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James Shirley

James Shirley (or Sherley) (September 1596 – October 1666) was an English dramatist.

He belonged to the great period of English dramatic literature, but, in Charles Lamb's words, he "claims a place among the worthies of this period, not so much for any transcendent genius in himself, as that he was the last of a great race, all of whom spoke nearly the same language and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common." His career of play writing extended from 1625 to the suppression of stage plays by Parliament in 1642.[1]


Arms of James Shirley: Paly of six, or and azure, a quarter ermine, a crescent for difference

Early life

Shirley was born in London and was descended from the Shirleys of Warwick, the oldest knighted family in Warwickshire.[2][3] He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, London, St John's College, Oxford, and St Catharine's College, Cambridge,[4] where he took his BA degree in or before 1618.[1]

His first poem, Echo, or the Unfortunate Lovers was published in 1618; no copy of it is known, but it is probably the same as 1646's Narcissus. Oxford biographer Anthony Wood reports that, after earning his MA, Shirley became "a minister of God's word in or near St Albans". He then left this post, apparently due to a conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, and was master of St Albans School from 1623 to 1625. His first play, Love Tricks, seems to have been written while he was teaching at St Albans.

Playwright in London

In 1625 he returned to London, living in Gray's Inn. In the following 18 years, he wrote more than 30 regular plays, tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies. Most of his plays were performed by Queen Henrietta's Men, the playing company for which Shirley served as house dramatist (much as William Shakespeare had for the King's Men).

Shirley's sympathies were with the King in his disputes with Parliament, and he received marks of special favour from the Queen. He made a bitter attack on William Prynne, who had attacked the stage in Histriomastix, and, in 1634 he supplied the text for The Triumph of Peace, a masque presented at Whitehall by the gentlemen of the Inns of Court as a practical reply to Prynne.

Dublin and return to London

Between 1636 and 1640 Shirley went to Ireland, apparently under the patronage of the Earl of Kildare. Three or four of his plays were produced by his friend John Ogilby in Dublin's Werburgh Street Theatre, the first ever built in Ireland and at the time of Shirley's visit only one year old.[1] During his Dublin stay, Shirley wrote The Doubtful Heir, The Royal Master, The Constant Maid, and St. Patrick for Ireland.[5]

In 1640 he returned to London, and found that in his absence Queen Henrietta's Men had sold off a dozen of his plays to the stationers, who published them in the late 1630s. As a result, he would no longer work for Queen Henrietta's company, and the final plays of his London career were acted by the King's Men.

Theatre closure and civil war

In 1642, his career as a playwright was stopped by the London theatre closure.[1]

On the outbreak of the English Civil War, Shirley seems to have served with the Earl of Newcastle, but when the King's fortunes began to decline he returned to London. He owed something to the kindness of Thomas Stanley, but supported himself chiefly by teaching and publishing some educational works under the Commonwealth. Besides these, he published during the Commonwealth period four small volumes of poems and plays, in 1646, 1653, 1655 and 1659. He "was a drudge" for John Ogilby in his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Late life and death

He survived into the reign of Charles II, but did not again attempt to write for the stage, though some of his comedies were revived.[1]

Wood says that Shirley, aged 70, and his second wife died of fright and exposure after the Great Fire of London, and were buried at St Giles in the Fields on 29 October 1666.[1]

Assessment of writing

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica says of Shirley's works:

Shirley was born to great dramatic wealth, and he handled it freely. He constructed his own plots out of the abundance of materials that had been accumulated during thirty years of unexampled dramatic activity. He did not strain after novelty of situation or character, but worked with confident ease and buoyant copiousness on the familiar lines, contriving situations and exhibiting characters after types whose effectiveness on the stage had been proved by ample experience. He spoke the same language with the great dramatists, it is true, but this grand style is sometimes employed for the artificial elevation of commonplace thought. "Clear as day" becomes in this manner "day is not more conspicuous than this cunning"; while the proverb "Still waters run deep" is ennobled into—

⁠"The shallow rivers glide away with noise—
⁠The deep are silent".

