James Shirley Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

James Shirley was born in London, probably on September 3, 1596, and baptized on September 7 in St. Mary Woolchurch. On October 4, 1608, he entered the Merchant Taylors’ School, which offered the standard classical curriculum, and studied there until 1612. His activities in the next three years are uncertain, though he may have gone to St. John’s College, Oxford, while also being apprenticed to a scrivener, Thomas Frith, in London. He was matriculated at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, in 1615, received the bachelor of arts degree in 1617, and was ordained. Between 1617 and 1625, he worked for his master of arts at Cambridge; married Elizabeth Gilmet; accepted a curacy in Lincolnshire; published his first work, a narrative poem, Eccho: Or, The Infortunate Lovers (1618), which is believed to be the same poem as Narcissus: Or, The Self-Lover; had two daughters and a son; vacated his living to become headmaster of a St. Albans grammar school; and may have converted to Catholicism.

In 1624, Shirley went to London to become a playwright, and his play The School of Compliment was “The first fruits of a muse that before this/ Never saluted audience. . . .” A satiric comedy with a pastoral element that recalls Shakespeare’s As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600), it was revived in the Restoration to Samuel Pepys’s delight. During the next decade, Shirley averaged two plays per year, mainly produced for the Phoenix,...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 941 words.)