Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Both before and after his career as a dramatist, James Shirley was a schoolmaster; among the fruits of that vocation are several grammar texts. Of greater significance are his accomplishments as a Cavalier poet, one of the Sons of Ben who sometimes wrote witty verse—“a sort of [Thomas] Carew without Carew’s genius,” according to Douglas Bush—and whose 1646 collection of poems is in the tradition of the Ovidian poetry of the Elizabethans. In that volume is Narcissus: Or, The Self-Lover, which is patterned after William Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593). Shirley’s best-known poetic work and a frequent anthology piece is a later product: the “noble dirge” from the masque The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses for the Armour of Achilles. “The glories of our blood and state/ Are shadows not substantial things. . . .” Though the source of the masque probably is Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), the dirge that Calchas speaks over the body of Ajax strikes an Augustan note. The poetry in Shirley’s plays has been praised for its “lightness,” “spontaneity of movement,” and “richness of decoration,” and its similarity to that of John Fletcher has been noted, but because Shirley is a transitional figure between the Elizabethan poetic playwrights and the more prosaic Restoration dramatists, there is little noteworthy verse in his plays, except for the tragicomedies.