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.
For the seventeen years between 1625 and 1642, James Shirley, a prolific playwright in a variety of modes, dominated the Caroline stage. His more than thirty extant plays (several more are lost or of uncertain attribution) demonstrate his facility at creating comedies, tragedies, tragicomedies, and masques for the aristocratic and upper-class audiences of the private theaters. Flourishing as he did in the last years of the golden age of Renaissance drama, he wrote in the traditions of his predecessors: the revenge tragedy of Thomas Kyd and John Webster, the city comedy of Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger, the humors comedy of Ben Jonson, and the tragicomedy of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Whereas Shirley’s tragedies are largely derivative and suggest the decadence common to the serious drama of the decade preceding Oliver Cromwell, the comedies not only recall the past but also look forward to the Restoration comedies of manners written by such men as Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve, though Shirley is more moral. Among his tragedies, The Cardinal does not pale in comparison with Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (pr. 1613-1614) or The White Devil (pr. 1609-1612), and the comedies Hyde Park and The Lady of Pleasure still sparkle.
Shirley cannot be credited with any landmark innovations or lasting influence on the stage, but he produced a steady stream of popular plays in which he exploited the themes, devices, and character-types of others while creating dramas uniquely his own, and he was in large measure responsible for the continued vitality of the Renaissance drama into the 1640’s. When Massinger died in 1640, Shirley became the principal playwright for the King’s Men; only the closing of the theaters two years later ended his career as a dramatist. He had the satisfaction of seeing many of his works (tragedies as well as comedies) revived successfully in the 1660’s (though sometimes adapted and presented as if by new playwrights), a distinction that few of his Renaissance predecessors or contemporaries shared. John Dryden’s mocking scorn in Mac Flecknoe: Or, A Satyre upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S. (1682) is undeserved.
Burner, Sandra A. James Shirley: A Study of Literary Coteries and Patronage in Seventeenth Century England. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988. This biography of Shirley focuses on the literary circles and patrons of the theater in seventeenth century England. Includes bibliography and index.
Clark, Ira. Professional Playwrights: Massinger, Ford, Shirley, and Brome. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992. Clark looks at English drama in the seventeenth century, focusing on Shirley, Philip Massinger, John Ford, and Richard Brome. Includes bibliography and index.
Lucow, Ben. James Shirley. New York: Twayne, 1981. Opening chapters on the dramatist’s biography, masques, and nondramatic verse are followed by a chronological discussion of the plays. An excellent introduction to Shirley’s drama combines plot summaries with pertinent background material and critical analyses. Contains a chronology of the author’s life and a select bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
Sanders, Julie. Caroline Drama: The Plays of Massinger, Ford, Shirley, and Brome. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, in association with the British Council, 1999. Sanders examines the plays of Shirley as well as those of Philip Massinger, John Ford, and Richard Brome. Includes bibliography and index.
Zimmer, Ruth K. James Shirley: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Zimmer annotates works by and about Shirley published through 1978. The secondary sources include bibliographies, books and articles, commentaries on Shirley within larger works, theses and dissertations, and poems in praise of the dramatist. Also includes a brief sketch of Shirley’s life, a chronology of his extant works, and an overview of his dramatic career.