James Shirley 1596-1666
English dramatist and poet.
Shirley was the leading dramatist of the Caroline era, making his theatrical debut the same year that James I died and passed the throne to his son Charles. He wrote prolifically, producing comedies of wit and romantic tragedies with equal success. Especially in such comedies as Hyde Park (1632) and The Lady of Pleasure (1635), Shirley captured the essence of Caroline London and its social elite. Though some critics have found Shirley's work less original or intellectual than that of his great Elizabethan and Jacobean predecessors, his plays resonate with the turbulent times in which he wrote, addressing themes of social class, gender, marriage, tyranny, and liberty.
Shirley styled himself a gentleman, but the facts of his ancestral line remain obscure. Biographer Anthony Wood describes him as a descendent of a prominent family, and one of his students recalls him wearing a coat of arms, but no other details are available about his background. Shirley the playwright is assumed to be the James Shirley baptized September 7, 1596, in London, the son of James Shirley. As a youth he studied at the notable Merchant Taylor's school before either entering St. John's College, Oxford, or starting an apprenticeship as a scrivener in 1612. Here, too, the records are unclear, but Wood's account claims that while Shirley was at Oxford the master of the college, William Laud, discouraged him from preparing for the ministry because of a mole on his cheek. (Laud would later become the infamous Archbishop Laud, who is sometimes considered the basis of the title character in Shirley's The Cardinal.) If he did attend Oxford, he did not graduate, nor do records exist of his attendance. He did enroll in St. Catherine's College, Cambridge, where from 1615 to 1617 he pursued and earned his bachelor's degree. Shirley was ordained an Anglican priest in 1617 and may have pursued a master's degree for the next few years.
In 1618 Shirley married Elizabeth Gilmet and took a living in Wheathampstead, Lincolnshire; in 1619 the couple had a child. (Scholars further disagree on whether the first child was a son or daughter; in all, Shirley seems to have had three daughters, Marie, Grace, and Mary, and two sons, Mathias and Thomas.) In 1620 or 1621 Shirley changed careers, leaving his parsonage and taking a position as a teacher at a grammar school in nearby St. Albans. According to some biographers, the change was occasioned by Shirley's conversion to Catholicism, although others suggest that Shirley did not convert until after he had been at St. Albans for some time. (Even the fact of Shirley's conversion is not clearly documented, but is assumed by a majority of scholars.) After five years of teaching, Shirley again took an abrupt turn, moving his family to London and beginning to work as a playwright. His first play, the comedy Love Tricks, debuted in 1625, the same year that Charles I married his French Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria. Love Tricks was a success and Shirley became a dramatist for the Queen's Men at the Cockpit and Phoenix theaters. He followed his first comedic success with an attempt at tragedy, The Maid's Revenge (1626), which was equally well received and remained in the theater's repertory for more than a decade.
At some point between 1625 and 1627 Shirley established a residence at Gray's Inn, where he connected with a circle of writers including John Ford, Thomas May, William Habington, Phillip Massinger, and others. The friends wrote commendatory verses for the publication of each other's works and likely provided advice and help with courtier patrons—a requirement for a professional playwright. Shirley wrote occasional verses for the nobility and dedicated his plays to important figures at court in his search for patronage; his industriousness in doing so has led some scholars to see him as excessively eager for social advancement. And he did advance: in the 1630s he wrote several of his most successful comedies, including Hyde Park and The Lady of Pleasure, and in 1632 he accepted a post in the household of Queen Henrietta Maria, a significant mark of his preferment. Shirley's unique position in the royal household and the Inns of Court gave him an opportunity to write the libretto for one of the most opulent masques presented at court, The Triumph of Peace (1634). At this same time, however, Shirley's greatest rival for the status of court dramatist returned to London. William Davenant excelled at the art of winning the patronage of important court insiders and was more than willing to write to the tastes and whims of the court. For his part, Shirley became increasingly pointed in his satire of courtly excess in such works as The Ball (1632) and The Bird in a Cage (1632-33). By the time Shirley left London because of an outbreak of the plague, Davenant had succeeded him as a royal favorite.
Shirley went to Dublin in 1636, where he wrote for John Ogilby's theater. Among the plays he wrote during his four years in Dublin are the “Irish” plays St. Patrick for Ireland (1637-40) and The Doubtful Heir (1638), and the comedies The Gentleman of Venice (1639) and The Constant Maid (1637-40). Shirley received the final proof of his loss of preferment when Davenant was chosen to succeed Ben Jonson for the office of poet laureate in 1638. If this was a mark of a decline in his status at court, it was no reflection on Shirley's popularity as a playwright: verses of the time suggest that Shirley was generally considered more worthy of the title. Upon returning to London in 1640, Shirley became the chief playwright for the King's Men at Blackfriars, succeeding his former Gray's Inn compatriot, Massinger. The post was short-lived, owing to the closure of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642, but Shirley wrote one of his best tragedies for the company—The Cardinal (1641).
From 1642 to 1644 Shirley served the royalist cause fighting under the Earl of Newcastle. When Newcastle fled for the continent, Shirley returned to London. In 1646 Shirley resumed his teaching career at Whitefriars, where he was generally admired as an instructor. He published occasional poems and three grammar texts in addition to publishing his dramatic works, including the new works Cupid and Death (1653), a masque, and The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses for the Armor of Achilles (1658). Shirley's plays were among the first to be performed at the reopening of the theaters in 1660 (often altered to suit the tastes of the new age), but Shirley never wrote for the stage again. He continued teaching at Whitefriars until October 1666, when he and his second wife, Francis, were driven from their home by the Great Fire of London. Both died from exhaustion in the aftermath of the fire and were buried at Shirley's longtime parish church, St. Giles in the Fields.