The violence and exaggeration of many of his contemporaries left him untouched. His scenes are ingeniously conceived, his characters boldly and clearly drawn; and he never falls beneath a high level of stage effect.[1]


The following list includes years of first publication, and of performance if known, and dates of licensing by the Master of the Revels where available.


City Comedies set in 1630s London

Tragicomedies, pastorals and others

Masques and entertainments

In 1633, Shirley revised a play by John Fletcher, possibly called The Little Thief, into The Night Walker, which was acted in 1634 and printed in 1640. In 1634–35, Shirley revised The Tragedy of Chabot, Admiral of France, a play that George Chapman had written sometime between 1611 and 1622. The revised version was printed in 1639. Shirley has sometimes been credited as a collaborator with William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle on Cavendish's plays The Country Captain and The Variety (both printed 1649). The Ball, in the publication attributed to George Chapman and James Shirley, was written by Shirley alone.

Shirley's Poems (1646) contained the epyllion Narcissus and the masque The Triumph of Beauty. A Contention for Honour and Riches (1633) appeared in an altered and enlarged form in 1659 as Honoria and Mammon. His Contention of Ajax and Ulysses closes with the well-known lyric "The Glories of our Blood and State."[1] In the final pedagogic stage of his career, Shirley published an English grammar written in poetry, titled Rudiments of Grammar: The Rules Composed in English Verse for the Greater Benefit and Delight of Young Beginners (1656).

Eight of Shirley's plays were reprinted in a single quarto volume in 1640; these were The Young Admiral, The Duke's Mistress, Hyde Park, Love's Cruelty, The Wedding, The Constant Maid, The Opportunity, and The Grateful Servant. In 1653 another collection was published by Humphrey Moseley and Humphrey Robinson; titled Six New Plays, the volume included The Brothers, The Sisters, The Doubtful Heir, The Imposture, The Cardinal, and The Court Secret.[7]

Shirley's canon presents fewer problems and lost works than the canons of earlier dramatists; yet William Cooke registered a Shirley tragedy titled Saint Albans on 14 February 1639 – a play that has not survived. The anonymous tragedy Andromana was assigned to Shirley when it was first published in 1660, though scholars have treated the attribution with scepticism.[8]

The standard edition of Shirley's works is The Dramatic Works and Poems of James Shirley, with Notes by William Gifford, and Additional Notes, and some Account of Shirley and his Writings, by Alexander Dyce (6 vols., 1833). A selection of his plays was edited (1888) for the Mermaid Series, with an introduction by Edmund Gosse.[1]

A new ten-volume edition of James Shirley's work is currently being edited for Oxford University Press.[9] Volume 7 in this series is forthcoming in 2022.[10]


Shirley's work has occasionally seen revivals. Honoria and Mammon was staged in London at Shirley's church, on 21 November 2013. The Cardinal has seen an adaptation, Red Snake, and a production in London in April 2017. 'The Glories of Our Blood and State' (also known under the later title 'The Glories of Our Birth and State') from The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses was often set to music, and played at the coronation of George IV in 1821.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Shirley, James". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 990–991.
  2. ^ Kittermaster, Frederick Wilson (1866). Warwickshire arms and lineages. p. 80. Retrieved 10 September 2017.
  3. ^ Nason, Arthur Huntington (1915). James Shirley, Dramatist: A Biographical and Critical Study. A.H. Nason. p. 147. Retrieved 10 September 2017.
  4. ^ "Shirley, James (SHRY615J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  5. ^ Adams, p. 419.
  6. ^ "Southwark Playhouse – Theatre + Bar | The Cardinal". Retrieved 10 May 2017.
  7. ^ Five of the dramas in Six New Plays are dated 1652, while the sixth and the volume's general title page are dated 1653—an ambiguity that has led to confusion.
  8. ^ Logan and Smith, pp. 226–7.
  9. ^ "OUP Complete Works of James Shirley". Retrieved 10 September 2012.
  10. ^ "The Complete Works of James Shirley. Volume 7: The Constant Maid, The Doubtful Heir, The Gentlemen of Venice, and The Politician". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 31 January 2021.


  • Adams, Joseph Quincy. Shakespeare's Playhouses. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1917.
  • Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith, eds. The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.