James Shirley Shirley, James (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

James Shirley 1596-1666

English playwright, poet, and prose writer.

Considered one of the most talented playwrights to emerge in the period between the Jacobean and Restoration eras, Shirley is best-known for The Lady of Pleasure (1635), a precursor to the Restoration comedy of manners, and The Cardinal (1641), which is regarded as the last great revenge tragedy.

Biographical Information

Shirley was born in London in 1596. He received his primary education at the Merchant Taylors' School from 1608 to 1612, then possibly entered St. John's College, Oxford. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree at Cambridge in 1617 and may also have received a Master's Degree there before taking orders and serving as headmaster at a grammar school in St. Albans. In 1618 he married Elizabeth Gilmet, with whom he had two daughters and a son. In the early 1620s Shirley moved to London and began his career as a playwright. Over the next decade he wrote approximately twenty plays, which established him as one of the leading dramatists of the Caroline period. Due to the plague, London theaters were closed in 1636; at this time, Shirley moved to Ireland, where he wrote plays that were staged in Dublin. In 1640 he returned to London, where he served as the principal playwright for the King's Men at the Blackfriars Theatre, until Parliament closed the theaters in 1642. When the Civil War broke out Shirley joined the forces of the Royalist Earl of Newcastle. Upon Newcastle's defeat at the battle of Marston Moor in 1644, Shirley returned to London and found employment at Whitefriars as a schoolteacher. Though the theaters remained closed during the Commonwealth, he continued to write and publish plays and masques. After the Restoration in 1660 many of his plays were revived, but by then his interests mainly lay in writing grammar books. He died in 1666.

Major Works

Shirley wrote more than thirty plays; however, only a handful have been studied and performed in modern times. His best-regarded comedies, The Lady of Pleasure and Hyde Park (1632), are noted for their complex, briskly paced plots, lively, witty dialogue, and their use of contrast to satirize the ideals and the realities of seventeenth-century English society. The Cardinal, believed by many commentators to be the last great revenge tragedy, is regarded as Shirley's masterpiece. The play portrays the destruction of a weak king and his corrupt court through political and sexual intrigue.

Critical Reception

Though popular with Caroline audiences, Shirley's plays fell out of fashion after the Restoration. John Dryden's ridicule of Shirley's plays set the tone for commentary during the following two hundred years; the plays were virtually ignored by commentators until the twentieth century. In 1914 Robert Stanley Forsythe's comprehensive analysis of the influence of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama on Shirley's works sparked critical interest that has continued to the present day. During the twentieth century critics have moved from viewing Shirley as the best of a bad age in English literature to examining the structural and thematic interplay in his works and the ways in which Shirley's plays reflect and comment on the turbulent politics and complex mores of his time.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Love Tricks [The School of Compliment] (play) 1625

The Maid's Revenge (play) 1626

The Wedding (play) 1626-29

The Witty Fair One (play) 1628

The Grateful Servant [The Faithful Servant] (play) 1629

Love's Cruelty (play) 1631

The Traitor (play) 1631

The Ball (play) 1632

Changes; or, Love in a Maze (play) 1632

Hyde Park (play) 1632

The Bird in an Cage (play) 1632-33

The Gamester (play) 1633

The Young Admiral (play) 1633

The Example (play) 1634

The Opportunity (play) 1634

The Triumph of Peace (play) 1634

The Coronation (play) 1635

The Lady of Pleasure (play) 1635

The Tragedy of Chabot Admiral of France [with George Chapman] (play) 1635

The Duke's Mistress (play) 1636

The Royal Master (play) 1637

The Humorous Courtier (play) 1637-39

The Constant Maid [Love Will Find Out the Way] (play) 1637-40

St. Patrick for Ireland (play) 1637-40

The Gentlemen of Venice (play) 1639

The Politician (play) 1639?

