career of James Shirley, a prolific playwright, began in 1625, when King Charles I ascended the throne, and ended in 1642, when the outbreak of civil war led to the closing of the theaters. The dominant dramatist of his era, Shirley wrote most of his approximately thirty plays for Christopher Beeton’s company, Queen Henrietta’s Men, at the Phoenix Theatre (also called the Cockpit), an indoor private playhouse, and when Philip Massinger died in 1640, Shirley became the principal playwright for the King’s Men. The closing of the theaters two years later ended his career as dramatist, but he had the rare satisfaction of seeing his works revived successfully in the 1660’s.

Shirley cannot be credited with landmark innovations or significant lasting influence, but he did produce a steady stream of popular plays in which he exploited the themes, devices, and character types of others while creating works uniquely his own, and he was in large measure responsible for the continued vitality of Renaissance drama into the 1640’s. Whereas his tragedies are derivative and suggest the decadence of the serious drama of the period, the comedies not only recall those of his excellent predecessors but also look forward to the comedies of the Restoration.

An antilicentiousness links Shirley to the Elizabethans more closely than to the Restoration playwrights. Whatever his genre—comedy, tragedy, or tragicomedy—virtue is rewarded, and although sexual wrongdoing is not condoned, reformation is accepted. His plays are not homiletic but are entertainments in the mainstream of earlier Elizabethan practice. Therefore, plot development and pacing are primary, sometimes to the detriment of characterization. In the comedies, this does not lessen the realism, for the characters are recognizable types, and the action is set in a realistically portrayed London. Shirley’s London is not the city of Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, or Thomas Middleton (merchants and apprentices are rare in Shirley’s comedies); it is closer to the Restoration London of George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve. Like those of these later playwrights, Shirley’s plays are urbane comedies of manners that dramatize the often contrasting values of town, country, and court through skillfully developed plots that intermingle different comic modes: intellectual, sentimental, and situational.

The Master of the Revels licensed Hyde Park on April 20, 1632, and it...

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