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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