The Imposture (play) 1640

The Tragedy of St. Albans (play) 1640

The Brothers [The Politic Father] (play) 1641

The Cardinal (play) 1641

The Court Secret (play) 1642

The Sisters (play) 1642

The Triumph of Beauty (play) 1646

Cupid and Death (play) 1653

The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses for the Armor of Achilles (play) 1659?

Honoria and Mammon (play) 1659

Fredson Thayer Bowers (essay date 1940)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bowers, Fredson Thayer. “The Decadence of Revenge Tragedy.” In Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642, pp. 217-58. 1940. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959.

[In the following excerpt, Bowers argues that Shirley's works transcend the decadence into which revenge tragedy had fallen in his time.]

The dramatists of the fourth period of revenge tragedy in the last decade of theatrical activity before the Commonwealth were perforce imitators. Almost every source for dramatic invention had been exploited; almost every situation had yielded its last combination and every type of character its ultimate modification. There were seemingly no more worlds to conquer, and the huge weight of accumulated dramatic tradition lay heavily on any aspirant to originality. Moreover, the high imagination of the Renaissance which had animated Kyd, Marlowe, and Shakespeare had given way to second thoughts which were invariably cynical. The age, in its literature as well as its mood, had lost its freshness and inspiration. The drama was becoming worn out.

No new ideal was found to revivify the old tragic situations. The inspiration which had produced the great tragedies of Massinger, Middleton, and Ford had faded. The new playwright Shirley, the only dramatist of consequence in this period, was more concerned with brisk, sharply outlined plots than with ethical conceptions of character and justice. Shirley turned to the past and contented himself with re-arranging in an energetic and efficient fashion the best of the older drama's incidents and characters. He found revenge as a leading motive in the older drama, and so utilized it as an important keystone in his own. Therefore, revenge in Shirley is usually free from the implications of the third period and is more nearly related to its functional use for plot complication and handy motivation in the second period, or to the interest in revenge for its own sake in the Kydian drama.

The stage was losing touch with the common audience for whom the older dramatists had written, and in its appeal to a more courtly group it found a fashionable artificiality more popular than its former direct approach to the deeper emotions. Dilettantism in playwright and audience ended sincerity. The influence of Fletcher was the most powerful, and pure plot with its accompaniments of strained situation and incoherently characterized action became the hallmark of tragedy among the minor writers. They had neither the ability, nor the taste, nor the impulse for searching the inner tragic depths of human character. In default, through sheer lack of inventiveness they fell back on traditional material for motivating death, and more and more came to use private blood-revenge as the chief means for setting their characters in opposition and creating suspense of plot. No sense of the ethical problems which had motivated the great revenge tragedy of the past obtains. The glittering tricks of Tourneur, Fletcher, and Massinger were slavishly copied. And because complication and ingenuity of action must replace legitimate tragic purpose, the artificial Machiavellian villain was revived, fresh scenes of vicious atrocity imagined. Not decadence but disintegration appeared. Against the relatively clear brilliance of Shirley's Cardinal must be set the maniacal happenings in The Fatal Contract and the impossibly confused motives and incidents of The Marriage Night.


In these years the one playwright who at all approaches the spirit as well as the methods of the great dramatists is James Shirley, who was able to become the master of dramatic tradition rather than its slave. He was no old-fashioned anachronism, but the one dramatist who was not thrown off balance by the demands of his age. He wrote for his time, indeed, but through his sureness of touch was alone able to bring forth something of the old tragic spirit, albeit imperfectly, in new garments.

