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.
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.
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.
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.