Major Dramatic Works
Shirley was a terrifically prolific author who provided the Caroline theaters with a steady supply of reliable performance pieces. In the centuries since his death, however, his plays have been regarded as almost too well suited to his times, without strong interest for later audiences, readers, and scholars. Important exceptions are two of his city comedies, Hyde Park and The Lady of Pleasure, and his tragedy The Cardinal. Hyde Park is a complicated comedy tying together three separate love plots. The lovers Carol and Fairfield entertain with witty sparring that points toward the “gay couple” of early Restoration comedy. Other plots involve a widow on the last day of her mourning period and the surprise return of her husband, and a young woman whose fiancé plots to test the strength of her chastity by getting a notorious rake to seduce her.
For its intimate knowledge of the London elite at play, Hyde Park represents Shirley's own style of realism: an idealized version of a world that would be instantly recognizable to his aristocratic audiences, populated by characters who exhibit a high command of courtly manners and a few charming vices. A few years later, in The Lady of Pleasure, Shirley created a similar world, but with less emphasis on setting and more attention to manners and mores. Shirley is more satirical in the later play, taking aim at the extravagance and licentiousness of the upper classes, especially in the character of Lady Aretina Bornwell. Arriving in London, Lady Bornwell is quickly swept up in the thrill of flirtations and assignations, while her husband, Lord Bornwell, merely pretends to go along in order to eventually rein her in. In contrast to Lady Bornwell stands Celestina, a young widow determined to remain chaste who cleverly plays the game of courtship with several suitors but proves herself more than a match for any of them. In the final act, Lord Bornwell drives his wife to reform, while Celestina finds a pure and noble love with Lord A., after testing his honor by pretending to seduce him. The relationship between Celestina and Lord A. represents Shirley's caution to the court, for the high-flown love rhetoric the couple use mimics the language of Platonic love admired at court, especially by Queen Henrietta Maria.
One of Shirley's late plays, The Cardinal is often noted as the last of the Jacobean revenge tragedies, but it shows its Caroline origins as well. Where his earlier plays were bloodier, more macabre, and more baroque, Shirley's revenge tragedy uses plainer language. The title character is likely modeled on a contemporary villain, Shirley's old master Archbishop Laud, a wicked advisor to Charles I much like the Cardinal to the King of Navarre. Shirley may also have drawn inspiration from John Webster's popular tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (1614) for his own heroine, the duchess Rosaura. Rosaura, a widow, is betrothed to the nephew of the Cardinal, but secretly loves the Count d'Alvarez. Her efforts to extricate herself from a planned marriage eventually result in the murder of Alvarez. Rosaura feigns madness in order to advance her plans for revenge, but the Cardinal has also planned his revenge against her. He comes to her chamber to first rape and then poison her, but he hesitates after kissing her and falling in love with her. Rosaura calls for help, and Hernando, once a colonel in her betrothed's army, comes to save her, already incensed at the Cardinal for his political interference. At the denouement, the Cardinal, believing himself mortally wounded by Hernando, confesses his plan and warns Rosaura that she has been poisoned, offering an antidote and drinking a portion first to prove his honesty. Rosaura drinks, and the Cardinal reveals the extent of his malice: he has actually poisoned himself in order to kill her as well. The action of The Cardinal is familiar, but the themes of authority applied specifically to the late Caroline era, as the use and abuse of monarchical power became an increasingly tense issue.
When Shirley lost his court preferment, verses and broadsides proclaimed him the true poet laureate, and at the time of his death he was widely celebrated as a brilliant dramatist. Yet even in the early years of the Restoration, his plays did not do well at the theater. Samuel Pepys, the diarist who logged his frequent visits to the theater, disliked several of the productions he saw, and Restoration poet laureate John Dryden named Shirley one in the line of dullards satirized in MacFlecknoe (1682). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Shirley suffered from his position as the last Renaissance dramatist writing at the end of a period generally seen as the decline of English drama before the close of the theaters. Like his contemporaries Ford, Massinger, and others, he was an inferior to Shakespeare and a scribe for a period marked by decadence and excess. Modern critics often characterize Shirley as a transitional figure who reuses the familiar tropes of earlier playwrights like Shakespeare and Jonson, but also hinting at the Restoration comedy of manners. Robert Forsythe, writing in the early twentieth century, describes the theatrical scene of Shirley's day as highly static, with little room for innovation. Forsythe credits Shirley with a talent for reshaping and combining old materials in a new way, answering the common criticism that Shirley's work is competent but derivative and unoriginal. Arthur Nason reaches a similar conclusion, describing Shirley as combining the methods and materials of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher to produce both realistic and romantic plays. After centuries spent in the valley between two dramatic golden ages, the playwright has benefited from more recent focus on the specific circumstances of the Caroline era. In that light, scholars have noted Shirley's ability to write for his audience, to please an elite coterie, and to critique the society he nevertheless dramatizes sympathetically. A pioneering study in this area is Stephen Orgel's The Illusion of Power, which discussed the close relationship between monarchical power and theatrical performance, including Shirley's masque The Triumph of Peace. Since Orgel's book, several critics have examined The Triumph of Peace in the context of the court of Charles I, including Shirley's French biographer George Bas and theater scholar Martin Butler. Butler also led the way in drawing attention to the political context of Caroline drama with the 1984 study Theatre and Crisis, which similarly shed new light on Shirley's plays. Even in the comedies, Butler emphasizes the political implications of Shirley's repeated motifs of liberty, courtesy, and courtship. The work of Orgel, Butler, and other historically minded scholars has led a re-evaluation of Shirley as a successful dramatist in his own right.