His earliest tragedy, The Maid's Revenge (1626), is a straightforward single-plot play of a villainous revenge which calls down upon itself a bloody retribution. The drama approaches ethical awareness only when Vilarezo, the father whose sternness has caused the whole tragic action, realizes that his too just harshness has made him the real villain. One might also include the conception of the accomplice Velasco, who is no Machiavellian but rather a hot-headed man whose revengeful passion, like that of Laertes and Foreste, leaps over normal bounds. He is a villain only inasmuch as he has not been sufficiently injured to justify the lust for Antonio's blood which unbalances him.1

Catalina, the chief villain, is in the direct line of descent from such wholeheartedly unscrupulous women as Tamora, Timoclea, Brunhalt, and Livia and Bianca. Her serious revenge has no basis in real injury but is purely malicious. The mere fact that her sister Berinthia has been chosen instead of herself by an eligible lover leads to a whole labyrinth of crime in which she poisons her sister, instigates her father to destroy the lover Antonio, and by this act brings about the death of her brother Sebastiano. In her intrigues she makes use of an accomplice, Velasco, whom she tricks and endeavors to saddle with the blame for her misdeeds.

Very noticeable is a return to the Kydian device of parallel incident and characters. Thus Velasco, the accomplice, is also a revenger and for the same reasons as Catalina. There is the contrast between the bold and cowardly suitors Velasco and Montegro, the poisoning of both Berinthia and Catalina by the maid Ansilva, the courting of the servants to parallel that of their masters, and the parallelism at the duel between the emotions of Berinthia in love with Antonio and Castabella with Sebastiano. A further Kydian influence shows in the portrait of Berinthia who, driven to desperation by her injuries, resorts to a bloody and criminal revenge. Bel-Imperia is, of course, the progenitress of this type of woman-revenger, but it was also popular with Fletcher, as witness Gabriella in The Triumph of Death and Edith in The Bloody Brother. Fletcher's penchant for strained emotions gained by artificially posed conflict is copied in the duel between the friends Sebastiano and Antonio, each in love with the other's sister, with the sweetheart of each man viewing the action with emotions appropriately torn between brother and lover.

Two incidents, however, illustrate how Shirley voluntarily relinquished dramatically effective but standardized situations. In his source Catalina rid herself of her accomplice Ansilva by poison, but Shirley has preferred to make the death of Ansilva an act of poetic justice. Secondly, there is a decided softening of revenge in the fact that Castabella enters Sebastiano's service disguised as a page, not to take revenge on him for the death of her brother but merely for the romantic reason of the tragicomedy heroine—to be near her lover. In fact this tragi-comedy atmosphere almost succeeds in destroying the play as a tragedy. The ending is far from inevitable, and if the duel had not developed fatally the play could well have turned to comedy. The one really clear-cut element in the play is the emphasis on revenge for its own sake, purely and simply as a dramatic motive and not as a means of bringing forward the moral.

Love's Cruelty in 1631 again mixes other elements with revenge. Briefly the play describes how Bellamente discovers his wife Clariana and his friend Hippolito unlawfully together, but, contrary to custom, abandons his revenge. Later when he discovers their second meeting he refuses to be convinced of their innocence and rushes off to secure aid for his revenge. The couple, although they are technically innocent this time, kill each other in desperation, and the husband, realizing the truth, dies of a broken heart.

The play seems to be composed partly under the influence of Heywood's early sentimental tragedy A Woman Killed With Kindness. Heywood had first put into dramatic form, though with a less noble conception than Middleton's Changeling, the punishment which arises from the erring characters' consciousness of their guilt in the place of the punishment of an exterior physical revenge. This conception is present in Love's Cruelty, although largely overlaid by Bellamente's materialistic refusal to take revenge in order that the outside world may not know of his disgrace, a motive found in Shirley's novella source. The lack of substantiation for the final revenge, which is forestalled by the suicide of the lovers, is somewhat reminiscent of Ford's Love's Sacrifice. And the ruthless creed that erring though repentant characters must eventually suffer for their misdeeds is similar to Ford's Broken Heart. In general, the weakening of the revenge theme, first by Bellamente's initial refusal to revenge, and second by the ordering of the catastrophe only indirectly from revenge, definitely links the play to the widespread softening of revenge in the period just closed.

