James Shirley



  • (1596 - 1666) English playwright, who was the last importantpre-Restoration dramatist. His 40 plays, which include five masques,reflect the influence of Ben Jonson and John Fletcher. More interestingly,his satirical comedies of fashionable London society can be seen asforeshadowing the Restoration comedy of manners. At leasteight of his works were revived after the Restoration.

    Shirley's first offering, Love Tricks, or the School ofCompliments, was produced in 1625 at the Phoenix Theatre. Subsequentcomedies included Hyde Park (1632), The Gamester (1633),which David Garrick later adapted, and The Lady of Pleasure(1635). He also wrote a number of successful revenge tragedies includingThe Traitor (1631) and The Cardinal (1641), which SamuelPepys saw twice. Shirley's most elaborate masque was The Triumphof Peace (1634), performed at the inns of Court with scenery byInigo Jones.

    When the plague closed the theaters in 1636, Shirley movedto Dublin to become the resident dramatist at St Werburgh's Theatre.On the death of Philip Massinger in 1640 he returned to London tobecome playwright with the King's Men (see Chamberlain's Men)at Blackfriars Theatre. He was thus England's leading writer for the stagewhen the Puritans closed the theaters in 1642 (see the Interregnum).After returning to his old profession of teaching he produced fewworks, the best-known being the 'semidramatic entertainment' TheContention of Ajax and Ulysses, in which the two characters contendfor the armour of Achilles. The famous dirge that closes the piecealludes to the fate of Charles I:

    Sceptre and crown
    Must tumble down,
    And in the dust be equal made
    With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
    Shirley and his wife are said to have died of exposure after being forcedfrom their Fleet Street home by the Great Fire of London.