In The Traitor (1631) Shirley revives the traditional plot dealing with the rise of an ambitious villainous accomplice. In accordance with his usual technique the plot is simplified. The tyrant is a tyrant in only one thing—his lust for Amidea—and the plans of the villain Lorenzo for the downfall of his master revolve about only one situation and the characters incidental to it. This villain is moved purely by ambition until his plans are thwarted by Sciarrha, whose revenge he has endeavored to use as a means of killing the duke. Counterpoised to Lorenzo's subsequent revenge on Sciarrha is Sciarrha's on Lorenzo when he discovers he has been made a tool. Linked closely to the main plot is also the revenge of Sciarrha on Pisano for deserting his sister Amidea in order to marry another woman, and his abortive revenge on the duke for endeavoring to debauch Amidea.

Lorenzo is the typical Machiavellian villain whose mind is fertile in villainous projects and quick in extricating himself from danger. He relies both on paid accomplices and on tricked tools. He flatters, lies, turns face with equal readiness. Playing upon the duke's lust, he neatly separates Amidea from her lover Pisano in order to bring her to his master, fires her brother Sciarrha to deadly revenge against the duke, and when the duke's repentance fosters a reconciliation he sets Sciarrha off on a fresh revenge against Pisano which will either destroy him or make him powerless. Finally, when he has himself murdered the duke, he almost succeeds in pinning the infamy on Sciarrha before he is finally slain by Sciarrha's counter-revenge.

The revenger Sciarrha owes a considerable debt to Foreste in D'Avenant's Cruel Brother. Like Foreste he is described as “all touchwood” and as “rough-hewn.” Both are blunt, straightforward, and both become tainted with blood-guilt by the murder of their sisters to cheat the lustful designs of their rulers. Sciarrha realizes that he has waded so deep in blood by the murder of Pisano and the subsequent slaying of Amidea that he has “wounded [his] own soul Almost to death” and is “more spotted than the marble.” Clearly he is no guiltless hero-revenger; yet he is not all villain. Shirley has carefully worked out the successive changes in...

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Charles R. Forker (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. Introduction to The Cardinal, edited by Charles R. Forker, pp. xvii-lxxi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, Forker maintains that The Cardinal shows brilliant plotting and complex manipulation of the conventions of the revenge tragedy, yet fails to resolve the moral and ethical problems posed in the play.]

Shirley's The Cardinal occupies a secure place in dramatic history as the last of a long line of Elizabethan tragedies of revenge. The genre which began with Kyd's Spanish Tragedy had its limitations as an art form, not the least of which were the moral confusions which the pagan...

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Juliet McGrath (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: McGrath, Juliet. “James Shirley's Uses of Language.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6, no. 2 (spring 1966): 323-39.

[In the following essay, McGrath argues that Shirley's works evidence a distrust of language that limits character development.]

From the first of James Shirley's plays to the last, the word language occurs with surprising frequency, and his concern with language is one of the most interesting and revealing aspects of his work. Though synonyms such as dialect, words, or syllable are occasionally substituted in order to allow for less obvious repetition, there is not a single play in which the word language...

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Albert Wertheim (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Wertheim, Albert. “Games and Courtship in James Shirley's Hyde Park.Anglia 90, nos. 1-2 (1972): 71-91.

[In the following essay, Wertheim discusses Shirley's technique of mirroring the amorous competition in the racing and gambling competitions in Hyde Park.]


The realistic comedies of James Shirley are frequently cited as forerunners of the urbane social comedies of the Restoration, for they vividly portray the elegant and spirited world of London's upper middle class and aristocracy under the reign of Charles I. In their presentation of couples who, like Congreve's Mirabell and Millamant or Etherege's Dorimant and...

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Nathan Cogan (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Cogan, Nathan. “James Shirley's The Example (1634): Some Reconsiderations.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 17, no. 2 (spring 1977): 317-31.

[In the following essay, Cogan examines Shirley's use of plot in his depictions of licit and illicit love.]

Since the 1920's, critics of James Shirley's dramatic comedies have been highly favorable in their judgments about Hyde Park (1632) and The Lady of Pleasure (1635), often treating them as the “best” comedies by the chief playwright under Charles I and, more often than not, treating them as representative of the growth and development of “comedy of manners.”1...

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Ben Lucow (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lucow, Ben. “‘Seeds of Honour’: The Lady of Pleasure and The Cardinal.” In James Shirley, pp. 123-36. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

[In the following essay, Lucow examines the concept of honor in The Lady of Pleasure and The Cardinal.]

Shirley is best known for two plays: a comedy, The Lady of Pleasure, and a tragedy, The Cardinal (often referred to as the last great tragedy of the English Renaissance). Although The Lady of Pleasure appears in the middle of Shirley's career and The Cardinal at the end, each represents in unique ways the culmination of Shirley's efforts in their respective genres....

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Lawrence Venuti (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Venuti, Lawrence. “The Politics of Allusion: The Gentry and Shirley's The Triumph of Peace.English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 1 (winter 1986): 182-205.

[In the following essay, Venuti examines allusions to Charles I's ban prohibiting the gentry from living in London in The Triumph of Peace.]

Topical allusions can be said to anchor a literary text in history, but they soon prove to be an unsteady mooring once we begin to investigate the textual operation by which they are transformed. References to historical figures and events ultimately put into question the naive assumption that literature can be a mirror reflection of reality; they rather show...

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Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Spinrad, Phoebe S. “James Shirley: Decadent or Realist?” English Language Notes 25, no. 4 (June 1988): 24-32.

[In the following essay, Spinrad argues that Shirley was not merely an imitator of well-established Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic conventions.]

The scholar attempting to do a critical examination of James Shirley's tragedies will find the preliminary research both frustrating and unusually easy. Almost nothing has been written. Biographic and bibliographic speculation abounds, to be sure, and attention has been paid to the comedies,1 but the tragedies are usually relegated to final chapters in book-length surveys of Renaissance...

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Ira Clark (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Clark, Ira. “Shirley's Social Comedy of Adaptation to Degree.” In Professional Playwrights: Massinger, Ford, Shirley, & Brome, pp. 112-54. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992.

[In the following essay, Clark argues that Shirley's plays reinforce aristocratic values.]


I never affected the ways of flattery: some say I have lost my preferment, by not practising that Court sin.1 So claimed Shirley in 1639, finally dedicating his second play and first tragedy, The Maid's Revenge (1626), “come late to the impression.” This oft-noted asseveration was...

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Deborah G. Burks (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Burks, Deborah G. “‘This Sight Doth Shake All That Is Man within Me’: Sexual Violation and the Rhetoric of Dissent in The Cardinal.Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 26, no. 1 (winter 1996): 153-90.

[In the following essay, Burks discusses the political implications of sexual violence in The Cardinal.]

When it was performed in the winter of 1641, The Cardinal, James Shirley's play about a weak king manipulated by a malicious prelate, entered into a fierce debate about the power wielded by the Anglican prelacy in both church and state. Shirley's play represents the Cardinal's abuse of power through the rape and murder of his...

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Nicholas Robins (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Robins, Nicholas. “Thou Flattering World, Farewell!” Times Literary Supplement no. 4880 (11 October 1996): 20-1.

[In the essay below, Robins provides an overview of Shirley's life and literary career.]

There is something piteous and theatrical in the deaths of James and Frances Shirley as they were recorded by the Oxford biographer and irascible don, Anthony à Wood:

At length, after Mr Shirley had lived in various conditions, and had seen much of the world, he with his second wife Frances were driven by the dismal conflagration that happened in London an. 1666, from their habitation near to Fleet Street, into the Parish...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Wertheim, Albert. “James Shirley.” In The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. edited by Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, pp. 152-171. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Annotated primary and secondary bibliography.

Zimmer, Ruth K. James Shirley: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980, 132 p.

Annotated primary and secondary bibliography.


Burner, Sandra A. James Shirley: A Study of Literary Coteries and Patronage in Seventeenth-Century...

(The entire section is 437 words.)